There’s a lot that can be done with a blank slab of stone. It can be scored, splattered with paint, or plastered with clay. Transformed with a smattering of scrapes or scratches or a smear of red ochre, its surface can become a swirl of abstract shapes or a field of frolicking antelopes. Ancient rock artists tried it all, becoming remarkably skilled at representing themselves and their surroundings in stone.
In the Later Stone Age of southern Africa between around 5,000 years and 1,000 years ago, for instance, ancient artists covered the surface of cliffs in modern-day Namibia with carvings of human and animal footprints.
According to a paper published in PLOS ONE, the carvings that still survive are so crisp and complex that they communicate all sorts of details about the creatures they were carved to represent, including their species, sex and maturity.
Ancient Artists Carve Their Tracks
The paper testifies to the skill of ancient artists and to the complexity and diversity of their creations while also accentuating the importance of Indigenous knowledge-keepers, who played an instrumental part in the analysis of the carvings.
In fact, the authors of the paper stress that Indigenous knowledge is imperative for advancing the field of archaeology and can contribute to the interpretation of any matter of ancient art masterpieces in the future.
Carvings of human and animal tracks play a part in an assortment of ancient art traditions from around the world, though these carvings are particularly prevalent in those of Namibia in southern Africa. That said, most research into the art and artistry of Namibian antiquity ignores these carvings in favor of the flashier abstractions and human and animal figures that are also found in the region's rock, making them a mystery in spite of their prevalence.
Setting out to study these carved-out prints specifically, a team of archaeologists turned their attention to the ancient art in Namibia’s Doro !Nawas Mountains. There, a number of abstractions and conventional, full-fledged human and animal figures cover the cliffs, along with an abundance of carvings of human and animal footprints and tracks.
"Until now, the latter have received little attention," the authors of the paper said, according to a press release. "Researchers lacked the knowledge to interpret them." But building on the budding practice of incorporating Indigenous knowledge and knowledge-keepers in archaeological investigations, the team worked with three Indigenous trackers from the nearby Kalahari desert to analyze the footprints from two separate Doro !Nawas sites.
Their analysis determined that the carvings that survive can convey an abundance of information about specific individuals and critters, if scrutinized by specialists with the proper skills and insights, that is.
Analyzing Ancient Footprints
Selected for the abundance of track carvings that they contained, the two specific Doro !Nawas sites that were involved in the team's analysis featured almost as many footprints as abstractions and full-fledged human and animal figures. In total, the team identified over 500 individual footprints and tracks carved into the cliffs, with around 100 representing humans and around 400 representing animals.
Assessing the shape of these tracks, the team found that the carvings were not general nor generic. Instead, they were specific forms that represented specific individuals. Among the 100 or so tracks representing humans, the majority were male rather than female and non-adults rather than adults. Among the 400 tracks representing animals, most were male adults, with some of the most represented critters including giraffes and antelopes.
Overall, the team identified around 40 separate species in the tracks from the two sites, revealing what they see as a "surprising" amount of diversity, according to a press release. Not only that, the footprints were much more diverse than the full-fledged figures that were scraped and scratched into the stone of Doro !Nawas, suggesting that the tracks and figures were not necessarily related to one another.
According to the authors, their analysis shows that the ancient artists of the region were master track-makers, carving tracks according to cultural preferences for certain types of creatures. And though the precise meaning and purpose of these footprint creations may remain mysterious at the moment, the team says that working with Indigenous trackers could continue to chip away at some of the mystery, though maybe not all, if carried on into the future.