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Chemical evidence of dairying by hunter-gatherers in highland Lesotho in the late first millennium ad


The recovery of Early Iron Age artefacts and domestic animal remains from hunter-gatherer contexts at Likoaeng, Lesotho, has been argued to indicate contact between highland hunter-gatherers and Early Iron Age agropastoralist communities settled in lowland areas of southeastern Africa during the second half of the first millennium ad. However, disagreement between archaeozoological studies and ancient DNA means that the possibility that those hunter-gatherers kept livestock themselves remains controversial. Here we report analyses of pottery-absorbed organic residues from two hunter-gatherer sites and one agriculturalist site in highland Lesotho to reconstruct prehistoric subsistence practices. Our results demonstrate the exploitation of secondary products from domestic livestock by hunter-gatherers in Lesotho, directly dated to the seventh century ad at Likoaeng and the tenth century ad at the nearby site of Sehonghong. The data provide compelling evidence for the keeping of livestock by hunter-gatherer groups and their probable incorporation as ancillary resources into their subsistence strategies.

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Fig. 1: Map of Lesotho.
Fig. 2: Partial gas chromatograms from four extracted lipid residues with compositions characteristic of degraded animal fats.
Fig. 3: Compound-specific stable isotopic values of degraded animal fats analysed in the study.
Fig. 4: Timeline showing span of the layers from the three sites that were analysed in the study.

Data availability

All data generated or analysed during this study are included in this published article and its supplementary information files.


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The authors received no specific funding for this work. Permission to excavate at Likoaeng and Sehonghong, and to remove finds for study abroad, was granted by the Protection and Preservation Commission (Department of Culture) of the Kingdom of Lesotho. We thank its former chairman, the late ‘M. N. Khitsane, for her assistance with this, as well as her colleagues and the chiefs and local communities of Ha Mapola Letsatseng, Khomo-ea-Mollo and Sehonghong. Excavations were funded by grants to P.J.M. from the Arts and Humanities Research Board, the Boise Fund, the British Academy, the Prehistoric Society, St Hugh’s College, Oxford, the Society of Antiquaries of London, the Swan Fund, the University of Oxford and the University of Wales, Lampeter. Compound-specific stable carbon isotope analyses were performed using the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) Life Sciences Mass Spectrometry Facility (Bristol node) and we are grateful to A. Kuhl and I. Bull for technical assistance. We thank the European Research Council for financing a post-doctoral position to E.C. (LipDat, H2020 ERC-2018-PoC/812917). We thank T. Knowles, manager of the Bristol Radiocarbon Accelerator Mass Spectrometry (BRAMS) facility, for access to instruments and the radiocarbon measurements.

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L.J.E.C. and P.J.M. devised the study. H.F. carried out lipid extraction and gas chromatography, GC–MS and gas chromatography–combustion–isotope ratio mass spectrometry analyses under the supervision of L.J.E.C. E.C. carried out compound-specific 14C dating. All authors contributed to data analysis and interpretation. H.F. wrote the manuscript with input from all authors.

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Correspondence to Helen Fewlass.

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Extended data

Extended Data Fig. 1 Photographs of four potsherds containing dairy residues analysed in the study.

LIK1 is the EIA potsherd recovered from Layer 1 of Likoaeng. Lipids extracted from LIK10 and SHH42 were directly dated as part of the study. Scale bar is 1 cm.

Extended Data Fig. 2 View of Likoaeng excavation looking upstream of the Senqu River (pictured in the background).

The north section of the excavation is shown, and Layer 1 is marked.

Extended Data Fig. 3 Section drawings of Likoaeng.

Layers are shown on the left side and grid square references along the top. Figure modified from a previous publication23 (reprinted with permission).

Extended Data Fig. 4

View of Sehonghong rock shelter.

Extended Data Fig. 5

Photograph of the excavation of Sehonghong rock shelter with Layers DC and GAP seen in the section.

Supplementary information

Supplementary Information

Supplementary Fig. 1 and Supplementary Tables 1–4.

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Fewlass, H., Mitchell, P.J., Casanova, E. et al. Chemical evidence of dairying by hunter-gatherers in highland Lesotho in the late first millennium ad. Nat Hum Behav 4, 791–799 (2020).

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