African Archaeological Review

, Volume 30, Issue 4, pp 339–366 | Cite as

New Pathways of Sociopolitical Complexity in Southern Africa

  • Shadreck Chirikure
  • Munyaradzi Manyanga
  • Innocent Pikirayi
  • Mark Pollard
Review Article


Much is known about the economy and spatial organization of Zimbabwe culture entities of Mapungubwe, Great Zimbabwe and Khami but less in terms of their origins and relationship with each other. Based on little tangible evidence, it is believed and widely accepted that the societies based at Mapungubwe (ad 1220–1290), Great Zimbabwe (ad 1300–1450) and Khami (ad 1450–1820) rose, developed and eclipsed in tandem. A recent reexamination of the relationship between these settlements and related ones using local ceramics, imported artefacts, stone architecture and Bayesian modelling suggests this may not have been the case. The synthesis proffered revelations which temper the widely accepted assumption that sociopolitical complexity in southern Africa began in the Shashi-Limpopo Valley before anywhere else in the region. Firstly, there are numerous Zhizo and Leopard’s Kopje sites that predate Mapungubwe but contain prestige goods and stone structures dating from the late first millennium ad. Secondly, material culture studies and modelled radiocarbon dates indicate that Great Zimbabwe evolved out of Gumanye while Khami, like Mapungubwe, may have developed out of the Leopard’s Kopje. In fact, Great Zimbabwe was already a place of importance when Mapungubwe collapsed. Thirdly, Khami and Great Zimbabwe overlapped for over a century, before the latter buckled. Therefore, the evolution of sociopolitical complexity in southern Africa may have followed trajectories that are different from what the current understanding implies.


Zimbabwe culture Sociopolitical complexity Southern Africa Great Zimbabwe Khami Mapungubwe 


Nous savons beaucoup de choses à propos de l’organisation spatiale et de l’économie des entités culturelles Zimbabwéennes de Mapungubwe, Great Zimbabwe et Khami, mais peu sur leurs origines et leurs relations. Selon le peu de données disponibles, Mapungubwe (1220–1290 ap. J-C), Great Zimbabwe (1300–1450 ap. J-C) et Khami (1450–1820 ap. J-C) auraient été fondés, se seraient développés et se seraient effondrés successivement. De récentes recherches ont exploré les relations entre ces différents sites ainsi que ceux qui y sont rattachés, en étudiant les céramiques locales, les objets importés, la typologie des murs de pierres et notamment les préférences résidentielles, et la modélisation Bayesienne. La synthèse permet de tempérer la vision dominante selon laquelle la complexité sociopolitique dans le Sud de l’Afrique a commencé dans la vallée du Shashi-Limpopo, avant tout autre site dans la région. Tout d’abord, il y a de nombreux sites antérieurs à Mapungubwe, Zhizo et Leopard’s Kopje, avec des biens de prestige et des fortifications en pierre datant de la fin du premier millénaire ap. J-C. Ces caractéristiques seraient apparus à K2 et Mapungubwe dans la dépression du Limpopo. Deuxièmement, la culture matérielle et les datations carbones indiquent que Great Zimbabwe était déjà un lieu important quand Mapungubwe s’est effondré. Enfin, Khami et Great Zimbabwe coexistent pendant plus d’un siècle, avant que ce dernier ne tombe en déchéance. Par conséquent, la complexité sociopolitique dans le Sud de l’Afrique a probablement emprunté des trajectoires différentes de celles qui sont actuellement tracées avec les connaissances disponibles.



Financial support from the National Research Foundation of South Africa (Bluesky Research Grant: 85892) and the Programme for Enhancement of Research Capacity (PERC) of University of Cape Town Research Office is acknowledged with sincere gratitude. The research at Khami, Mapela and Great Zimbabwe was carried out under a permit from the National Museums and Monuments of Zimbabwe (NMMZ). We thank Dr. Mahachi, the Executive Director of NMMZ, for his generosity and goodwill. Our thanks also go to Simon Hall, Foreman Bandama, Abigail Moffett and two anonymous reviewers, who provided tremendous comments that enhanced the quality and scope of this paper. Special thanks also go to the editor, Adria LaViolette, for additional insights.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media New York 2013

Authors and Affiliations

  • Shadreck Chirikure
    • 1
  • Munyaradzi Manyanga
    • 1
  • Innocent Pikirayi
    • 2
  • Mark Pollard
    • 3
  1. 1.Cape TownSouth Africa
  2. 2.University of PretoriaPretoriaSouth Africa
  3. 3.Oxford UniversityOxfordUnited Kingdom

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