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Climate change, a threat to legacy preservation

CENTRAL BANK

Mohloai Mpesi

The world is experiencing and suffering from a constant, enormous climate change epitomised inter alia through hazardous floods if not lengthy periods of drought, which one way or another leaves the land bare and cracked, posing a threat of hunger and poverty in the world where Lesotho is not excluded.  

The concept of artefacts and survival of the Stone Age remains that one way or another uncovers the prehistoric background of the country is brought into question during these trying times as the bellowing climatic changes accrue, risking the history of Lesotho and evidence of the existence of different species.

This unfortunate experience deprives coming generations a prospect of the ancient creativity, communication skills, existence of wiped out animals and medicinal plants et al.

The Archaeology Studies lecturer at the University of Lesotho, Nthabiseng Makatleho Mokoena Mokhali avers that coming generation will not have the privilege to see prehistoric bits and pieces as the heavy rains abundantly over pour, washing off their remains while the heavy winds wipe away the drawings that depict how Basotho were communicating and showing their artistry back in the 1800s.          

“The major disadvantage of climate change on archaeology is loss and damage of resources because of extreme weather changes,” she said.

The major challenge altered by the reigning climatic change hampers a possibility to probe the artefacts. It becomes increasingly difficult to retain these historical remains.  

“This means that due to different reasons including climate, the environment is altered and this poses a challenge to archaeological research. The areas with dense vegetation usually mean that there was historically a lot of activities and thus potential to find many archaeological remains. Once the remains are exposed, there is potential for their loss,” she told Newsday.

She said availability of prehistoric artefacts is a good fortune to Basotho because it paints previous lifestyle of Basotho and the species that existed in the land.

Lesotho is a high altitude and landlocked Kingdom encircled by the Republic of South Africa, the sovereign state falls under the sub-Saharan countries and is traversed by a network of rivers and mountain ranges including the 3, 482m-high peak of Thabana Ntlenyana.

The ancient remains tell tales culture and tradition, and above all build strong bond within Basotho knowing their morale and cultural background.

The Stone Age was a broad, prehistoric period during which stone was widely used to make tools with an edge, a point, or a percussion surface. The period ended between 8,700 BCE and 2,000 BCE, with the advent of metalworking. It is broadly divided into three periods, namely the Earlier Stone Age (ESA), the Middle Stone Age (MSA), and the Later Stone Age (LSA).

During the period the stone was a valuable tool that was used as a knife; to cut, scrape, while the bones were used as a needle or an object to shape materials such as spears in approximation of 5000 years ago. History reveals that the San tribe which is known for its hunting skills once inhabited the land. 

However, history also reveals that in the later stage people moved to the modern technology of metal historical period. Clay was moulded to make pots; they were also making iron buttons with the metal that also divulges that Basotho were living with the White people. 

The artistry and the kind of creativity used to make the different patterns distinguishes the tribes that were living between Ndebeles, Ngunis, Phuthis, Bafokeng and Bakoena before the first King Mosheshoe assembled all the tribes into one nation.            

“Prehistoric and archaeological artefacts are a great part of the history of Lesotho as part of the Southern African environment. Prehistoric in this case entails any period as early as 4 600 000 000 years ago. Material culture associated with this period includes fossil traces of extinct species in geological context. Prehistoric fossils are particularly significant to the history of Lesotho’s environment. This part of history gives us a picture of what species existed in our environment at that period. This becomes part of the identity of Basotho as a nation that has settled in this environment,” she said.  

“Archaeological and paleontological research employs a variety of methods to identify potential sites. The main method is to conduct ground or pedestrian surveys. A study of the environment is the first step of survey. Historically we know that living things survive in places close to water sources, therefore, surveys are conducted close to rivers, natural dams, natural streams, natural springs and wetlands. Many Stone Age sites that have been discovered in Lesotho, for instance, are located in shelters, boulders and caves located close to water sources,” she narrated adding that human activity also contributes to inability to probe and restore the ancient remains.

