Much of Lesotho’s cultural heritage has been studied as a result of dam developments. Where dams have been built, heritage studies have provided crucial data for improving our understanding of local archaeological sequences. Ahead of the construction of the Lesotho Highland Development Authority’s (LHDA) new Polihali Dam in Lesotho’s Mokhotlong District and following the recommendations of a heritage assessment (CES 2014), a large-scale five-year cultural heritage management program was launched in 2018 that seeks to excavate and mitigate a number of heritage sites. Here, we provide the background to one of southern Africa’s largest heritage mitigation contracts by contextualising the current research program. We then present the archaeology of Lesotho’s eastern highlands basalt region using data collected during the inception phase of this program. The findings challenge current preconceived notions about the sparsity of archaeological remains for this region.
Ancient DNA (aDNA) analysis was employed to obtain information on the population relationships of the two Thulamela individuals (AD 1400-1700) and six other skeletons from various archaeological sites of the southern African Iron Age – Tuli (Botswana), Nwanetsi, Makgope, Happy Rest and Stayt. Although sequences were short, it seems that the Thulamela female aligns somewhat more with eastern populations as opposed to the male who aligns more with western groups. This result is not surprising given that the two individuals were buried at the same site but their burials were hundreds of years apart. It was also possible to identify genetic links between the Iron Age individuals and modern southern African populations (e.g. some of the skeletons assessed showed maternal genetic similarities to present-day Sotho/Tswana groups) and to separate the samples into at least two genetic groups. Poor quality and quantity of DNA meant that only haplogroups, not subhaplogroups, of the individuals could be traced.
Current potters in Manaledi village in the Tswapong Hills of Botswana aver that they and their ancestors for five generations have made pottery exclusively with clay from nearby sources. We begin with an examination of Manaledi and its clay mine to uncover current dialectics between village, landscape, clay, potters, and ancestors. Archaeological sherds found around the village and clay sources document occupation by makers of Early Iron Age (ca. AD 500-750), Middle Iron Age (ca. AD 750-1050), Late Iron Age (ca. AD 1420-1800), and 18th-20th century wares related to current Manaledi pottery. The proximity of archaeological deposits, clay sources, and village made it possible to conduct simultaneously what might otherwise be considered three separate projects. As a consequence, we are able to document that Manaledi clays have been used to make pottery for some 1500 years and to consider long-standing constraints on potting this implies.
Terrace farming flourished in Bokoni from the sixteenth century CE onwards. Bokoni farmers’ resilience strategies, however, were severely tested during the third occupation phase (approx. 1780 to 1840 CE), when the mfecane destabilised the region. In order to reflect on the environmental conditions Bokoni farmers faced in this period the stable carbon isotope proxy rainfall records from Prunus africana and Pittosporum viridiflorum specimens that grew on the Buffelskloof site were studied. Because the Buffelskloof records postdate the occupation, the records are compared with a 1000-year Adansonia digitata rainfall proxy record from the Pafuri region. Deviations between the two are attributed to the juvenile effect, and when these are discounted there is a significant correlation between local and regional rainfall records. This suggests common large-scale synoptic forcing underlies regional rainfall variability, and the decadal-scale variability in the Adansonia digitata records indicates extremely dry conditions in the 1780 to 1840 CE period.