Who built Great Zimbabwe?

Central African History

Great Zimbabwe
Great Zimbabwe, a fort built in Central Africa about 1000 AD

Besides South Africa, central Africa is the most isolated part of Africa - for many years, the people who lived here saw almost nobody from outside their own area. So technological developments reached this area pretty late. But even so, some historians think that people were smelting iron in the Great Lakes area (modern Uganda and Rwanda) by around 500 BC, even earlier than iron technology reached West Africa.

By about 800 AD, the people of central Africa who lived along the Limpopo River, in modern Zimbabwe, began to keep sheep and cattle. Neither sheep nor cattle are native to Zimbabwe, so these people probably got the sheep and cattle from Bantu people living to their north. Maybe around the same time, people in this area, who are called the Karanga or the Shona, also began speaking a Bantu language.

Around the same time, Karanga people seem to have started selling animal furs and ivory, judging from the large amounts of these things that archaeologists find in their garbage. Maybe they were shipping furs and ivory down the Limpopo river to the East African settlements on the coast. They also seem to have been mining and shipping gold from Zimbabwe down the Limpopo river. In return, they got lots of glass beads, probably from India, and also cotton cloth. Possibly the Medieval Warming period improved the climate in a way that made Zimbabwe richer than before.

Just after 1000 AD, these people began to build the first big stone palaces ever seen in central Africa. The most famous of these palaces, which were called zimbabwes, is called Great Zimbabwe, and it was built around 1250 AD. Musicians living in the Zambezi valley invented the mbira, a new musical instrument. By 1450, however, there was less trade with East Africa than there had been before, and Great Zimbabwe began to be abandoned. Climate change may again have played a part, as the Little Ice Age made south Africa cooler than before.

Bibliography and further reading:

Great Zimbabwe (First Book) by Mark Bessire (1999)

Uganda (Enchantment of Africa) by Allan Carpenter, James W. Hughes (1973)

The Forest People, by Colin M. Turnbull (1960s, republished 1987) (this is not a kids' book, but it is a great account of life in the African rain forest).

West African History
North African History
Egyptian History
History of Meroe and Kush
East African History
Central African History
South African History
Ancient Africa
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