The more than 4,500 cave paintings of the Kalahari desert, some older than those of Lascaux and Altamira

The rock paintings in the European caves of Lascaux and Altamira are among the most impressive in the world. But they are not the oldest, nor are they the most prolific.

If we stick to antiquity, we must consider those discovered three years ago on the island of Sulawesi, Indonesia, which would date back to about 40,000 years ago. The archaeologists then highlighted the surprising stylistic similarity of these paintings with those of the caves of northern Spain and southern France.

And if we look at the quantity, the palm would go to the Brandberg mountain in Namibia, which houses some 45,000 cave paintings, although from a much later time, about 2,000 years old.

A place that combines both aspects is also in Africa, in an unsuspected area due to its aridity, in the part of the Kalahari desert that belongs to Botswana.

Tsodilo Hills on Google Maps

It is about Tsodilo, four isolated hills, the largest of which rises 1,400 meters above sea level (400 meters above the environment), which in its 10 square kilometers of surface house some 4,500 cave paintings, the oldest dating back almost 24,000 years (those of Lascaux and Altamira have been dated 17,000 years ago).

In the hills, which are called Male, Female (highest), and Kid (the fourth mound is unnamed), there are numerous caves in which prehistoric artifacts from up to 70,000 years ago have been found, as well as at least 20 prehistoric mines. This, along with the paintings, has earned the place inclusion on the UNESCO World Heritage List, which on its official website considers it one of the largest concentrations of parietal art in the world, and calls it the louvre of the desertadding that:

The authenticity of the rock art in terms of materials, techniques, scenery and workmanship is impeccable and, apart from some impact caused by natural deterioration and visitors, it remains as original as at the time of its creation.

Panel Laurens van der Post / photo W. Goodlet on Wikimedia Commons

Most of the paintings are located on the hill Femalebeing the panel Laurens van der Post the most famous set of all, named after the South African writer of the same name who first described them in his book The Lost World of the Kalaharipublished in 1958.

Although they were rediscovered to the Western world in 1898, the paintings did not receive legal protection until the late 1930s. And study of them would not begin until 1978, when the Botswana National Museum began cataloging them, along with excavations of the numerous caves and mines.

Photo Joachim Huber on Flickr

Today there is a small museum and a camping area with showers and services for visitors who come to the place, with the possibility of hiring guides to take a tour of the most outstanding paintings (most of the 500 areas with paintings are in places difficult to access).

What made these hills so special? It is a question that researchers have asked themselves for decades, especially considering that no other hill in the area shows paintings or traces of occupation. The answer probably lies in its consideration as a sacred place, place of birth and death of the first gods of the local peoples.

Experts estimate that the hills were used ritually by hunter-gatherer peoples for thousands of years. Some paintings, the more than 3,800 in red, would have been created by the ancestors of the San (Bushmen) peoples, today reduced to just 95,000 individuals spread across Botswana, Namibia, Angola, the South African Republic, Zambia and Zimbabwe.

Paintings in Tsodilo / photo Shutterstock

Others, the approximately 200 white ones, are attributed to the Bantu, a group of peoples who spread from west-central Africa to the east and south about 1,500 years ago, occupying the territory of the Bushmen.

Most are found in open places, rocks and ravines, exposed to inclement weather and sunlight, while a few appear sheltered from ledges or inside the caves themselves. The motifs depicted are mainly animal and geometric designs, with a few human representations and hand prints.

Giraffes, antelopes, rhinos, zebras, elephants and cows represented as silhouettes predominate, while the human figures are more schematic, with no indication of clothing or utensils and weapons, although they are sexually differentiated.

Paintings in Tsodilo / photo Shutterstock

The white paints are mostly concentrated in what is appropriately known as Coat of the White Paintings, in which at least 7 representations of horsemen and a cart with wheels appear. These horseback riders cannot be older than 1852, the year this animal was introduced to the area.

Curiously, and despite being older, the red paintings are more elaborate than the white ones. These are sometimes made on top of the red ones, superimposed.

The tradition of the current San natives says that Tsodilo is the place where life arose, and the representations of their ancestors, the red paintings, reflect the tracks of the first animals, and their search for the first waters.

In 2006, while researching in one of the Tsodilo caves, archaeologist Sheila Coulson discovered a rock that appears to have the shape of a large snake that, depending on whether the light of day or a fire falls on it, appears to have scales. or move. It could be a coincidence, but digging near the head of the supposed serpent she found some 13,000 lithic artifacts, most of them spearheads, up to 70,000 years old, which could indicate that some kind of ritual took place there. .


Excavations at the Tsodilo Hills Rhino Cave (Lawrence H. Robbins et al.) / UNESCO / Tsodilo Hill, Botswana (Alec Campbell and Lawrence Robbins) / The Kalahari Environment (David Thomas and Paul A. Shaw) / World’s oldest ritual discovered. Worshiped the python 70,000 years ago /Wikipedia.