Ancient Africa

By William Dewey
Pennsylvania State University (formerly University of Iowa)

Conical tower, Great Zimbabwe. Shona peoples, Zimbabwe. Photo by William Dewey.

One of the persisting stereotypes about Africa is that Africans have always lived in small villages of grass or mud “huts.” There is ample evidence, however, that Africans attained a high level of cultural complexity and “civilization” and for millennia have had cities and states that rival any in the world. These walls, for example, are from a city called Great Zimbabwe, the capital of a powerful kingdom in southern Africa, at the peak of its power in the 14th and 15th centuries (CE or Common Era or A.D.). The walls are constructed of carefully shaped granite blocks put together without any mortar—not for defensive purposes, but to demonstrate visually the power of kings. The kings, who could control the vast amount of labor needed to erect such structures, lived within these walls. The wealth of the kingdom was based on huge herds of cattle and trade—gold for exotic goods—with the coast.