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Decline of Great Zimbabwe

Decline of Great Zimbabwe in Relation to Modern Day North America


By: Haley Depasqua

A growing civilization cannot sustain itself over time if its existence is dependant upon finite resources. As the population grows, demand for these resources will inevitably eclipse supply, and a period of decline will ensue, potentially developing into an existential threat. A parallel can be drawn between the dependence of the Great Zimbabwe civilization on natural resources and gold trade and that of contemporary western societies’ upon fossil fuels. In the case of Great Zimbabwe, major factors which contributed to it’s demise included over population, the depletion of land, and dependence on trade over self sufficience in a failing economy.

The decline of the Great Zimbabwe civilization in the year 1500 was in great measure related to overpopulation. There were an estimated 18,000 people living within the kingdom. Relative to the size of the area they inhabited, this was a very large population. Between 1450AD and 1500AD, resources continued to steadily dwindle, while the size of the population increased, creating an exponential strain. There was an increasing disparity between the size of the populace and the quantity of available food. This conflict was the catalyst for the transition between the society’s golden age and its decline.

Another factor that lead to the fall of Great Zimbabwe was ecological degradation (erosion of the quality of the natural environment caused, directly or indirectly, by human activities). Over time the Shona people consumed the majority of clean drinking water and depleted the land by farming too much of the same crops in a small area, thus exhausting the nutrients of the soil, and making further cultivation nearly impossible. Without enough reliable crops to sustain the population, the people of Great Zimbabwe had to look to trade to keep the empire alive.

The people of Great Zimbabwe relied on outside trade to support their economy. They traded gold, copper and iron with neighbouring cities and Portuguese travellers during the time of political stability and economic vitality. Great Zimbabwe’s wealth depended on the gold trade from Sofala to Kilwa and when the system crashed the lack of trade influenced the steady decline of Great Zimbabwe . Once again, the Shona were dependant upon easily exploited resources. More than 20 million ounces of gold were extracted from the land. The combination of falling world prices and depleted supply of gold, resulted in the crash of Great Zimbabwe’s economy.

We can learn from looking at the history of Great Zimbabwe that a society cannot uphold itself when it is dependant on non-renewable resources. While viable comparisons may be drawn between the decline and ultimate demise of Great Zimbabwe and modern cultures, it remains to be seen whether a similar outcome is inevitable for our civilization.