Module Seven (A), Activity Four

History of Africa during the Time of the Kingdom of Great Zimbabwe

This activity looks at a fifth kingdom of Africa called Great Zimbabwe. As opposed to the other kingdoms we have looked at so far, which were in the northern half of Africa, Great Zimbabwe was in southern Africa. Read the text below, which will tell you about the history of Great Zimbabwe. Following this text is more information on people living in the interior of East and Central Africa around the time of the Kingdom of Great Zimbabwe. These are regions of Africa that most people today do not know much about. As you read through these texts, think about why certain events and periods in African history tend to be better known than others. At the end of this activity, you will be asked to do a short writing assignment that addresses this issue.

Great Zimbabwe

The word Zimbabwe literally means “stone dwelling” in the Shona language. Thus, Great Zimbabwe is appropriately named because it is indeed a great stone dwelling! The pictures below show parts of the ruins of Great Zimbabwe as they can be seen today by people who visit the country of Zimbabwe.

Great Zimbabwe Ruins Aerial
Aerial view of Zimbabwe ruins
Great Zimbabwe Ruins
Possible site of training of young people for adulthood at Great Zimbabwe ruins

What or who created these stone ruins? What is the story of the people who once lived there? These are questions that historians have been trying to answer. By examining the ruins and dating the materials found within them, historians have been able to piece together the lives of people who built and dwelled in Great Zimbabwe.

Great Zimbabwe existed between approximately the 12th and 15th centuries CE, and it is the largest of about 150 ruins found in the land around the Zambezi and Limpopo Rivers. This area is filled with granite that was used as building material. Examine the map below to find the Zambezi and Limpopo Rivers. The yellow point between the two marks the location of Great Zimbabwe. Its kingdom, however, was much larger, stretching into much of present day Zimbabwe and central Mozambique. The greater area of the kingdom is also indicated on the map.

Great Zimbabwe Map

The ruins of Great Zimbabwe are remains of what was once a great trading civilization, which sprang up in the interior of southern Africa. Although the civilization had some contact with outside groups, modern historians have agreed that Great Zimbabwe was built and managed by Africans living in the interior. It was a center of gold and ivory trade. Towards the latter part of the history of Great Zimbabwe, evidence suggests that the people living there were trading with regions as far as China, Persia, and Syria.

People living at Great Zimbabwe also practiced agriculture and cattle herding, although historians believe that this became a problem after awhile. Too many people living and farming one small area led to environmental degradation. Eventually the land was no longer able to sustain such a large number of people.

Great Zimbabwe was an early example of a state in this region of southern Africa with much political, economic, and military power. With its formation, social and political organization became more hierarchical. This involved a move from village level organization to a larger, broader social and political organization resulting in the Kingdom of Great Zimbabwe. What might be some advantages and disadvantages of being part of a large, powerful kingdom, rather than a village that is governed locally? Think about this question as you continue reading the following sections on people living in the interior of East and Central Africa around the time of the Kingdom of Great Zimbabwe.

Backcountry of the Congo Forest

Constructing history in the Congo Forest between the 12th to 15th centuries CE is a challenge. Historians rely on archaeology, linguistics, oral histories, and later writing to learn about this time period because this is a region without written records. Look at the map below to see where the Congo Forest is located.

Congo Forest Map

The people living in the Congo Forest during this time period did not have a highly centralized state like Great Zimbabwe. They were organized in small states or no states at all. For example, historians have suggested that there were small areas led by a chief, which were made up of villages ruled by a council of elders.

The land was sparsely inhabited because of the density of the tropical rainforest. People were involved in both agricultural and hunting/gathering activities. By around 1400 CE, pastoralists had entered the savannah regions to the east and southeast of the forest. Some historians have speculated that through the interaction of pastoralists and agriculturalists, these people began to organize themselves into institutionalized states. Whatever the reason, these larger states began to appear in this region beginning around 1400 CE. Some of them include the Luba, Lunda, and Congo kingdoms (see map below.)

Africas Kingdoms and Empires

The Great Lakes Region

The Great Lakes of Africa include Lake Victoria, Lake Albert, Lake Tanganyika, and Lake Nyasa, which are all located in East Africa. See the map below to locate this region.

Great Lakes Region Map

This is another region that is difficult to know about with much certainty during the time period important here-12th to 15th centuries CE. As with the Congo Forest region, sources that tell historians about the Great Lakes region include oral histories, linguistics, archaeology, and written records from later dates.

One important oral history that informs historians about this region is the Chewzi stories. These stories, which are told throughout a wide region of East Africa, offer a sketch of the picture of authority during this time period. The Chewzi were early kings, although historians have debated whether or not these kings actually existed. The stories remain meaningful to people today, both as stories about the past and as spirits with whom people continue to interact.

Historians tie the concerns in the Chewzi stories to the time when pastoralists and agriculturalists were living side by side. Evidence shows that salt and iron trades existed during this time period. As authority shifted from one group of leaders to another, these legends were added to according to the dominant group’s concerns. The stories leave many clues for historians about the history of people in this region.

Most historians believe that this region, like the Congo Forest, was ruled at a local level at this time. Around the 15th century CE, large states began to form. This was also the time that co-existence between pastoralists and agriculturalists started to become less peaceful, and social classes or castes began to form among them. Some argue that state formation amongst agriculturalists preceded the coming of most pastoralists to the region; however, their co-existence was still considered peaceful until the major state formations of the 15th century.

Writing Assignment

This is a writing assignment to help you think about all the material that has been covered in Module 7A (everything from Egypt up to the Great Lakes region.) Use the information you have learned in the module to answer one of the following questions in a one-page essay:

  1. Based on the texts that you have read in this module, why do you think that certain events in African history are more well known than others? For example, why are great kingdoms and empires generally more well known and studied more often than locally organized regions?
  2. Based on what you have read about African history in this module, would you rather live in a highly centralized and powerful state such as Great Zimbabwe or the Kingdom of Mali, or would you rather live in a more locally governed region such as the Congo Forest or the Sahara desert? Why? What are some of the good and bad aspects of your choice?

Go on to Activity Five or select from the other activities in this module: