The word Zimbabwe literally means “stone dwelling” in the Shona language. Historians have been able to piece together the lives of people who built and dwelled in Great Zimbabwe.
Great Zimbabwe existed between approximately the 12th and 15th centuries CE, between the Zambezi and Limpopo Rivers. This area is filled with granite that was used as building material.
Great Zimbabwe was a great trading civilization that sprang up in the interior of southern Africa. Although the civilization had some contact with outside groups, Great Zimbabwe was built and managed by Africans living in the interior. It was a center of gold and ivory trade. Towards the latter part of the history of Great Zimbabwe, evidence suggests that the people living there traded with regions as far away as China, Persia, and Syria.
People living at Great Zimbabwe practiced agriculture and cattle herding, which led to environmental degradation because of too many people living and farming one small area.
With the formation of Great Zimbabwe, social and political organization became hierarchical, resulting in the centralized Kingdom of Great Zimbabwe.
Reconstructing history in the Congo Forest between the 12th to 15th centuries CE is a challenge because there are no written records. Historians rely on archaeology, linguistics, oral histories, and later writing. The people did not have a highly centralized state like Great Zimbabwe. Chiefs led small states, which were made up of villages ruled by a council of elders, or maybe they had no states at all.
The tropical rainforest was so dense that the land was sparsely populated. People used both agricultural and hunting/gathering activities to survive. By around 1400 CE, pastoralists had entered the savannah regions to the east and southeast of the forest. Some historians believe that through the interaction of pastoralists and agriculturalists, these people organized into institutionalized states that began to appear in this region around 1400 CE.
One important oral history of the 12th to 15th centuries is the Chewzi stories. The Chewzi were early kings, although historians debate whether they actually existed. The stories remain meaningful to people today, both as stories about the past and as spirits with whom people continue to interact.
Most historians believe that this region, like the Congo Forest, was ruled at a local level at this time. Around the 15th century CE, large states began to form. Co-existence between pastoralists and agriculturalists became less peaceful, and social classes or castes formed.
Source: History of Africa during the Time of the Kingdom of Great Zimbabwe
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