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George Peter Murdock
1897 — 1985

Professor of Anthropology, Yale University

Africa. Its Peoples and Their Culture History

New York. McGraw-Hill. 1959. 456 p.


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Explore also (a) the SemanticAfrica Peoples Vocabulary
(b) the Shona and Thonga mind-mapping diagram

Part Ten
Spread of Pastoralism to the Bantu
— 49 —
Shona and Thonga

Two great Bantu nations, the Shona and Thonga, occupy Southern Rhodesia (today's Republic of Zimbabwe) and the southern half of Mozambique. On the north they have the Central Bantu as their neighbors, and in the northwest they abut on the Middle Zambezi Bantu, from whom they apparently acquired cattle and the milking complex. Linguistically, the Shona reveal a particularly close relationship with the adjacent Maravi peoples of the Central Bantu province, and the Thonga occupy an intermediate position between them and the Nguni and the Sotho to the south.
The earlier hunting and gathering population, presumably Bushmen, have left no surviving remnants in the Shona or Thonga country. Conceivably they may have suffered extinction at the hands of the seekers after gold who left behind the spectacular ruins of Zimbabwe and numerous other traces of their occupation. Since we have already considered the problem of Zimbabwe (Chapter 26), we shall not discuss it further except to note that most authorities ascribed the ruins and gold workings to the modern hona peoples until recent radiocarbon researeh fixed the occupation at the unexpectedly early date of around A.D. 600. Negroid skeletal remains, however, demonstrate that the expanding Bantu had already reached the province at that time. The discovery of remains of sorghum, cow peas, and watermelons at Mapungubwe, but apparently not of cattle, suggests that the original immig rants were exclusively agricultural.
The numerous Shona and Thonga tribes can be classified into ten groups, forming two distinct clusters.

Shona Cluster

The Shona (Mashona) constitute a culturally homogeneous nation numbering more than a million people. They inhabit outhern Rhodesia and adjacent Mozambique. In 1838, an army of Nguni raiders, the Ndebele, occupied the country of the Kalanga and Rozwi tribes in the west and established there a powerful conquest state.

  1. Karanga (Makaranga, Vakaranga, Wakaranga), with the Duma, Govera, Gwena (Abagwena), Kalanga (Bakaa, Makalaka, Wakalanga), Limima (Humbe), Mari, Matopo, Nanzwa (Abananzwa), Nyai (Abanyai, Banyai, Wanyai), yubi (Banyubi), and Shabi (Abashabi, Bashabi).
  2. Korekore (Korikori, Makorekore, Wakorikori), with the Shangwe (Abashankwe, Bashankwe, Washangwe).
  3. Manyika (Bamanyeka, Manika, Wamanyika, Wanyika).
  4. Ndau (Ndzawu, Njao, Vandau, Vandzau), embracing the Danda (Madanda, Vadanda, Wadondo, Watande), Gova (Magova, Vagova, Wagowa), Shanga (Mashanga, Wasanga), Teve (Vateve, Wateve), and Tomboji (Matomboji, Varombotse).
  5. Tawara (Marawara, Mtarawa, Tavara, Wataware), with the Barwe (Bargwe, Barue, Barwa, Wabarwe), Bujga (Wambudjga), Fungwe (Bafungwi, Basungwe, Baungwe, Phungwe, Wafungwe, Wahungwe, Waungwe), and Tonga (Abatonga, Aronga, Baroka, Batonga, Watonga).
  6. Zezuru (Bazezuru, Bazuzura, Mazizuru, Vazezuru, Wazezuru), with the Hera (Abahela, Bahera), Gova, Mbire, Njanja (Bajanja, Sinjanja), Nohwe (Noe, Wanoe), Rozwi (Amalozwi, Balozwe, Baroswi, Warozwi), and Shawasha.

Thonga Cluster

The Thonga (Bathonga, Shangana-Tonga) constitute a culturally homogeneous nation numbering well in excess of a million. They live southeast of the Shona in southern Mozambique and have received substantial Nguni increments, who are known as the Shaangan (Shangana).

