Zimbabwe Bird

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The Zimbabwe Bird Zimbabwe Bird.svg
The Zimbabwe Bird

The stone-carved Zimbabwe Bird is the national emblem of Zimbabwe, appearing on the national flags and coats of arms of both Zimbabwe and Rhodesia, as well as on banknotes and coins (first on the Rhodesian pound and then on the Rhodesian dollar). It probably represents the bateleur eagle or the African fish eagle. [1] [2] The bird's design is derived from a number of soapstone sculptures found in the ruins of the ancient city of Great Zimbabwe.

Zimbabwe republic in southern Africa

Zimbabwe, officially the Republic of Zimbabwe, is a landlocked country located in southern Africa, between the Zambezi and Limpopo Rivers, bordered by South Africa, Botswana, Zambia and Mozambique. The capital and largest city is Harare. A country of roughly 16 million people, Zimbabwe has 16 official languages, with English, Shona, and Ndebele the most commonly used.

Rhodesia former country in Africa

Rhodesia was a country in southern Africa from 1965 to 1979, equivalent in territory to modern Zimbabwe. Rhodesia was the de facto successor state to the British colony of Southern Rhodesia, which had been self-governing since achieving responsible government in 1923. A landlocked nation, Rhodesia was bordered by South Africa to the south, Bechuanaland to the southwest, Zambia to the northwest, and Mozambique to the east.

Rhodesian dollar currency

The dollar (R$) was the currency of Rhodesia between 1970 and 1980. It was subdivided into 100 cents.


It is now the definitive icon of independent Zimbabwe with Matenga (2001) [3] listing over 100 organisations which now incorporate the Bird in their logo.


The original carved birds are from the ruined city of Great Zimbabwe, which was built by ancestors of the Shona, starting in the 11th century and inhabited for over 300 years. [4] The ruins, after which modern Zimbabwe was named, cover some 730 hectares (1,800 acres) and are the largest ancient stone construction in sub-Saharan Africa. Among its notable elements are the soapstone bird sculptures, about 40 centimetres (16 inches) tall and standing on columns more than 90 cm (3 ft) tall, which were originally installed on walls and monoliths within the city. [4] They are unique to Great Zimbabwe; nothing like them has been discovered elsewhere. [5]

The Shona are a Bantu ethnic group native to Zimbabwe and neighboring countries. The people are divided into five major clans and adjacent to other groups of very similar culture and languages. This name came into effect in the 19th century due to their skill of disappearing and hiding in caves when attacked. Hence Mzilikazi the great king called them amaShona meaning "those who just disappear." When the white settlers came to Mashonaland, they banned the Shona people from staying near caves and kopjes because of their hiding habits. This explanation is because there is no word called "Shona" in the Shona language vocabulary. There are various interpretations whom to subsume to the Shona proper and whom only to the Shona family.

Soapstone type of metamorphic rock

Soapstone is a talc-schist, which is a type of metamorphic rock. It is largely composed of the mineral talc, thus is rich in magnesium. It is produced by dynamothermal metamorphism and metasomatism, which occur in the zones where tectonic plates are subducted, changing rocks by heat and pressure, with influx of fluids, but without melting. It has been a medium for carving for thousands of years.

Various explanations have been advanced to explain the symbolic meaning of the birds. One suggestion is that each bird was erected in turn to represent a new king, but this would have required improbably long reigns. [6] More probably, the Zimbabwe birds represent sacred or totemic animals of the Shona – the bateleur eagle (Shona: chapungu), which was held to be a messenger from Mwari (God) and the ancestors, or the fish eagle (hungwe) which it has been suggested was the original totem of the Shona. [7]

Shona (chiShona) is the most widely spoken Bantu language as a first language and is native to the Shona people of Zimbabwe. The term is also used to identify peoples who speak one of the Central Shona varieties: Zezuru, Karanga, Manyika and, Korekore and Budya. Based on Clement Doke's 1931 report, Union Shona or Standard Shona was developed from the Central Shona varieties. Because of the presence of the capital city in the Zezuru region, that variety has come to dominate in Standard Shona.

