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).

The book is offered as a less technical and ‘more palatable’ (p. v) account of the extensive research that was conducted by the author between 1993 and 1999. The first chapter introduces the salient facts about the agricultural complex concisely and simply, addressing many of the so-called “mysteries” in the area in a sober and forthright fashion. He definitively states that the ruins are of indigenous African origin, that the builders were the ancestors of the local people (though not originally Shona), that the various structures were built for domestic or agricultural purposes, and that the rumoured slaves and gold mines never were. Interestingly he notes that the stonework is of a greater skill and intricacy than that of the builders in the Zimbabwe Culture; looking at the plans and photographs in the book, I can only agree. The rest of the chapter describes the physical environment, all the while noting how certain environmental factors were exploited by people in the past and present.

The second chapter examines the development of the Nyanga complex, offering a simple chronology for the changes in the various types of settlements and homesteads. Briefly, the earliest are hilltop settlements in the highlands, followed by ruined pit-structures, ending with a variety of later pit-structures. The author argues that the motivations for many of these changes were partly influenced by climate change, which would have ‘affected the viability of occupation and subsistence at different altitudes’ (p. 12). The function, date of occupation and change through time of early hilltop settlements, the well-preserved pit-structures, the pit enclosures, forts, and double-concentric enclosures are discussed clearly and without prevarication.

While presenting his data on some of the “unique” sites in the area, Soper reveals an admirable side to his archaeological activities. Local people living near a site on Mount Muozi were against the idea of excavation amongst the myriad of pots and other remains on a portion of the hill, arguing as they did for the sacredness of the site. Soper must be commended for respecting these wishes, even though, presumably, a great deal of information could have been recovered if he had not. The remainder of the chapter presents information on possible symbolism in the homesteads, going beyond purely functional concerns, ending with a short consideration of the utility and importance of iron-working in the region.

Chapter three introduces the more famous aspect of the Nyanga landscape, the terraces and other agricultural works. Soper offers suitable and convincing explanations for the necessity of constructing terraces, arguing they were a convenient means of clearing the fertile land of stones, providing a means of erosion protection and encouraging percolation of water. The start of the development of terracing is tentatively put at the end of the seventeenth century, the tradition becoming largely abandoned by the 1900s or even the 1800s in some areas. The extensive evidence for hydraulic practices in the region is well discussed and Soper offers a useful classification system for the various types of water furrows. The different types imply ‘different levels of organisation and cooperation for their construction, maintenance and operation’ (p. 59), revealing good evidence for the relative complexity of the Nyanga social system.

The next chapter will perhaps be of most use when dealing with crank ideas about the Nyanga complex. Soper presents in clear and edifying fashion evidence for the existence of dwarf cattle that used to live in the highland pit-enclosures; presumably to the disappointment and hopefully simultaneous enlightenment of those whose continue to cherish misguided ideas that the pits were used for more exotic purposes such as storing slaves or collecting alluvial gold. The author presents convincing hypotheses for the use and integration of livestock into the agricultural economy, especially manuring to prolong fertility in house gardens and fields. Continuing his immolation of previously-expressed dubious beliefs, the author offers a good explanation for the wide extent of the complex, both the vast amount of terracing and numerous settlements, as these “enigmas” previously offered much fodder to the “alternative-origins” theorists. The enormous amount of terracing is the end result of the need for a fallowing cycle, given the rapidly-exhausted fertility of the soils, where people would move about, contrasting new dwellings and fields, leaving the land to recover, later reoccupying and reusing it. Soper concludes that, ‘Nyanga agriculture thus developed a repertoire of specialised techniques that maintained the population as a whole for a few centuries but ultimately succumbed to overspecialisation or outside factors beyond its control’ (p. 68).

The last chapter explores the nature of the society in the Nyanga complex. Its development involved a series of shifts in settlement focus in relation to altitude and area; it was, however, a single sequence as shown by the similarities in pottery and homesteads. A general scenario of exchange and cooperation presumably existed between the pastoralist highlanders and the agriculturalist lowlanders, each trading goods otherwise unavailable. The population is thought to have increased steadily, given the expanding geographical extent and increasing density of sites. A large overall population is not envisaged, but it is likely to have been locally dense given the intense labour requirements.

The book ends with an appendix of the collected radiocarbon dates and an explanation of their derivation and interpretation, followed by a guide to further reading, consisting of an annotated reference list.

Always very cautious in his approach to presentation and interpretation of his data, I found Soper’s exposition of his research convincing and immensely readable. I should note that at times the language used does become rather complex, so I would say that, in parts, this book would appear to be aimed more at a well-educated and English-speaking portion of the general public. Perhaps a simpler version that could be translated into the other two national languages could be developed in order to broaden the dissemination of the research results. As a whole, this book is attractively presented, well-illustrated and crisply produced.

Earlier I claimed that the book is very important and here are three reasons why: it is aimed at the general public and it is readily available and affordable in Zimbabwe. This may not seem important in the greater scheme of things, but as I have said before (Hubbbbard 2007), research done on Zimbabwean (and African) history and archaeology (among other disciplines) is all too often published outside the country and/or continent in expensive and/or hard-to-find books and journals. Robert Soper, the Archaeology Unit at the University of Zimbabwe, NUFU (the Norwegian Programme for Development, Research and Higher Education) and Weaver Press are to be wholeheartedly praised for producing an invaluable and accessible synthesis of the history and archaeology of this area.

Admirably, Soper deals with the more fanciful ideas about various aspects of the Nyanga complex in an enlightening, calm and methodological fashion. Zimbabwean archaeology as a whole has often suffered from wild flights of fancy that have often served to deny or obscure the claims of local people to their own heritage. This book will provide a solid platform for all Zimbabweans to confidently reject spurious claims about the antiquity, origins and development of an important part of their history. While the story revealed by this book is not as romantic or imaginative as earlier racist or misguided researchers would have us believe, it is an exciting and well-told one nonetheless.

Paul Hubbard
Independent Researcher
Bulawayo, Zimbabwe

References

Hubbard, P. 2007. A Bibliography of Zimbabwean Archaeology to 2005. Available at www.sarada.co.za (under >resources>research) and at “African Heritage and Archaeology” http://www.ucl.ac.uk/archaeology/aha/index.htm. (Last accessed 15 August 2007).

Soper, R. 2002. Nyanga: Ancient Fields, Settlements and Agricultural History in Zimbabwe. British Institute in Eastern Africa Memoir 16. British Institute in Eastern Africa, London.