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Societies That Live in Mapungubwe and Great Zimbabwe

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10. Critically discuss the key features of the societies which lived at Mapungubwe and Great Zimbabwe.
By Michael Steel

The kingdom of Great Zimbabwe has been the topic of numerous debates and research studies, as well as being a national monument that draws tourists from around the world to its destination as a result of the rich history of the area. Great Zimbabwe ruins dates back to the Iron Age and is situated near Masvingo in Zimbabwe, between the Limpopo and Zambezi River. “Zimbabwe” meaning “stone buildings” is derived from the Shona term “dzimba dzamabwe”, which refers to the stone walls that that surround houses and kraals in traditional Shona settlements, such as Great Zimbabwe.
It was of popular belief amongst historians that Great Zimbabwe was the first site in southern Africa in which a community was socially structured and sophisticated, therefore being considered the most complex of societies in precolonial southern Africa.However, a more recent discovery in 1932 found that a structured society preceded that of Great Zimbabwe by about a century in the Limpopo basin, an area known as the Mapungubwe. It is also popularly considered amongst historians that the people of the Mapungubwe area were in fact the ancestors of those who built the kingdom of Great Zimbabwe. Archaeological evidence indicates the earliest findings of class distinction through architecture and spatial arrangements, hence social structure, are found in the area of Mapungubwe. The Zimbabwe culture has well-known architectural and archaeological sequences which can be used to help explain socio-political complexity. Studies and research that have been conducted on precolonial societies that existed between AD 1000 and 1300’s in southern Africa were mainly focused on Great Zimbabwe, but such findings can apply equally to that of Mapungubwe. It is very difficult to determine how people lived in Mapungubwe and Great Zimbabwe during this time period as there are no records of their society other than looking at their ruins and archaeological evidence. Although, it is evident that a shift from a hunter-gather form of life style in the area to one of increased population which had been stimulated by a series of internal transformations had taken place. The aim of this topic is to look at key features of the societies that existed during the times of Mapungubwe and Great Zimbabwe, with defining between the true origins are of Great Zimbabwe from the fake history which has been portrayed through “antiquarian revisionism” and colonial rule.

