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South Africa
Culture - Arts | Science - Education

Rock paintings in South Africa older than thought

afrol News, 10 February - The world famous rock art in South Africa's uKhahlamba-Drakensberg, a World Heritage Site, is three times older than previously thought, archaeologists conclude in a new study. The more than 40,000 paintings were made by the San people some 3000 years ago, a new analysis had shown.

Previous work on the age of the rock art in uKhahlamba-Drakensberg concluded it is less than 1,000 years old. But the new study - headed by a South African archaeologist leading a team from the University of Newcastle upon Tyne (UK) and Australian National University in Canberra - estimates the panels were created up to 3,000 years ago. They used the latest radio-carbon dating technology.

The findings, published in the current edition of the academic journal 'South African Humanities', have "major implications for our understanding of how the rock artists lived and the social changes that were taking place over the last three millennia," according to a press release from the British university.

When Europeans first encountered the rock paintings in the mountainous uKhahlamba-Drakensberg region, around 150 years ago, they considered it primitive and crude. Today, experts consider the area to be one of the top areas in the world for rock art, with the largest and most concentrated group of paintings in Africa south of the Sahara. Over 40,000 paintings exist in 500 rock shelters.

The artwork, made by the San hunter-gatherers who first settled in the area around 8,000 years ago, was made using mainly black, white, red and orange pigments. The San people, earlier known by the condescending term "Bushmen", are considered the indigenous population of Southern Africa.

The numerous paintings depict animal and human scenes and are said to represent the religious beliefs of the San people, whose occupation of the mountains ended in tragic circumstances in the nineteenth century, following their conflict with European colonists. Subjects include the indigenous eland (a large, spiral-horned antelope) and huntsmen.

Until recently, archaeologists have struggled to tell exactly how old the paintings were, mainly because dating techniques have required larger samples for analysis than it has been possible to collect without destroying the art work.

However, the research team analysed salt samples taken from rocks adorned with the paintings using a new highly-refined radiocarbon dating technique known as accelerator mass spectrometry (AMS), the Newcastle University statement said.

- The results showed some of the paintings are up to 3,000 years old, say the researchers. Experts however suspect they "could be even older due to the San people's long occupation of the area," but say they need to carry out further tests to prove this theory.

Dr Aron Mazel, a South African researcher, formerly of the Natal Museum in Pietermaritzburg, South Africa, and now based at the University of Newcastle upon Tyne, carried out the work with Australian archaeologist Dr Alan Watchman.

- We are still in the early stages of exploiting this new technology, commented Mr Mazel, "but it's possible further investigation could reveal that some of the paintings could be even older than 3,000 years, especially as we knew the San people first occupied the area 8,000 years ago."

Mr Mazel said the team hoped to use this technique to date more of the paintings and organise them in chronological order in the hope that, "like a family photograph album, they can tell us a little more about how life evolved for the San people during the several thousands of years they occupied the mountains."

This could answer various question, the South African researcher added. "For example, how did their society change, and how did their beliefs change with it? Was there periods of stress that led to increased episodes of painting? Did the themes of the paintings develop over time? So many questions like this are unanswered at the moment."

Dr Chris Chippindale, professor with the Rock Art Research Institute, University of the Witwatersrand, South Africa, commented that the uKhahlamba-Drakensberg sequence "is one of the great riches in rock art, and rock art is one of the great riches in archaeology. The pictures are a direct firsthand record of the world that ancient people lived in, experienced, and understood."

- Dating is important to all archaeology and rock art has proved very hard to date, added the South African professor. "It looks as if the uKhahlamba-Drakensberg rock art sequence may be very long. Any new study which tells us reliably about its age is very much to be welcomed."

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