Before a dam flooded a site replete with ancient rock art in Botswana, researchers nabbed fragments of the painted creations so that they could date them. The team then developed a new method that isolated the original carbon from the paint — in this case, charcoal, soot and carbon black (a blend of burnt fat) — so they could determine the age with radiocarbon dating.
The radiocarbon dating revealed that the paint fragments were about 5,000 years ago, making them the oldest rock art on record in southern Africa. [Read the Full Story on the Southern African Rock Art]
Rock art map
Researchers sampled 14 sites within three regions of southern Africa: the Thune Dam area in Botswana (three sites); the Metolong Dam catchment of Lesotho (five sites); and the Maclear District of South Africa (six sites).
Lead study researcher Adelphine Bonneau collects a tiny sample from a rock art site in South Africa.
A view of a rock shelter covered with rock art in Lesotho.
Ancient rock art can be harmed by the elements, such as wind, rain and erosion. But animals can also damage it. Case in point: This sheep is hungry for rock art.
A bird nested in a rock shelter that's also covered with rock art.
"This bird looked at us for the entire day when we came to sample the paintings," Bonneau said.
Bonneau uses a ladder to collect a sample of paint for radiocarbon dating in Lesotho.
[Read the Full Story on the Southern African Rock Art]
A painting of an eland (also known as an eland antelope) in Lesotho.
One of the fish from the site with 5,000-year-old rock art in the Thune Valley, Botswana. This painting dates to the later Stone Age.
A wider view of the rock art site in Botswana, which is now underwater because of Thune Dam, located in the Kalahari Desert.
A painting of an eland from South Africa.
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Laura is the archaeology and Life's Little Mysteries editor at Live Science. She also reports on general science, including paleontology. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, Scholastic, Popular Science and Spectrum, a site on autism research. She has won multiple awards from the Society of Professional Journalists and the Washington Newspaper Publishers Association for her reporting at a weekly newspaper near Seattle. Laura holds a bachelor's degree in English literature and psychology from Washington University in St. Louis and a master's degree in science writing from NYU.