Academic journal article Mankind Quarterly

A Possible Semitic Origin for Ancient Zimbabwe

Academic journal article Mankind Quarterly

A Possible Semitic Origin for Ancient Zimbabwe

Article excerpt

Almost universally accepted amongst contemporary scholars is the opinion that the ancient ruins known as Great Zimbabwe, in what was formerly Rhodesia (radiocarbon dated to around 1300 AD), must have been created by the ancestors of the Shona, who today inhabit northern and eastern Zimbabwe. However, this theory was challenged in the 1950s and 1960s by several scholars, including Robert Gayre, the founder of The Mankind Quarterly, who argued that there was no sound evidence that the Shona had ever built with stone. Instead, his suggestion was that this massive finely cut stone structure, and certain lesser stone ruins in the area, were probably constructed by the ancestors of the present day Lemba, a people who are at least partly descended from Semitic trader-adventurers who had travelled down the east coast of Africa in search of gold and other potential exports. The Lemba, Gayre maintained, are distinguished from the Shona by certain physical and cultural qualities that suggested genetic and cultural admixture with Semites. It is argued that modern genetic testing offers a measure of support for this thesis.

Key Words: Zimbabwe; Rhodesia; Great Zimbabwe ruins; Bantu; Shona; Lemba; Arabs; Semites; Gold mining.

Features of the ancient Zimbabwean civilization

Lying in the interior of tropical southern Africa are hundreds of stone ruins. The largest of them is situated near Masvingo, and is known as "Great Zimbabwe". A dozen or so other sites were obviously satellite settlements of secondary importance (Popham, 1904; White, 1903 and 1905; Hall, 1904; Layland, 1972).

The majority of those structures lie within the country which is now called Zimbabwe, although the area also includes Manyikeni and Chibuene (on or near the Mozambique coast) and Mapungubwe (just across the Limpopo). Brief references were made to the Great Zimbabwe Ruins in 16th century Portuguese writings (de Barros, 1552; McCall-Theal, 1900). Two of those accounts mention an inscription above the entrance to the building, written in characters not known to the (well educated) Arab merchants who had seen it (McCall-Theal, 1900).

All buildings were unroofed, and were constructed using dry-stone walling techniques, i.e. without any cement or mortar, meaning that the granite bricks had to be carefully shaped and trimmed so as to fit together like a jigsaw puzzle. Some of the stone walls were ten metres high (photo: Gayre, 1972, facing p. 229); many of them incorporated chevron, herringbone or chequered patterns. A set of steps leading into Great Zimbabwe constitutes a true work of art: each course curves out of the flanking walls into the entrance, with the penetration of the curves increasing as the steps are ascended (photo: Gayre, 1972, p. 56).

Many thousands of prehistoric gold-workings are scattered round the territory of modern-day Zimbabwe - over an area, in fact, similar to that containing the ruins (Gayre 1972, p. 182). Some calculations indicate that more than 20 million ounces were extracted (Paver, 1950; Gayre, 1972, pp. 49, 179-181, 229; Murdock, 1959).

The ancient gold mines required a measure of engineering skill, containing horizontal as well as deep vertical shafts (Bent, 1896; Gayre, 1972, pp. 179-181). Furnaces, crucibles and various tools found in some of the stone ruins indicate that the gold ornaments and jewellery accompanying them, were produced locally (Layland, 1972, p. 229).

The inhabitants of ancient Zimbabwe were skilled water engineers, constructing a number of dams feeding complex systems of irrigation channels (Layland, 1972). In addition, regularly spaced terraces, which can still be viewed today, were carved into many of the hills in northeastern Zimbabwe (Hall, 1909; Gayre, 1972, pp. 85-87). Layland (1972) estimated that the area of ancient terracing there extended over 6500 square kilometres.

Trying to identify the builders

Nowadays, the consensus is that the ancient Zimbabwean civilization was constructed by people speaking one of the Shona languages (Pikirayi, 2001; Beach, 1994; Huffman and Vogel, 1991; also see Caton-Thompson, 1931; Randall- McIver, 1906). …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.