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date: 28 November 2020

Early States and Complex Societies in Eastern and Southern Africafree

  • Chapurukha M. KusimbaChapurukha M. KusimbaAmerican University Department of Anthropology

Summary

How and in what ways did socially complex societies emerge on the East African coast and southern Africa? Scholarship has shown that elite investment in interregional trade and in extractive technologies, monopolization of wealth-creating resources, and warfare may have played a key role in the emergence of early states. To what extent was elite and non-elite engagement in local, regional, and transcontinental economic networks crucial to development of social complexity in eastern and southern Africa? Extensive research on the eastern coast of Africa (Kenya and Tanzania) and southern Africa (Zimbabwe, Botswana, and South Africa) has yielded adequate data to enable a discussion on the trajectories of the evolution of social complexity and the state. So far, three crucial factors: (a) trade, (b) investment in extractive technologies, and (c) elite monopolization of wealth-creating resources coalesced to propel the region toward greater interaction and complexity. Major transformations in the form and increase of household size, clear differences in wealth and status, and settlement hierarchies occurred toward the end of the first millennium ad. Regional scholarship posits that elite control of internal and external trade infrastructure, restricted access to arable land and accumulation of surplus, manipulation of religious ideology, and exploitation of ecological crises were among the major factors that contributed to the rise of the state. Could these factors have also favored investment and use of organized violence as a means to gain access to and monopolize access to information and wealth-creating resources? Scholarship in the 21st century favors the notion that opportunistic use of ideological and ritual power enabled a small elite initially composed of elders, ritual specialists, and technical specialists to control the regional political economy and information flows. The timing of these transformations was continent-wide and date to the last three centuries of the first millennium ad. By all measures, the evidence points to wealth accumulation through trade, tribute, and investment in agrarianism, pastoralism, and mining.

Defining the State

The late Canadian Africanist archaeologist Bruce Trigger defined the state as “a politically organized society that is regarded by those who live in it as sovereign or politically independent and has leaders who control its social, political, legal, economic, and cultural activities” (Trigger 2003, 92). States have recognizable diagnostic features including urbanism, social stratification, political organization, production, specialization and exchange, and long-distance interactions (Carneiro 2012; Feinman 1995, 255; Kusimba 2018, 90). The state emerges when a new administrative technology, new administrative facilities, and a new administrative system are created (Flannery and Marcus 2012). Trigger emphasized the importance of kinship ties and the use of force to maintain political power. He viewed early states as socially stratified societies where individuals who occupied the highest strata possessed and maintained the most wealth, status, and political power. “The core of such an early state (or complex chiefdom) was ethnic group, tribe, or ruler’s kindred to which other groups willingly or unwillingly paid tribute” (Trigger 2003, 47). The means through which upper-class members gained and maintained power included a combination of physical and ideological power. Trigger echoed Akin Mabogunje’s initial hypothesis that city-states were small polities, consisting of an urban core surrounded by farmland containing smaller units of settlement.1 In contrast, territorial states governed a larger region through a multileveled hierarchy of provincial and local administrators in a corresponding hierarchy of administrative centers. In sum, states can be characterized by centralized political authority resting in the hands of a small elite group wherein the power is physical, economic, and ideological (see Morris 1998, 98).

How, when, and what precipitated the rise of complex societies and state formation in eastern and southern Africa? Transformations from acephalous to state societies occurred in eastern and southern Africa toward the end of the first millennium ad.2 Extensive research on the eastern coast of Africa (Kenya and Tanzania) and southern Africa (Zimbabwe, Botswana, and South Africa) has yielded adequate data to enable a discussion of the trajectories of the evolution of social complexity and the state. Three crucial factors: (a) trade, (b) investment in extractive technologies, and (c) elite monopolization of wealth-creating resources, coalesced to propel the region toward greater interaction and complexity (Garlake 1982; Kim and Kusimba 2008; Kim, Kusimba, and Keeley 2015; Kusimba, Kim, and Kusimba 2017; Mitchell 2005; Pwiti 2005). Major transformations in household size, clear differences in wealth and status, and settlement hierarchies occurred toward the end of the first millennium ad (Chami 1998; Chirikure 2014; Chirikure and Pikirayi 2008; Chirikure et al. 2013; Kusimba 1999, 2008; Manyanga 2006, 138; Sinclair, Ekblom, and Wood 2012; see table 1). What factors contributed to the rise of societies that increasingly formalized inequality out of egalitarian and heterarchical societies that preceded them? Could these factors have also favored investment and use of organized violence as a means to gain and monopolize access to fertile grazing lands, water and mineral resources, and trade infrastructure? Regional scholarship proposed that opportunistic use of ideological and ritual power may have enabled a small elite, initially composed of elders, ritual and technical specialists, to control the regional political economy and information flows. The timing of these transformations was continent-wide and dates from the 7th century of the first millennium ad (see table 2).

