Rock Art in Southern Africa; November 1996; Scientific American Magazine; by Solomon; 8 Page(s)
For more than three hours, Aron D. Mazel of the Natal Museum 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 expedition the next day. At nearby sites, we collected tiny flakes of paint from 10 different works of art and then returned to Cape Town.
The pigment from a painting of an eland (the biggest local antelope) turned out to contain microscopic plant fibers. Mazel and Alan L. Watchman, who owns the laboratory Data-Roche Watchman, dated these strands at about 400 years old. 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. The earliest date comes from a Namibian cave, where excavated floors contained painted slabs from between 19,000 and 26,000 years ago. But the remainder of the work seems to fall into the Holocene period--approximately the past 10,000 years.