New dating method reveals age of South African rock art

An innovative technique known as accelerator mass spectrometry (AMS) allowed to date rock art at 14 sites in three regions of Southern Africa to 5723-4420 cal BP, making them the oldest to date in the area.

Painting from Thune Valley, Botswana (by Adelphine Bonneau)

Hunter-gatherer rock art in Southern Africa is made up both of paintings and engravings, which were produced by ancient communities associated with the present-day San (bushmen) culture. The art represent what the shamans had seen during their journeys in the world of the spirits so that the people of the tribe could see it themselves. The recently applied technique is more superior to the so-far-applied C14 dating because a much smaller sample of painting is necessary for it.

Later Stone Age painting (by Adelphine Bonneau)

The sites under investigation were located in the Thune Dam area of south-eastern Botswana, the Metolong Dam catchment of western Lesotho and the Maclear District of South Africa’s Eastern Cape Province. The researchers first collected very small painting samples (around 0.5 square mm), after requesting the authorisation of the San people who still use the rock art during rituals. After determining the paintings’ overall composition individual paintings were chosen. Advanced chemical techniques were used to clean up the samples, to avoid them being polluted by radiocarbon contaminants, which allowed to establish the first direct dates for rock art in South Africa.

Painting from Phuthiatsana Valley, Lesotho (by Adelphine Bonneau)

According to the researchers until this study, it had been impossible to associate any of the rock art with specific archaeological artefacts found close by. Archaeologists hope that with the art now more accurately dated, it will be possible to study how potteries and other objects evolved in parallel to rock art. Since rock art reflected their spiritual world, we may get new insights on their society and the cultural and spiritual connections they shared with other tribes.

(after Adelphine Bonneau & International Business Times)

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