by David L. McNaughton (

Based on correspondence sent to Scientific American commenting on their article "Great Zimbabwe" in November 1997. At first they ignored my attempt to make contact; eventually they replied saying "Your letter does not fit our editorial needs" - despite the fact that it was pointing out serious errors and omissions in their article! No response at all was received from the author (at the University of Zimbabwe).

A fuller account (including more detailed references) appears at

Scattered round Zimbabwe are hundreds of ancient stone ruins. No cement or mortar was used in their construction, so the granite bricks had to be carefully shaped and trimmed so as to fit together like a jigsaw puzzle. Some walls were ten metres high; many incorporated chevron, herringbone or chequered patterns. The largest complex (which may have been a temple) is known as ‘Great Zimbabwe’. A set of steps leading into it constitutes a true work of art: each course curves out of the flanking walls into the entrance, with the penetration of the curves increasing as the steps are ascended.

Many theories have been proposed for the origin of those buildings - including some rather unlikely and exotic ones. Most contemporary historians believe that they were constructed by ancestors of the Shona (who form the majority tribe in modern-day Zimbabwe). It is indeed likely that at least some of the original Zimbabwean inhabitants were absorbed by Shona-speaking Bantu, particularly by their Makaranga branch (which occupies the area around ‘Great Zimbabwe’).

The likelihood of a Lemba connection

However, the Lemba of South Africa (around Messina in the extreme north) also claim responsibility for that old civilization. According to their traditions, their forefathers arrived in boats ‘from a distant country’ to extract Zimbabwe’s gold. (Lemba female ancestry was mostly of local African origin, however).

A few years ago, Tudor Parfitt and his colleagues at the University of London analysed the DNA of the Lemba tribe in the extreme north of South Africa. Particularly surprising was the discovery that members of their most senior clan displayed the Cohen Modal Haplotype, which is a distinctive feature of Jewish priesthood. Furthermore, this genetic pattern is carried by the Y-chromosome, so it is passed through the male line.

This new evidence justifies reopening the question of who really did erect those prehistoric Zimbabwean structures. Several indicators support the Lemba story. They still bury their dead in an extended position, just like the ancient Zimbabweans did: this contrasts with the "crouched" posture adopted by other Bantu. Also, according to H.A. Junod, other tribes regard the Lemba as the originators and masters of the art of circumcision - which is significant because the stone phallic symbols which were found in Zimbabwean ruins, definitely represented circumcised organs.

Until quite recently, the Lemba had a propensity for building in stone - in Zimbabwean style, without cement. In addition, their mining skills and metalwork were far superior to those of surrounding tribes - using copper, which was available in their area. This aptitude could well have been inherited from the gold miners and smelters of ancient Zimbabwe. (But - not surprisingly - even as early as the 18th century, Lemba workmanship could not match the standards displayed by the buildings and gold ornaments found at ‘Great Zimbabwe’).

Cotton was apparently woven and utilised in ancient Zimbabwe - judging by spindle whorls discovered in stone ruins, and the fact that cotton trees seem to have been planted nearby. Thus, it is relevant to note that Lemba men used to wear long cotton garments, unlike members of neighbouring Bantu tribes.

The Lemba language is similar to the one still spoken today in the Zimbabwean province surrounding the 'temple' and main fortress.

Apart from their Zimbabwean links, the Lemba differ in several ways from other Bantu. Many Lemba possess aquiline noses and narrow, non-negroid lips. Some of their words and clan-names seem to confirm a Semitic connection, e.g. Sadiki, Hasane, Hamisi, Haji, Bakeri, Sharifo and Saidi (which is their word for “master”). They still 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 Lemba also have a distinctive New Moon ceremony.

There has been extensive debate as to when the ancient Zimbabwean culture must have flourished. According to descriptions by de Barros and other Portuguese explorers, the temples and forts were considered to be ‘extremely old’ even as early as the mid-16th century AD. In the 10th century, 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’.

The Sabaeans of southern Arabia

Thus, although the granite temples had probably not yet been constructed, it is by no means inconceivable that south-east Africa was the ultimate source of the Sabaean gold wealth cited by Pliny the Elder in about 70 AD in Naturalis Historia VI, and in the Bible (see I Kings chapter 10). Zanzibar and the East African coast were certainly part of the Sabaean empire, and excursions even further south were well within the ability of the ship-builders and mariners of that era, taking advantage of the changing wind-patterns along the coast.

It is worth noting 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.

There is still insufficient evidence to be dogmatic about the origin of the ancient Zimbabwean civilization, but a Semitic connection does at least seem plausible.

References and further reading

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

THE LEMBAS AND VENDAS OF VENDALAND by R. Gayre; The Mankind Quarterly (Edinburgh, UK), 1967, vol. VIII; see pages 3-15. It was followed by SOME FURTHER NOTES ON THE LEMBA; The Mankind Quarterly , 1970, vol. XI; see pages 58-60.

DE ASIA by J. de Barros. Originally composed in Lisbon, 1552. [Also in: Records of South-eastern Africa, collected by G. McCall Theal; Cape Colony Printers, 1900, vol. VI, book 10; see pages 264-273].

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

JOURNEY TO THE VANISHED CITY.  T. Parfitt; St. Martin's Press, New York, 1992; (also published by Phoenix). Discussed in a long article on page 22 of The Times (UK) on 10th March 1999.

THE LIFE OF A SOUTH AFRICAN TRIBE by H.A. Junod; MacMillan, UK, 1927, vol. I; see pages 71-73 and 94.

THE BANTU-SPEAKING TRIBES OF SOUTHERN AFRICA by I. Schapera (with contribution by N.J. van Warmelo); Routledge & sons, UK, 1937; see pages 80-84.

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

AFRICA: ITS PEOPLES AND THEIR CULTURE HISTORY by G.P. Murdock; McGraw Hill, 1959; see pages 386-387 and 204-211.

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

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