Not only do human activities affect the archaeological survey, but the alteration of climatic condition which is largely impacted by the emission of fossil fuels, carbon dioxide and other toxic chemicals that are discharged into the atmosphere plays a major role in destroying the planet.      

“The main challenges that researchers face in the event of surveying for archaeological resources are twofold. The first is human impacts; most of Basotho are not aware of the archaeology and tangible history around them. This has resulted in a lot of disturbances and destruction of sites where surface artefacts are trampled on. In other cases, fires are sometimes made in shelters and caves which sometimes destroy the heritage that may be found in such areas. In terms of rock art, people sometimes splash water with soap or other chemicals and this courses fading of the art.

“The second impact is natural, which entails strong winds that sometimes blow away and exposes buried artefacts (Artefacts such as bones, stone tools, beads, etc.). Water damage is also mostly seen at rock art sites where the paintings have faded due to water seeping from the walls of boulders, caves or shelters. In most cases alien vegetation has disturbed the preservation of buried artefacts,” she said.

“We identify areas with natural water sources, with shelters and farming land. Sometimes at these sites, artefacts such as stone tools are visible on the surface.

“Many sites are in danger of losing the archaeological artefacts. For instance, stone tools that are mostly exposed on the surface get washed and as a result we will not have any tangible evidence about the past. In the case of rock art sites, one of the major problems is that the paintings are rapidly fading and if this prevails, we will end up losing any sign of ancient art which will not be known by our future generations. We will not have any reference to our greatness in terms of spirituality and creativity,” she continued.

She further added that the coming generations “will only depend on written records. Our biggest fear is that we will only have documented evidence about the existence of this heritage. This will be very unfortunate for the human race in general,” she said.

“We really need to enforce immediate action towards protection of these sites. Documentation of many sites is yet to be implemented in many sites. The documentation and extensive recording of these sites will provide us with knowledge about the visible archaeology and the potential damage to the sites. Once the sites are recorded, management plans should be drawn to protect or reduce the damage at each site. Some management plans will require frequent monitoring of the sites and thus communities and heritage experts will need to be in close communication,” she said.

However, Mokena is optimistic that things will change and that the government, regardless 0f its insolvent state will deliberate an action to accommodate different sites.

“I believe the government, through the Ministry of Tourism, Environment and Culture is aware of such on-going impacts and are planning on coming up with an action plan to accommodate different sites. Fortunately, the National University of Lesotho offers two programmes of Heritage and Cultural Studies and Environmental History which equip students with knowledge about the history of the environment and how to protect heritage sites in danger of natural and manmade destruction.

“The government, therefore, has potential heritage experts that may be responsible for the monitoring of such sites in different parts of Lesotho. I also try to advise the government in my capacity as an archaeologist when planning and implementing some plans they have. Unfortunately, the government does not have the kind of funding to facilitate such big projects, however, endeavours to secure funding for the management of such projects will be implemented in the future,” she said the communities need to be acquainted with the climatic changes and engaged into the management plans in order to secure sites that are vulnerable to climatic conditions.

“We really need to immediately engage communities local to the sites, so as to make them aware of such challenges and possibly get them on board in the management plans. We also need to source funds for a big project that will facilitate the planning and implementation of sites that are in most danger of extinction or permanent loss of heritage.

“Archaeological and historical resources are a crucial part of our identities as people of the south. If we lose some of the evidence of our diverse cultures, we lose ourselves. Although dealing with Mother Nature is a herculean task, we at least need to recognise its impact and make all that may be affected and thus could come with solutions that will work best for all,” she said.

To add more to the story, then parliament of Lesotho announced a M1.1 billion to the Ministry of Energy and Meteorology to battle against the monstrous climate change that has left the dwellers in the remotest areas of the country vulnerable without food and water.

This was confirmed by the Minister of Finance Thabo Sofonia when addressing the Consolidated Capital Account (Development Estimates) 2021/2022 at the National Assembly last month. The money was cut from a preserved M5, 725, 712, 634 as government’s capital budget.

