In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section States of the Zimbabwe Plateau and Zambezi Valley

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Reference Works
  • Textbooks
  • Bibliography and Guide
  • Journals
  • Antiquarian and Colonial Imaginings
  • The First Stratigraphic Archaeological Research
  • Historiography and Zimbabwean States
  • Relationship between Toutswe Mapungubwe and Great Zimbabwe
  • Mapungubwe
  • Cognitive Models, Ethnography and History
  • Cultural and Religious Continuities and Archaeology
  • Economy and Subsistence
  • Mining and Metalwork
  • The Politics of Archaeology

African Studies States of the Zimbabwe Plateau and Zambezi Valley
Maria Schoeman
  • LAST REVIEWED: 17 August 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 February 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199846733-0028


Since the 10th century AD various African states developed, rose to prominence, competed with other polities, and declined on the Zimbabwean plateau and in the adjacent Zambezi and Limpopo valleys. Most of these sites are marked by extensive stone walled ruins. Early colonial accounts proposed various exotic explanations for their origins, ranging from suggestions that these stone walled sites were the remains of the Land of Ophir to claims that they were built by people from Persia. The idea that the stone walled buildings could have been constructed by Africans was anathema to these colonial explorers, and the later white Rhodesian Front government, whose ideas were deeply rooted in racist and colonial imaginings of Africans. A substantial body of scholarship has since shown that these sites were conceptualized, constructed, and occupied by African communities. In contrast to the colonial stereotypes, the history of these African communities and their states is dynamic and complex, as has been demonstrated in more than eighty years of archaeological and historical research. The theoretical underpinnings of this scholarship have been diverse, and have included structuralism, historical materialism, and postcolonial approaches. These theoretical differences have informed a number of the debates about state formation processes on the Zimbabwean plateau. In addition, debates have arisen where data is thin, such as regarding the chronology of occupation at Great Zimbabwe. This bibliography focuses on five of the most prominent and archaeologically visible states in the region: the Mapungubwe, Great Zimbabwe, Mutapa, Torwa–Changamire-Rozvi (spelled Rozwi in some texts), and Ndebele states. The Mapungubwe state was the most prominent from the 11th to the 13th centuries. Great Zimbabwe controlled the region in the 14th and 15th centuries. The Mutapa State dominated the northeastern plateau and Zambezi valley from the 15th century to the 19th century. At about the same time the Torwa–Changamire-Rozvi state governed the southwestern region, but at the height of its power its reach stretched to the Great Zimbabwe area. The most recent of the Zimbabwe plateau states, the Ndebele State, broke the long-standing Zimbabwe culture hegemony on the Zimbabwe plateau. It took control over the southwestern region in the 19th century, an area previously controlled by the Rozvi. Due to the expansion of the colonial frontier into the region this was a short-lived endeavor. The history of these five states can be accessed through archaeological data as well as a range of historical sources, including oral and archival material. The archaeological remains include numerous stone walled sites, such as the well-known Great Zimbabwe, occupation sites constructed from less durable materials, and smaller items such as ceramics and glass beads.

General Overviews

Archaeological research conducted in the first half of the 20th century showed that the stone walled ruins of Zimbabwe were remnants of earlier African civilizations. Exotic ideas, however, still persisted, and were systematically challenged by archaeologists such as Peter Garlake and Roger Summers. Garlake 1970 maintained that archaeology is crucial to the writing of Zimbabwean history, and that archaeology can be used to challenge exotic narratives about the past. An example of archaeological data being used to write a factually accurate past that challenges exotic accounts is Summers 1966, which located the development of Great Zimbabwe and other Zimbabwean plateau sites in the context of the archaeological sites of the last two thousand years. This paper specifically linked these sites with African farming communities. These ideas are expanded on in more detail in Summers 1971. The research by this generation of archaeologists in Zimbabwe showed that the stone walled sites formed part of larger entities on the Zimbabwe plateau and immediate surrounding areas that developed and declined in the context of complex regional, economic, and social contexts. Consequently, the next generation of archaeologists started to grapple with the operation and functioning of these entities. Studies in the late 20th century were strongly rooted in economic approaches; for example, Sinclair 1987 emphasized the sociopolitical and economic aspects of state formation. Similarly van Waarden 1998 interpreted developmental drivers as primarily economic, and consequently argued that Mapungubwe and Great Zimbabwe were competing polities, with Great Zimbabwe gaining the upper hand due to a shift in trade routes. She also suggested that similar processes shaped the expansion of the Khami state and the decline of the Great Zimbabwe state. Other works placed the state sites in a broader regional context, as can be seen in the papers on the Zimbabwean plateau states in Sinclair and Pwiti 1990. Pikirayi 2001 continued in this tradition and focused on the development of these states in their historical and environmental contexts. In stark contrast to the economic and contextual models of state formation is the structuralist approach manifest in Huffman 1996. This volume emphasized the internal ideology and meanings that informed architectural and material culture developments in the Zimbabwe culture. Most of the debates on the archaeology of the Zimbabwe plateau states have focused on the reasons for state formation, the interpretation of structures and features, or conflicting meanings of the past in the present. In general, very little attention has been paid to critiques of uncritical approaches equating complexity with state formation, which have been put forward in other parts of Africa and expressed in texts such as Mackintosh 1999. Calabrese 2007, however, does engage with these critiques, and explored the development of social complexity in the Mapungubwe state. Specifically, focussing on the development of ethnic diversity in the region during state formation.

