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Social sciences: history

Grade 6

Trading in africa’s ancient kingdoms

Module 15

The earliest kingdoms in southern africa

Read the following story of Mapungubwe and Great Zimbabwe. Complete the activity at the end.


Arab traders were looking for gold and Chinese traders wanted ivory. Both of these were available on the plateau where Zimbabwe lay and where the Shonas were living. The trading that developed here continued for more than 1000 years, and reached a peak between 1100 and 1400 A.D.

The centre of trade activities in Southern Africa was the isolated hill of Mapungubwe (the place of the great jackal) in the Northern Province, now Mpumalanga. The culture around this settlement probably formed the first black state in South Africa.

A prosperous town had developed in the Limpopo valley by about 1000 A.D. Its inhabitants gradually started gaining control over the surrounding areas, especially with regard to gold. The rulers of the region settled on the flat-topped mountain, while their subjects lived on the plain below the mountain. This mountain dwelling then became known as Mapungubwe.

The stronghold soon became a prosperous trading centre that reached its peak in the 12 th century, when it controlled the trade in gold with the East. With the rise of Great Zimbabwe in the 14 th and 15 th centuries, the rulers of Mapungubwe began losing control over this trade.

Important towns and centra

Great Zimbabwe

Great Zimbabwe is situated about 30 km from Masvingo (previously known as Fort Victoria). The name originated from the Shona word maDzwimbabwe or dzimbohwe, which means “large stone building" or "houses of stone”. It was also known as the Empire of Monomotapa. It consists of an extensive complex of precisely planned walls that were constructed without foundations or the use of mortar, and extends over 24 ha. The great outer wall at Great Zimbabwe measures 255 m, and it was built with around about one million blocks of dressed granite. It is the largest building in Africa after the Egyptian pyramids.

The town Great Zimbabwe

The area was under the control of the Karanga- Rovzi people between 500 and 1500 A.D. The hilltop had become overpopulated sometime between 500 and 1000 A.D. and buildings were then erected below the hilltop. It was a trading centre, but the population consisted mainly of farmers, tradesmen and artisans who lived in traditional wood and plaster huts. (Each complex of huts was a family dwelling consisting of huts for women and children, huts for sleeping, for cooking and for entertaining guests.

The town centre

  • The town centre consisted of two parts: - a hill to the north, where the king had his dwelling - a valley to the south, where the women and children resided
  • The open space between the two groups of buildings probably provided a public gathering place
  • Stone walls (thick line) protected the king and his family
  • The common people – approximately 30 000 – lived in the area surrounding the town centre.

Great Zimbabwe was the centre of a regional trading network along the East Coast. There were gold mines at various places on the Zimbabwean plateau. Most of these were shallow, but some mines were deep. Gold, copper and iron were melted and forged and exported to the East. Gold was carried to the coast where it was traded for beads, cloth and porcelain. Gold had great importance for Europeans and Arabs, because it was scarce and could be used as currency. Beads and cloth, again, were scarce commodities in early kingdoms and these were therefore regarded as symbols of wealth.

Muslim traders

Great Zimbabwe had started to decline by 1400 for reasons of a political nature. This caused division between rulers and eventually led to the disintegration of the kingdom into smaller states.

During the 1400s a new empire came into existence in the Northwest of the Zimbabwean plateau. This was the Empire of Monomotapa, which was named after its first ruler and lasted into the 1800s. Like Great Zimbabwe, it was dependent on the gold trade with the East Coast.

The coming of the Portuguese, who tried to take over the trade with the Arab traders in Mozambique and the armies of Mzilikazi (Ndebele chief) and the warring Zulus from the south under Mzilikazi probably hastened the process. Modern Zimbabwe is situated more or less where this empire used to exist.

One of the birds of Great Zimbabwe, carved from soapstone

Activity 1:

To identify similarities and differences between the people of great zimbabwe and ourselves

[lo 3.1]

a) Suppose you and a group of friends decided to live like the people of Mapungubwe and Great Zimbabwe. Conduct a class discussion on the following:

  • Which aspects of their lives could possibly be realised in the present time and in modern society? Motivate.
  • What are the challenges / problems that you might experience?


LO 3
HISTORICAL INTERPRETATION The learner will be able to interpret aspects of history.
We know this when the learner:
3.1 interprets sources:
  • compares two versions of an historical event using visual or written sources;
3.2 reconstructs the past:
  • distinguishes opinions from facts and information;
3.3 representation of the past:
  • identifies and selects items which represent an aspect being studied, to contribute to a class display, school museum or community archive.

Questions & Answers

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Source:  OpenStax, History grade 6. OpenStax CNX. Sep 08, 2009 Download for free at http://cnx.org/content/col11011/1.1
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