Table 1. Principle Trade Items from Eastern and Southern Africa

From inland Africa to the coast

From the coast to inland Africa

Primary producers of African trade items

Copper

Trade ceramics (Chinese and Islamic)

South Africa

Iron bloom

Persian faience and glass

Inland and coastal

Ivory (raw and cut)

Glass beads (Chinese, Indian)

Inland and coastal

Wood

Cloth (cotton and silk)

Inland and coastal

Hides and skins

Citrus fruits

Inland and coastal

Honey, beeswax, and resins

Rice

Inland and coastal

Gold, copper, bronze

Banana

Zimbabwe and South Africa

Grains (millet, sorghum)

Marine shells, especially cowry shells

Ostrich eggs and beads

Inland and coastal

Rhinoceros horns

Inland coastal

Frankiscence and myrrh

Inland Kenya and Somalia

Rock crystal

Inland Kenya

Bronze

South Africa

Note: From Chapurukha M. Kusimba.

Table 2. Periodization of Social Complexity and the State

Stages of development

Associations

Examples of sites

First stage (c. ad 1 to 700)

Early farming and herding communities in dispersed villages, no evidence of social differentiation and ranking

Unguja Ukuu, Ras Hafun, Kwale, Manda, Kilwa, KiMa1, KiMa9, Misasa, Mpiji, Kiwangwa, Masuguru, Chibuene

Second stage (c. ad 700–800)

The elaboration of interregional and introduction of external trade

Pemba, Tumbe, Shanga, Ungwana, Kaole, Zhizo, Changwehela

Third stage (c. ad 800–1000)

Volume and scale of regional and external trade increases, emergence of complex chiefdoms, cooperation in building elite and ritual residences, operationalizable evidence of social differentiation

Kima6. Kirongwe, Lamu, Mombasa, Malindi, Kilifi

Fourth stage (c. ad 1000–1500)

The establishment of state characterized by dry stone architecture in inland southern Africa and coral rag along the East African coast

Mapungubwe, Mapela, K2, Great Zimbabwe, Leopard Kopje, Gumanye, Mtwapa, Manda, Shanga, Pemba, Kilwa (East Africa)

Fifth stage (c. ad 1500–1900)

European conduct and onset of transatlantic slave trade, conquest, and colonization

Mutapa, European, and Oman fortresses

Emergence of the State in Eastern and Southern Africa

After ad 700, sub-Saharan Africa was on a trajectory toward the emergence of the state. The common features of the social complexity in eastern and southern Africa include (a) increasing sedentism, (b) changes in settlement patterns from extended family homesteads to fortified urban and peri-urban communities, (c) extensive investment in and use of offensive and defensive weaponry, (d) development of extractive technologies in mining and processing of iron, gold, copper, and tin, and (e) expansion of farming and pastoralism (figs. 1 and 2). The wide distribution of glass beads in hunter-gatherer, mobile pastoralist, farming, and elite residences in the region provides sufficient evidence of local, regional, and transoceanic trade networks (Davison 1972; Wood 2012). These networks created opportunities for participants to accumulate wealth. The profits from trade gave them an unequal competitive edge over their neighbors.

Figure 1a. By the 12th century, there was a visible and powerful political and economic elite on the East African coast and in southern Zambezia who were investing in large-scale permanent residences like this one, still standing nearly eight hundred years later at Gede National Monument, Kenya.

