The Archaeology of the Phuthiatsana-Ea-Thaba Bosiu Basin, Lesotho, Southern Africa: Changes in Later Stone Age Regional Demography

Article excerpt

Field survey of an unexplored zone of southern Africa enlarges and develops knowledge of the region's prehistory.


Despite earlier projects in other parts of the country (Carter 1978; Parkington et al. 1987) and the sporadic interest of a few South African-based workers (e.g. Malan 1942), western Lesotho has largely been neglected archaeologically. This paper summarizes research carried out between 1988 and 1990 to establish a local cultural-stratigraphic sequence and to investigate the settlement and subsistence patterns of its hunter-gatherer inhabitants. Initial results indicate major changes in regional land-use within the Holocene as well as between the Middle and Later Stone Ages.

The Phuthiatsana-ea-Thaba Bosiu Basin (PTB Basin) was chosen. Much of it had already been extensively explored in the search for rock paintings (Smits 1983) and many archaeological sites, some with obvious excavation potential, were already known. It lies close to the important South African site of Rose Cottage Cave across the Caledon River (Malan 1952; Beaumont 1978), the focus of a major research project in the eastern Orange Free State (Wadley 1991), opening up the possibility of comparing results and integrating observations to produce a prehistory of the Caledon Valley as a whole. Thirdly, the location of the National University of Lesotho within the study area provided a central base and greatly facilitated research.

Previous archaeological work in the PTB Basin has been extremely limited. Macfarlane (1943) noted Middle Stone Age (MSA) artefacts in a gravel bed near Masianokeng, while Ellenberger (1960: 460-62) reported their occurrence at Liphokoaneng and Thaba Bosiu, and excavated near Morija to the south of the Basin (Vinnicombe 1976: 113). Subsequently, Mokoallong shelter, a small site near the University campus, was excavated prior to its destruction during road construction. It seems to have had some 35 cm of culture-bearing stratigraphy as well as a basal layer that yielded 'a great quantity of bone and evidence of a large number of "hearths" consisting of bone and carbonised black and reddish material in close proximity' (Connelly 1981), but the excavation was carried out with minimal controls and the finds have since been lost; the brief description suggests they were Later Stone Age (LSA). Investigation of two abandoned Basotho village sites by Walton (1956) completes the record of pre-1988, non-rock art archaeology in the PTB Basin; along with his earlier investigation of another such settlement (Walton 1953), it represents the only Iron Age research thus far within Lesotho.

The exception to this dearth of activity is the ARAL rock-art recording project of Smits (1983), which intensively surveyed the eastern two-thirds of the Basin, the first rock art study in the region since the pioneering work of Wilman (1911). All paintings found by ARAL were comprehensively photographed and sketched, and some tracings were subsequently made from slides. A detailed analysis of the distribution of these sites in relation to the physical environment and each other was undertaken, but studies of the paintings' subjects using information obtained from San ethnography (cf. Lewis-Williams (1981)) remain to be carried out.

Environment and palaeoenvironment

The research area is bordered on the west by the Caledon River, the boundary between Lesotho and the Orange Free State province of South Africa, and on the east by the Front Range of the Maluti Mountains. Through its centre, the Phuthiatsana-ea-Thaba Bosiu River flows in a generally northeast-southwest direction. Vegetation, topography and altitude allow three geographical zones to be distinguished (after Guillarmod 1971): lowlands, foothills and mountains. In the lowlands, steep bluffs and cliffs form the perimeter of large plateaux with a gently rolling landscape in between, cut across by prominent dolerite dykes. The dykes are archaeologically important as sources of flakeable stone where they have metamorphosed older sedimentary rocks. …