Nyanga’s Ziwa Ruins and Site Museum (formerly Van Niekerk Ruins)
Dwellers of villages in the Ziwa area of Nyanga still vividly remember the year the late Vice-President Dr Joshua Nkomo descended on their village to officially open Ziwa Ruins as a National heritage site. Some still remember the scorching sun of that October 29, 1992 day. Subsequently, tourists flocked to the museum and the site until the turn of the new millennium when the turn-up began to gradually decline.
The Ziwa Ruins were formerly named van Niekerk Ruins after Major Pompey van Niekerk who was second in command of the Afrikaner Corps and who in 1905 guided Doctor Randall-MacIver the first trained archaeologist to inspect the ruins. Ziwa ruins is the remains of a vast late Iron Age agricultural settlement that has been dated to the 15th century. The site is located in Nyanga District of Mutare. Ziwa was declared a National Monument in 1946. The site contains a large variety of stonework structures including stone terraces running along contours of hills and steep landscapes.
Archaeological investigations have also noted important aspects of pottery and rock art at the site. Before the declaration of the site as a National Monument, Ziwa had been part of the commercial farming area and was thus under private ownership. A great deal of damage or degradation of antiquities may have been done during this period as the farmer used the property as a cattle ranch. Currently a site museum (with tourist facilities such as camping, guided tours, walking trails, bird viewing, etc.) and as such has been established to represent the Ziwa heritage and other archaeological sites in the Nyanga district.
Despite the abandonment of the site by its inhabitants in the 18th century, Ziwa continued to be of significance to the later communities that settled in its neighbourhood.
The original farm was owned by Friedriek Bernhard, who developed an interest in the pre-historic culture of this area and in 1946 ceded the farms’ 3,337 hectares, which included Ziwa and Nyahokwe sites to the National Museums and Monuments of Zimbabwe. Dominated by the 1,744-metre-high Ziwa Mountain, the Site Museum provides exhibits of pottery, weapons, metal work and beads, and a comprehensive summary of the many Nyanga cultural phases. The exhibits, all of local origin range through the Stone Age, the Ziwa culture, the Upper and Lowlands Nyanga cultures right up to the late 19th century Shona culture. There are displays of the crude, chipped stone tools of the "Sangoan period" of the Early Stone Age, followed by the smaller; more varied, and finely made stone weapons and tools of the succeeding Middle and Late Stone Ages. Late Stone Age San hunter-gatherers left painted rock art sites in the granite shelters in the area. They were succeeded by early Iron-Age communities who probably crossed the Zambezi about 200 AD. They built the village complexes and kept livestock, probably sheep and goats, but not cattle.
Their industries included iron-smelting in furnaces using charcoal and native iron-ore and also pottery, called Ziwa Ware which have distinctive comb stamped rims and necks and is generally dated around 200 AD to 800 AD. From 1500 AD to 1800 AD they were succeeded by a Tonga group from the Zambezi Valley, referred to as the Nyanga tradition and divided into an earlier Upland Culture embracing Nyanga National Park (called Type 8A by R. Summers) and a later Lowland Culture represented by Mount Ziwa and Nyahokwe (Type 8B) The Nyanga tradition built these permanent settlements and terraced the hill slopes for agriculture and built the pit structures to safeguard their livestock. In the 17th century, as the Nyanga Uplands became infertile and the climate deteriorated sufficiently causing crops to fail, people moved westwards and established the Nyanga Lowlands settlements. Here it seems that every stone over hundreds of square kilometres was moved and used as walling.
Though the quality of stone building may be unexceptional, the sheer quantity of labour required is inspirational. Flat slabs were set on end in the ground and further slabs laid across them to form a horizontal platform clear of the ground. This was then thickly plastered with dhaka(mud) to form the hut floor. The collapsed remains of several such floors can be seen on site.
Grain stores today are constructed in a similar way and the smaller circles in this enclosure probably served a similar purpose. Examination of the outer enclosure wall shows that it was not a single continuous circle, but built as a series of separate adjoining arcs, often adapted to the curve of a hut. The huts were therefore sometimes built before the wall. These enclosures were not there for defensive purposes but simply protective shelters from the penetrating winds and rain of the Nyanga winter. The enclosures housed individual family units with their livestock protected in the central pit structure. With its lintelled doorway entrance and some with locking beams systems which remained sealed during the hours of darkness. Exactly the same principle as the pit structures in the Nyanga Uplands, except that these Lowland pit structures were not set into the side of the hill, but rested on solid rock.
Evidence of grinding places or quern stones, shows the essentially agricultural nature of these communities and the main purpose of building all these walls was to clear the ground for agriculture, but at the same time they marked out individual family fields and provided walled pathways to protect their crops from animals as they moved from the pit structures to where they grazed in the day. In addition, placing stones along the physical contours prevented soil erosion. The walls were constructed by filling the space between two free standing walls with a rubble infill of smaller stones and the builders used large natural boulders in situ to save time and labour. The archaeological evidence suggests that the community grew from 1700 AD until it increased beyond the land’s carrying capacity and with the soil fertility diminishing the people gradually abandoned the area about 1800 AD.
Ziwa bears evidence of human occupation for all the major archaeological periods identified in Zimbabwe's archaeological sequence. The 3,337 hectares (8,250 acres) of land comprise of Stone Age deposits, rock art sites, early farming community settlements, a landscape of later farming communities marked by terraces and field systems, hill forts, pit structures and stone enclosures, iron smelting and forging furnaces and numerous remains of daub-plastered housing structures.