  1. Chopi (Batchopi, Tshopi, Vachopi), with the Lenge (Valenge) and Tonga (Vatoka, Vatonga).
  2. Hlengwe, with the Nwanati and Tswa (Batswa).
  3. Ronga (Baronga).
  4. Thonga (Bathonga, Tonga).

The Shona and Thonga subsist primarily by agriculture. Kafir corn, the former staple, has yielded first place to maize in the majority of tribes. Subsidiary crops include other varieties of sorghum as well as millet, eleusine, rice, beans, earth peas, manioc, peanuts, pumpkins, and sweet potatoes. As an example of overemphasis in anthropology the author should perhaps record his experience in attempting to ascertain the nature of the Shona economy. After reading the fourteen sources on this nation which appeared most promising from available bibliographies, he found that he had obtained nine independent lists of kinship terms but not a single mention of the crops grown by this basically agricultural people.
Animal husbandry, though important in the Thonga cluster, plays a definitely subsidiary role in the economy of the Shona. All groups keep goats and chickens, and most of them possess cattle, but sheep are rare and pigs recent. The Tawara have no cattle, and the Chopi and Zezuru keep very few. Although they provide milk, cattle are chiefly important for bride-price payments. Hunting and gathering add little to the food supply. Fishing makes a more substantial contribution, especially among the Ndau and Tawara. The men hunt, fish (except for small fry), and do the herding and milking, since cattle are taboo to women. Among the Shona they also share equally in the agricultural work, but this is not true in the Thonga cluster.
The Shona and Thonga peoples live in dispersed hamlets, or kraals, each a cluster of thatched cone-cylinder huts with walls of wattle and daub arranged in a circle around a cattle corral or sometimes, as among the Lenge tribe of the Chopi group, around a central plaza with a sacred tree. Socially, the hamlet has the structure of a patrician, its members constituting either a large extended family or a small localized patrilineage. Authority within the hamlet is vested in a hereditary headman, who arbitrates disputes, officiates at sacrifices to the ancestors, and is assisted by an informal council of family heads.
Descent, inheritance, and succession, with certain exceptions to be noted below, follow the patrilineal principle. Kin groups reveal a segmentary character. Though sibs are agamous, their localized segments are invariably exogamous, and the Shona, but not the Thonga, extend exogamy to the mother's as well as the father's patrilineage. Thonga sibs bear ancestral names, but among the Shona they have totemic names and taboos and are aggregated into phratries on the basis of totemic resemblances, precisely as among the adjacent Central Bantu (see Chapter 38). In sharp contrast to practically all Bantu tribes of the surrounding Central, Middle Zambesi, Southwestern, Nguni, and Sotho p rovinces, who exhibit kinship systems of the Iroquois type, the Shona and Thonga tribes employ cousin terms exclusively of the Omaha type, a widespread feature of societies with strongly patrilineal social sy tems. Abundant evidence nevertheless exists that they followed only the matrilineal rule of descent in the not very distant past. We shall first examine the case for the Shona, which is very clear, and then turn to the more controversial situation among the Thonga.
Matrilineal descent, inheritance, and succession still prevail in a few Shona groups in the extreme north, notably the Dombe subtribe of the Tonga tribe of Tawara. Marriage practices provide even more convincing evidence of former matrilineal descent. All the Shona recognize two distinct modes of marriage: a preferred mode involving a substantial brideprice in cattle and an alternative mode entailing only a token gift of a few hoes coupled with prolonged matrilocal premarital and postmarital bride-service. Even when a bride-price is paid, matrilocal residence is normally required during the first year of married life. Thereafter the husband removes with his wife, normally to patrilocal residence but sometimes to avunculocal residence, which everywhere exists as a patterned alternative. Where no bride-price has been paid, removal becomes possible only when the oldest daughter has grown up and married and her bride-price has been turned over to the wife's father or brother in lieu of that not paid for her mother. Other Shona marriage usages accord with those of the Thonga, e.g., local exogamy, the prohibition of unions with any first cousin, and preferential sororal polygyny.
In those Shona tribes that possess few cattle, notably the Tawara and some groups of Zezuru, marriages of the second type naturally preponderate, and prolonged matrilocal residence is usual. This situation, incidentally, doubtless explains the preference for sororal polygyny. Such practices reveal a striking resemblance to those prevailing among the Central Bantu immediately to the north (see Chapter 38), especially when one takes into consideration the alternative of removal to avunculocal residence. The conclusion seems inescapable that the Shona once shared the social system of their northern neighbors and linguistic kinsmen and that the shift to bride-price payments, patrilocal residence, and patrilineal descent occurred as a direct conseguence of the introduction of cattle.
Junod (1927) reaches an identical conclusion for the Thonga through a careful analysis of ethnographic data. Some of the features of Thonga culture which support this historical reconstruction are cited below, together with brief parenthetical comments.

