Academic journal article The Journal of Pan African Studies (Online)

Zimbabwe Hill Settlements in Proceeding Colonialization: A Study in Location Factors

Academic journal article The Journal of Pan African Studies (Online)

Zimbabwe Hill Settlements in Proceeding Colonialization: A Study in Location Factors

Article excerpt


This study refutes the argument that the settlements on hills by the Shona of pre-colonial Zimbabwe were determined by the need for defence, because defence presupposes incessant wars which imperialists have used via similar arguments to colonise Africa. This study argues that environmental, health and agrarian factors were more important determinants to most settlements than defence or incessant wars


Settlement studies continue to generate interest in history much as it does in other areas of academic pursuit, such as archeology and geography. From the onset it is important to point out that site locations are not random developments, but a result of clear choices and decisions by the people concerned. And in almost all cases, these locations are not a function of one variable, but of several related variables which tend to reflect on the people's perception of their environment, ecology, and culture.

P. Daniel and M. Hopkins (1979) for example, hold the view that the choice of certain locations over others is dependent upon levels of skill and technology available to the people at the time.1 Similar views are expressed by I. Pikirayi (2001) who regards settlement dynamics as the material correlate of a broader technological and societal view of the landscape.2 M. Chisholm (1966) points out that defendable sites, good pastures, arable land and woodlands were the sites most favoured by early settlers.3 It is clear that in both historical and geographical perspectives, settlements have indeed taken place in areas perceived to be advantageous to would be settlers. It is in this regard that this study focuses on why pre-colonial Shona settlers in Zimbabwe favoured locating their settlements on hill sites.

The peopling of the Zimbabwean plateau by the 'Bantu' - to whom the Shona are a linguistic group took place in the years since the first millennium A.D.4 The term Bantu is here used to refer to a group of people who shared a related language with the root 'ntu' to refer to a person who moved into the Zimbabwean plateau from the north across the Zambezi river. They arrived on the plateau in waves and the Shona seem to have been among the later arrivals. Until the Nguni and white incursions in the 1830s and 1890s respectively, the Shona had become the most dominant group on the plateau. In all this, Alpers (1968) argues however that the Shona had a peaceful co-existence with their predecessors.5 The Shona firmed themselves by building 'dzimba dzemabwe'( stone buildings) on hills. From their 'seats' in the hills, they created the powerful pre-colonial states of Great Zimbabwe, Torwa, Mutapa and Changamire or Rozvi.

Thus the Zimbabwean plateau covered the area that today is known as Zimbabwe. In the north, the Zambezi River bound the plateau while in the south, the Limpopo River was the boundary; in the west, it extended into the Kalahari Desert and in the east, the Indian Ocean was often the boundary, especially during the reign of the Mutapas; the altitude of the plateau average above 3000 feet.6 Hence, the entire plateau was dominated by granite outcrops and inter-spaced kopjes which created an ideal condition for the hill settlements of the period as granite rock gave rise to sandy soils ranging from relatively infertile to fertile sandy loams, and rains tended to be more reliable in the eastern highlands of the plateau as compared to the other parts of the plateau, especially those in the west.

The Tradition of Hill Settlements

When the Shona moved to occupy the Zimbabwean plateau during the early years of the Early Iron Age, it was not in the hills but rather in the river valleys that they settled. It was only as time passed that settlement on hilltops started to appear in addition to the extensively settled areas at the base of the hills.7 Beach (1980), for example holds that hill settlements started to emerge towards the end of the Early Iron Age. …

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