The Iron Age in Zimbabwe

Instructor: Joanna Harris

Joanna has taught high school social studies both online and in a traditional classroom since 2009, and has a doctorate in Educational Leadership

If you are looking to explore the history of pre-colonial Africa, this lesson is a good starting point. In this lesson, we will discuss the area known as Great Zimbabwe, an advanced Iron Age civilization, and learn about the people who built and occupied this region in southern Africa.

Iron Age

The Iron Age did not occur homogeneously around the world, as different people learned to smelt iron at different points in history related to their level of sophistication. For example, In Europe iron working became prevalent only in the 1700s of the common era. However, on the continent of Africa, particularly in East Africa, ironworking began in the 500s before the common era. The first groups of Africans who learned to smelt iron were the Bantu speaking peoples of southern Africa. They travelled throughout continent delivering their knowledge to others.

These early ironworkers also established kingdoms, as agriculture and animal domestication led to the establishment of civilizations. One of these kingdoms, of Bantu origination, was that of Great Zimbabwe.

Great Zimbabwe

If you travel east of the Kalahari Desert and search between the Limpopo and Zambezi Rivers, you will find the ruins of what was once Great Zimbabwe. This city rose during Africa's Iron Age. The name Zimbabwe comes from the Shona people, who were descendants of the original Bantu inhabitants of the region.

Its name translated in Shona means 'stone building'. It can also mean 'venerated house' due to the fact that the royal family lived in the ruins of what once was Great Zimbabwe. This may also be due to the fact that the early Shona people could have seen Great Zimbabwe as a holy site devoted to their patron god called Mwari.

Great Zimbabwe was built around the 1100s CE. Much of what is left is called the Great Enclosure which is noted for its high walls built of stone. This is where the royal family lived along with their court of advisers. The entire population numbered around 20,000 people, but only around 200 to 300 people of nobility and/or stature lived in the Great Enclosure.

Great Enclosure
Great Enclosure

Great Zimbabwe was a large and very advanced civilization that participated heavily in the trade of East Africa. Remnants of artifacts from across the continent of Africa, Asia, and the Middle East have been unearthed in the ruins of this once great civilization. It is also known that the gold trade was a central aspect of economic viability; the entire ruins are sit upon a gold mine. However, gold was not their main form of currency.

Great Zimbabwe Culture

As with many other early African civilizations, cattle, which were prevalent in the area, were an important resource. The grasslands that dominated the area maintained vast and large herds of cattle that represented the wealth of the royal family.

Most of the royal family lived in the walled section of Great Zimbabwe while the rest of the people lived in outlying areas. In addition to cattle domestication, the Shona raised goats and sheep as well. They also grew and subsisted on cowpeas, millet, and a grain called sorghum that was a staple of the African diet.

Metallurgy was a huge part of this iron age civilization, and evidence of metalworking with iron and gold have been found in their ruins. Huge iron slags and furnaces that melted gold have been excavated that indicate the 'Hill Complex' section of the ruins of the c was once ripe with blacksmiths.

Architecture and Artifacts of Great Zimbabwe

The stones that make up the ruins of Great Zimbabwe are made from granite and have been maintained over time by modern day Zimbabweans. Despite the fact that the stones are assembled without mortar, they are relatively in great shape. The designs of the granite stones are in chevron patterns, and there are turrets that reveal the detail and skills that the builders possessed.

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