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Throughout the centuries, Southern Africa was inhabited by people with a different life style. The San (Bushmen) people did not live in cities or villages, nor did they cultivate the fields or keep domesticated animals. They were hunters and fruits gatherers. Their history is immortalized on thousands of rock paintings, some of which are more than 30 000 years old. Few San people still remain in Zimbabwe, but groups can still be found in the Kalahari Desert areas of Botswana, Namibia and South Africa.

By the 19th century great Shona speaking empires had disintegrated into numerous principalities and chiefdoms. At the same time, a powerful kingdom emerged in Kwazulu Natal under King Shaka. Upheavals in that region drove one of Shaka’s generals, Mzilikazi, and his soldiers northwards until they settled in the western part of Zimbabwe about 1836 after subduing the local Shona chiefs. In 1860, his son, Lobengula, became the second and last Ndebele king. He was deposed by British troops in 1893.

European penetration into Zimbabwe began through Christian missionaries who befriended King Mzilikazi in 1858.

James Gordon Bennett Jr.

One of history’s greatest adventure tales happened in what is now Zimbabwe.

James Gordon Bennett Jr.

It was a reporter’s dream assignment — an unlimited expense account, no deadlines, no city editor reading over one’s shoulder. Only Johnny Apple of The New York Times has such a carte blanche today. Stanley sailed off to Africa, filed occasional dispatches, and wound up two years later in the village of Ujiji in Tanganyika. There he heard of an aging white man — the only white man for miles around — who was ministering to the natives.

Stanley traveled to Zanzibar in March 1871 and outfitted an expedition with the best of everything, requiring no fewer than 200 porters. Stanley found Livingstone on 10 November 1871

Dr. Livingstone



As Stanley told the tale — he told it many times for the next 30 years — he was at first incredulous, but the tip sounded promising. In Ujiji a throng of a hundred natives turned out to inspect him. They confirmed the rumor and led him to a hut where the white man lived. The doctor emerged, white-haired, trembling with the ailments of age.

Stanley stumbled toward him, wondering what to say. He wanted to dance with joy. He suppressed a shout of victory, lest the natives think him demented. Wrapping himself in dignity for the occasion, he held out his hand.

Then he said, “Dr. Livingstone, I presume.”

Dr. Livingstone

Below is a more academic description of Zimbabwe’s cultural history.


Pity Southern Africa’s first people. Pity the people with no name. For when you are the only ones, you have no need to distinguish your kind from others. Pity those whose exclusive domain once stretched from the Zambezi to the Cape of Good Hope, from the Atlantic to the Indian Oceans. Their Tswana neighbors in the Kalahari, who arrived here 1,200 years ago, call them the Basarwa, the “people who have nothing.” Their pastoralist cousins, the Khoi, call them San, outsiders or vagabonds. They are a people with an ancient past but almost no recorded history, save for one glorious exception, rock paintings of antelope and elephants, dancers and hunters, some of which remain startlingly vivid despite being lashed by wind and rain and baked by sun for 3,000 years. The most recent paintings show sailing ships and mounted horsemen. Then there were no more.



Between 500 and 1000AD, the Gokomere (a Bantu group) enslaved and absorbed San groups in the area. As early as the 11th century, some foundations and stonework were in place at Great Zimbabwe and the settlement, generally regarded as the burgeoning Shona society.

By the Middle Ages, there was a civilization that occupied the region, evidenced by ruins at Great Zimbabwe, near Masvingo, and other smaller sites. The main archaeological site is a unique dry stone architecture. Around the early 10th century, trade developed with Muslim merchants on the Indian Ocean coast, helping to develop the Kingdom of Mapungubwe in the 11th century. This was the precursor to the more impressive Shona civilizations that would dominate the region.


