The Southern region of Africa is known for its rich and detailed collection of rock art left by ancient hunters and gathers, but as much as these creations are well-understood, their exact dates are not.
By collecting samples of paint, researchers were able to identify the types of carbons in the pigments and ultimately date them as more than 5,000 years old – deeming the drawings the ‘earliest directly dated’ paintings in the region.
For years, experts have known the meanings behind the ancient images, but have been unable to determine when they were created.
Researchers used a method called accelerator mass spectrometry (AMS) to carry out the first direct dating of ancient rock art in Southern Africa.
The team gathered small paint samples that were analyzed using light microscopy, scanning electron microscopy-energy dispersive X-ray spectroscopy (SEM-EDS) and Raman and Fourier transform infrared (FTIR) spectroscopies to determine morphology and elemental and molecular composition’.
The latest study takes a more innovated approach using accelerator mass spectrometry (AMS), earn more about what the ancient people used to create the works of art (in the Maclear District, South Africa)This process helped researchers determine if the paintings consisting of carbon and if they originated from short-lived organic materials rather than charcoal – as the charcoal used could be much older than the paintings.
, 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 5500 years old, whilst paintings in Lesotho and the Eastern Cape Drakensberg, South Africa, date as far back as 3000 years.
These dates open the floodgates for researchers to ask and answer questions about the rock art that have baffled them for decades. In some sites, paintings continued to be made for more than a thousand years.
Pictographs and petroglyphs represent the two main techniques used to make rock art.
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.
“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.