  • Calabrese, John A. The Emergence of Social and Political Complexity in the Shashi-Limpopo Valley of Southern Africa, AD 900 to 1300: Ethnicity, Class, and Polity. BAR International Series 1617. Oxford: Archaeopress, 2007.

    Report on insights obtained though his PhD excavations in the Shashe-Limpopo Confluence Area, which challenged long-held ideas about cultural hegemony and Mapungubwe state formation, showing that people from multiple origins co-resided in the area.

  • Garlake, Peter S. “The Zimbabwe Ruins Reexamined.” Rhodesian History 1 (1970): 17–29.

    A paper advocating the use of archaeology to better understand Zimbabwe’s precolonial past. The second part of the paper summarized what was known about the sequence from Great Zimbabwe to the Rozvi states.

  • Huffman, Thomas N. Snakes and Crocodiles: Power and Symbolism in Ancient Zimbabwe. Johannesburg: Witwatersrand University Press, 1996.

    A synthesis and reinterpretation of existing data that uses a “cognitive approach,” informed by structuralism, to the settlement patterns, internal use of space, and material culture at Zimbabwe stone walled sites. Huffman’s approach makes extensive use of Venda ethnography. The book had a mixed reception.

  • Mackintosh, S. K., ed. Beyond Chiefdoms: Pathways to Complexity in Africa. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1999.

    Edited volume that brings together a set of key papers that interrogate the idea of complexity in African archaeology, challenging past approaches to complexity.

  • Pikirayi, Innocent. The Zimbabwe Culture. Walnut Creek, CA: AltaMira, 2001.

    An important synthesis of recent research into Zimbabwean farming community archaeology that includes information on the environmental contexts. Specifically focuses on the sequence from the arrival of the first herders to the 19th century Mutapa and Rozvi-Changamire states.

  • Sinclair, Paul J. J. “Space, Time and Social Formation: A Territorial Approach to the Archaeology and Anthropology of Zimbabwe and Mozambique c. 0–1700 AD.” PhD diss., Uppsala University, 1987.

    Explores the economic and political configuration of Zimbabwean plateau- and Mozambican farming-based societies before 1700, specifically focusing on state formation.

  • Sinclair, Paul J. J., and Gilbert Pwiti, eds. Urban Origins in Eastern Africa: Proceedings of the 1990 Workshop, Harare and Great Zimbabwe. Sweden Paper 6. Stockholm: Central Board of National Antiquities, 1990.

    Edited volume that reports on research conducted in eastern and southern Africa under the banner of the Urban Origins program, which played a major role in stimulating research into the Zimbabwean plateau and Zambezi valley sites.

  • Summers, Roger F. H. “The Iron Age of Southern Rhodesia.” Current Anthropology 7.4 (1966): 463–484.

    DOI: 10.1086/200753

    A significant contribution to the second wave of archaeological research on the Zimbabwe sites, starting with a brief overview of the history of archaeological research in Zimbabwe, and followed by a summary of the archaeological sequence as it was understood at the time.

  • Summers, Roger. Ancient Ruins and Vanished Civilizations of Southern Africa. Cape Town: T. V. Bulpin, 1971.

    Comprehensive overview of the archaeology, architecture, distribution, and origins of the stone walled ruins of Zimbabwe. The sites are also located in a regional and environmental context.

  • van Waarden, Catrien. “The Late Iron Age.” In Ditswa Mmung: The Archaeology of Botswana. Edited by Paul Lane, Andrew Reid, and Alinah Segobye, 115–160. Gaborone: Botswana Society, 1998.

    Van Waarden’s paper grapples with the archaeology of chiefdoms and states in Botswana, South Africa, and Zimbabwe from 900 AD. Her approach to the sequence is based on her research in Botswana.

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