Rock Art in Southern Africa; Science and Art; Exclusive Online Issues; by Anne Soloman; 7 Page(s)
For more than three hours, a colleague and I walked through the grassy foothills of the Drakensberg Mountains in KwaZulu-Natal, meeting not a soul on the way. Ultimately, we came to a wide cave half-screened by bushes and a splashing waterfall. Behind this watery veil are some of the finest specimens of ancient San, or "Bushman," rock painting in South Africa. The water has not damaged them, although vandals have. We gazed at walls covered with more than 1,600 images of humans and animals engaged in myriad activities. That night, we slept in the cave, continuing our trip the next day.
That expedition, 10 years ago, was to obtain paint samples that might be radiocarbon-dated. One sample, from a painting of an eland (the biggest of all antelopes), contained microscopic quantities of organic material that allowed the image to be dated to about 400 years ago. Such a direct measurement is rare. Most pieces of rock art, painted in red, brown or yellow ocher--a hydrous iron oxide--contain no organic carbon. So radiocarbon dating, which measures the steady decline of the isotope carbon 14 in organic materials, cannot be used. Our earliest date comes from a Namibian cave, where excavated floors contained painted slabs between 19,000 and 26,000 years old. The oldest date we have for painting on cave walls indicates that mural art was being made at least 3,600 years ago.