Review of The Terrace Builders of Nyanga by Paul Hubbard

The Terrace Builders of Nyanga. By Robert Soper. Weaver Press, Harare, 2006, 88 pp. ISBN 978779220501.Price US$ 24.95.

‘The ruined stone structures of Nyanga and neighbouring districts represent probably the largest complex of ancient building in southern Africa’ (p. 1). In this book, the author sets out the accumulated knowledge of the prehistoric Nyanga landscape, in particular the agricultural works for which the landscape is justifiably famous. For a variety of reasons, which will be outlined below, I regard this book as more important than Robert Soper’s earlier and more comprehensive monograph on the Nyanga area (Soper 2002).

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Review of The Terrace Builders of Nyanga - African Book Collective

Robert Soper
The Terrace Builders of Nyanga.
Harare: Weaver Press, 2006.
82 pp. £19.95/$24.95 pap. ISBN 9781779220615
[African Books Collective]

Nyanga, in north-eastern Zimbabwe, is the largest complex of ancient building in Africa, with over 5000 square kilometres of stone faced terraces, cultivation ridges, homesteads forts and refuges. The ruins date from AD 1300 to some time in the 18th century. The earlier ruins are contemporaneous with the better-known ruins of Great Zimbabwe, but are much more extensive and have transformed the
landscape for thousands of square kilometres. The book details this vast complex of sites, describing the
ruins, and analyzing the considerable feats of engineering that created them. This was an area of specialized agriculture where people solved the problems inherent in their environment by growing crops on terraced hillsides, raising livestock in subterranean enclosures in the lowlands and managing water resources.

The people of Nyanga appear to have had a small population and lived in relative isolation. There is little
evidence that they had substantial contact with contemporaneous peoples, or participated in the substantial trade networks that traversed Zimbabwe in prehistory. The archaeological research was conducted between 1993 and 1999 and written up as a monograph published in 2002. The author states that this book is a shorter and less technical version of that report, and it is intended for interested but
less academic readers. Despite this disclaimer, this is quite a technical book. Very little is known about the people who created the sites, so the book concentrates far more on the description and analysis of the ruins, and devotes very little space to speculating on what life may have been like for the people who lived and worked here. In that respect the book would appeal more to people with a deep interest in archaeological sites, agricultural systems and prehistoric technology than it would to a more general audience seeking to understand what life was like in the past.

On the other hand, Nyanga deserves to be much more well-known than it is. While Great Zimbabwe has a much more developed narrative about the rise and fall of civilizations, the vastness of Nyanga is testament to the industry and ingenuity of farmers who solved the problems of making a living in their landscape in a most spectacular way. The detailed text is enlivened with excellent line drawings and black and white photographs that vary in quality. A map, early on, that locates Nyanga in reference to Africa in general and Zimbabwe in particular would be very helpful.

Joanna Casey
University of South Carolina