Stone Age Engravings of Animal Tracks Reveal New Details in Namibia

Indigenous tracking experts determined the species, sex, age group and leg of depicted animals in hundreds of carvings of footprints

A narrow corridor between two slabs of rock with carvings on them
Engravings at the study site depict animal tracks. Lenssen-Erz T, Pastoors A, Uthmeier T, Ciqae T, Kxunta /, Thao T (2023)

Researchers have revealed new and specific details about hundreds of engraved animal tracks and human footprints found in western Namibia’s Doro! Nawas Mountains, according to a new study published last week in the journal PLOS One.

Such engravings are difficult to precisely date, but the team—consisting of three German archaeologists and three African Indigenous animal tracking experts—estimated these were made between 1,000 and 5,000 years ago, during the Later Stone Age.

Tsamgao Ciqae, /Ui Kxunta and Thui Thao, Indigenous tracking experts from the Nyae Nyae Conservancy in Namibia and co-authors of the paper, determined the species, sex and age group of the animals that made the depicted tracks—as well as which leg made the imprint—for more than 90 percent of the 513 carvings.

The level of detail the trackers gleaned goes “well beyond the general ability of archaeologists to fully appreciate such engravings,” Gary Haynes, an anthropologist at the University of Nevada, Reno, who did not contribute to the study, tells Science’s Phie Jacobs.

Engravings of animal footprints have been frequently found in prehistoric rock art around the world. Arguably, the authors write, prehistoric hunter-gatherers would have learned information from tracks that aided their survival. But previous studies have typically not studied these engravings closely and have tended not to include Indigenous researchers, according to the paper.

From the carvings at Doro! Nawas, the tracking experts identified 407 animal tracks, determining that 345 were of animals with four feet and 62 were of birds. The footprint carvings spanned 40 species and represented a greater variety of animals than were depicted in engravings of creatures’ full bodies also found at the site.

Most frequently depicted were tracks of giraffes, guineafowl, rhinos, ostriches, warthogs and four kinds of antelope. Three-quarters of the identified engravings were of adult tracks, and slightly more were of male animals than females. The proportion of male and female tracks varied between species, however—among creatures like leopards and birds called red-crested korhaan, female tracks were dominant.

The tracking experts also noted that for four-legged animals, more tracks of front legs than hind legs were engraved, and among the most commonly documented species, most of the tracks were depicted as facing upward on the rocks.

Of the 513 total track engravings, 106 were identified as human, and 88 of those belonged to non-adults. The examined sites also include large engravings of humans and elephants.

Haynes calls the identifications “impressive and thought-provoking,” per Science.

The results demonstrate the insights Indigenous knowledge can contribute to archaeological research, the authors write.

“Our study has shown how much information is hidden in the depiction of tracks and footprints, and that we can capture it with the right knowledge,” Andreas Pastoors, an author of the study and archaeologist at the University of Erlangen-Nuremberg in Germany, says to Newsweek’s Aristos Georgiou. “In the future, it will be difficult not to involve track experts in the study of Stone Age track depictions.”

Some of the species identified in the tracks do not live in the area today, because present conditions are too dry for them. But the carvings suggest the region could have been wetter during the Later Stone Age, allowing more species to live there—or the engravers could have been documenting their knowledge of animals that lived in more humid regions to the east and north, the study authors hypothesize.

What remains unanswered is the question of why exactly people made these carvings. While the tracking experts theorize the engravings could have been used to teach people to track, the depictions are in poorly lit areas that are hard to access, writes Science.

“We cannot understand what the depictions were made for, there’s no clue,” Pastoors tells New Scientist’s Michael Le Page.

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