Photo by the author.

Figure 1b. The genius of dry stone architecture in southern Africa is best exemplified by the majestic settlement of Naletale.

Photo courtesy of Shadreck Chirikure.

Innovations in building architecture in the form of coral rag and coral stones along the coast and dry stone in inland eastern and southern Africa posit a departure from settlement abandonment that usually occurred at the death of the family head to the embrace of intergenerational perspectives (figs. 1 and 3). Elite investment in permanent inheritable homes and other forms of wealth created more stable family and community lifestyles that were good for building long-term bonds and trading partnerships (Allen 1993; Huffman 1996; Pikirayi 2001, 3). Fortification became the norm replacing dispersed homesteads (fig. 3). The diverse artifacts, eco-facts, ideo-facts, and socio-facts recovered at these settlements indicate investment and engagement in diverse occupations from part-time, full-time, and specialized crafts and vocations (Fleisher 2010; Kusimba, Kusimba, and Dussubieux 2013). Craft specialization and other complementary vocations increasingly exceeded household scales. Wealth from regional and transoceanic commerce became one of the main catalysts for the emergence of urbanization and social inequality (Middleton 2004; Wynne-Jones and LaViolette 2018). By the time Islam was adopted, coastal and inland societies had maintained regular commercial and cultural dialogue for many generations (Kusimba and Walz 2018; Pwiti 2005; Walz 2010; Ylvisaker 1979, 67). As generations of coastal societies converted to Islam, expansion of interregional trade into the interior came to be associated with, but not monopolized by Muslim traders. Indeed, inland trade networks continued to be primarily managed by inland merchants. Evidence for this is found in the fact that despite nearly one thousand two hundred years of practice in eastern and southern Africa, Islam never achieved universal conversion and continued until the mid-19th century to be a religion confined to the coastal strip and towns and caravanserais along caravan routes (Kusimba and Walz 2018, 430). In West Africa, by contrast, conversion to Islam was more widely accepted (Insoll 2003).

Figure 2. Map of the East African coast and southern Zambezia showing Late Iron Age archaeological sites known.

Courtesy of Chapurukha M. Kusimba and Foreman Bandama.

By the end of the first millennium ad, the entire region was a regular partner in long-distance maritime exchanges that reached as far as the Arabian Peninsula, India, Sri Lanka, and China (LaViolette 2008; Mitchell 2005; Wynne-Jones and LaViolette 2018). By the 13th century an African urban elite financed, managed, and controlled local, regional, and interregional trade and communications along the East African seaboard. Innovations in ironworking enabled agricultural intensification and specialization in hunting, fishing, and herding. These changes improved the quality of life and precipitated population growth and economic prosperity. In the late 15th century, however, the coast became embroiled in a long-standing conflict between Christianity and Islam, represented by Portuguese, Ottoman, and Omani Arab mercantile interests (Oka 2018). Portuguese, Arab, and Turkish rivalry for control of Indian Ocean commerce was economically crippling for East Africa. The state, however, did not collapse during the time of Portuguese (1498–1975) and Omani Arab (1738–1960) conquest and colonization. However, leadership shifted from the local elite to foreign elite (Alpers 1975; Kusimba 2004).

What Is the Evidence for Evolution to Social Complexity and Emergence of the State?

Until the last millennium bc, African subsistence economies were dominated by foraging (Kusimba 2003; Mitchell 2002; Walker 1995). The introduction of cow pastoralism substantively improved the quality of life and stimulated population growth. Agrarian communities emerged beginning from the early century of the first millennium ad (Pikirayi 2001, 80). These communities possessed a complete toolkit of iron technology, distinctive ceramics, and new crops (Mitchell 2002, 259; Pikirayi 2001, 80). The diverse economy based on foraging, herding, and farming stimulated demographic growth such that by the 5th century ad, much of eastern and southern Africa was inhabited by sedentary societies (Hall 1990; Katsamudanga and Pwiti 2017; Pikirayi 2001, 79). Adoption of farming and pastoralism transformed the cultural mindset and the landscape, initiating distinctions about communal and private ownership, tolerance, and respect for private property. Trade flourished among foragers, herders, and farmers. Crafts such as iron smelting, smithing, and pottery making became more specialized as knowledge increasingly became restricted to specific families and clans and its practice became highly ritualized (Schmidt 1997). Demographic changes were region-wide. Residential areas became larger as did gardens and farmsteads. Cattle ownership increasingly defined wealth and status and those who possessed more of it enjoyed higher status (Shenjere-Nyabeze 2016). Mitchell proposes that “domestic animals and crops imply private property; long-term storage of cereals suggests this must have been controlled within families or perhaps centrally within villages” (Mitchell 2002, 288). Property rights and an adherence to territorially affiliated beliefs and ancestor cults were also established at this time (Pikirayi 2001, 79).

