In southern Africa, there has been a long-standing but unsubstantiated assumption that the site of Khami evolved out of Great Zimbabwe's demise around ad 1450. The study of local ceramics from the two sites indicate that the respective ceramic traditions are clearly different across the entire sequence, pointing towards different cultural affiliations in their origins. Furthermore, there are tangible typological differences between and within their related dry-stone architecture. Finally, absolute and relative chronologies of the two sites suggest that Khami flourished as a major centre from the late fourteenth/early fifteenth century, long before Great Zimbabwe's decline. Great Zimbabwe also continued to be occupied into the late seventeenth and perhaps eighteenth centuries, after the decline of Khami. Consequently, the combined significance of these observations contradicts the parent-offspring relationship implied in traditional frameworks. Instead, as chronologically overlapping entities, the relationship between Khami and Great Zimbabwe, was heterarchical. However, within the individual polities, malleable hierarchies of control and situational heterarchies were a common feature. This is in tune with historically documented political relations in related pre-colonial southern Zambezian states, and motivates for contextual approaches to imagining power relations in pre-colonial African contexts.