The Zimbabwean Culture:
The Zimbabwean Culture only became known to the western world during the 16th century, but more remarkably Mapungubwe existence only became known to archaeologists around 60 years ago. During this brief time period as well as the advancements in the science of radiocarbon dating, archaeologist have been able to establish detailed chronologies of the ways that societies operated at the time, through means such as looking at settlement patterns for example. The calibration of radiocarbon dates have aloud archaeologists to resolve critical chronological issues and thus depict that Mapungubwe existence was from around AD 1220 to 1290 and thereafter Great Zimbabwe from AD 1290 to 1450. The first written accounts were from Portuguese eye witnesses who made it very clear in their findings that the people of Great Zimbabwe and later on Khami were the product of Shona speaking societies. This as a result allows new beneficial evidence in the studying societies at the time as the Shona culture has continued in one form or another until the early 20th century.
The area of Mapungubwe has a landscape that involves an extensive valley system which resides around the Shashe-Limpopo confluence. In terms of the area’s climate, the present day Mapungubwe area has a low average of 320-350 mm per year of rain which would have been insufficient to support a traditional cultivating society, although during 1000 to 1300 AD the area received more rain and even floods at times, which could support cultivation. Such climate changes in the area can be closely linked with the existence of the capital of Mapungubwe, suggesting that such a climate change during the 13 hundreds was a determining factor in the people of Mapungubwe moving further north to Great Zimbabwe in search of a more suitable climate and environment. Regardless of the areas climate, the Mapungubwe area was capable of supporting large herds of animals as well as having rich soil, these environmental conditions may seem to be irrelevant in a social context but in fact had a great impact on the rise of social complexities at the time. We now know through archaeological as well as ethnographic sources that existed during Mapungubwe and later on Great Zimbabwe were stratified into two socio-economic classes: nobles and commoners. The nobles consisted of an upper bureaucratic class who with their political position restricted wealth and power to themselves. Nobles would do so through symmetrical marriage alliances by giving and receiving daughters from similar upper class noble families. Commoners on the other hand lacked the same social economic positions as they were restricted in terms of wealth and political position that the nobles experienced, whilst following asymmetrical marriage alliances. These marriage structures resulted in a restructuring of society into a form of kinship in that the elites being the nobles formed their own group which was separate and unrelated to the lower class commoners. As a result of this the nobles had political power over the commoners which in essence had become a working class and thus created a kin/civil dichotomy. This was evident and even perpetuated through dual settlement patterns in which show the class division between commoners, who lived in small homesteads around agricultural land and nobles who lived in provincial or national capitals such as Great Zimbabwe and Mapungubwe.
The class structures and distinction between who was considered to be a noble and a commoner at the time was legitimized through an ideology of “sacred leadership”, it was aimed at aspects of society that were instilled within the people of Mapungubwe and Great Zimbabwe to serve and maintain the political status quo’s of the nobles at the time. The ideology of sacred leadership is intertwined with the concept of god and to people at the time god was a very import figure in everyday lives of precolonial traditions, it was god who made it rain and it was god they must turn to in difficult times. Leaders of the capital of Mapungubwe and great Zimbabwe, were believed to have a link to god through their ancestors who could intercede directly with god. Thus, noble leaders legitimized their positions on the claim that they were appointed by their ancestors as well as being able to insure fertility and prosperity of its land and people. No other communities or societies in the region had such characteristics as well as a combination of ancestral links to god and leadership, and it appears that the class distinctions and sacred leadership was limited and unique to the Mapungubwe and Great Zimbabwe.
Social Relationships and Settlement Patterns: When trying to understand a specific groups as well as passed culture and societies, features such as settlement patterns and artefacts become more than just objects themselves but in fact significant in explaining and understanding social relationships of a specific time period. Humans over the years have divided their physical environments into discrete locations and thus limiting the range of activities that can take place, such actions have a social significance as well as consequence in that it provides the essence of determining social behaviour if not shape the manner in which individuals behave. There are two settlement patterns that are relative when looking at Mapungubwe and Great Zimbabwe: The central cattle pattern and the Zimbabwe Pattern. Ethnographic records have shown that each capital in particular Great Zimbabwe had to have five components in order for it to function. These components consist of a palace, a court which consisted pf predominantly males, on a separate axis an area for royal wives, a place for followers and lastly a place for the guards. These components would be arranged in the dimensions of life forces such as status and security, this has been referred to as the Zimbabwe pattern, as this form of ritual seclusion was not found in any other society in Southern Africa. The Zimbabwe pattern expressed that there was indeed class structures in place through which sacred leadership was a part of. The second central cattle pattern, which in the centre consisted of long term storage pits for grain as well as being a domain for the men. Secondly the central cattle pattern consisted of a assembly area were important political decisions would be made as well as being an area of burial of important ancestors. The outside area of the central cattle pattern consisted of an area for royal wives, which was arranged on a system of seniority in which was expressed through right and left locations.Such ethnographic findings is evidence that there had been social organisation at the time that was social ranked through a form of kinship relations. The existence of such settlement patterns at the time suggests that there had been an evolution before colonialism even reached Southern Africa which were defined by the roles of ideology at the time as well as religion, trade and the importance of cattle. Furthermore cultural norms would have been imbedded in the social context of the daily actions of the people that lived in Mapungubwe and Great Zimbabwe at the time, as well as taking into account the pressure of continuity and change as an important social dynamic. Fake History: Great Zimbabwe was one of the most significant societies in the word at the time, the first European to visit Great Zimbabwe was Carl Munich and he was astounded by what he found to the point that he refused to believe that is was built by the indigenous Shona people. As more Europeans visited the sight they too believed that Great Zimbabwe had to have been built by either Portuguese travellers, Persians, the Chinese or even the Arabs. No consideration was given by these early European colonizers that the sight of great Zimbabwe may have in fact been built by the indigenous people in the area at the time. Cecil John Rhodes a significant African colonizer agreed with Carl Munich and went as far as establishing the ancient ruins company which promoted his agenda and goal of misrepresenting the true origins of Zimbabwe culture and Great Zimbabwe. This act portrayed a fake history of the indigenous people at the time through “antiquarian revisionism” and made it difficult for modern day historians to portray an accurate image of what societies consisted of at the time other than using archaeological and ethnographic evidence. To Conclude, it is very difficult to accurately describe how people lived in Mapungubwe and Great Zimbabwe as there are no true pre-colonial recordings of their societies other than the ruins of the their city. But is evident with looking and studying these ruins that both societies had a ruling class. The indigenous people seemed to have controlled their wealth through the management of their cattle and had royal families who wished to be private and apart from the commoners. The society can be in a sense compared to a simple model of a 21st century society, the Nobles compared to that political elites of multinational businesses and governments while the commoners to that of the working class in today society.