Pre-Colonial Era (1000–1887)

Proto-Shona speaking societies first emerged in the middle Limpopo valley in the 9th century before moving on to the Zimbabwean highlands. The Zimbabwean plateau eventually became the center of subsequent Shona states. The Kingdom of Mapungubwe was the first in a series of sophisticated trade states developed in Zimbabwe by the time of the first European explorers from Portugal. They traded in gold, ivory and copper for cloth and glass.


From about 1250 until 1450, Mapungubwe was eclipsed by the Kingdom of Zimbabwe.

The kingdom of Zimbabwe controlled the ivory and gold trade from the interior to the southeastern coast of Africa. Asian and Arabic goods could be found in abundance in the kingdom. Economic domestication, which had been crucial to the earlier proto-Shona states, was also practiced.

This Shona state further refined and expanded upon Mapungubwe’s stone architecture, which survives to this day at the ruins of the kingdom’s capital of Great Zimbabwe. From circa 1450–1760, Zimbabwe gave way to the Kingdom of Mutapa. This Shona state ruled much of the area that is known as Zimbabwe today, and parts of central Mozambique. It is known by many names including the Mutapa Empire, also known as Mwene Mutapa or Monomotapa as well as “Munhumutapa,” and was renowned for its gold trade routes with Arabs and the Portuguese. However, Portuguese settlers destroyed the trade and began a series of wars which left the empire in near collapse in the early 17th century.

As a direct response to Portuguese aggression in the interior, a new Shona state emerged called the Rozwi Empire. Relying on centuries of military, political and religious development, the Rozwi (which means “destroyers”) removed the Portuguese from the Zimbabwe plateau by force of arms. The Rozwi continued the stone building traditions of the Zimbabwe and Mapungubwe kingdoms while adding guns to its arsenal and developing a professional army to protect its trade routes and conquests.


Around 1821, the Zulu general Mzilikazi (meaning The Great Road) of the Khumalo clan successfully rebelled from King Shaka and set up his own tribe, the Ndebele. The tribe fought its way northwards into the Transvaal leaving a trail of destruction in its wake and beginning an era of widespread killings and devastation known as the Mfecane. When the Boer settlers (descendants of Dutch and other Europeans) arrived in the Transvaal in 1836 during the Great Trek they attacked the Ndebele and drove the tribe even further northward. In 1837–38, the Rozwi Empire along with other Shona states were conquered by the Ndebele and forced to pay tribute and concentrate in the northeast of present-day Zimbabwe.After losing the Transvaal in 1840, Mzilikazi and his tribe settled the southwest of present-day Zimbabwe in what became known as Matabeleland and established Bulawayo as their capital. Mzilikazi then organized his followers into a military system with regimental kraals, similar to those of Shaka, which became strong enough to repel the Boer attacks of 1847 – 1851 and persuade the government of the South African Republic to sign a peace treaty with him in 1852. Mzilikazi died in 1868 and after a brief, violent power struggle was succeed by his son, Lobengula.In the 1880s, the British arrived with Cecil Rhodes’s British South Africa Company. In 1898, the name Southern Rhodesia was adopted. In 1888, British colonialist Cecil Rhodes obtained a concession for mining rights from King Lobengula of the Ndebele peoples. Cecil Rhodes presented this concession to persuade the government of the United Kingdom to grant a royal charter to his British South Africa Company (BSAC) over Matabeleland, and its subject states such as Mashonaland.The area became known as Southern Rhodesia.It consisted of modern Zambia, Zimbabwe, and Malawi. However, after the former colony of Northern Rhodesia renamed itself Zambia on independence in 1964, and Nyasaland renamed itself Malawi in 1964, the colony of Southern Rhodesia changed its name to simply “Rhodesia”, also in 1964.From its independence in 1965 until its extinction in 1980, it was known as Rhodesia.Since 1980 and the institution of a majority African government, the area has been renamed Zimbabwe and all traces of former British, Rhodesian, and white rule, laws, property, and nomenclature have been removed as part of President Robert Mugabe’s policy of Africanization.


And today?

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