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.
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.