Archeologists Discover Secrets of Incredibly Detailed Stone Age Animal Art

Researchers working with Indigenous experts have uncovered fascinating information about a set of ancient rock engravings in southwestern Africa.

The rock art was created by hunter-gatherers in what is now Namibia during the late Stone Age as far back as 5,000 years ago, but potentially more recently—engravings are notoriously difficult to date.

The engravings found in western Namibia's Doro Nawas Mountains include depictions of the tracks of various animals and human footprints. They also depict human figures and naturalistic engravings of whole animals, such as elephants, in profile.

The artworks are so detailed that modern-day Indigenous trackers have been able to identify the species of animals, as well as their general age and sex.

Stone Age rock art in Namibia
Stone Age depictions of human footprints and animal tracks in the Doro Nawas mountains of Namibia. Indigenous experts have been able to identify the animals in the engravings. Andreas Pastoors / PLOS ONE, CC-BY 4.0

The findings are described in a study published in the open-access journal PLOS ONE on Wednesday.

"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, one of the authors of the study with the University of Erlangen-Nuremberg in Germany, told Newsweek.

Engravings of animal tracks and human footprints have been documented at various prehistoric rock art sites around the world. Namibia is particularly rich in hunter-gatherer rock art from the late Stone Age, with several examples of well-executed animal track engravings documented in the country.

While such engravings are common, they have often been overlooked by researchers.

"To date, the field has completely disregarded the fact that tracks and trackways are a rich medium of information for hunter-gatherers, alongside their deeper, culture-specific connotations," the study's authors wrote in the paper.

In an attempt to address this research gap, the researchers enlisted the help of Indigenous tracking experts from the Kalahari Desert—a semi-arid sandy savannah that covers much of Botswana, as well as parts of Namibia and South Africa—to analyze the rock art.

The rock art sites examined in the study were chosen primarily for their abundance of track engravings on single panels. The engravings are etched into sandstone boulders in an isolated, crater-like basin.

Surveys conducted over the past few years by a team from Goethe University in Frankfurt, Germany, have revealed more than 1,800 track engravings at 60 sites in the region.

The rock sites examined in the study are located around 7 miles west of the renowned UNESCO World Heritage Site of Twyfelfontein, which contains one of the largest concentrations of rock engravings in Africa.

For the study, the Indigenous experts were able to identify the species, age group, and even the exact leg used to produce the animal or human print in more than 90 percent of the 513 engravings that they analyzed.

In total, the Indigenous experts identified around 40 different species. Of the 513 tracks analyzed, 345 represented animals that walk on four legs, while 62 were identified as bird tracks.

"We were surprised to find that the number of different species in the tracks was greater than the number of animals in the profile view," Pastoors said.

The species that most commonly appear at the sites, in descending order of frequency, are giraffe, kudu, springbok, guinea fowl, white and black rhino, ostrich, oryx, warthog, leopard and zebra.

Some species only appear "rarely"—i.e. once or twice. These include aardvark, aardwolf, cheetah, eland, jackal, porcupine, rabbit and black stork.

Among the less frequently depicted animals are African wildcat, baboon, blue wildebeest, buffalo, bushbuck, caracal, elephant, lion, vervet monkey, roan antelope, steenbok, and two birds—kori bustard and red-crested korhaan.

"This study... shows that engravers made evident and deliberate choices around the types of tracks of a particular animal they would most frequently depict," the authors wrote.

Intriguingly, some of the animals represented by the track engravings are no longer found in the region today because they require a more humid climate and environment than currently prevails.

The artists showed a clear preference for certain species and there are more depictions of adult animals than juveniles, as well as male footprints compared to those of females.

These patterns appear to be culturally determined, but the meaning and context of the rock art remain a mystery.

"We don't know the meaning of any Stone Age rock art in the world because we don't have the Rosetta Stone," Pastoors said.

Nevertheless, the researchers suggest that discussions with modern-day Indigenous experts could shed at least some light on this issue, although the precise meaning will likely remain elusive.

"Whatever the deeper and symbolic meanings of these engravings, it could only emerge in its entirety through a direct conversation with the artists," the authors wrote in the study.

The findings provide further confirmation that Indigenous knowledge has the capacity to "considerably advance" archaeological research, the authors said.

"In the future, it will be difficult not to involve track experts in the study of Stone Age track depictions," Pastoors told Newsweek.

Editor's Picks

Newsweek cover
  • Newsweek magazine delivered to your door
  • Unlimited access to
  • Ad free experience
  • iOS and Android app access
  • All newsletters + podcasts
Newsweek cover
  • Unlimited access to
  • Ad free experience
  • iOS and Android app access
  • All newsletters + podcasts