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"It says something about the continuity of culture over a long period of time," he said.
"There is no other way to account for that kind of difference between the oldest and newest paints." Watchman, who is a specialist in rock art dating, obtained his dates from painted samples collected in 2001.
Just under 2,000 years ago, Pearce says, pastoral and farming people independently arrived in South Africa, where they came into contact with hunter-gatherer groups such as the San.
“We know relatively little about these groups because of the paucity of archaeology.” Rock paintings show that these groups interacted, but, because the paintings were discovered at sites that contain no other artefacts, they have not been reliably dated.
And pictures left by the San and others could help researchers to put dates on other significant events, including the development of early religious rituals. Extracting useful samples damages paintings, and it is hard to distinguish original materials from modern contaminants.
Over the years, compounds that contain carbon build up on top of the pictures and interfere with radiocarbon dating.
Scientists have directly dated Stone Age rock paintings in southern Africa reliably for the first time. And the findings open the door for archaeologists and other researchers to date thousands more rock paintings in this part of Africa — and so piece together the lives and development of ancient people there.