Friday, February 06, 2004

Dating South African Rock Art

Given how much attention is paid to the cave art of Lascaux, Chauvet, Altamira and other European sites, one might be forgiven for imagining that the so-called "Creative Explosion" characterised by Paleolithic art was a uniquely European phenomenon. In truth, such art is to be found in copious quantities across the entire globe, wherever men have resided. If the historical record of the distant past is more poorly preserved in some places than others, it owes more to unfavorable climatic conditions than to any artistic shortcomings of those who lived in those regions. At any rate, this article about the San art of South Africa's uKhahlamba-Drakensberg Park provides a bit of a corrective to the conventional wisdom.

New radio-carbon dating technology shows some South African rock art to be three times older than previously believed, Newcastle University in the United Kingdom said.
A study by archaeologists at the institution estimated that rock art at the World Heritage Site of uKhahlamba-Drakensberg in KwaZulu-Natal could be 3,000 years old.
Their age was originally put at 1,000 years, university spokeswoman Claire Jordan said in a statement to Sapa.
Archaeologists from the Australian National University in Canberra participated in the study.
"The findings, published in the current edition of the academic journal South African Humanities, have major implications for our understanding of how the rock artists lived and the social changes that were taking place over the last three millennia," Jordan said.
The mountainous uKhahlamba-Drakensberg region was considered to be one of the best areas in the world for rock art.
It has the largest and most concentrated group of painting in Africa south of the Sahara, with over 40,000 paintings, said Jordan.
San hunter-gatherers, who settled in the area about 8,000 years ago, created the artwork using mainly black, white, red and orange pigments.

[............]

The research team were able to analyse salt samples taken from the painted rocks using a highly-refined radio-carbon dating technique known as accelerator mass spectrometry.
The results show some of the paintings are at least 3,000 years old.
Jordan said: "Experts suspect they could be even older due to the San people's long occupation of the area but say they need to carry out further tests to prove this theory."

As the passage makes clear, there is a tremendous wealth of material in this region that has been paid little attention in the West. In addition, the ancient settlement date attributed to the San, and the prodigious quantities of art testifying to their continuous habitation of the region, ought to dispel any doubts that the old Afrikaner propaganda about South Africa being an "empty" land, which one still often encounters today, has any basis in reality. Even if Bantu settlement hadn't long predated the arrival of any Europeans (as in fact it did), South Africa still wouldn't have been a land without a people. "Scarcely populated," sure, but hardly "empty."