Making sense of science

Searching for Africa's Earliest Painters




Armed hunters, women with children, and a selection of animals ; some of which have unreal features.

Visitors entering these shelters have wondered at the origins and meaning behind these rock paintings left by our distant ancestors. What can they tell us? Who were their creators and how long ago did they decorate these walls?


We’re in the southwest of Zimbabwe, in the Matobo hills, which contains one of the largest collections of rock art in the world. It’s here that a French and Zimbabwean research team is diving into these mysterious drawings…


At the Zimbabwe Museum of Human Sciences in Harare, the country’s capital, scientists are investigating archaeological findings which could reveal the secrets of this art.

These bone tools, this ball of string, and these pigments were unearthed in the 1960s and 70s in the site of Pomongwe, one of numerous painted caves found in Matobo. In studying the techniques used to make these paintings and comparing them to on-site archaeological discoveries, the scientists are attempting to date the rock art.

This is a particularly complex task as the walls are covered in dust and animal droppings. The researchers are using a number of tools that can reveal drawings once believed to have vanished.


ITV Carole Dudognon – Prehistoric Archaeologist

Our work is ultimately to document this entire cave, and then to go back through it in search of the finer details. We’ll use digital tools like D-Stretch, which enables us to make color variations and find traces of pigments on the walls.

So we have a lot of really important prep work in the lab, using photographs to discover painted remainsthings that would otherwise appear to have been erased.


High definition photographs and other reproductions lay bare surprising elements for the rock art specialists. Contrary to ancient European cave art, which focuses largely on animals and geometric motifs, the walls of Southern Africa present a wide variety of human depictions. Single file lines of hunters equipped with bows, camp scenes, the painters act as witness to some elements of contemporary life. But the several painting phases  on these walls leave the scientists with a serious issue in determining the age of the work.


ITV Carole Dudognon

We asked ourselves if this was really a snapshot of one historical moment rendered in different styles, or whether it’s a collection of art accumulated over time. So we’re looking to see if we could parse the paintings out into different layers before trying to place the individual figures in time. But the problem is that we always work within a relative chronology in art. If we don’t have a precise date for the paintings or pigments to build a timeline, it’s impossible to know how much time passed between each artist.


To try and reconstruct this timeline, the scientists must turn to technology. These wall fragments, unearthed in the cave of Pomongwe, carry traces of these pigments which can be analyzed in the lab. The palette of colors covers a spectrum of reds, yellows, whites and blacks. These rich colors also reveal clues to the painter’s techniques.


Camille Bourdier – Prehistoric Archaeologist

Studying the artists’ techniques can teach us two things.

First, we can distinguish painters through their paint mixtures. We can determine the paint’s precise composition through chemical analysis, which is what our colleagues are doing in a laboratory in France. By analyzing the different types of pigments and their mixtures, we can distinguish the different kinds of recipes used in the decorations. Perhaps the recipes changed over time. Another aspect is to see if there’s a difference in skill. Are we looking at the work of... just anybody, or is this the result of real knowledge in choosing pigments, mixing paint, and the tools used to apply it to the wall? Was it done by finger, was it done by brush… we might even learn what kinds of skills an artist must learn to paint like this.


Not only will they be working with chemists, the rock art specialists have also teamed up with archaeologists to attempt a better understanding of the history of Pomongwe’s cave art.


For nearly a month, a franco-zimbabwean team of researchers and students have taken up residence under Pomongwe’s roof. If the paintings that adorn these walls are sometimes difficult to see with the naked eye, the cave’s floor can illuminate their origins. Unlike most painted caves, the sediment of Pomongwe’s floor runs 4m deep, and may protect archaeological artifacts beneath. The team patiently excavated the cave both to validate the discoveries of their archaeological predecessors, and potentially unearth new clues to understanding the cave’s paintings. This sediment contains spalls of stone fallen from the walls. Some carry traces of paint. With the help of geologic timetables linked to the depths at which these spallsare discovered, it’s possible for the archaeologists to confirm the existence of the paintings at specific periods of time.


Guillaume Porraz – Archaeologist

We have this separation between the Later Stone Age, the last 15 millenia, and the Middle Stone Age which started here and continues for the next three meters. We’ve discovered an incredible quantity of granite fragments from the Middle Stone Age, and then the accumulation of sediment speeds up and we have a reduction in the number of granite spallsfragments over time. The thing about this upper layer is that some spallsfragments have paint on them, so their connection to different paintings enables us to place these paintings on a timeline relative to the rest. Today we’re able to place these paintings within the Later Stone Age, the first of them being ten to thirteen thousand years old.


This timeline, reaching back over 10,000 years, could make Pomongwe’s cave art the oldest in Africa. It also presents the wide variety of motifs and styles found in other Matobo caves


Guillaume Porraz

The elements we’ve unearthed clearly demonstrate that the people here possessed a depth of complex knowledge in handling the materials they had available. They also had a system of self-representation, symbolism that shows their concerns transcended reproduction and survival. The humanity demonstrated in these paintings is one that’s very much recognizable today.


These archaeological discoveries could make Pomongwe the key to understanding the stylistic timeline for all similar paintings in the region. This research is also another way to gain insight into a culture long considered remote from our own.


Searching for Africa's Earliest Painters


There are thousands of cave art sites nested in Zimbabwe's Matobo Hills. A team of archaeologists and cave art specialists have teamed up to try to understand these mysterious paintings.

About this video
Original title:
Searching for Africa's earliest Painters
Production year:
8 min 56
Pierre de Parscau
CNRS Images
Speaker(s) :
Camille Bourdier (Université Toulouse Jean Jaurès, Institut Universitaire de France)
Travaux de Recherches Archéologiques sur les Cultures, les Espaces et les Sociétés (TRACES)
CNRS / Université Toulouse Jean Jaurès / Ministère de la Culture 
INRAP / EHESS / University of the Witwatersrand

Guillaume Porraz (CNRS)
Archéologies et Sciences de l'Antiquité (ArScAn)
CNRS / Université Panthéon - Sorbonne / Université Paris Nanterre / Ministère de la Culture

Carole Dudognon 
Travaux de Recherches Archéologiques sur les Cultures, les Espaces et les Sociétés (TRACES)
CNRS / Université Toulouse Jean Jaurès / Ministère de la Culture / INRAP / EHESS


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