The ancient ruins of Great Zimbabwe, a civilization that thrived in what is now modern-day Zimbabwe, hold a treasure trove of history and culture. One of the most striking and intriguing artifacts to be discovered at these ruins are the Zimbabwe Birds. These intricate stone carvings are believed to have been the totem of the Shona people, the indigenous ethnic group who built the city of Great Zimbabwe between the 12th and 15th centuries.
Scholars believe that each bird represented a ruler of the civilization and the Fish eagle (Hungwe) bird is often identified as the totem of the Shona people. This bird has also been seen as a symbol among many other ancient African civilizations like Kemet, Mali, Somalia, and Madagascar. The Fish eagle is an important symbol for the Shona people and today, the soapstone sculpture of a fish eagle has become Zimbabwe’s national emblem.
Unfortunately, eight of these birds were looted from the ruins of Great Zimbabwe. But, fortunately, seven of the carvings have been returned to Zimbabwe since 2003. The bottom section of one bird was returned by Germany, where it had ended up in the hands of a German missionary who sold it to the Ethnological Museum in Berlin in 1907. The bird was then moved from Berlin to Leningrad during World War Two and remained there until the end of the Cold War, before finally being returned to Germany and then to Zimbabwe.
The eighth bird remains in the old bedroom of 19th century British imperialist Cecil Rhodes, whose home in the South African city of Cape Town is now a museum. Rhodes had taken a number of birds from Great Zimbabwe to South Africa in 1906. South Africa returned four of them in 1981, a year after Zimbabwe gained its independence.
These Zimbabwe Birds are not only a symbol of the rich history of the African continent, of the Shona people, but also a reminder of the importance of preserving and returning looted cultural artifacts. They stand as a testament to the skill and artistry of the ancient civilization that created them and continue to captivate and inspire visitors to the ruins of Great Zimbabwe.