Lesotho: Human settlement before the Kingdom

Updated February 2007

Signs of human occupation in Lesotho date back to the Middle Stone Age but archaeological evidence indicates the presence of anatomical humans only as far back as the Late Stone Age, about 25 000 years ago (Mitchell & Charles 1996, 46). The culture layers uncovered at Likoaieng on the banks of the upper reaches of the Orange River in South-Eastern Lesotho are those of hunter-gatherer ancestors to the bushmen, subsisting on large mammals and fish, with fish exploitation playing an increasing role over time; the latter obtained either by spear or through fish-traps (Mitchell & Charles 1996, 41-45; Mitchell 2002a, 81, 88, 97; Columbia Encyclopaedia 2007).

The tools found are characteristic of those found elsewhere in Southern Africa in those periods and include scrappers, adzes, backed microliths and spokeshaves. These were made primarily from opalines (Mitchell & Charles 1996, 41-45). Pottery found at Sehonhong is dated to the late third century CE, while that at Likoaieng is later (c600-850CE); these point to contact with Nguni speaking farmers of KwaZulu Natal (Mitchell & Charles 1996, 41, 46). Later trade may have shifted westwards (Mitchell 2002b, 13).

Settlement of the Caledon River Valley by Iron Age agriculturalists began latter than elsewhere in Southern Africa (17th century CE), but proceeded rapidly and foragers were displaced or assimilated, surviving only in the southern reaches of the valley unsuitable for farming (Mitchell 2002b, 13). The new comers were SeSotho speakers who built small stone-walled settlements and engaged in the mixed farming of cattle, goats, chickens, sorghum and other vegetables such as pumpkin calabashes, melons and beans (Eldredge 1993, 1, 68; Mitchell 2002b, 13). Skills included skin preparation, grass weaving, pottery, wood carving and, by the 19th century at least, metal smelting and working (Eldredge 1993, 83-92).

The BaSotho formed part of a larger trade network, stimulated by the uneven distribution of resources that covered the sub-continent, whereby good were exchanged primarily from one contiguous social group to another (Eldredge 1993, 19-20, 22-23). Small scale localised trade was undertaken in iron and copper products, salt, cattle, skins and tobacco with one another and with their BaTswana, SePedi and Nguni speaking neighbours, using beads as currency (Eldredge 1993, 19-22). The diffusion of social innovations, new crops such as tobacco and maize and new technology such as iron working followed on these trading patterns (Eldredge 1993, 22).

Politically the SeSotho were organised in rather small chiefdoms compared with their BaTswana, SePedi neighbours. Eldredge (1993, 19) explains that "...as SeSotho-speaking groups moved south towards Lesotho they formed smaller settlements [than the over 1000 people that characterized their settlements hitherto]. This is because... they encountered terrain that offered the variations necessary for a mixed economy... so an ecological impetus for large socio-political organization was absent". These chiefdoms incorporated individuals and families from the surrounding BaTswana, SePedi and Nguni language groups, so that ties formed through trade relations were intensified by marriage and client-patron relations (Eldredge 1993, 1).

This decentralized and relatively peaceful situation would have changed over time: Internal forces at work, such as the pressure of population growth, the competition for land and resources and increased social stratification, would perhaps have led to the consolidation of the smaller chiefdoms into ever larger polities. This process was hastened by the arrival of invaders displaced by the expanding Zulu Kingdom to the south east and the Cape colony to the south west, for resistance to them was the catalyst for the formation of the Kingdom of Lesotho under Moshoeshoe I.

The first of these invaders were Nguni-speaking Hlubi under Mpangazita who, fleeing from Zulu preditations under Shaka, crossed the Drakensberg from KwaZulu-Natal in 1822 and fell in turn on the BaSotho of the interior (Lye & Murray 2000, 31; Eldredge 1993, 2-3). The Hlubi drove out the inhabitants before them and plundered their crops and cattle setting off waves of dislocated and destitute people who, following their example, raided those they found before them. In 1824 the Ngwane under Matiwani were forced across the Drakensberg by Shaka and they defeated and destroyed the Hlubi in 1825. Meanwhile a Zulu rebel general named Mzilikazi occupied territory to the north of the Vaal River from which base he laid waste the land in all directions (Lye & Murray 2000, 31; Lesotho Government Undated).


COLUMBIA ELECTRONIC ENCYCLOPEDIA 2007, "Lesotho History", 6th ed, Infoplease/Columbia University Press [www] http://www.infoplease.com/ce6/world/A0859249.html [opens new window] (accessed 10 Mar 2010).

ELDREDGE, EA 1993, A South African Kingdom: The pursuit of security in nineteenth-century Lesotho, Cambridge University Press.

LESOTHO GOVERNMENT UNDATED, "History of the Basotho", [www] http://www.lesothoemb-usa.gov.ls/profile.htm (offline 10 Mar 2010).

MITCHELL, P 2002a, The Archaeology of Southern Africa, Cambridge University Press.

MITCHELL, P 2002b, "Hunter-gatherer archaeology in southern Africa: recent research, future trends", IN Before Farming 1 (3), 1-18, [www] http://www.waspjournals.com/journals/beforefarming///////journal_20021/abstracts/ papers/20021_03_s.pdf [PDF document, opens new window] (accessed 10 Mar 2010).

MITCHELL, PJ & CHARLES, R 1996, "Archaeological investigation of an open air hunter-gatherer site in the Lesotho highlands: Preliminary report on the 1995 season at Likoaieng" IN Nyame Akum, 45, June, 1-10, [www] http://cohesion.rice.edu/CentersAndInst/SAFA/emplibrary/45_ch06.pdf [PDF document, opens new window] (accessed 10 Mar 2010).