Nyanga Heritage Tour

Nyanga Heritage Tour


What’s In A Name?

The origin of the name Nyanga is uncertain.

One version suggests that it comes from a hill in Holdenby Communal Lands near the international border. This hill, the traditional burial place of the Saunyama chiefdomship, has two small stone peaks on the summit. Local people say that these resemble the horns of a small antelope. Runyanga is the traditional word for a horn, the plural being nyanga.

A different, more complicated version suggests that many years ago a famous herbalist or n’anga came from the Barwe country in central Moçambique. He successfully cured Paramount Chief Mutasa who in return granted the foreigner the right to live in the current Nyanga area. When the first European administrator arrived he established his camp in the vicinity of this man’s village and hence the District was named after the healer.

Whatever its true origin, Nyanga is unique in Zimbabwe.

It is a place of high mountains, grassy plains, gurgling streams and rolling mists wherein play the ghosts of our collective past. For centuries it has been a place of retreat from the heat and drought of neighbouring areas. It is little wonder that Nyanga is home to one of the country’s great precolonial adaptations.

Yet it is appreciated by relatively few and has been subject to many competing, often outrageous interpretations.

Join us in exploring the area and its unique natural and social heritage.

The Forgotten Heritage of Nyanga

On the eastern border of Zimbabwe and extending into Moçambique is a unique mountainous landscape.

Cool and relatively well-watered, humanity has occupied these hills for millennia, although the most visible traces are from the last 1,000 years during which time the human footprint has done much to modify the landscape.

The complex of stone and earthen built structures that were erected tell of a specialised local economy. Earlier romantic notions of “slave pits” and the elephant training grounds for the enemies of Rome can all be put aside as ill informed.

In aerial extent we are dealing with the largest complex of precolonial building in Africa.

Nyanga Landscape
Nyanga landscape

Ancient Communities

Hundreds of hectares of hill slopes have been modified through terracing and associated settlements and water furrows. 

These are the remains of an evolving society of agriculturalists whose culture developed from about AD 1300 to the closing years of the 1800s. There are a variety of structures and features that show altitudinal and design change with time and it is well worth the effort to take time to explore this diversity.

The builders are the ancestors of the current people. 

Originally of the Sena language cluster as found today in central Moçambique, they were steadily “Shona-ised” by the social customs and language of the regionally-dominant Shona political entities such as Great Zimbabwe, Mutapa and the Rozvi states. 

So today these people are members of the Nyama, Manyika, Maungwe or other smaller communities.

The agricultural activities of the Nyanga people transformed an extensive area through the construction of stone terraces and water furrows. 

Not all of these fields were cultivated at once, but the accumulated efforts of several centuries cover thousands of square kilometres.


The so-called pit-structures are possibly the best known feature of the region’s archaeological heritage. 

They occur across a wide area between 1,400 and 1,800m above sea level. There are thousands of these small ruined village/homestead sites, which were built from the sixteenth century to the closing years of the nineteenth.

As settlements these structures were highly standardised. They consist of an artificial earthen platform built out from the slope. The central pit and lower edge were revetted with carefully laid stone walling. The base of the pit itself was either bedrock or paved with stone slabs. Access to the pit was through a roofed, curved tunnel that entered from upslope. 

They were built to hold small cattle, protected from the elements, predators and stock theft at night. On the surrounding platform were low dhaka (clay) houses and grain storage structures.

Built on prominent high ground are scattered forts. They appear to have been constructed in places of maximum visibility; have massive stone walls often two metres in height; and have loopholes (narrow gaps for sighting or shooting) and the narrow lintel entrances which were easily blocked with both horizontal and vertical wooden beams.

These forts are relatively recent, built within the Eighteenth to Nineteenth Centuries in an era of deteriorating security and changing social structures at a time of increased stress. The threat may have its roots in Portuguese colonial expansion and/or increased animosity and in-fighting between the various regional Shona dynasties.

Certainly the Manyika under the Mutasa Dynasty were at the time actively expanding northward at the expense of the earlier Nyama residents ruled by Chief Saunyama.

Contemporary with the pit-structures in the highlands, extensive stone settlements were constructed in the the adjacent lowlands.

These ruins consist of low free-standing stone-walled enclosures, at the centre of which is a shallow, stone-lined pit entered by means of a sunken stone-roofed passage. 

Surrounding the pit were stone-walled embayments and raised stone platforms. The former were the bases of houses, the original clay walls having long since decayed.

Extended Tour

To see these ruins a visit to the Ziwa National Monument which lies north of Nyanga town is a must. Here an area of 3,000 hectares has been set aside at the base of Ziwa Hill as a sample of the type of ruined complex that can be found in the area. 

Although by no means unique, the Ziwa National Monument has been put forward for inclusion on the UNESCO World Heritage listing.

Make sure you visit the homestead with the rock-gong. This is a natural slab of dolerite that produces a bell-like note when struck. Its surface is smooth reflecting generations of constant hammering.

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