Much has been done to collect some of the remains by the Lesotho Highlands Development Authority (LHDA)’s Lesotho Highlands Water Project (LHWP) Phase I and II which commenced in October 2017 and was set to finish in 2022.

The LHDA Publications Editor, Malakeng Hloma believes that cultural heritage is an imperative ideology to the culture of Basotho hence the establishment of the LHWP which was mandated to record and document the Stone Age remains.   

“We believe that cultural heritage defines the Basotho as a people and differentiates them from other nations and their cultures, and protecting and preserving the Basotho culture is integral to mitigating the impacts of the LHWP. This is why a cultural heritage plan and its implementation are parts of both Phase I and Phase II of the Lesotho Highlands Water Project (LHWP).  Under Phase I of the LHWP, archaeological, paleontological and cultural heritage sites were conserved and protected.

“For example, a cultural heritage site with a museum and nearby rock shelter site that is historically and archaeologically significant was established at Liphofung as part of the mitigation under the Environmental Action Plan.

“The objective of the cultural heritage plan is to safeguard the Basotho culture and its heritage. Documenting tangible and intangible cultural aspects is at the core of this cultural heritage programme. Findings from every site with historic significance are being documented to form part of the rich Basotho culture to enhance tourism or to be archived for posterity” he said.

He continued that “Archaeological research requires patience, skill and close attention to detail and it is time consuming,” he said adding that without the study, the old remains might have not have been know. They conducted the project to retrieve the available remains and save them from extinction.

“Without the LHWP Phase II study, the Stone Age assemblages in the Project area might not have become known and shared with the nation and with the international community as the Polihali area has seen very little archaeological research. Much of the currently known Stone Age information in the area was identified by the Phase II Archaeological Baseline Study,” Hloma said.

He further explained that following the findings of the Baseline Study, the LHDA has funded a Phase II Cultural Heritage Plan that includes the mitigation of Stone Age sites. He said mitigation requires that each site is documented through mapping, recording and excavation following national and international standards, as well as the guidelines for excavations and duration under the Code of Conduct of the Association of Southern African Professional Archaeologists (ASAPA).

“The deliverables include the excavation of roughly 27 Stone Age sites, the digital recording of 13 rock art sites, and the excavation and or recording of nine Agro-pastoralist Community (APC) sites,” he said.

He outlined that Covid-19 has impacted on the schedule for undertaking the archaeological excavations, vandalism of some of the sites during excavations by children and curious community members,” he said.

“Ideally, the artefacts require further analyses and documentation but are limited by time and budgetary constraints; having to export some of the materials to overseas countries to conduct carbon dating, requires different permits and cross-border permissions.

“The exposed context of artefacts found in some areas, especially in open fields, constrains the sites’ retain ability of artefacts and reduces assemblage protection from further alterations, such as damage through trampling or opportunistic collectors,” he said.

“A variety of artefacts have been retrieved from different sites, and all artefacts recovered are being curated for further analysis. These include stone tools, ceramics, metal items, jewellery, faunal remains, charcoal and wood, leather and bone tools.

“The size and quality of charcoal retrieved from the sites provides an excellent opportunity for specialist identification of taxa (taxonomic group) present. This will provide a firm proxy for climatic and environmental reconstruction of the immediate landscape during the middle to late Holocene.

“Stone tool collection that included ochre-stained rocks and woodlot scrapers dating between 9,000 and 5,000 years ago have been discovered, which narrates that the sites were occupied at some point during the mid-Holocene. Verified with radiocarbon dates, it will indicate a hunter-gatherer occupation of the area more than possibly 5,000 years ago, providing with a minimum age for the area’s first occupation.

Hloma said the Conus shells that have been recovered from the sites indicate that the shells originate from the coast and the nearest coastal region around Durban.

“The item was therefore either brought from the coast when people moved into the Polihali area, or was exchanged between groups and eventually arrived at the site. Either way, it demonstrates connectivity between Polihali communities and those in neighbouring coastal areas,” he said.

