Shaka Zulu: The Last of the God-Kings
Humanity’s violent flip from forager to soldier-farmer, for once in the light of history
Related: Bantu über alles: three millennia of unstoppable African farmers repeopling the vast continent.
I first came across the historical figure Shaka Zulu when I was about ten. I was awed by his evil. He was scary, but I couldn’t deny the man was awesome. I had recently polished off all the Classical and Hellenistic histories I could find (thank you Chester G. Starr!) and mused that Shaka Zulu was like an evil Alexander the Great, Alexander without Aristotle perhaps.
In the intervening three and a half decades, I’ve consumed a bit more human history. And perhaps more crucially, with every passing year of this century, I find myself more absorbed in the quest to understand how our species became what we are… during all the millennia before we could wish to find one human duly recording for posterity what another human or group was doing. Human prehistory yawns with an almost imponderable vastness at our backs. As a species, we have only acquired the benefit of recorded history over the past few millennia, and only continuously in select realms of our planet.
Most epochs of human existence have been lived out unrecorded in any way. And likewise, most of human existence has been lived out in small bands, not in the complex, stratified, mass societies that are a background condition of contemporary life most of us today take for granted. Modern humans’ tenure on this planet is approximately 200,000 years long. Modern human groups’ transitions to a settled lifestyle that fast-tracked us to eventual mass social groupings and such trappings of societal complexity as specialization, trade, literacy, record-keeping and history itself have all occurred entirely in the mere 11,700 years since the end of the last Ice Age.
Most humans alive today descend from an intrepid group that trekked out of the Horn of Africa in the last 60,000 years, with daughter populations dispersing to stake claim to every habitable continent anywhere from 60,000 to a mere 20,000 years ago. And on each of those continents (with the notable and informative exception of Australia), eventually our forebears settled down to farm and, with the advantages a settled existence soon granted, set about outcompeting and stripping every bit of territory from competitors who still practiced the forager lifestyle humans have pursued since time immemorial.
In the vast span of human prehistory, these transitions from life in small, nomadic, forager bands are a stunningly recent occurrence. The majority of humanity alive today lives in mass societies, has done for generations, and can scarcely imagine any other way of life. But as a species, we are extremely new at this. Taking the long view, we are born hunter-gatherers, recently embarked on a species-wide experiment in cooperative, organized mass demographic agglomerations. In some regions, this inevitable-feeling transition began shortly after the last Ice Age, in others five, six, or seven millennia ago, and in yet others as recently as in the last few hundred years.
Ancient DNA can help us fine-tune our understanding of these upheavals, these displacements, and these mass demographic replacements. We recognize that they occur with overwhelming speed and we can intuit that they are mercilessly and violently achieved. However, as a precursor to mass society and its many niceties, they have occurred long before their beneficiaries took up any kind of writing or record-keeping. Humans have transitioned to farming and the unstoppable conquest of their forager forerunners almost exclusively under cover of undocumented darkness. Almost. At the scale of 200,000 years of human existence, the minor detail of whether transition occurred 8,000 years ago in Sumer, 7,000 years ago in Egypt, 6,500 years ago in Bulgaria, 4,000 years ago in Guatemala, or 200-2,000 years ago in South Africa, is beneath notice, a matter of a rounding error.
And yet, for a student of prehistory longing for the vivid detail and specificity of recorded history, a rounding error will do quite nicely. As recently as 200 years ago, for our purposes, is not 5,000 years ago. I can yearn for an eyewitness view of Sumer’s or Egypt’s or Guatemala’s transition all I want. I’ll never get it. What I do have is Shaka. At ten, I compared Shaka to other merciless world conquerors, to other storied men with indomitable personalities who put their fearsome stamp on the world.
Almost four decades later, living in a post-genomic era, I regard Shaka and the chronicles of his time with a different kind of awe. Today, for me, Shaka Zulu stands in for every demographic transition across the planet from humanity’s long-standing, marginal lifestyle to its fast lane to a settled, stratified mass society. One by one, humanity’s habitable regions flipped from fissiparous foragers to warlike farmers. Shaka Zulu was probably a psychopath. He undeniably went insane during his reign. And yet he is us. Those of us alive today to contemplate the accounts of his fearsome tenure behold in this astonishing and often appalling human being one of the rare recorded instances of our species’ violent if inevitable transition to what we all are now. We are today as a species almost exclusively the direct descendants of warlike farmers. Shaka Zulu shocks, but it behooves us not to look away from his excesses. He personifies a wrenching process that occurred in a staggered wave across the planet in our very recent past. If the theoretical historian Peter Turchin is correct, the period between the rise of agriculture and the rise of the state was the most violent and brutal of all; a meat-grinding transition to civilization red in tooth and claw. And whether we regard its specificity as evil or awesome, that process begat… all of us.
