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GREAT ZIMBABWE IS GONE,

IS MODERN ZIMBABWE NEXT?

Margaux Johnstone
World History 9
Adam MacDonald
November 3, 2017
Margaux Johnstone 1

What if I told you that modern-day Zimbabwe and centuries-old Great Zimbabwe were
having the same problems? Its true! In Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed,
author Jared Diamond outlines five essential factors in why a civilization might collapse:
Climate change, hostile neighbors, collapse of alliances and trading partners, environmental
issues, and failure to adapt. Both Zimbabwes, old and new, suffer from environmental and
economic disaster, as well as a factor in collapse that Diamond did not mention: overpopulation.
Overpopulation was a key problem in Great Zimbabwe, and still is today1: Their technology
could not sustain their population.2 This pattern, a rapidly increasing population that cannot be
supported, has translated into other parts of Africa, including a small country south of
Zimbabwe, called Lesotho. Lesotho surpassed its maximum population that can be supported by
the environment in 1911.3 Great Zimbabwe did this too, unable to supply appropriate resources
for the amount of people they had. Great Zimbabwe and current Zimbabwe also have
environmental problems in common. Environmental issues have always been a problem for
southern Africa. Headlines that read, Zimbabwe declares state of disaster due to drought!4 or
Zimbabwe Drought: Five million face food shortages,5 are common nowadays, and drought
has been a problem since humans have needed water. Great Zimbabwe felt the effects of drought
just like current Zimbabwe is, and it may have been the factor in the citys collapse. Lastly, Great
Zimbabwe had an economic crisis when their four major sources of income collapsed, bringing
the city down with it. Modern Zimbabwe has already suffered one economic downfall in 2008,
when food was short and costs were high, and was described earlier this year as, ...On the cusp
of experiencing another economic disaster similar to 2008.6 Studying history not only helps us

1
Mufuka K., Iverson S., Overpopulation and unemployment in Zimbabwe, United States National Library of
Medicine, National Institutes of Health, accessed October 30, 2017,
https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12321453
2
Witness Nemahwe, To What Extent Can the Decline of Great Zimbabwe Civilization be Attributed to Ecological
Factors in the Area?, witnessnemahwes Blog, accessed October 30, 2017,
https://nemahwe.wordpress.com/2017/04/03/to-what-extent-can-the-decline-of-great-zimbabwe-civilization-be-
attributed-to-ecological-factors-in-the-area/
3
Eugene Linden, Remember the Population Bomb? Its still ticking., The New York Times, accessed October 30,
2017, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/06/15/opinion/sunday/remember-the-population-bomb-its-still-ticking.html
4
Agence France-Presse, Zimbabwe declares state of disaster due to drought!, The Guardian, accessed October
30, 2017, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/feb/05/zimbabwe-declares-state-of-disaster-drought-robert-
mugabe
5
Haru Mutasa, Zimbabwe Drought: Five million face food shortages, Al Jazeera, accessed October 30, 2017,
http://www.aljazeera.com/news/2016/05/zimbabwe-drought-million-face-food-shortage-160516142445157.html
6
Bridget Manavire, Zim in Crisis!, Daily News, accessed October 30, 2017,
https://www.dailynews.co.zw/articles/2017/09/25/zim-in-crisis
Margaux Johnstone 2