“Thus, the contribution that heritage management in Lesotho has made to our understanding of southern African archaeological, and, Stone Age sequences is immense,” he continued.

“Some of these discoveries are being sent for further analysis to nearby South Africa and even further afield, as the necessary equipment is not available in Lesotho. For example, bone samples have been sent to the Department of Archaeozoology at the University of Cape Town, while those that require radiocarbon dating, such as charcoal samples, will be submitted to Beta Analytic Inc. laboratory in Miami, USA, as no suitable laboratories are available in South Africa or Lesotho. The findings will only be fully known once the detailed analysis of each sample discovered on site has been conducted.

He mentioned that the heavy rain and storms that erode the soil also erodes the history of the country too with its historic and ancient artefacts.

“Meteorological studies have unequivocally confirmed that climate change is happening, and Lesotho is also exposed to the impacts of climate change. The adverse impacts of climate change include an increase in frequency and intensity of extreme weather events (extreme cold, heavy rain and flooding, extreme droughts etc.). Increase in temperature and change in precipitation are the key climate variables that have been identified to have the greatest impact on the ecosystem functionality in the Lesotho Highlands.

“Climate variability, including the increased frequency and intensity of extreme weather events, has affected the growing aquaculture business in the Lesotho highlands. Reduced dam levels require aquaculture cages to be relocated to deeper parts of the dam. This may become a challenge in future due to the 4km distance that needs to be maintained between different operators.

“Lesotho faces future drying trends and weather variability with cycles of droughts and sudden excessive rains which threatens the sustainability of the Lesotho Highlands Water Project (LHWP) with the Republic of South Africa and the generation of electricity in the country. As such, Lesotho has to urgently strengthen the resilience of its society and economy to such climate change impacts and to develop and implement policies, measures, mechanisms and infrastructure that protect the most vulnerable.

“The LHWP catchments are vulnerable to the impacts of climate change as they have low vegetation cover as a result of prevalent overgrazing in the catchments. The soils are susceptible to erosion during storm events. The summer of 2021 saw flooding in the rivers in the Polihali catchment, resulting in extreme soil erosion. In relation to archaeology, increased frequency of severe storms, high winds, and intense rainfall are leading to more frequent floods which are likely to erode historic and ancient artefacts.

“The Cultural Heritage Plan is one of several LHDA Phase II Environmental Action Plans, specifically focused on villages, sites or areas in the Tlokoeng and Khalahali Wards that will experience the greatest cultural heritage impact, including archaeological loss, due to the LHWP Phase II developments. Approximately 27 Stone Age sites are being excavated, 13 rock art sites were digitally recorded, and nine Agro-pastoralist Community (APC) sites are being excavated and or recorded,” he added.

He further mentioned that although some work of the project in the Tlokoeng community had to be postponed due to heavy flooding, climate change does not pose a “threat” to the archaeology studies. 

“The scheduled excavation has had to be postponed for only one site, near Tlokoeng, as a result of floods. Climate change is not the main threat to archaeology studies; rather humans and livestock pose more of a threat,” he said.

He said climate change affects progression of the study owing to flooding rains. However, the project will not be badly affected as it is drawing near it’s finale.

“It is not advantageous for the Project to experience climate change during cultural heritage studies. Changes in temperature, increases in rainfall or drought, and livestock mobility patterns may have a negative impact on the remaining artefacts in the LHWP area, as there will be an increase in weathering processes. Linked to this, is the possibility of mixing and an inability to separate the assemblages into their original units due to the impacts of erosion.

“The current archaeological studies are scheduled for conclusion during 2022 and therefore, current climate change conditions will have minimal impact on these studies,” he said.

“In the longer-term, changes in temperature, increases in rainfall or drought, and livestock mobility patterns may have a negative impact on the remaining,” he stated adding that coming generations will have the privilege of seeing and learning about the archaeology and cultural heritage in the Polihali Dam basin.

“A key objective of the study with regards to the identified archaeological sites is to systematically sample the area for future research potential. The loss of these heritage remains would remove from the archaeological record, an unrivalled highlands resource, both in terms of the national record, as well as its regional and international significance.

