New research reveals earliest directly dated rock paintings from southern Africa

Popular Archeology | 6/1/2017 | Staff
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UNIVERSITY OF THE WITWATERSRAND—In a study published in the international journal Antiquity, Professor David Pearce, Director of the Rock Art Research Institute at the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, Adelphine Bonneau of Laval University, and colleagues at the University of Oxford showed that paintings in south-eastern Botswana are at least 5,500 years old, whilst paintings in Lesotho and the Eastern Cape Drakensberg, South Africa, date as far back as 3,000 years. These dates open the floodgates for researchers to ask and answer questions about the rock art that have baffled them for decades.

The dates obtained show some surprising results. In some sites, paintings continued to be made for more than a thousand years. "This is astonishing," says Pearce, "people returned to the same rock shelters over very long periods of time to make rock paintings very similar to those made centuries or millennia before. This finding has profound implications for our understanding of hunter-gatherer religion in southern Africa."

Research - Thune - Dam - Botswana - Metolong

Research was conducted in the Thune Dam in Botswana, the Metolong Dam area in the Phuthiatsana Valley of Lesotho, and the Drakensberg Escarpment of the Eastern Cape in the 'Nomansland' region of South Africa. A total of 43 new dates were produced from these three areas, including the first direct dates on rock paintings ever in Botswana and Lesotho.

The new dates were obtained using radiocarbon dating. Over the decades rock art has proved extremely difficult to directly date. Indeed, it has been a major obstacle in this area of research. The success of this project is based on very careful chemical characterisation of the composition of the paint and contaminants on the rock. New chemical techniques were developed to remove contaminants from small samples of paint. These could...
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