The Shashe-Limpopo basin and the origin of the Zimbabwe culture

Around 900, Zhizo farmers living in what is now Zimbabwe moved into the Shashe-Limpopo basin where modern South Africa, Zimbabwe and Botswana meet. By this time Swahili, Arabic, Indian and Indonesian merchants involved in the Indian Ocean trade system had begun to show an interest in the resources of the Sofalan hinterland, that is, the country inland of the Mozambican coast. These resources included ivory, iron and gold.

Map of Mapungubwe and related sites

The Zhizo move was probably driven by a desire to take advantage of the growing trade. At that time the Limpopo valley was too arid for regularly successful agriculture, but it did support herds of elephants. Indeed, most Zhizo sites in the basin are situated on high ground away from the more arable soils where the elephants would have roamed. The Zhizo chief most likely lived at a large site known today as Schroda, which probably housed up to 500 people and contains substantial quantities of ivory. Other remains include glass beads, cowrie shells and the remains of carnivores, possibly hunted to obtain pelts for export. Schroda was most probably a point of export of trade materials to the coast in the vicinity of Vilanculos Bay, and from there to distant lands. In return, Zhizo people received glass beads, cloth and other exotica.

The wide distribution of Zhizo glass beads in southern Africa indicates that Zhizo people used trade goods to acquire both export materials and agricultural produce to supplement their own farming efforts. Intriguingly, Zhizo glass beads do not occur in great numbers in Swahili sites farther north along the east African coast. It seems likely that the key trading partners of the Limpopo Zhizo were Indonesians and Madagascans of Indonesian descent, rather than traders using the monsoonal wind system that facilitated trade between Africa,Arabia and India. Indonesian merchants could have sailed directly from southeast Asia toMadagascar and the Africa coast in about a month using the equatorial trade winds, and a variety of data suggests that they did so.

Schroda’s burgeoning wealth attracted the attention of Kalundu people further south, who moved north around 1000 and took control of the region. This movement is archaeologically recognisable from the appearance of Kalundu ceramics throughout the Shashe-Limpopo basin. These people established a capital at a site we call K2, which at its largest housed up to 1 500 people. In the following 200 years, K2 leaders accumulated enormous wealth in the form of trade goods, and changed the way in which wealth was distributed insociety. In contrast to the wide dispersal of trade goods in Zhizo times, K2 leaders introduced a tight control on trade goods, so that in their imported form they were largely retained by the elite. Local specialists, for example, melted and recast imported glass beads into larger ‘garden rollers’ and it is these that were dispersed through trade and social networks in the interior. The extent of their distribution shows that K2 was at the centre of an enormous sphere of interaction.

Control of the trade allowed K2 leaders and their associates to accumulate wealth different from traditional forms such as cattle. However, wealth in trade goods would certainly have been complemented by wealth in cattle, which would have been consistent with their status in society and allowed them to participate in conventional exchange relationships. In time, the leaders probably came to possess virtually all the cattle in the chiefdom. The archaeological evidence shows that around 1150, the central cattle pen at K2 fell into dis-use and was covered over by the growing court midden. In other words, the organisation of space at K2 was altered so that it no longer conformed to the Central Cattle Pattern. This probably indicates that cattle became the exclusive property of the elite; that ordinary people, commoners, no longer had access to power through the accumulation of cattle. The K2 elite had created a separate, royal category for themselves: class distinction had evolved.

The success of the K2 elite was aided by an improvement in the climate, which permitted an intensification of agricultural production in the basin and provided critical support for a rapidly growing population. Further, a particular combination of riverine and topographical features in the basin allowed for floodplain agriculture, at least in years of high rainfall. In this sense, the Limpopo was the Nile of South Africa. Also, the increased complexity of K2 society was reflected in a more complex management of the land and other resources. Specialists focused on crop production on the lands either side of the river (by now the elephants had been driven away!), or on management of livestock, or on pottery or garden roller bead production. Among these specialists were descendents of the original Zhizo people. While most had been driven westward by the Kalundu takeover, those who stayed behind retained their own identity within the dominant K2 polity. Their distinctiveness was perhaps possible because K2 people regarded them as ‘First People’, with a special connection to the land. As such the Zhizo descendents seem to have become specialists in crafts, cattle herding and ritual. First People status, however, would have excluded them from political power; rather, it would more likely have been a resource exploited and manipulated by the K2 leadership.

The Mapunguhwe period

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