Word count: 2060 Referencing: Huffman, T.N., 1996. Snakes & Crocodiles: Power and Symbolism in Ancient Zimbabwe. Witwatersrand University Press, Johannesburg. Huffman, T.N., 1999. Mapungubwe and Great Zimbabwe: The origin and spread of social complexity in Southern Africa. Journal of Anthropological Archaeology 28, 37-54 Huffman, T.N., 2000. Mapungubwe and the origins of Zimbabwe culture. In: Leslie, M., Maggs, T. (Eds.), African Naissance: The Limpopo Valley 1000 Years Ago. (South Africa Archaeological Society Goodwin Series 8), pp. 14-29. McGuire, R.H., 1996. Why complexity is too simple. In: Meyer, D.A., Dawson, P.C., Hanna, D.T. (Eds.), Debating Complexity. Proceedings of the 26th Annual Chacmool Conference. The Archaelogical Association of the University of Calgary. pp. 23-29. Smith, J., 2005. Climate Change and Agropastoral Sustainability in the Shashe-Limpopo River Basin from AD 900. Doctoral thesis, University of Witwatersrand, Johannesburg. Van Waarden, C. 1989. The granaries of Vumba: structural interpretation of Khami Period commoner site. Journal of Anthropology Archaeology 8: 131-157.

[ 1 ]. Huffman, T.N. “Mapungubwe and the origins of the Zimbabwe culture” p.14.
[ 2 ]. Ibid
[ 3 ]. Huffman. T.N. “Origins and spread of social complexity in southern Africa” p.37.
[ 4 ]. Vogel et al, “Pretoria calibration curve for short lived samples”.
[ 5 ]. Huffman, T.N. “Mapungubwe and the origins of the Zimbabwe culture” p.14.
[ 6 ]. Ibid
[ 7 ]. Smith, J., “Climate change and agropastoral sustainability in Shashe-Limpopo”
[ 8 ]. Huffman, T.N. “Mapungubwe and the origins of the Zimbabwe culture” p.14.
[ 9 ]. Ibid
[ 10 ]. Ibid
[ 11 ]. McGuire, R.H., “Why complexity is to simple”
[ 12 ]. Huffman, T.N. “Mapungubwe and the origins of the Zimbabwe culture” p.15.
[ 13 ]. Huffman, T.N. “Mapungubwe and the origins of the Zimbabwe culture” p.15.
[ 14 ]. Ibid
[ 15 ]. Ibid
[ 16 ]. Huffman. T.N. “ Power and symbolism in ancient Zimbabwe”
[ 17 ]. Ibid
[ 18 ]. Van Warden, C., “Structural interpretation of Khami Period commoner site” p.132.
[ 19 ]. Huffman. T.N. “Origins and spread of social complexity in southern Africa” p.39.
[ 20 ]. Huffman. T.N. “Origins and spread of social complexity in southern Africa” p.53.
[ 21 ]. Ibid

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