Before Farming

Bringing the Kalahari debate to the mountains

late first millennium AD hunter-gatherer/farmer interaction in highland Lesotho

Before Farming (2008), 2008, (2), 1–22.

Abstract

Archaeological debates in southern Africa over the implications of hunter-gatherer interactions with farmers and herders have hitherto tended to privilege two regions, the Kalahari, where the eponymous Kalahari debate itself first took shape, and the southwestern part of South Africa's Western Cape Province. The Maloti-Drakensberg region has largely been ignored in these discussions except in the work of Pieter Jolly, who has long argued for the importance of cultural influences from Bantu-speaking groups on its plentiful rock paintings. Recently, Jolly (2007) has widened this discussion to examine the significance of cattle imagery in Bushman rock art within the context of ethnohistoric evidence for the keeping of domestic livestock by Bushmen in many parts of southern Africa. In this paper, we present new evidence that strongly suggests a surprising antiquity for this practice. Excavations at Likoaeng in highland Lesotho have produced the remains of domesticated sheep and cattle, some of them directly dated to the late first millennium AD, a thousand years before the local establishment of agropastoralist settlements. We consider the implications of this evidence and of finds from the same context, again directly dated, for hunter-gatherers accessing iron and agropastoralist pottery. After exploring a range of alternatives, we conclude that the most likely explanation of the Likoaeng finds is that they indicate that some hunter-gatherers in highland Lesotho were keeping sheep and cattle some 1200 years ago. We argue for a systematic programme of direct radiocarbon dating of domestic livestock remains in other archaeological sequences to establish how widespread and continuous this ‘neolithic’ (sensu Sadr 2003) economy may have been in both time and space. We also use the Likoaeng evidence to warn against generalising ethnohistoric observations of the Maloti-Drakensberg Bushmen, including Qing's famous comments on the meaning of some of their paintings (Orpen 1874), without taking account of what increasingly seems to have been a dynamic history over the past 2000 years.

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Mitchell, Peter

Plug, Ina

Bailey, Geoff

Woodborne, Stephan