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Recent research in north-western Zimbabwe shows that the settlements there, such as here in Mtoa / Hwange District, are older than previously assumed.

Great Zimbabwe, the best-known settlement of the Zimbabwe culture, is characterised by its unusual stone architecture, which developed without external influences, Photo: Munyaradzi Elton Sagiya

Zimbabwe culture is older and much more widespread than previously assumed

The Iron Age-Early Historic Zimbabwe Culture, which existed in southern Africa for 800 years beginning in 1050 AD, is most notable for its unusual stone wall architecture. While it is now known that the culture developed without external influences, recent studies by researchers at the University of Zimbabwe (Harare, Zimbabwe) and the Römisch-Germanisches Zentralmuseum, Leibniz Research Institute for Archaeology (RGZM) show that the culture also occupied a much larger space than previously thought. A preliminary report of the studies, which were funded by the Volkswagen Foundation, appeared open access in the journal Antiquity.

Research on the Zimbabwe culture has been ongoing since the end of the 19th century. The great interest, both from scholars and the public, is mainly due to the amazing stone wall architecture at the main excavation site, Great Zimbabwe, near present-day Masvingo. For a long time, lay researchers assumed that these remains were built by non-Africans; later, archaeologists suggested that external contacts through the Indian Ocean trade network had enabled early state formation. In the past ten years, archaeologists have been able to prove that some sites certainly predate the time of the oldest trading posts on the coast. They thus prove that the Zimbabwean culture developed in southern Africa without external influences.

Investigations in northwestern Zimbabwe yield new findings

"Our colleague Dr. Plan Shenjere-Nyabezi conducted surveys and excavations in the northwest of the modern state of Zimbabwe, an area associated with the pre-colonial state of Nambya. In the process, she was able to prove that the stone architecture here is also older than previously thought. These settlements must have developed more or less simultaneously with Great Zimbabwe," explains Professor Dr. Detlef Gronenborn, archaeologist at the RGZM. "This new information shows that the Zimbabwe culture represents an early state phenomenon that was extensive in southern Africa, covering almost the entire area of the modern state of Zimbabwe."

Gronenborn researches early settlement concentrations at the RGZM, such as the Kapellenberg near Hofheim in Taunus. By comparing such sometimes very sudden dynamics over widely divergent time periods and in different natural environments, he hopes to understand the crucial factors that contributed to both the emergence of such systems and their demise.

The collaboration with Dr. Plan Shenjere-Nyabezi of the University of Zimbabwe has been ongoing since 2013 and initially included research on traditional cattle ranching. Since 2018, studies have focused on Late Iron Age and early historic archaeological sites in northwestern Zimbabwe.

The preliminary report appeared online and open access in the journal Antiquity:

P. Shenjere-Nyabezi/D. Gronenborn, The Zimbabwe Culture and the development of the Nambya state in north-western Zimbabwe. Antiquity, 2021, 1-8.