As climate shocks loom, a race to document Namibia's rock art

Johannes Ikun Nani stands in front of a boulder displaying ancient San rock at the Omandumba farm in the central region of Namibia, September 30, 2022

Johannes Ikun Nani stands in front of a boulder displaying ancient San rock at the Omandumba farm in the central region of Namibia, September 30, 2022. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Karin Retief

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Indigenous rock paintings and engravings are at risk from floods, dust, fungus and elephants looking for water near the sites

  • Namibia's rock art threatened by climate change
  • Indigenous heritage at risk of being lost
  • Calls for funding to study ancient paintings, engravings

OMARURU, Namibia - Among the rambling herd painted onto the rocks of Namibia's Erongo mountains, some creatures are easy to spot - the long necks of giraffes, the spikes of antelopes' horns. Other animals have faded beyond recognition.

Local guide Johannes Ikun Nani had only seen his ancestors' rock art in books, until a job took him to the country's central region, where the ancient rock paintings and engravings have become a growing tourist attraction over the years.

Nani counts himself lucky to have witnessed his heritage firsthand - especially because archaeologists say climate change may be accelerating its disappearance.

"I feel proud to see this with my own eyes," Nani, an indigenous San descendent, told Context as he pointed to a painting on the rocks he said depicted figures carrying hunting weapons and nets.

"They left this handmade rock art to show us we had family here; it's like a newspaper to let us know they were in this area," he said as the sun set 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 as far as 30,000 years.

While archaeologists say more research is needed, they fear climate-linked flash floods, dust, vegetation growth, fungus and desert elephants and other animals seeking water close to the sites pose a threat to the ancient art's survival. 

Rising temperatures

Tens of thousands of people visit Namibia's rock art heritage sites each year, including foreign archaeologists, bringing in much-needed income to surrounding communities in the sparsely populated southern African country.

Rock art degradation - such as cracks, fading and exfoliation - are caused by various factors, including seismic shocks and tourist activity, but climate impacts are a growing concern, said independent Namibian archaeologist, Alma Mekondjo Nankela.

Rising temperatures combined with coastal fog can lead to evaporation, condensation and pigment run-off, while vegetation growth, accelerated by heavy rains, rubs against the art, said Nankela.

Animals seeking water and grazing close to the sites during drought periods increase erosion and dust, and - in the case of elephants - trample the rocks, she added.

From Indonesia to Australia, archaeologists have found that climate change impacts such as more variable temperatures, flooding and wildfires are causing blistering, peeling, and even rock explosions at important sites of ancient art.

Nankela fears the same lies in store for Namibia, where the absence of baseline data, funding and resources in the archaeology sector makes it difficult to track long-term climate changes over the years, she said.

"They have to be monitored because if they are destroyed, our rock art is lost to humanity," she added in a video call.

Brutal droughts

Namibia has been battling brutal droughts for the past decade, with recent torrential rains bringing only brief respite for farmers in the semi-desert country.

As climate change impacts gather pace, the country is expected to see extreme heat, unpredictable rainfall and rising and warming ocean conditions, according to the World Bank.

Drought can also destroy vegetation and accelerate soil erosion, meaning more water floods rock shelters instead of being absorbed by the earth, said Nankela, who was the only state archaeologist working for the Namibian Heritage Council for over a decade until 2021.

Over the years, Nankela made rock art condition assessments across the country, using photographs to capture fungal growth, cracked and collapsing panels, water damage and animal encroachment, noting deterioration on an annual basis.

But the throngs of tourists pose a risk too, said Nankela and John Kinahan, an independent Namibian archaeologist who has worked in the Namib Desert for more than 40 years.

At the Twyfelfontein rock art and UNESCO heritage site in northwestern Namibia, tourists from Germany, Spain, France and South Africa poured out of vehicles in the sweltering heat to view the age-old engravings etched into sandstone.

Many snapped photographs as groups piled on to metal platforms that balance against the rock face for a closer look.

"Traffic in people stirs up fine dust that sticks to the rocks," said Kinahan, adding that car fumes, tourists touching the rocks or overburdening the platforms, as well as seismic activity and mining, all pose a risk to the art's longevity.

At Twyfelfontein, some of the animals that are depicted are still easily to identify, but others are significantly more faded, with only a leg or body visible. In some places, chunks of rocks have broken off completely.

"Rock art spans a period of extreme climatic variations ... it is not made to last forever," said Kinahan, adding that it was important to find the balance between tourism and preservation, which requires funding to study as much as possible.

Guide Raymond Geiseb stands in front of a rock lit up by sunshine that displays rock art engravings at Twyfelfontein heritage site in Namibia, September 29, 2022

Guide Raymond Geiseb stands in front of a rock lit up by sunshine that displays rock art engravings at Twyfelfontein heritage site in Namibia, September 29, 2022. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Karin Retief

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Race to document

At Omandumba farm in the Erongo Mountains, where Nani helps run a San cultural museum, archaeologists from France's National Museum of Natural History sieved through sand deposits, excavated small patches of soil and studied rock art pigment.

Inside a nearby shelter called Leopard Cave, Matthieu Lebon, a rock art pigment specialist from the museum working with Nankela and other local archaeologists, gestured towards trails of orange and brown pigment running down a wall.

"This is a good example of what can happen in different climatic conditions: the quick shift between wet and dry periods could alter the paintings. They are almost erased by rain flow," he said.

At other sites on Omandumba Farm, manager Salome Visser pointed out patches where water has soaked through the granite rock during heavy rains, leaving white trails on the art. She has noted a visible lightening of the paintings over the past decade.

Around the world, heritage experts are turning to new innovations and technology to preserve such sites.

The famous wall paintings of the Lascaux Caves in southwestern France have been reproduced on a nearby site for tourists to keep the original safe.

In South Africa, 3D scanning and virtual tours hope to protect art while bringing it to a wider audience, and in Ethiopia, large shelters were erected over the historical stone churches of Lalibela to shield them from the elements.

Namibia has made use of railings to encourage visitors to keep a distance and silicone strips at some sites to divert water flow when it rains.

The greatest tragedy of disappearing rock art is that many of Namibia's indigenous people may never get a chance to see their cultural heritage firsthand, local experts said, adding that funding and training for local archaeologists was vital.

"Rock art is about coming back to our culture," said Tertius Oeamseb, a guide at the Brandberg rock art site, which also lies in the Erongo region.

"That's why I work here, to be close to my ancestors while the art is still around," he said.

(Reporting by Kim Harrisberg; Editing by Helen Popper.)

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