Once established and formalized, interregional trade and exchange with the coast became one of the chief means of accumulating wealth in addition to pastoralism and farming (Chirikure et al. 2013). Evidence for processing of ivory for export recovered at some inland settlements indicates the complexity of coastal–inland relationships, which promoted investment in the procurement of trade items in high demand. Such demand required investment in the infrastructure necessary for producing these items. Specialized knowledge such as elephant hunting and ivory working also served as catalysts for development of related crafts including iron working and gold-mining. Ivory procurement created a group of highly specialized hunters who would have sought to restrict the specialized knowledge to their group. The lethal poison needed to maim or kill elephants and other African megafauna was painstakingly developed by specialized hunter-gatherers who not only jealously protected their esoteric knowledge of poison-making but also became the largest suppliers of poison and ivory. Trade with the coast thus indirectly helped diversify the local and regional political economy. In Mitchell’s words, “such specialisation . . . facilitated the expansion of trade and the possibilities for individuals or groups to benefit . . . at the expense of others, including opportunities for accumulating larger herds of cattle” (Mitchell 2002, 289). In this regard, rapid demographic growth, food security, favorable and stable climate, investment in highly specialized craft activities, and interregional trade combined to lay the foundations for the development of the larger chiefdoms to become states (Manyanga 2006, 21).

In sum, it is evident that by the mid to late first millennium ad, greater amounts of wealth and status were being conferred upon certain segments of societies. By the late first millennium ad, ivory and skins were already being exported overseas, with sites like Chibuene, Sofala, Kilwa, and Manda interfacing between inland and transoceanic trade routes (Mitchell 2002, 300). The presence of craft specialization and material symbols of high status are telling, and it can be inferred that this period saw the onset of social stratification and private property on a level heretofore unseen in the region (Kusimba 1996). The germ for hierarchical relationships, social complexity, and state development had been sown. By the early centuries of the second millennium, these farming villages and their lifeways had become well established. “Here and there small-scale confederations of subsistence farmers lived in stable agricultural regimens well adapted to their natural surroundings, adjusting to these changes in their social environment” (Pikirayi 2001, 95). These fisher, farmer, and pastoral communities represented politically autonomous villages that were poised to become states. As noted, the three factors implicated in the origins of social complexity and the state in eastern and southern Africa include expansion in regional trade, innovations and investment in extractive technologies, and elite restriction to wealth-creating resources which included fertile grazing and well-watered land, rich mines, and cattle.

Regional and Transoceanic Trade

The rise of autonomous urban polities which followed East Africa’s incorporation into the Indian Ocean maritime trade networks created new markets for previously internally circulating commodities. Trade connections between the coast and inland Africa involved all communities, from mobile hunter-gatherers to emergent increasingly sedentary complex chiefdoms and states. Foodstuffs, including grains, dried meat, and fish, would have circulated between communities; beads and cloth due to their affordability circulated across all communities (Dussubieux et al. 2008). From inland Africa, including the Great Lakes region, southern Africa, and inland Kenya and Tanzania, came iron, gold, ivory, copper, and leather, among other products. Trade created the means for elite capital accumulation. The emergent market and distribution centers both inland and along the coast increasingly attracted communities from far and wide, leading to emergence of early urban communities. As they emerged, these centers’ sustenance depended upon the relationship they built and sustained with their rural neighbors (Ylvisaker 1979, 67). Interregional trade thrived best in the context of tolerance and cooperation among potential trading partners. Evidence for conflict and coercion as a means for securing wealth-creating resources in the form of fertile and well-watered agricultural land, disease-free grazing land, and mineral-rich areas continues to elude archaeologists. However, sources of trade items exchanged across the region infer that cooperation was a critical component for the emergence of the more centralized ethnically diverse state (Stanish 2017). In eastern and southern Africa, communities developed heritable social and kinship ties to legitimize non-kin interaction spheres.