  1. Avunculocal residence is customary in childhood. Boys and girls, as soon as they are weaned, go to live in the village of their maternal uncle and remain there for several years, in the case of girls sometimes until they are fully grown. (This is normal in matrilineal societies with avunculocal residence, e.g., the central and western tribes of the Central Bantu.)
  2. When a man has no patrilineal heirs to carry on his line, he may require one of his sisters to remain in his settlement. Her children reside in his house, and the males continue his lineage and clan. (This recapitulates the household pattern of the matrilineal eastern Central Bantu.)
  3. If a man has no immediate patrilineal heirs, his sisters' sons inherit his property in preference to remoter patrilineal kinsmen. Even when he has patrilineal heirs, his sisters' sons can claim certain items from his estate, e.g., his spears. (Inheritance by sisters' sons is normal in matrilineal societies.)
  4. A maternal uncle has a right to a defi nite share in the bride-price received for a sister's daughter. (He can ordinarily claim most of it in a matrilineal society.)
  5. The officiant at all sacrifices in a man's life-crisis ceremonies is his mother's brother. (In a matrilineal society this duty naturally falls to a man's maternal uncle as the head of his lineage.)

In a paper that has been widely acclaimed by those who have not examined the evidence, Radcliffe-Brown (1924) offers an alternative interpretation of Shona and Thonga usages relating ro the mother's brother. Refraining from citing any of the specific ethnographic data, and arguing exclusively from general assumptions. She ascribes the Southeastern Bantu forms of the avunculate to an alleged law that “the special pattern of behaviour between a sister's son and the mother's brother is derived from the pattern of behaviour between the child and the mother.” The aim of this paper, as stated by Radcliffe-Brown (1952, p. 14) himself, was “to contrast with the explanation by pseudo-history the interpretation of the institution to which it refers as having a function in a kinship system with a certain type of structure.” The indicated contrast is clear. In the eyes of the present writer, however, it takes the form of an opposition between sound historical scholarship and untrammeled sociological speculation.
Both the Shona and Thonga are politically organized in states of relatively modest size. At the head of each stands a paramount chief with the characteristics of a divine king. He is hedged in by taboos and in some cases is killed if he develops any physical defect, even the loss of a tooth. He resides in a capital town, where he maintains a court and is advised by a council of ministers with specialized functions. A hierarchy of territorial officials assures him a regular flow of tribute. A new fire is kindled at his accession and maintained throughout his life.
Most authorities have assumed that these political institutions represent a heritage from the builders of Zimbabwe. We already possess evidence which cases doubt on this interpretation, for complex political systems occur nowhere in the territory once occupied by the Megalithic Cushites, who presumably founded Zimbabwe. It seems much more likely that the Shona and Thonga acquired their political forms from the Central Bantu peoples to the northwest, amongst whom we have previously encountered institutions of a very similar character (Chapter 38).

Selected Bibliography