Southern Africa, Great Zimbabwe & the Gold Trade

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  • 0:41 Kingdom of Zimbabwe
  • 3:01 Great Zimbabwe
  • 4:36 Lesson Summary
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Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

In this lesson, you will explore the history of Southern Africa and the significance of major cities like Zimbabwe to ancient trade networks. Then, test your understanding with a brief quiz.

Africa Has a South

Guess what? Africa has a south. And it's more than just the nation of South Africa.

In history and archeology, we tend to spend a lot of time talking about the northern parts of Africa. I mean, in some ways it makes sense. There's some cool stuff up there - Egypt, for example. And while Northern Africa had some incredible civilizations, it wasn't like societies stopped developing south of the Sahara Desert. In Southern Africa, an entirely different set of societies thrived. They looked different than large northern cities, like Egypt or Kush or Axum, and had their own ways of life. Some of the greatest southern cultures were centered on the people of Zimbabwe.

The Kingdom of Zimbabwe

The Kingdom of Zimbabwe was one of the greatest civilizations during the Iron Age of Southern Africa. Zimbabwe was a descendant of another Southern African culture, the Kingdom of Mapungubwe. This was the first major civilization of Southern Africa, which rose around 1075, most likely in response to increased demand for the trade items of the region. Mapungubwe was the first known culture in Southern Africa to have a class-based society with low-level farmers, middle-class administrators, and high-class nobility. They also introduced advanced stonework to the region and built stonewalls around their buildings.

In the 13th century, rulers from Mapungubwe moved to the Zimbabwe Plateau and founded the Kingdom of Zimbabwe. For the next two hundred years, the Kingdom of Zimbabwe was a dominant power in Southern Africa. They incorporated over 150 cities as tributaries, meaning these cities paid taxes to the king. The Zimbabwe were a lot like the Mapungubwe; they had a strict class system, were talented stonemasons, and participated in the trade economies of Africa.

However, where Mapungubwe had been a participant in trade, Zimbabwe dominated the market in Southern Africa. At the time, several cities had grown along the east coast of Africa. These cities, called trading cities because their economies were almost entirely dependent on trade, facilitated the incredibly lucrative international exchange that ran through northern Africa. Since they were near the intersection of the Mediterranean, Arabian, and Red Seas, these ports were able to access trade routes that connected to Rome, Persia, India, and even China.

Additionally, they traded the valuable products of Africa, most notably gold and ivory. These products came from the interior of Africa, and Zimbabwe controlled that market. By trading African gold and ivory to the northeastern ports, Zimbabwe became incredibly wealthy, and products from as far away as Arabia and Asia could be found in the Zimbabwe courts.

Around 1430, a Zimbabwean prince named Nyatsimba Mutota sailed north to find salt mines and conquered enough territory that he started the Kingdom of Mutapa. Mutapa was closer to the eastern trading cities and had access to the valuable copper trade routes. Within a single generation, it became so powerful that it turned into an empire and the dominant political and economic power of Southern Africa. By 1450, the Kingdom of Zimbabwe was all but abandoned, forgotten in the shadow of Mutapa.

Great Zimbabwe

At their height, the people of Zimbabwe introduced advanced society and masonry into Southern Africa. Nowhere was this most exemplified than in the capital of the Kingdom of Zimbabwe, a city called Great Zimbabwe. As the Kingdom grew in the 13th century, so did the city. It was a powerful economic center that regulated the gold and ivory trade with partners across the world, spanning over 1,700 acres and housing up to 18,000 people, easily making it one of the largest ancient cities of Southern Africa. The city of Great Zimbabwe predates the Kingdom of Zimbabwe, and local people may have first started building back in the 11th century, 200 years before it became the center of the new kingdom.

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