Regional market centers were originally located in neutral zones to enable potential trading partners to freely trade. Such centers had a higher probability of evolving into distribution centers and eventually political capitals. As such, their beginnings incorporated diverse actors who performed different but complementary activities. For intercommunity trade to succeed, an inclusive superstructure that potentially incorporated all communities, from mobile hunter-gatherers, nomadic and sedentary pastoralists, to agrarian communities, was paramount. Without such a system, products such as ivory, a domain of specialized hunters, and beads, a universal trade item that was consumed by all, would not have been exchanged globally. Thus, demands for specific commodities stimulated different but complementary economic specializations. For example, with its vast sources of gold and copper and fertile disease-free grazing lands, the emergent states of southern Africa, including Mapungubwe, Great Zimbabwe, and Khami, monopolized the gold and copper trade and were among the major suppliers of hides and skins. Inland East Africa mobile hunters and pastoralists held sway on the supply chains of ivory, incense, beeswax, and rock crystals in high demand in the Persian Gulf and South Asia. Thus, wealth gained from investing in hunting, mining, and pastoralism was crucial for the emergence of the state. Trade created societal inequities in the distribution of essential resources, such as iron, ivory, gold, copper, and salt, in that it favored those communities that were engaged in the trade and located along the trade routes.

I am skeptical of the notion that market-oriented trade grew up as a result of external demand for gold and ivory. The claim that “there is no evidence that either [gold or ivory] commodities had any indigenous value until the advent of the Islamic maritime trade on the east coast” is undermined by the antiquity of prospective and mining and hunting techniques that predate the formalization of Indian Ocean maritime trade. Further, earlier assumptions that the exploration and consumption of nonferrous minerals was responsive to external demands have been all but thoroughly demolished by increasing evidence for the antiquity of mining, smelting, and the use of nonferrous minerals, including tin (Bandama 2013; Bandama, Hall, and Shadreck 2015). The wealth accumulated from interregional trade was never confined to gold and ivory, but involved other products as well (table 2). External demand for these products stimulated investment in extractive technologies and in agriculture and pastoralism. The safe passage of trade from inland to the coast required negotiations and cooperation among trading partners. Tribute, tax, and, where necessary, security escort would have been employed to protect trade and trade infrastructures. The rise of the state and external trade created inequities between communities. The distinct class differences that arose created powerful political and economic elites (Pwiti 1991). At that same time, the bulk of the resources that came from the coast to inland societies (e.g., cloth and beads) circulated to all regions. Investment in weaving was widespread and formed one of the most common cottage industries in the emergent cities’ households. The ubiquitous distribution of spindle whorls at most household locales excavated on the coast and in southern Africa supports this claim. In sum, craft specialization in pottery making, cloth making, leatherwork, smithing, curving, stone cutting, and masonry, among other crafts, had become an inalienable part of the African landscape. Wealth distinctions were now measured by ones’ ability to own and cultivate large tracts of agricultural land, own large herds of cattle, and build a large, permanent, and intergenerational homestead.

