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Apollo 11 Cave Stones

Oldest animal paintings in Africa
Dated: 25,500 BC

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Fragment of rock from Apollo 11 Cave Namibia, decorated with a painted figure of an undefined animal
Stone slab decorated with an animal figure, from the Apollo 11 Cave, Namibia. Image by José-Manuel Benito Álvarez/Locutus Borg. (Public Domain).

Apollo 11 Cave

The Apollo 11 Cave is home to some of the most sophisticated paleolithic art in sub-Saharan Africa.

It consists of seven small slabs of quartzite - decorated with charcoal drawings and and ochre images of animals - which were recovered from sediment in the cave floor.

Researchers were able to date the painted slabs indirectly, thanks to the presence of charcoal in the layer of sediment in which they were found. The charcoal was carbon-dated to 25,500 BC.

This makes them the oldest animal paintings on the African continent.

Apollo 11's painted stones are not the oldest art in Africa, since there have been several finds of earlier artworks, including:

But the Apollo 11 stones are the earliest known examples of figurative art from anywhere in Africa.

In addition to its rock art, Apollo 11 Cave contains one of the most complete Middle Stone Age (MSA) and Later Stone Age (LSA) archaeological sequences in southern Africa.

All major cultural units known from the regional MSA and LSA can be found in a single sequence of less than 2 metres in depth, which makes the cave a unique centre of Stone Age culture in Africa.

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Location & Excavation

The Apollo 11 Cave sits at the confluence of the Orange and Great Fish Rivers in the remote Karas Region of Namibia, some 250 kilometres southwest of the regional capital Keetmanshoop.

It is by far the oldest prehistoric site in Namibia.

It was originally christened "Goachanas" by the rock-art specialist E.R. Scherz, after the name used by the local Nama or Hottentot people. Today, the site is part of the Ai-Ais Richtersveld Transfrontier Park.

It was named 'Apollo 11' after NASA's moon-landing in July 1969, by the German archaeologist Wolfgang Wendt, who led the team that excavated the cave (1969-72).

Other archaeolgical sites in Namibia include: the Oryx Kill site (10,800 BC) in the middle of the country, the Hing-Hais site (6,500 BC) located in the central Namibian desert, and Masari (3,000 BC) near Rundu in the far north-east.

Layout and Artifacts

The Apollo cave has a wide entrance, about 28 metres across, and is about 11 metres deep.

Inside, Wendt's team found a sequence of cultural layers from over 100,000 years of human occupation.

These layers yielded a total of 21,265 stone artifacts dating to the Middle Stone Age period (c.280,000-40,000 BC).

They included stone blades, pointed flakes and scrapers, many of which were fashioned out of materials from outside the region. A clear indication that stone tool technology was traded and supplied over long distances.

Researchers also recovered fragments of ostrich eggshells marked with traces of red pigment, suggesting that either the eggshells were items of decorative art - as in Diepkloof - or, that they served as containers for pigment.

Note: To understand the chronology of Stone Age art and culture, see: Timeline of Prehistoric Art (from 540,000 BC).

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Apollo 11 Painted Stones: Characteristics

Dating

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So Much Art Left to Find

The oldest Apollo 11 paintings date to about 26,400 BC, whereas the Diepkloof eggshell engravings date to 60,000 BC. How come? Like, where's all the art that was made in between?

The reason for the huge gap is due to several factors.

Prehistoric Art in Africa

The oldest art in Africa has yet to be found. Over the past two decades, the 'earliest' African art has been pushed back from 26,000 BC to 100,000 BC, as more rock engravings and paintings are dated.

In addition, we now know H. sapiens had all the tools and pigments he needed.

Until 2008, although we knew that red, yellow and black ochre (all derived from iron oxides), had been used by prehistoric artists in Africa and Europe for at least 200,000 years, the methods used to prepare and store ochre pigments during the Middle Stone Age remained a mystery.

Then came the excavations of archaeologist Chris Henshilwood and his team in the Blombos Cave, where they discovered a paint workshop dating to 100,000 BC.

The discovery provided clear evidence that modern H. sapiens had developed a knowledge of chemistry as well as the necessary organizational skills to plan ahead.

True, we still don't know if the pigments were used for cave art, or for body/face painting, but clearly modern man had the potential to create art if he so wished.

Related Articles

Other significant sites of Stone Age art in Africa, include:

References

(1) "Apollo 11 Cave in Southwest Namibia: Some Observations on the Site and Its Rock Art." John Mason. The South African Archaeological Bulletin, Vol. 61, No. 183 (Jun 2006) pp. 76-89.
(2)"New Excavations of Middle Stone Age Deposits at Apollo 11 Rockshelter, Namibia: Stratigraphy, Archaeology, Chronology and Past Environments." Ralf Vogelsang, Jürgen Richter, Zenobia Jacobs, Barbara Eichhorn, Veerle Linseele, and Richard G. Roberts. Journal of African Archaeology. 8/2/2010. pp 185-218.

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