The inhabitants of the Ziwa monument are believed to have pursued a sound economy which was vibrant, self-sustaining and efficient based on agriculture. Agricultural production was largely based on mixed farming involving both crop production and animal husbandry. Crop cultivation mainly involved growing of millet, sorghum and rapoko. Animal husbandry concentrated on the rearing of a rare breed of small cattle, sheep, goats and other small livestock and they must have roamed the pasturelands, valleys and the plains of the Ziwa area. Ziwa people were also involved in hand-crafted objects and manufacturing and the remains of such artefacts are abundant from archaeological excavations. Iron smelting; pottery making, weaving, hunting, gathering and fishing among others were other the sectors of economic organization and development at Ziwa.
The Nyanga complex was shaped by the high rainfalls, geology, topography, climate, vegetation and good soils. These factors prove beyond doubt that the growth and development of the Ziwa ruins complex rested on a favourable climatic environment. Agriculture was thus the backbone of the economy of the Saunyama people who occupied this area and this was supplemented by hunting and gathering, manufacturing, fishing and trading. Ziwa people were prosperous and self-reliant subsistence farmers as well as manufacturers and traders. The whole complex of the Ziwa ruins represented an agricultural society of industrious farmers and livestock raisers whose culture developed about 1500 AD to the late 18th century.
Oral traditions and archaeological evidence exposed that there were no indications of any major migrations or population replacement, so we must attribute the complex to relatively recent ancestors, even though little direct memory of the archaeological remains seems to be preserved. The core area of the complex north of Nyanga town falls within the territory of the Unyama people under Chief Saunyama. There appears to have been little basic change in the distribution of these political units for several centuries and the genealogies of their ruling dynasties extend at least well back into the 18th century in the case of the Saunyama and considerably further for others.
Fertile environment and position of the slopes prompted the reasons for terrace construction. However, some scholars speculated that, the Saunyama people were forced into an unfavourable environment of a defensive reaction to stronger antagonistic neighbours. This line of argument might be understandable for the highlands and the escarpments but it hardly applies to the low hills in the plains, which in no sense could provide a secure refugee. Hence it is quite plausible convincing that the Unyama people knew the technique of conservation the environment so they opted terracing to so as to arrest erosion.
Terraces were also a means of maintaining water percolation hence promoting agricultural prosperity. This hypothesis supports the reasons why Saunyama people spent their enormous labour and energies on exploiting the stony environment.
The socio-political developments at Ziwa site complex were shaped by the growth, expansion and development of sound and efficient economic activities. Mainly the socio-political structures were governed and determined by the use of pottery by Saunyama people. Important to note is the population distribution at the site complex in a way to deduce the socio-political organisation of the Saunyama people. The Saunyama society constituted about 5000 Saunyama in the late 19th century. The point depicts a picture testifying that the community was relatively small. Thus, the small population density was responsible for executing duties oriented towards development and expansion. There is evidence of the burial practises of the Saunyama people at the Ziwa site complex. Excavations at the ruins exposed evidence that the dead were buried within the homesteads which was then abandoned. Pottery making played central role in the socio-political life of the Saunyama people. The type and style of pottery excavated at the Ziwa ruins helped to explain who the inhabitants of the Ziwa ruins were. Pottery making ensured practise of rain making ceremony and the installation of Saunyama chiefs. Pottery making ensured rainfall. Rains were needed annually for the people and their livestock to survive as they largely depended on agricultural produces, willingly or unwillingly proper-rainmaking ceremonies characterised by use of traditional rain making utensils that include pottery have to be carried out each and every year as a survival strategy otherwise failure to do so results in drought. This meant that, rainfall was adequate in the region to sustain the livelihood of the Unyama since their society was agriculturally based. Politically, the installation of the Saunyama chiefs was governed by the use of ritualistic vessels. Basically, the vessel ‘Hari ye Hubaba’ amongst all vessels produced in the society was regarded as the most significant and thus shaping the politics of the Saunyama people. Therefore, the Saunyama culture and politics were governed by the use of pottery by the indigenous people.
The society of the Saunyama people flourished and survived in a modest way over a period of 600 years by successive adaptions to the varied environment. The decrease in annual rainfall greatly affected the Nyanga agricultural economy that integrated crop cultivation and animal husbandry and other viable and lucrative economic activities that in the long run determined the smooth flow of the socio-political landscape. The struggle for power and factionalism destroyed the Saunyama community resulting in the murder of Chief Muozi who was a very powerful diviner and rainmaker whom Chief Saunyama felt threatened by. External factors also played a role in bringing the Ziwa ruins into turmoil and total collapse by the end of the 18th century.
The gallery at the ruins is stocked with pottery made by specialised craftsmen, remains of barbed arrowheads for fishing, spears, arrows, nhekwe (snuff box), beads, ornaments, a life size model of a kitchen hut and bedroom hut both respectively stocked with respective utensils amongst a whole host of remains collected and preserved at the site.
The eventual abandonment of the Ziwa community estimated at 1800AD seems to have been due to a general ecological deterioration of the natural environment. All the same, the Ziwa Ruins have not lost their gleam and they are well worth a visit.