Recent research in the Shashe-Limpopo basin advances our understanding of the development of social complexity at K2 and Mapungubwe. Calabrese shows that ethnic interaction between Leokwe and K2 peoples led to ethnic stratification. However, one aspect ― that class distinction was first expressed at Leokwe Hill before Mapungubwe ― is not supported by more recent data. Re-examination of ceramics, glass beads and radiocarbon dates show that Leokwe Hill was not earlier, but contemporaneous with Mapungubwe, while structural remains show that the Leokwe deposit derived from ritual rather than residential activity.
Although Shona society has undergone much change, it is still a valid source of hypotheses about Iron Age burials. Death is part of a cycle that underpins the separate treatment of infants, children, young adults and adults. Everyone except chiefs should lie in a sleeping posture, and their location in the settlement depends on age, status and kinship. Adults should point westerly and lie on their left or right side depending on their status and gender. Everyone must be buried, including strangers and social outcasts, and anomalies to the normal pattern also follow cultural rules. The Shona rules have multiple points of correspondence with burials at Kgaswe and other Iron Age sites in southern Africa. Shona ethnography fits the archaeological data well because it is part of a larger nexus of Eastern Bantu culture: in contrast, Western Bantu ethnography does not fit the archaeology. Successful interpretations such as this involve the recursive interplay between ethnographic and archaeological data.
Salvage excavations in the 1970s uncovered a sizeable commoner occupation at Great Zimbabwe, as well as evidence for the early construction of an elite stonewalled enclosure. As a result of these excavations, we can revise somewhat the chronology of Great Zimbabwe. The most important changes are the extension of Period IVa, lasting from AD 1285±10 to 1395±10, and the appearance of P, P/Q and Q-coursed walling in Period IVa. The small Nemanwa palace was built in P/Q and first dates to Period IVa, as does the Outer Perimeter Wall, and both were linked to the growth of the Zimbabwe state. Period IVb represents the floruit of Great Zimbabwe, while Period IVc encompasses the occupation after the political elite moved north to become the well-known Mutapa dynasty. After the move north, the Mutapa established a masungiro ritual centre at Great Zimbabwe, perhaps to maintain territorial rights in the face of Torwa expansion.
In the Mapungubwe landscape, the Khami phase grades into the historic Venda period. Khami occupation, however, differs markedly from recent Venda settlement. Among the differences, rainfall was more consistent in the 15th and 16th centuries, and the Limpopo Valley supported several thousand people living on cattle posts and in agricultural villages. In contrast, 19th century Venda capitals virtually housed the entire chiefdom, totalling only some 350 people. A slow process of acculturation led the Venda-speaking Machete chiefdom to become Sotho. When Mapungubwe was discovered in the early 1930s, the chiefdom had already disintegrated, and the people spoke Sotho.