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          By David L. McNaughton (

(Based on a letter sent to Scientific American commenting 
on their article "Great Zimbabwe" in November 1997. )

Many writers have been influenced by emotion when proposing theories for the origin of the ancient Zimbabwean civilization, but this is probably true of both the two opposing factions.
If that civilisation was created by the Shona (who live there today), then they must have been completely different in character and aptitude from other Bantu tribes in Africa.  But did they retain any of that heritage after the collapse of Great Zimbabwe?

In a few respects the answer is yes - but connections with that ancient culture seem much closer for another tribe - the Lemba of the northern Transvaal.   Until quite recently, the Lemba had a propensity for building in stone - in Zimbabwean style, without cement.   In addition, their metalwork was far superior to that of surrounding tribes (although gold was no longer available to them; instead, the Lemba mined and used copper).
Of course, even as early as the 18th century, the standard of Lemba workmanship was not at the level manifested by the buildings and gold ornaments found at Great Zimbabwe.

The Lemba bury their dead in an extended position, just like the ancient Zimbabweans did: this contrasts with the "crouched" posture adopted by other Bantu people.  Also, according to H.A. Junod, other tribes regard the Lemba as the originators and masters of the art of circumcision - which is interesting because the stone phallic symbols found at ancient Zimbabwean ruins, definitely represented circumcised organs.

Apart from their Zimbabwean links, the Lemba are very different from all other Bantu tribes. Many Lemba possess aquiline noses and narrow, non-negroid lips. Some of their words and clan-names indicate a Semitic connection, e.g. Sadiki, Hasane, Hamisi, Haji, Bakeri, Sharifo and Saidi (which is their word for "master"). They refuse to eat pork, rabbit, hare, carrion and scaleless fish, exactly as laid down in Leviticus chapter 11. When preparing meat for consumption, they always kill in the  "kosher" manner by bleeding; (the Islamic custom is of course comparable).

The Lemba also have a distinctive New Moon ceremony.   Indeed, they have a tradition that their male ancestry originally comprised "fair-skinned people who came by sea" to obtain gold from southeast Africa.  Thus, it was quite possible that the original Lemba people fled southwards as refugees when Great Zimbabwe was overrun. At the same time, other inhabitants of that city were probably captured and absorbed by the invaders. According to descriptions by early Portuguese explorers, the ancient Zimbabwean civilization had already collapsed by the 16th century AD.

Also relevant to the dating question are references to the ancient gold mines (which were quite sophisticated, incorporating horizontal tunnels as well as vertical shafts).   In the 10th century AD, Masudi and Ibn Al Wardy wrote of gold being exported through the Arab trading post at Sofala which lies on the coast just east of Great Zimbabwe.  Earlier, the Alexandrian merchant Cosmas Indicopleustes (in his Topographia Christiana, 6th century AD) mentioned regular expeditions from Ethiopia to obtain gold from a country where winter occurred during Northern Hemisphere summer.  Thus, even though the stone temple had probably not yet been constructed, it is quite possible that Zimbabwe was the ultimate source of the Sabaean gold wealth cited by Pliny the Elder (c. 70 AD) and by I Kings chapter 10.   The East African coast was certainly part of the Sabaean empire, and expeditions even further south were well within the ability of the ship-builders and mariners of that era.

It is worth adding that the Sabaeans used to follow a Judaistic religion (which included circumcision). They were also skilled water engineers who had developed an extensive terraced agricultural system - just like the inhabitants of prehistoric Zimbabwe. Furthermore, elliptical unroofed dry-stone temples constructed at Sirwah and Marib in the Yemen, are in some ways comparable with those found in Zimbabwe. Furthermore, Dr T. Parfitt of London University has established a DNA match between the Lemba and people in the Hadramaut region of the Yemen (which was once part of the Sabaean empire). Most surprising of all was the discovery that members of the most senior Lemba clan carried the Cohen Modal Haplotype, which is a distinctive feature of the Jewish priesthood.   It is probably significant, too, that this genetic pattern is carried by the Y-chromosome, and is therefore passed through the male line.  There is still insufficient evidence to be dogmatic about the origin of ancient Zimbabwe, but a Semitic connection does at least seem plausible.


References and further reading:


THE ORIGIN OF THE ZIMBABWEAN CIVILIZATION. R. Gayre. Galaxie Press, Zimbabwe, 1972.

THE LEMBAS AND VENDAS OF VENDALAND. R. Gayre in The Mankind Quarterly (Edinburgh, UK), Vol. VIII,

pages 3-15; 1967 - and Vol. IX, pages 58-60;1970.

PREHISTORIC RHODESIA. R.N. Hall. Fisher Unwin, London, 1909.

THE ANCIENT RUINS OF RHODESIA. R.N. Hall & W.G. Neal. Methuen, London, 1902.

Gayre and Hall also cite the sophisticated use of cotton in ancient Zimbabwe (judging by spindle whorls found in stone ruins, with cotton trees planted nearby) - mentioning too that Lemba men used to wear a long cotton garment, unlike other Bantu.


DE ASIA. J. de Barros. Lisbon, 1552 (describing the ancient ruins). In: Records of South-eastern Africa, Vol. VI, Book 10,

pages 264-273. Collected by G. McCall Theal. Cape Colony Printers, 1900.

NATURALIS HISTORIA, Vol. VI, No. xxxii, pages 159-162. Pliny the Elder, c. AD 70.

THE CHALLENGE OF AFRICA. Elspeth Huxley. Aldus Books, UK, 1973.

SOUTHERN ARABIA. D.B. Doe. Thames & Hudson, London, 1971.

JOURNEY TO THE VANISHED CITY. T. Parfitt. St. Martin's Press, New York (and Phoenix), 1992.

IS THIS A LOST TRIBE OF ISRAEL? (describing Dr Parfitt's work). Anjana Ahuja. The Times (UK), 10th March 1999, page 22.

THE LIFE OF A SOUTH AFRICAN TRIBE, Vol. I. H.A. Junod. MacMillan, UK, 1927.

THE BANTU-SPEAKING TRIBES OF SOUTHERN AFRICA. I. Schapera (with contribution by N.J. van Warmelo). Routledge & sons, UK, 1937, or

THE BANTU-SPEAKING PEOPLES OF SOUTHERN AFRICA. W.D. Hammond Tooke (with contribution by N.J. van Warmelo). Routledge & Kegan Paul, UK, 1937.

THE COPPER MINERS OF MUSINA AND THE EARLY HISTORY OF THE ZOUTPANSBERG. N.J. van Warmelo (with contribution by M.M. Motenda). South African Dept. of Native Affairs Ethnological Publications, No. VIII, 1940.

It is worth emphasising that neither Junod, nor van Warmelo, nor Parfitt is seeking to prove any theory on the origin of ancient Zimbabwe.  Thus, their descriptions of the Lemba are completely detached from that controversy.


         For another thought about the 
                        Lemba  go to:
    At Israel's Doorstep In Africa: The Lemba

                 Jewish Roots in Africa

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     For more Information about the Lemba:



          Non  European Jewish  Legacy

                Jewish Roots in Africa

              Israeli Absorption of the Shinlung

                  At  Israel's Doorstep in Africa
                    -- the Lemba Tribe

                 Ugandan  Jews  Formally  Convert