learn about our past, it also enables us to predict and enrich our future. This is a rather unique
opportunity to reflect, learn, and prevent future mistakes. In order to do this, first one must know
a little bit about Great Zimbabwe.
Great Zimbabwe was located on the southern edge of the Zimbabwe plateau. Similar to
other ancient civilizations, Great Zimbabwe was located between two rivers, the Zambezi and
Limpopo. Great Zimbabwe lasted from approximately the 12th century to the 17th century,
peaking in the 14th century. Modern-day Zimbabwe is named after Great Zimbabwe. Zimbabwe
means stone houses. Great Zimbabwe is the largest archaeological site in the sub-Saharan
Desert, and is known for its sophisticated architecture. The city covers almost 1,800 acres. There
are three main sections: the Hill Complex (formerly the Acropolis), the Great Enclosure, and the
smaller Valley Ruins. The Hill Complex and the Great Enclosure were made of granite blocks
without mortar. The Hill Complex is the oldest portion (inhabited since about the 5th century). It
has an oval enclosure atop a high hill. There was a main outer wall that was almost 40 feet high,
that protected daga houses, structures that were usually made of dried earth, mud or gravel. The
western part of the Hill Complex was housing for royals, priests, or chiefs, while the east is
thought to be of religious importance.7 In the valley separating the Great Enclosure from the Hill
Complex is the Valley Ruins. This is the newest portion of the city, allowing archaeologists to
infer that people expanded into the valley as populations rose. South of the Hill Complex, there
is the Great Enclosure, built during the height of Great Zimbabwe. It is made of about one
million granite blocks. Rumors of Great Zimbabwes existence from Portuguese traders caused
many Europeans to speculate that this was the biblical city Ophir, where King Solomons gold
mines were. It wasnt until the 19th century that the existence of Great Zimbabwe was
confirmed. Great Zimbabwes economy thrived on cattle production, gold mining, trade, and
farming.8
The first factor in Great Zimbabwes decline was overpopulation. At one point, Great
Zimbabwe was a powerful and wealthy city. People came from all over the world to live and
work there. Eventually, Great Zimbabwe grew to the size of medieval London.9 Usually the

7
United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization, Great Zimbabwe National Monument, World
Heritage List, accessed October 23, 2017. http://whc.unesco.org/en/list/364
8
Encyclopedia Britannica, Great Zimbabwe, Historical City, Zimbabwe, accessed October 23, 2017,
https://www.britannica.com/place/Great-Zimbabwe
9
Webber Ndoro, Great Zimbabwe, Scientific American, accessed October 23, 2017,
https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/great-zimbabwe-2005-01/
Margaux Johnstone 3

adage, Bigger is better, comes to mind. A bigger population means an economic boom and
more profit for everybody. However, this influx in people meant that the markets had to supply
more food, which was farmed on the nearby land. While Great Zimbabwe had the population of
medieval London, it didnt have the same technology that allowed London to expand. Great
Zimbabweans couldnt import food over long distances.10 The local farms grew food as fast as
they could, but they were overwhelmed. They decimated the soil to the point where it could no
longer support crops. This the lack of food sources forced the people of Zimbabwe to
disperse.11 Agriculture, a major source of income for the people, was no longer viable.
The second reason Great Zimbabwe collapsed was environmental disaster. Great
Zimbabwe consistently experienced a drought every five years.12 As a second blow to an
already struggling city, Great Zimbabwe suffered a major drought. The few farmers that could
have supported crops, couldnt water them, causing an even greater food shortage than was
already at hand. Due to the drought, water used for agriculture was diverted for human
consumption. Not only did lack of water affect humans and their ability to survive, but it also
impacted livestock, another core of Great Zimbabwean economy.13 Cattle couldnt live without
a drinking source. Additionally, cattle herds had devegetated their grazing planes. People and
cattle alike had neither food nor water. Water is a necessity of life. Without it, people were
faced with the decision to move on or possibly die. Reasonably, people chose to move on.
Lastly, Great Zimbabwe collapsed because of economic decline. Great Zimbabwe was
built was to profit off the gold sourced from the nearby rivers.14 Eventually, the gold source
was depleted. With the gold rush over, the seasonal workforce moved on to find better work.
Once they left, traders couldnt sell their wares, and instead opted to find better markets,

10
Witness Nemahwe, To What Extent Can the Decline of Great Zimbabwe Civilization be Attributed to Ecological
Factors in the Area?, witnessnemahwes Blog, accessed October 30, 2017,
https://nemahwe.wordpress.com/2017/04/03/to-what-extent-can-the-decline-of-great-zimbabwe-civilization-be-
attributed-to-ecological-factors-in-the-area/
11
British Broadcasting Corporation, Great Zimbabwe, Central African Kingdoms, accessed October 25, 2017,
http://www.bbc.co.uk/worldservice/africa/features/storyofafrica/10chapter1.shtml
12
Witness Nemahwe, To What Extent Can the Decline of Great Zimbabwe Civilization be Attributed to Ecological
Factors in the Area?, witnessnemahwes Blog, accessed October 30, 2017,
https://nemahwe.wordpress.com/2017/04/03/to-what-extent-can-the-decline-of-great-zimbabwe-civilization-be-
attributed-to-ecological-factors-in-the-area/
13
Webber Ndoro, Great Zimbabwe, Scientific American, accessed October 23, 2017,
https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/great-zimbabwe-2005-01/
14
Mawuna Koutonin, Lost cities #9: racism and ruins - the plundering of Great Zimbabwe, The Guardian,
accessed October 25, 2017, https://www.theguardian.com/cities/2016/aug/18/great-zimbabwe-me
Margaux Johnstone 4

