| 7 February 2004
Archaeologists shed new light on African rock art
A huge collection of cave paintings in central South Africa, once dismissed as primitive scribblings, have turned out to be 2,000 years older than previously thought. Carbon-dating technology has revised the prehistory of the Drakensberg plateau in KwaZulu-Natal which has the largest and most concentrated collection of rock paintings in sub-Saharan Africa.
Archaeologists from the University of Newcastle upon Tyne, working with a team from the Australian National University in Canberra, report that many of the 40,000 paintings in 500 caves and rock shelters are 3,000 years old. This revolutionises the previously accepted view that the artwork dated from about the second half of the 11th century which itself was an upward revision of 19th-century assumptions that the paintings were more relatively recent tribal work.
The paintings at the world heritage site of uKhahlamba-Drakensberg - only discovered 150 years ago - use sophisticated red, orange, white and black pigments to portray animal and human scenes. The images include hunts in progress and close-ups of animals such as the eland - an antelope with spiral horns. Other pictures pose questions about the social and economic life of the artists, the San people, who moved into the Drakensberg 8,000 years ago and were gradually wiped out by the steady expansion of the European settlers across South Africa during the 1800s through a combination of disease, war and starvation. One intriguing picture is a procession of half-human, half-animal figures with human bodies, but hooves and animal faces and hair.
The dating breakthrough followed years of frustration over basic carbon dating which required samples too big too remove without destroying the paintings. The new study pioneered a technical improvement which uses accelerator mass spectrometry applied to salt samples taken from painted rock without causing damage. "We can now begin to match up the paintings with excavations in the rock shelters which we have already been able to date," archaeologist Aron Mazel said.
Sources: The Guardian, Reuters (7 February 2004)
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