Mwari is the Supreme Creator in the shona contextual meaning Shona including the Kalanga. Mwari refers to the supreme Deity who created all things and it is believed that he is the author of all things and all life and all is in him. The same is applied and also referred to as Inkhosi in Northern and Southern Ndebele, and it is this deity that is worshiped in the traditional religion known as African Traditional Religion wereby people worshiped through the ancestors via Spirit Mediums who were believed to be inspired by the spirits of truth which were believed to connect to the deity to deliver messages and divine guidance. The majority of this Deity's followers are concentrated in Mozambique, South Africa, and Zimbabwe. Mwari is an omnipotent being, who rules over spirits and is the Supreme God of the religion.

Colonial acquisition and return to Zimbabwe

Three of the Zimbabwe Birds, photographed around 1891 Soapstone birds on pedestals.jpg
Three of the Zimbabwe Birds, photographed around 1891

In 1889 a European hunter, Willi Posselt, travelled to Great Zimbabwe after hearing about it from another European explorer, Karl Mauch. He climbed to the highest point of the ruins despite being told that it was a sacred site where he should not trespass, and found the birds positioned in the centre of an enclosure around an apparent altar. He later wrote:

Each one, including its plinth, had been hewn out of a solid block of stone and measured 4 feet 6 inches in height; and each was set firmly into the ground. There was also a stone shaped like a millstone and about 18 inches in diameter, with a number of figures carved in the border.

I selected the best specimen of the bird stones, the beaks of the remainder being damaged, and decided to dig it out. But while doing so, Andizibi [a local tribesman] and his followers became very excited and rushed around with their guns and assegais. I fully expected them to attack us. However, I went on with my work but told Klass, who had loaded two rifles, to shoot the first man he saw aiming at either of us. [8]


An assegai or assagai is a pole weapon used for throwing, usually a light spear or javelin made of wood and pointed with iron or fire-hardened tip.

Posselt compensated Andizibi with a payment of blankets and "some other articles". As the bird on its pedestal was too heavy for him to carry, he hacked it off and hid the pedestal with the intention of returning later to retrieve it. [8] He subsequently sold his bird to Cecil Rhodes, who mounted it in the library of his Cape Town house, Groote Schuur, and decorated the house's stairway with wooden replicas. Rhodes also had stone replicas made, three times the size of the original, to decorate the gates of his house in England near Cambridge. [9] A German missionary came to own the pedestal of one bird, which he sold to the Ethnological Museum in Berlin in 1907. [10]

Cecil Rhodes British businessman, mining magnate and politician in South Africa

Cecil John Rhodes was a British businessman, mining magnate and politician in southern Africa who served as Prime Minister of the Cape Colony from 1890 to 1896. An ardent believer in British imperialism, Rhodes and his British South Africa Company founded the southern African territory of Rhodesia, which the company named after him in 1895. South Africa's Rhodes University is also named after him. Rhodes set up the provisions of the Rhodes Scholarship, which is funded by his estate. He also put much effort towards his vision of a Cape to Cairo Railway through British territory.

Cape Town Capital city of the Western Cape province and legislative capital of South Africa

Cape Town is the oldest city in South Africa, colloquially named the Mother City. It is the legislative capital of South Africa and primate city of the Western Cape province. It forms part of the City of Cape Town metropolitan municipality.

Groote Schuur

Groote Schuur is an estate in Cape Town, South Africa. In 1657, the estate was owned by the Dutch East India Company which used it partly as a granary. Later, the farm and farmhouse was sold into private hands. In 1878, Groote Schuur was bought by Hester Anna van der Byl of the prominent Van Der Byl / Coetsee family. In 1891 Cecil Rhodes leased it from her. He later bought it from her in 1893 for £60 000, and had it converted and refurbished by the architect Sir Herbert Baker. The Cape Dutch building, located in Rondebosch, on the slopes of Devil's Peak, the outlying shoulder of Table Mountain, was originally part of the Dutch East India Company's granary constructed in the seventeenth century.

