The initial settlement of the Greater Mapungubwe Landscape by Zhizo ceramic-producing farmers around AD 900 is said to be linked to the large elephant population that the region once supported. Elephant ivory was used in the Indian Ocean trade network to obtain exotic trade goods such as glass beads and cloth. However, there has been no attempt to determine whether the local elephant population was large enough to support such trade endeavours. In this paper, we use an inter-disciplinary approach to establish a projection of the past elephant population and demonstrate that the ivory tonnage in the region, including that which could be recovered from natural carcasses, could have supported trade demand. We also argue that at the time of settlement the same environmental productivity supporting the elephant population provided an ecological system amenable to cultivation and could support domesticated livestock. In addition, the local topography, river networks and community of large mammalian herbivores contributed to the attractiveness of the region from a settlement perspective. We believe that the elephant population was only one component present on the landscape that attracted agriculturalists to settle in the area.
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.