Investment in Extractive Technologies

Evidence for investment in pyrotechnologies primarily comes from iron smelting and smithing. Investment in iron technologies predates the evolution of social complexity. In fact, iron production beyond local needs in East Africa was recognized fairly early such that during the 10th century, the polity of Malindi’s notable exports to India was iron bloom. The antiquity of ironmaking in sub-Saharan Africa is no longer contested. Although some archaeologists credit the mining and processing copper and tin to foreigners, the recovery of tin bronzes in early 12th century ad contexts at Jahuda a century before, at Mapungubwe, illustrates the sophistication and innovation of ancient metal workers t. The presence of gold (in the form of trinkets, beads, and sheets) and copper (in the form of wire, bangles, and bracelets) in sedentary, pastoral, and mobile communities in southern Africa points to region-wide consumption of these articles and to the existence of intercommunity exchange networks upon which regional networks that crisscrossed the subcontinent, eventually reaching the East African coast and beyond, interlocked in the late first millennium ad (Chirikure 2015, 360; Miller, Desai, and Lee-Thorp 2000). Gold-mining was dominant in Zimbabwe, while the centers for copper and tin were more numerous in South Africa, the latter centering around contemporary Rooiberg in central Transvaal (Hammel et al. 2000).

Mineral extraction and processing involved managerial organization, technological innovation, and decision-making. Practitioners’ conceptual understanding of the geology, harnessing of the tools—iron gads, chisels, hoes, drills, crucibles, and hammerstones—and practical skills, figuring out ways to overcome physical and mechanical obstacles, required social cooperation and leadership (Hammel et al. 2000). Mineral prospection, mining, processing, and commercial activities point to larger concerns indicative of distinct divisions of labor. Locally consumed gold may have circulated among the networks of ritual leaders and elders in all societies. These emergent leaders from the ranks of mobile, pastoral, and agropastoral communities who inhabited this massive landscape would later coalesce to become members of the royal chieftaincies and polities. As more formalized leadership emerged, the internal circulation and external control of gold mines and the infrastructure of its production would become restricted to the economic and political elite, who were drawn to the same networks. For example, the much heralded Mapungubwe gold objects, including gold beads, beaten gold attached to a backing with gold rivets, a gilded “bowl,” a gilded staff, a “mace-head,” numerous wound wire bangles, and the famous gold rhinoceros represent elite insignia used by the rulers of the last major phase, from c. ad 1220 to 1290 (Meyer 1998, 212–213; Miller et al. 2000, 96). Although international demand for African gold varied depending on conditions, estimates of 1.5 tons per year for the Muslim trade period and 0.5 tons per year for the Portuguese period seem plausible (Austin 1987, 276).

Sources of Elite Power

The physical delimitation of elite and commoner residences, differences in volume and scale in material culture, including grave goods, and the presence and absence of exotica often serve as evidence of social inequality and social distinctions.3 Robinson’s archaeological explorations at the Hill Complex in Great Zimbabwe recovered large adobe houses dating to the 12th century. The shift in location and an increase in house size and scale implied a clear departure from the ordinary practice of erecting small family structures. The erection of these large constructions upon a hill required leadership, cooperation, and persuasion, which could have included mechanisms for reward and punishment (Robinson 1985).

The capitals of early and later states in eastern and southern Africa, like their contemporaries in western Africa, were secured by perimeter walls. In addition to serving as a security function, these walls symbolized the normalization of hierarchies and inequities. One such capita is Great Zimbabwe.

Great Zimbabwe

Political centralization, which began in the early second millennium on the East African coast and in southern Zambezia, culminated in the rise of the state, with capitals that were controlled by powerful elite who had consolidated their positions by opportunistically investing in agriculture, pastoralism, mining, and long-distance trade, as well as by monopolizing profits from these proceeds. Settlement relocation to hilltops and fortifications provided more security and privacy for the leadership, their families, and members of the inner circle. Spatial segregation, stone architecture, and the prominence of the chiefly palace established and separated elite spaces and elite decision-making.

The Great Zimbabwe state proper is estimated to have covered 50,000 square kilometers. The state capital, covering 720 hectares, at the time was the largest in sub-Saharan Africa (fig. 4). Outside these elite residences was an estimated twenty thousand people engaged in various vocations tied to the political economy of the state. Archaeologists continue to map hundreds of contemporary settlements across the state that were part of the state (fig. 5). In terms of its influence, the territory of Great Zimbabwe extended to eastern Kalahari, the Indian Ocean, and the heartland between the Zambezi River and the Limpopo River (Hall 1990, 91; Ndoro 2001, 22; fig. 6).

Figure 3. The great enclosure in the valley of Great Zimbabwe with an estimated 20,000 residents at its zenith was a major regional metropolis from ad 1000 to 1400.