“The Project aims to conserve the cultural heritage for future generations through the implementation of several mitigations. Furthermore, mitigating these sites will provide considerable insights into the use of these mountainous areas by hunter-gatherers over the past 40,000 years. This includes their interaction with agro-pastoral farming communities, who may in general have only penetrated these areas from the early 1800’s. Notably, it will also provide the only insight into Earlier Stone Age (ESA) lifeway in Lesotho, since the Polihali area includes the only known ESA site in the country’s basalt region, circa 300,000 to 1, 4 million years ago.

According to Hloma, the Project entails not only excavation and field recordings of the highest standards, but highly exact post-field categorisation, preliminary analysis and duration of the excavated material.

“All material remains have been curated to more than acceptable international archaeological procedures and all site recording diagrams, Electronic Distance Measurement (EDM) data and photographic records are stored on both external computer hard drives and Cloud-based platforms for further reference and research.

“The main threat to rich historic remains is humans and livestock, as climate change is unpredictable. However, an extensive excavation, surface collection, rock art documentation, and landscape mapping programme has been initiated. All artefacts are to be stored in a nationally registered repository, most likely, ultimately the National Museum of Lesotho in agreement with the Department of Culture and the LHDA. Some of the materials may also be displayed at the Polihali Dam Visitors’ Centre,” he continued.

“The on-going research will contribute towards answering a range of questions currently under consideration, such as issues of human connectedness, human-environment interactions, deep-time sequences, historical interactions and settlement histories,” he said.

The government is aware of the changing climate and they are doing some activities to combat it. The Government of Lesotho has developed the 2017 National Climate Change Policy and the National Adaptation Plan of Action (NAPA) to achieve the vision of reversing environmental degradation and adapting to climate change. The government is also implementing climate change projects in several regions in the country, and developing national policies that aim to combat climate change.

He said the national authority is implementing strategies of tackling the issue while they (LHDA) have also put their shoulders to the wheel.

“The government is also implementing clean energy production projects. At the organizational level, the LHDA is in the process of undertaking its climate change vulnerability assessment which will culminate into the development of an adaptation and mitigation strategy.   

“The government of Lesotho should promote development and implementation of sustainable projects that involve creating a healthy balance between social, political and economic needs and protection of biodiversity and the environment at large. Adequate resources should also be allocated to adaptation and mitigation projects which must include awareness raising about climate change amongst the resource users. Climate awareness should also be created within youth groups to ensure that environmental protection is instilled in the younger population from their formative years into adulthood,” he said.

The Ministry of Tourism, Environment and Culture, Director of Culture Matšosane Molibeli said the government is aware about the rapid climate change which has eroded the soil and exposed some of the artefacts.

She said they are unable to conduct researches because of the unavailability of funds.

“We are aware of the flood that causes a lot of soil erosion, so we have tried to address this by engaging archaeologists from the National University of Lesotho (NUL) to work on the matter and help to rescue the objects that have been exposed,” she said.

“We were not able to finish the project but we have allocated a budget to address such impacts. There is yet another challenge in the rock art panel which is negatively impacted by the weathering. We are waiting to see how best we can solve the problem.

“We need to formalise our relationship with NUL and sign Memorandum of Understanding with the Department of Historical Studies so that the experts there can help us to conduct studies and mitigate the negative impacts of the climate change on the remains.

“This is an on-going job for the department of culture in the Ministry. In Sehlabathebe we have a World Heritage site to conserve the remains that are recovered. It is our mandate by virtue of law to protect such artefacts and climate change is leading to a speed deterioration of the remnants,” she said.

“The unfortunate part is that we don’t have a sufficient budget to address this issue. On budget allocation, our budget does not cover all our expectations and targets. We have a challenge and it is problematic to fund a research while on the other side we are talking about how we are going to alleviate poverty and food security.

“We are affiliating with the African World Heritage Fund, UNESCO and others willing to assist. We still need more support from the government coffers to conduct researches on this issue,” she said.

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