Africa’s oldest rock paintings were found in southern Namibia in 1969 and carbon-dated to 30,000 years old. In a shelter in Zimbabwe’s Matobo Hills archaeologists found probable palettes with paint which were dated to more than 40,000 years of age. These could also have been used for body painting and skins. Meanwhile, earliest fragments of pigment from paintings have been dated to 10,000 years with definite (existing) painting periods dated to between 9,000 to 8,000 and about 4,000 to 2,000 years ago. Recently, pieces of ochre with abstract scratchings were found in the Cape, South Africa, which have been dated to over 70,000 years old. With them were estuarine shell beads believed to have formed a necklace.
Most experts now believe that the rock art tradition in Africa may go back at least 50,000 years, however the vast majority of the rock art we see today is much more recent than these discoveries. Unlike the rock paintings of Europe which are typically found in deep limestone caves most of Africa’s rock paintings are on exposed surfaces and in shallow shelters usually open to heat and cold, sun, wind, rain and natural erosion. Meanwhile the rock engravings and carvings are found out in the open on cliffs and boulders. Except in special circumstances most rock art in Africa is probably not more than 7,000 years old. The likelihood of art surviving any longer in exposed situations is usually slim. Exceptions to this may exist in places like Zimbabwe’s Matobo Hills and in Algeria’s Tassili n’Ajjer where rock paintings have been dated to nearly 10,000 years old and some of Libya’s and Algeria’s deeply etched engravings may be even older.
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* BP denotes “Before Present”