Courtesy of Shadreck Chirikure.

Figure 4. The lesser Zimbabwe settlement of Ndogo, Northern Zimbabwe.

Courtesy of Plan Shenjere-Nyabeze.

Figure 5. 1 Map of southern Africa showing the location of some elite sites and approximate boundaries of the states of Mapungubwe, Great Zimbabwe, Khami, and Venda as implied in published works.

Courtesy of Shadreck Chirikure.

Figure 6. Evidence for cut Ivory recovered at Bungule 29, Kasigau illustrating that ivory destined for export was often processed in the interior before being transferred to the coast for further processing and export.

Photo by Author.

Elite-accumulated wealth was derived from monopolizing ownership over fertile agricultural and grazing land and rich mineral sources. Cattle and surplus farm produce would attract followers who were willing to sell their labor and loyalty to leaders who were more generous and who provided more opportunities for a stable livelihood. Craft industries included iron, gold, and copper mining, smelting and smithing, elephant hunting and ivory carving, and stone cutting and carving (fig. 6). These crafts were labor-intensive and were carried out on a scale that required astute leadership and managerial skills. By the 12th century, Great Zimbabwe elites had extended their networks east and added the coast as a major trading partner. Wealth drawn from regional and coastal trade was reinvested into better and permanent homes made of dry masonry stone. By 1270, an elaborate urban complex covering smaller towns and centered on Great Zimbabwe had emerged in southern Africa. This complex was engaged with its hinterland, which extended in all directions into modern-day Botswana, South Africa, Zambia, and Mozambique.

The city of Great Zimbabwe was a metropolis with many neighborhoods, including elite residences, ritual centers, public ceremonial courts, public forums, markets, as well as houses for commoners and artisans. It was divided into three main architectural zones: the hill complex, the great enclosure, and the valley ruins (fig. 3).

Great Zimbabwe was socially stratified, with considerable wealth and power concentrated in a small number of families. Political control over the economy consisted of “the network of transactions that linked peasant villages, madzimbahwe and the capital and, beyond this, the state itself with the wider commercial world.” Was this the basis of power? Trigger proposed that due to their larger size, the governance of territorial states was managed through a multileveled hierarchy of provincial and local administrators in a corresponding hierarchy of administrative centers. These provincial centers show that at its zenith (Shenjere-Nyabeze and Manyanga 2012), Great Zimbabwe operated as a territorial state comparative to the Great Peruvian Inca state (Arkush and Stanish 2005; Bauer 2010; Bauer and Stanish 2001).

Evolution of Social Complexity and the State in Eastern and Southern Africa

The emergence of sociopolitical complexity in eastern and southeastern Africa was neither unique nor different from other regions that saw the rise of secondary states. In eastern Africa, a combination of factors, including local and regional trade coupled with the development of trade pacts, were the main push factors toward the emergence of the state. However, the cultural sequences in southern Africa show that a combination of factors propelled the region on a path to social complexity: sedentism, livestock production, agriculture, regional and interregional trade, and crafts specialization (Garlake 1982, 13). Favorable climatic conditions and increased interaction among communities pursuing different but complementary subsistence strategies made possible the sharing and exchange of ideas and systems of knowledge that once held sway within specific ethnic and subsistence groups. Migration and settlement of pastoralists in what were previously mobile hunter-gatherer domains and the later settlement of agrarian communities, along with the incorporation of knowledge from all the groups, created a vibrant community that would elevate individuals and personalities from the groups to leadership positions.

The generation of surplus, accumulation of wealth, and investment in craft specialization indicate the power dynamics among the leaders and followers (Haas 2001). Food surplus means food security, which enabled some people to pursue a variety of vocations on a part-time and full-time basis (e.g., elephant hunting, iron and gold working, ivory and stone carving, masonry, basketry, pottery making, and trade). Food security and increasing sedentism, especially among previous forager and pastoral communities, improved the quality of life and inevitably led to demographic changes.