Rhodes' acquisition of Posselt's bird prompted him to commission an investigation of the Great Zimbabwe ruins by James Theodore Bent, which took place in 1891 following the British South Africa Company's invasion of Mashonaland. [11] Bent recorded that there were eight birds, six large and two small, and that there had probably originally been more as there were several additional stone pedestals of which the tops had been broken off. [12]

The colonists erroneously attributed Great Zimbabwe to ancient Mediterranean builders, believing native Africans to be incapable of constructing such a complex structure; thus in Rhodes' mind, as a 1932 guidebook put it, it was "a favourite symbol of the link between the order civilisation derived from the North or the East and the savage barbarism of Southern and Central Africa before the advent of the European." [13] Bent attributed the birds, wholly erroneously, to the Phoenicians. [14]

In 1981, a year after the attainment of independence in Zimbabwe, the South African government returned four of the sculptures to the country in exchange for a world-renowned collection of hymenoptera (bees, wasps and ants) housed in Harare; the fifth remains at Groote Schuur. [6] In 2003, the German museum returned its portion of the bird's pedestal to Zimbabwe. [10] The birds were displayed for a while in the Natural History Museum in Bulawayo and the Museum of Human Sciences in Harare, [15] but are now housed in a small museum on the Great Zimbabwe site. [6]

On flags, currency, stamps and corporate logos

The Zimbabwe bird has been a symbol of Zimbabwe and its predecessor states since 1924. The crest of Southern Rhodesia's coat of arms incorporated the Zimbabwe bird, and over time the bird became a widespread symbol of the colony. The paper money and coins of the Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland, issued by the Bank of Rhodesia and Nyasaland also displayed the bird, as did the Flag of Rhodesia. The flag and state symbols of modern Zimbabwe continue to feature the Zimbabwe Bird. [16] It is now the definitive icon of independent Zimbabwe with Matenga (2001) [17] listing over 100 state, corporate and sporting organisations which incorporate the Bird in their emblems and logos.

References and sources

  1. Thomas N. Huffman (1985). "The Soapstone Birds from Great Zimbabwe". African Arts. 18 (3): 68–73, 99–100. JSTOR   3336358.
  2. Paul Sinclair (2001). "Review: The Soapstone Birds of Great Zimbabwe Symbols of a Nation by Edward Matenga". The South African Archaeological Bulletin. 56 (173/174): 105–106. JSTOR   3889033.
  3. Edward Matenga (2001). "The Soapstone Birds of Great Zimbabwe". Studies in Global Archaeology. 16: 1–261.
  4. 1 2 Great Zimbabwe (11th–15th century) | Thematic Essay | Timeline of Art History | The Metropolitan Museum of Art
  5. Hall, Martin; Stefoff, Rebecca (2006). Great Zimbabwe. Oxford University Press, USA. p. 30. ISBN   978-0-19-515773-4.
  6. 1 2 3 Murray, Paul; Briggs, Philip (2016). Zimbabwe. Bradt Travel Guides. p. 203. ISBN   978-1-78477-016-7.
  7. Fontein, Joost (2016). The Silence of Great Zimbabwe: Contested Landscapes and the Power of Heritage. Routledge. p. 99. ISBN   978-1-315-41720-2.
  8. 1 2 Brown-Lowe, Robin (2003). The Lost City of Solomon and Sheba: An African Mystery. History Press. p. 20. ISBN   978-0-7524-9490-6.
  9. Kuklick, Henrika (1991). "Contested Monuments: The Politics of Archeology in Southern Africa". In Stocking, George W. Colonial Situations: Essays on the Contextualization of Ethnographic Knowledge. University of Wisconsin Press. p. 135. ISBN   978-0-299-13123-4.
  10. 1 2 "Zimbabwe bird 'flies' home"". BBC News. 4 May 2003. Retrieved 6 May 2013.
  11. Lhote, Henri (1963). Vanished Civilizations of the Ancient World. McGraw-Hill. p. 44.
  12. Bent, James Theodore (1895). The Ruined Cities of Mashonaland. Longmans & Company. p. 180.
  13. Maylam, Paul (2005). The Cult of Rhodes: Remembering an Imperialist in Africa. New Africa Books. p. 85. ISBN   978-0-86486-684-4.
  14. Bent, p. 185
  15. Munyaradzi, Mawere,; Henry, Chiwaura, (2015). African Museums in the Making: Reflections on the Politics of Material and Public Culture in Zimbabwe. Langaa RPCIG. p. 128. ISBN   978-9956-792-82-5.
  16. Kuklick, p. 137
  17. Edward Matenga (2001). "The Soapstone Birds of Great Zimbabwe". Studies in Global Archaeology. 16: 1–261.

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