collapsing the trade industry.15 Traders and laborers alike traveled to Khami, a nearby city just
rising to power as Great Zimbabwe was collapsing. Exploitation of gold and trade were two of
four fundamental backbones of Great Zimbabwes economy, with the other two supports,
agriculture and cattle herding, decimated by the drought and over farming, Great Zimbabwe
collapsed completely by around the 15th century. Just one century earlier, Great Zimbabwe was
a booming city, full of luxury items from all over the world.16
In conclusion, Jared Diamonds factors of collapse, modeled in his novel, can be seen in
collapses around the world across time. We should reflect on Great Zimbabwes mistakes and
apply the lessons of history to benefit modern-day Zimbabwe. For Great Zimbabwe, these
mistakes were overpopulation, environmental issues, and economic decline. The same patterns
are apparent in current Zimbabwe, too. Understanding how and why Great Zimbabwe collapsed
may allow us to prevent modern Zimbabwes demise.

15
Webber Ndoro, Great Zimbabwe, Scientific American, accessed October 23, 2017,
https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/great-zimbabwe-2005-01/
16
Webber Ndoro, Great Zimbabwe, Scientific American, accessed October 23, 2017,
https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/great-zimbabwe-2005-01/
Margaux Johnstone 5

Bibliography

British Broadcasting Corporation. Great Zimbabwe. Central African Kingdoms. Accessed October 25,
2017. http://www.bbc.co.uk/worldservice/africa/features/storyofafrica/10chapter1.shtml

Encyclopedia Britannica. Great Zimbabwe, Historical City, Zimbabwe. Accessed October 23, 2017,
https://www.britannica.com/place/Great-Zimbabwe

France-Presse, Agence. Zimbabwe declares state of disaster due to drought!. The Guardian. Accessed
October 30, 2017. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/feb/05/zimbabwe-declares-state-of-
disaster-drought-robert-mugabe

K., Mufuka. S., Iverson. Overpopulation and unemployment in Zimbabwe. United States National
Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health. Accessed October 30, 2017.
https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12321453

Koutonin, Mawuna. Lost cities #9: racism and ruins - the plundering of Great Zimbabwe. The
Guardian. Accessed October 25, 2017.
https://www.theguardian.com/cities/2016/aug/18/great-zimbabwe-medieval-lost-city-racism-
ruins-plundering

Linden, Eugene. Remember the Population Bomb? Its Still Ticking. The New York Times.
Accessed October 30, 2017. https://www.nytimes.com/2017/06/15/opinion/sunday/remember-
the-population-bomb-its-still-ticking.html

Manavire, Bridget. Zim in Crisis!. Daily News. Accessed October 30, 2017.
https://www.dailynews.co.zw/articles/2017/09/25/zim-in-crisis

Mutasa, Haru. Zimbabwe Drought: Five million face food shortages. Al Jazeera. Accessed October 30,
2017. http://www.aljazeera.com/news/2016/05/zimbabwe-drought-million-face-food-shortage-
160516142445157.html

Ndoro, Webber. Great Zimbabwe, Scientific American. Accessed October 23, 2017.
https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/great-zimbabwe-2005-01/

Nemahwe, Witness. To What Extent Can the Decline of Great Zimbabwe Civilization be
Attributed to Ecological Factors in the Area?. witnessnemahwes Blog. Accessed October 30,
2017. https://nemahwe.wordpress.com/2017/04/03/to-what-extent-can-the-decline-of-great-
zimbabwe-civilization-be-attributed-to-ecological-factors-in-the-area/

Tyson, Peter. Mysteries of Great Zimbabwe. Nova. Accessed October 25, 2017.
http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/ancient/mysteries-of-great-zimbabwe.html

United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization. Great Zimbabwe National
Monument, World Heritage List. Accessed October 23, 2017. http://whc.unesco.org/en/list/364
Margaux Johnstone 6

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