Locations of settlements in resource-rich areas with good, clean water as well as arable land and grazing land availed greater opportunities that attracted more settlement aggregation, which inevitably required management of resources and people, thus creating opportunities for investment in more highly specialized crafts, local and interregional trade, and the accumulation of wealth, power, and status. In the case of Great Zimbabwe, the prominence of interregional trade with the Swahili coast was one of the major catalysts in its transformation to the state. Great Zimbabwe exported gold, copper, ivory, hides, and leather and imported a variety of items such as glass beads, cloth, porcelain, stoneware, and earthenware. The managerial elite monopolized trade with rural and frontier zones, with the state capitals playing central roles as collection, processing, and distribution centers for gold, ivory, copper, and iron to regional and coastal entrepots on the Mozambican coast.

The emergence and organization of agriculture, management of cattle, propagation of culture, and control of trade were key factors that contributed to the rise of states in southern Africa (Katsamudanga and Pwiti 2017; Shenjere-Nyabeze 2016), but long-distance trade interlocked a regional economy that was already thriving, thus giving rise to a hierarchical society. Once established, however, long-distance trade became a major builder of wealth and status. Elite control of strategic resources such as rich agricultural and grazing lands, and investment and monopolization of extractive craft technologies such as ironworking and gold panning, mining and processing, and specialized elephant hunting were crucial for emergence of the state.

The ability to control access to resources or trade routes was an important element of emergent complexity and political centralization. Embedded in this ability is power of a physical and military nature, a power that can restrict access to wealth-creating resources and production (Haas 2001; Mann 1986). For example, control over iron production and distribution was so crucial for an agricultural state that the physical force needed to monopolize access to iron resources that were beyond the political control of the state capital was a necessity (Mitchell 2002, 329).

Once asymmetries in power had been established, what strategies did leaders in eastern and southern Africa use to stay in power and accumulate more wealth, status, and power? The evidence suggests that elites in southern Africa initially accumulated wealth in cattle and later invested in gold and ivory trade with the East African coast. To do so, they also invested in local and regional infrastructures that made it viable for communities living and exploiting different but complementary resources to be willing to comply and be incorporated into the regional political economy. Both peaceful and coercive means were used to extend elite power to the frontier chiefdoms and minor states. Thus, “As the paramount chief’s wealth increased, the population of the royal settlement would swell, partly because of the prestige of living in the settlement and the chance that some of the wealth might find its way through the normal redistributive channels” (Hufffman 1972). Additionally, involuntary and coercive approaches to incorporate peripheral societies were options open to a determined and increasingly powerful leadership. Inevitable conflicts, coercion, and exploitation between classes and social segments within emergent complex societies were regular occurrences. For instance, the use of elevated hilltops by elites for their residences as a means of delineating social status also reflected concerns over security and threats. Similarly, the perimeter walls surrounding state and provincial capitals served social and defensive functions and thus provide sufficient evidence of warfare and coercion as crucial factors in the evolution and sustenance of the state.

In sum, the emergence of social stratification and complexity in eastern and southern Africa was a result of trade, technology, and ingenuity. The monumentality of urban sites across this landscape is still a testament to two thousand years of innovation. At the height of their power, these states exercised political and economic influence beyond their urban cores into the hinterland and frontier societies by means of elite manipulation of ideological and monopolized extractive technologies that restricted wealth creation within a small but power elite and their allies in Africa and the Indian Ocean.

Further Reading

  • Chami, Felix. 1998. “A Review of Swahili Archaeology.” African Archaeological Review 15: 199–218.
  • Chirikure, Shadreck, and Innocent Pikirayi. 2008. “Inside and Outside the Dry Stone Walls: Revisiting the Material Culture of Great Zimbabwe.” Antiquity 82: 976–993.
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Notes

  • 1. Bruce G. Trigger elaborated on ideas that had initially been raised by Akin Mabogunje (1962, 2) in his classic study, Yoruba Cities.

  • 2. See Cameron J. Monroe’s (2013) excellent summary of the evolution of the social complexity in Africa.

  • 3. At Chumnungwa, a dzimbahwe located near the southern edge of the Zimbabwe plateau, seven burials have been unearthed containing gold grave goods (Garlake 1973).