The age of rock art has been determined by using the radiocarbon method to date charcoal (carbon) from the layers from which painted and engraved stones were excavated. This method, which provides relatively precise results, has shown the tradition of painting in southern Africa to be at least 25,000 years, and engraving at least 11,000 years old.
Some paintings that depict European colonists and their equipment and animals such as horses, clearly postdate the early 17th century, and very recently, a radiocarbon date on plant fibres trapped in the paint on the wall of a Drakensberg cave, indicate a date of between 250 and 420 years ago. It is thought that one of the last painters was a San man who was shot in the Drakensberg in the 1850s. He had a number of pigment-filled horns on his belt.
Besides the more than 130 Rock Painting locations identified within the Kruger Park, three very rare Rock Engraving sites have also been located. The engravings were made by chipping away at the rock to expose the different coloured rock beneath. Rock Art played an integral part in the daily lives of the San and gives us some clues as to their spiritual beliefs and practices.
Major James Stevenson-Hamilton discovered the first Rock Paintings in the Park in 1911. However, the turbulent beginning of the park did not allow much time for further examination of such sites. It is only in recent years that a concerted effort has been made to document the work.
Most of the rock art sites in Kruger are located in rock shelters in the southwest of the park. There are thousands of their painting sites in southern Africa. San rock art is deeply spiritual, reflecting upon the rituals and spirit-world experiences of San ritual specialists: the !gi:xa (or shamans).
In keeping with this, the rock art of Kruger is dominated by images of those animals that the San knew to have the most spiritual power: eland, kudu, giraffe, elephant and rhino. There are some unique features about the Kruger rock art sites - relatively few human figures are depicted and those that are show strange otherworldly features, such as long streamer-like tails (the so-called vapour trail figures).
The Rock Art Research Institute believed that the Kruger paintings may be comparatively old (many centuries if not millennia) as they are on harder rock than the sandstones of other parts of South Africa. Kruger rock art, therefore, has none of the scenes of domestic animals or colonial imagery that are found in other areas, where the rock art is more recent.
Materials used include ochre, blood and ash, and paints made from naturally occurring dyes were mixed with blood, fat or egg whites. The paint was applied using fingers, feathers or simple brushes of animal hair. The rock art sites can be accessed only by taking part in the Bushman Walking Trails.
The Late Stone Age Period is characterised by:
- The manufacture of stone tools that were fixed to handles
- Specialised hunting equipment, such as bow and arrow
- Equipment for gathering food from the field, such as carry bags made from skin
- Rock Art (paintings and engravings)
- The use of shells to make ornaments
- The use of egg shells as containers