As climate shocks loom, a race to document Namibian rock art
- Namibian rock art threatened by climate change
- Indigenous heritage threatened with extinction
- Calls for funding to study ancient paintings and engravings
OMARURU, Namibia, November 2 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – Among the roving herd painted on the rocks of Namibia’s Erongo Mountains, some creatures are easy to spot – the long necks of giraffes, the spikes of horns of antelopes. Other animals have disappeared beyond recognition.
Local guide Johannes Ikun Nani had only seen the rock art of his ancestors in books, until a job took him to the central region of the country, where ancient rock paintings and engravings have become a growing tourist attraction over the years.
Nani considers herself lucky to have witnessed her legacy, especially because archaeologists say climate change could hasten her demise.
“I’m proud to see this with my own eyes,” Nani, an indigenous San descendant, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation as he held up a painting on the rocks which he said depicted figures carrying hunting weapons and fillets.
“They left this handmade rock art to show us that we had family here; it’s like a diary to let us know they were in this area,” he said as the sun was setting behind the Erongo Mountains.
Namibia is home to one of Africa’s largest collections of rock art engravings and tens of thousands of paintings attributed to Stone Age hunter-gatherers – some dating back 30,000 years.
While archaeologists say more research is needed, they fear climate-related flash floods, dust, vegetation growth, fungi and desert elephants and other animals seeking water nearby sites pose a threat to the survival of ancient art.
Tens of thousands of people visit Namibia’s rock art heritage sites every year, including foreign archaeologists, bringing much-needed income to surrounding communities in the sparsely populated southern African country.
The degradation of rock art – such as cracking, discoloration and exfoliation – is caused by a variety of factors including seismic shocks and tourist activity, but climate impacts are a growing concern, the Namibian archaeologist said independent, Alma Mekondjo Nankela.
Rising temperatures combined with coastal fog can cause pigments to evaporate, condense and run off, while vegetation growth, accelerated by heavy rains, rubs against the art, Nankela said.
Animals seeking water and grazing near sites during dry spells increase erosion and dust, and – in the case of elephants – trample rocks, she added.
From Indonesia to Australia, archaeologists have found that the impacts of climate change, such as more variable temperatures, flooding and wildfires, are causing rocks to blister, spall and even explode on important sites of ancient art.
Nankela fears the same lies are in store for Namibia, where a lack of baseline data, funding and resources in the archaeological sector makes it difficult to track long-term climate change over the years. she said.
“They need to be watched because if they are destroyed our rock art is lost to humanity,” she added in a video call.
Namibia has battled brutal droughts for the past decade, with recent torrential rains bringing only brief respite to farmers in the semi-desert country.
As the impacts of climate change accelerate, the country is expected to experience extreme heat, unpredictable rainfall and rising and warming ocean conditions, according to the World Bank.
Drought can also destroy vegetation and accelerate soil erosion, which means more water floods rock shelters instead of being absorbed by the earth, said Nankela, who was the only state archaeologist to work for the Namibian Heritage Council for over a decade until 2021.
Over the years, Nankela has carried out rock art assessments across the country, using photographs to capture fungal growth, cracked and collapsed panels, water damage and animal encroachment. , noting the deterioration on an annual basis.
But the tourist crowds also pose a risk, said Nankela and John Kinahan, a freelance Namibian archaeologist who has worked in the Namib Desert for more than 40 years.
At the UNESCO-listed rock art site of Twyfelfontein in northwest Namibia, tourists from Germany, Spain, France and South Africa exit vehicles in the sweltering heat to see the centuries-old carvings carved into the sandstone.
Many took photos as groups piled onto metal platforms that balance against the rock face for closer examination.
“People traffic kicks up fine dust that sticks to rocks,” Kinahan said, adding that fumes from cars, tourists touching rocks or overloading rigs, as well as seismic activity and mining, all pose a risk to the longevity of the art.
At Twyfelfontein, some of the animals depicted are still easily identifiable, but others are noticeably more faded, with only a leg or body visible. In some places, pieces of rocks have come off completely.
“Rock art spans a period of extreme climatic variation…it’s not meant to last forever,” Kinahan said, adding it was important to find the balance between tourism and preservation. , which requires funding to study as much as possible.
At Omandumba Farm in the Erongo Mountains, where Nani helps run a San cultural museum, archaeologists from France’s National Museum of Natural History sifted through sand deposits, excavated small plots of soil and studied rock art pigments.
Inside a nearby shelter called Leopard Cave, Matthieu Lebon, a rock art pigment specialist at the museum working with Nankela and other local archaeologists, gestured toward streaks of orange and brown pigment running down the along a wall.
“It’s a good example of what can happen in different climatic conditions: the rapid passage between wet and dry periods could alter the paintings. They are almost erased by the flow of rain,” he said.
At other sites on the Omandumba farm, manager Salome Visser reported areas where water broke through granite rock during heavy rains, leaving white streaks on the art. She noted a visible lightening of the paintings over the past decade.
Around the world, heritage experts are turning to new innovations and technologies to preserve these sites.
The famous Lascaux cave murals in southwestern France have been reproduced at a nearby site for tourists to keep the original safe.
In South Africa, 3D scanning and virtual tours hope to protect the art while bringing it to a wider audience, and in Ethiopia large shelters have been erected on the historic stone churches of Lalibela to protect them from elements.
Namibia has used guardrails to encourage visitors to keep a distance and silicone strips at some sites to divert water flow when it rains.
The greatest tragedy of the disappearance of rock art is that many indigenous people in Namibia may never have the chance to see their cultural heritage first-hand, local experts said, adding that funding and training of local archaeologists was vital.
“Rock art is about getting back to our culture,” said Tertius Oeamseb, guide at the Brandberg rock art site, also located in the Erongo region.
“That’s why I work here, to be close to my ancestors while the art is still there,” he said.
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