Today more than ten million Zulus live in the Republic of South Africa, mostly in the far eastern province of KwaZulu-Natal. They account for 23% of the nation’s citizens. But the Zulu, numerous though they are, are a new ethnocultural configuration, forged into a mighty tribe by the terrifying personality of Shaka in the 1820’s. Bastard son to the chief of the minor Zulu clan, Shaka matured into a fearsome military leader whose ruthless innovations transformed warfare on the southern Bantu frontier from a ritualized sport of performative, strutting braves seeking personal glory to a brutal animal competition between groups who would either kill or be killed. Shaka’s tribe swallowed its defeated enemies whole while exterminating any foolish enough to persist in resistance. He turned his men into a precision instrument, a deadly blade, not unlike the Zulu short-thrusting spear Shaka popularized, the assegai. Just as the rise of Genghis Khan precipitated the assimilation of all the Mongols’ rivals: the Tatars, Naimans, Merkids and Keraits, so Shaka’s conquests of the Nguni-speaking tribes of eastern South Africa prefigured the genesis of a new people who took the name of his obscure clan as their own.
But Shaka wasn’t just creator of the Zulu nation, he was a destroyer of its enemies. His genocidal wars drove a demographic phenomenon called the Mfecane, the “crushing” or “scattering,” as tribe after tribe fled the assegai-armed formations of Zulu warriors who gave no quarter, massacring their enemies after charging and encircling them in what was descriptively termed the “horns of the bull” formation. As the Zulu star rose in the east, other chieftains led their terrified peoples north into modern Zimbabwe, Mozambique and Zambia, fleeing Shaka’s wrath, their own mass exodus in turn unleashing war and strife far beyond the verdant highlands of the Zulu domains. Shaka’s brutal, efficient, amoral personality became a nexus around which a vortex of cultural creativity and destruction spun. He turned his men into a permanent professional military class that could instantly mobilize for combat, reorienting the Zulu political economy to conquest and unleashing a military and social chain reaction that sent violent waves of concentric displacement rippling out across southern Africa long into the 1820’s and 1830’s.
Unlike much of the Bantu world’s long history, we can perceive the ethnogenesis of South African tribes like the Zulu in the light of recorded history, because centuries before Shaka rose to power, Europeans had already begun skulking around Africa’s coasts, journeying around the tip of the continent into the Indian Ocean on the trail of spices and riches. Along the way, they logged updates about the dynamic state of the region, with Bantu invaders still attempting to jostle Khoekhoe herders off their pasturelands, while Dutch settlers were expanding their territory on the Cape. As Shaka’s initially small holdings swelled to an empire in the highlands of the veld, he welcomed Europeans into his realms to introduce new technology and demonstrate their skills. Shaka legendarily considered their testimonials to the utility of writing and muzzle-loaders, dismissing the former because his messengers who memorized their tidings wrong were put to death anyway, and the latter because the time taken to reload would be adequate for warriors armed with spears to surround the gunman. Our biography of him, rich in idiosyncratic personal detail, synthesizes Zulu oral history and European first-person observations. Like Genghis Khan, Shaka Zulu is not just a name and a shadow of the past, he comes down to us as a flesh and blood person who lived and acted, his personal agency and phenomenal wrath both recorded with indelible specificity.
The Zulu did more than anyone else to draw South Africa’s ethnographic map, and they drew it according to their leader’s epic thirst for conquest and plunder. But Shaka plunged into deep mourning upon his mother’s death, and the man who had fashioned his subjects into a pivotal power went insane. He forbade the planting of crops, ordered the execution of pregnant women (and those who had impregnated them, because clearly none implicated in such outcomes had been maintaining the appropriate level of sobriety) and banned the consumption of milk, a staple of the Zulu diet. Shaka’s erratic behavior and psychopathic dictates lent his eventual assassination by his half-brothers a sense of inevitability. But the Zulu Kingdom did not end with his passing; it persisted until the conquest by the British in 1897, and Shaka’s family still furnishes the men who hold the title King of the Zulus in the modern Republic of South Africa.
Shaka’s life and those of his successors paint the past for us through writing and vivid narrative. But their import stretches far beyond Shaka’s tumultuous 19th-century moment; I see it as a rare window onto a social dynamic that recurred across most of the world as farming societies overwhelmed foragers in the ages before bureaucratic states. The Bantu were the last of humanity’s great waves of preliterate farmers who pushed into and overran the long-held territory of foragers practicing our species’ timeless lifestyle for millions of years. In the person of Shaka, we have someone who rose from nothing to become the personification of his entire people, with god-like powers over his subjects, his will made theirs. Shaka, in his insanity, attempted to re-order the world to match his grief, commanding even that cows with young calves be slaughtered so that the young animals too could know the grief of losing a beloved mother. His legend may not be true in all the details, but he is no abstraction. Like any historical figure, he was an idiosyncratic human, and his life arc traced the consolidation of petty domains into a proto-imperial polity and marked the region’s transition from a vast forager past into a mass-society future.