A recent article on a National Geographic blog titled, ‘Vanished! The Surprising Things Missing from Ancient Art’ claims that there are no trees in rock art.
“Take a look, a long rambling look, at the cave paintings that Paleolithic artists drew as far back as 40,000 years ago. There are hundreds of them, in Spain, in France, all over the world. … But here’s what there’s not … Leafy things don’t appear in Paleolithic art. Nor do bushes. Nor trees.”
The author goes on to posit that perhaps plants only begin to appear in rock art once agriculture emerges; that commercialisation of plant commodities make them important and noticeable to people. But considering that different San groups who painted stunning botanical imagery in southern Africa lived as hunters and gatherers…it’s a bit difficult to accept this claim. Furthermore, Siyakha Mguni in his book ‘Termites of the Gods‘ has posited that the botanical images that San peoples made were strongly related to their spiritual worldviews, which would have existed prior to contact with Bantu farming groups.
What is tricky of course is the timing. While the article asserts that until 5,000 years after the Palaeolithic era (which ended about 10,000 or 8,000 years ago) no trees appear, we know that dating rock art is difficult. Where paintings contain carbon such as charcoal as an ingredient, it is possible to date paintings. However, charcoal was not a common ingredient of African rock art pigments, meaning paintings and engravings, such as those by Saharan cultures or the San, both of which represent long painting traditions, are near-impossible to date.
But trees, even though rare, are most certainly present in prehistoric art. In going through our African rock art archive, I came across leaves, branches, whole trees, palm fronds and even, wait for it, an animal “nuzzling a leafy thing”. So here’s 19 images that show that botanical imagery was not uninteresting or out of mind for ancient artists.