More than 400 footprints across a diverse range of species have been identified in incredible detail for the first time, with researchers enlisting a trio of expert indigenous trackers to help solve the mystery of these 5,000-year-old carvings.
In the collection of carvings, discovered in the Doro Nawas Mountains in central Western Namibia, researchers from Germany’s Friedrich-Alexander University of Erlangen-Nürnberg and the University of Cologne in Germany, employed the skills of modern-day Kalahari desert trackers who were able to not just identify 407 unique prints, but work out the species, sex and estimated age, and even which animal leg the cave-dwellers had carved.
They also found that these ancient engravers showed a clear preference for certain species and were more likely to depict adult animals than juveniles, and male footprints compared to female footprints, reports Phys.org.
Overall, at least 40 species were clearly identified by their distinctive footprints, including giraffe, white and black rhinos, ostrich, leopard, springbok, and zebra. Others included monkey, porcupine, jackal, elephant, lion, cheetah, aardvark and baboon. Plus numerous bird prints. Was it an educational tool for young adults before they went out hunting?
While there are many theories as to why animal prints make it into some of our earliest art galleries, and we might never know the full picture, it does provide a valuable record as to how landscapes and animal populations change.
Print identification is not foolproof, but it does spotlight how important a unique indigenous skillset is to research, say the authors of the study published in the journal PLoS ONE.
“Namibia's rock faces contain numerous Stone Age depictions of animals and humans, as well as human footprints and animal tracks,” noted the researchers. “Until now, the latter have received little attention because researchers lacked the knowledge to interpret them.”