Tracking in Stone Age rock art

View of depictions of human and animal tracks in the Doro !nawas Mountains of Namibia. © Andreas Pastoors

Animal representations of a special kind: In Namibia, Stone Age hunters and gatherers once depicted numerous animal footprints on rock faces. Local trackers have now given a German research team insights into the secrets of this rock art. They were able to show that people at that time conveyed information in the tracking images: In addition to the species and the respective limb, the age, gender and direction of movement of the animal depicted are also reflected. The study once again illustrates how research can benefit from indigenous knowledge, say the scientists.

Stone surfaces once served as “canvases”: in many places around the world, prehistoric people left behind fascinating depictions of their beliefs and lives. Animal or human figures or hand silhouettes were often depicted. But depictions of footprints and animal tracks are also known from some sites. Particularly striking examples can be found in the Doro !nawas Mountains in north-western central Namibia. Today this area is largely left to wild animals - but that wasn't always the case: rock art at many sites shows that hunters and gatherers lived there in the Stone Age. They carved human and animal representations into the stone surfaces: in addition to entire body figures, there are also numerous footprints and animal tracks.

Indigenous knowledge flows into science

However, little attention has been paid to the images of animal tracks. “It was actually completely ignored that traces and trails are also a rich information medium,” says co-author Andreas Pastoors from the Friedrich-Alexander University Erlangen-Nuremberg (FAU). One reason for this was probably that the researchers who arrived lacked an expert eye for these elements. But Pastoors and his colleagues have now compensated for this weakness: the scientists gained the support of the Namibian trackers Tsamgao Ciqae, /Ui Kxunta and Thui Thao. The German-Namibian research team set up a camp near the rock paintings in the Doro !nawas Mountains, from which six rock faces could easily be visited and analyzed.

The illustrations there show various motifs, including figures of people and animals such as elephants, giraffes, rhinos and ostriches. These representations are also relatively easy to recognize and interpret for Western archaeologists. But this is not the case with the numerous images of animal tracks: “From a Western art historical perspective, researchers cannot see anything in these images because they lack the expertise to do so. So the tracks have not yet been viewed as a readable source of information,” says Pastoors. However, given the extensive depiction of these elements, it can be assumed that they were very important to people back then.

A connoisseur's eye provides exciting information

As it now turns out, the local experts were actually able to recognize interesting detailed information in the images: in more than 90 percent of the 513 track images analyzed, they not only identified the animal species, but also the age group, the gender, the exact limbs, the side of the body and the walking path. It became clear that more species were represented by the animal tracks than by the figures in the neighboring rock areas. The additional 20 species included representatives of monkeys, antelopes and birds, the team reports.

What was interesting was that some of these animal species do not occur in the region today and they require wetter environmental conditions than those that prevail - at least today - in this part of Namibia. So the question arises as to why they were depicted. It is possible that these animals once also occurred in this region. But it is actually assumed that the Doro !nawas Mountains were as dry back then as they are today. However, they may have known the people through their extensive forays. “It is entirely conceivable that the artists knew regions with wetter environmental conditions,” says Pastoors.

During the investigation, the team also noticed an interesting pattern in the direction of travel shown. “We projected a virtual clock onto the rock face and then noted the orientation of the tracks according to the number of hours,” explains Pastoors. It turned out that most of the tracks are aligned vertically: most point upwards towards twelve o'clock and some also point downwards towards six o'clock. But there was an interesting exception to this rule, the team discovered: the tracks of the zebras were depicted on the rock faces pointing in all possible directions. So maybe this had some special meaning.

“This study was really exciting because there is a lot more information in the animal tracks than previously expected,” sums up Pastoors. Finally, he also highlights an overarching significance of the study: “It is further confirmation that indigenous knowledge, with its profound insights into a number of subject areas, can significantly advance archaeological research,” says the scientist.

Source: Friedrich Alexander University Erlangen-Nuremberg, specialist article: PLoS ONE, doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0289560

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