Please find here a brief overview of how „Tracking in Caves“ developed from the initial idea in 2008 to the recent fieldwork in 2019.
In winter 2008 the basic idea of Tracking in Caves-project was born. The Tuc d’Audoubert monograph had just been sent to the editor, but the important number of tracks in this cave had not been touched in detail. Tuc d’Audoubert is one of the most important caves with prehistoric art worldwide and contains more than 400 footprints. When discussing this deficit of the new monograph, the conversation drifted towards indigenous trackers in Namibia … and the idea was born.
Contacts with the tracking communities in the Tsumkwe region were picked up and intensified over the following years. Megan Biesle, anthropologist working with Kalahari people since the 1960s, gladly volunteered as a supervisor and consultant. Finally, the elders of the Nya Nya conservancy proposed three trackers Ui Kxunta, Thui Thao and Tsamkgao Ciqae who were willing to venture into this experiment. At the same time the access to the caves with prehistoric footprints in France that had been publicised before, was assured. The whole package was moulded into a research application to the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft that accepted it in the end of 2012.
Tracking in Caves 2013
Supported by the funding of the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft the initial Tracking in Caves-project was conducted as a test study with open result. During the first two weeks in Namibia team-building aspects were important. Well prepared, the team passed the following two weeks in South-western France to study prehistoric footprints in four caves – Niaux, Pech-Merle, Fontanet and Tuc d’Audoubert – following a straightforward documentation protocol.
The results are encouraging: in every cave new imprints were detected, and for every field of footprints plausible, unspectacular interpretations resulted.
Thanks to the positive results, new questions popped up as an obligation to continue.
During the first project period in 2013 a TV documentary had been filmed that was broadcasted on ARTE TV in Germany and France. On the side of this there was intense reporting on the project in Namibian, German, French and other international media and scholarly journals. With the participation of journalists from DIE ZEIT and GEO the good media coverage was kept up also in the following step, „the homecoming“.
3D scanning in Pech-Merle 2014
In 2013 a first step in the direction of a hybrid science of reading prehistoric human tracks was made. Due to the fact that high resolution scans of the studied footprints are missing, some footprints from Tuc d’Audoubert and – more importantly – the entire field of prehistoric footprints in Pech-Merle were scanned in the frame of a digitisation award that was sponsored by AICON 3D Systems and the Institute of Geography at the University of Cologne. The dataset is the base of a master thesis at Friedrich-Alexander University Erlangen-Nurnberg.
The second important step in the project was the ‚homecoming‘ of the results of the initial Tracking in Caves-project to Namibia. With the TV-documentary, that had been filmed during the first stage, and the technical equipment on board, the project team travelled through northern Namibia and Bostwana to present the film in different communities, mainly consisting of San. The screenings were accompanied by talks of the trackers who conveyed the message that traditional knowledge is precious, relevant and of use for science. It turned out that the art of tracking is a competence that is in danger to be lost soon due to changes of living conditions and livelihood. Contacts to other trackers were made, and during several workshops the methodology of age, sex and other feature determination was elaborated and fed into scientific papers co-authored by all team members.
Conference on Prehistoric Human Tracks 2017
The „International Conference on Prehistoric Human Tracks“ took place from 11 to 14 May 2017 at the University of Cologne and the Neanderthal Museum (Mettmann). In addition to 40 invited participants from five continents, some 30 visitors came from a wide variety of social backgrounds. The patron of the conference was Prof. Dr. Hermann Parzinger, who emphasized in his welcoming speech that the combination of very different knowledge cultures practiced at the conference was a model for what should also be addressed in the emerging Humboldt Forum in Berlin, which he heads as founding director.
Designed as a scientific conference with a focus on knowledge sharing, the conference provided the world’s first opportunity for indigenous, academic and conservation experts to exchange views on the same subject, the human footprint. In addition to conventional lectures, communication formats were also chosen which are unusual in academic exchange but more common in indigenous communities: in a „Fireside talk“ one sat in a circle around a fire, in a practical workshop all participants stood and sat around specially created trace fields. For the scientists present, who were mainly observing here, the alternating explanations and conversations between the San from Namibia, an Inuit from Canada and an Aborigine from Australia were of particular interest.
This first conference day with its unconventional exchange formats was followed by two days of lectures, several of which were co-authored by indigenous experts. On the last day of the conference, 14 May, a workshop was held with indigenous experts to determine how and by what means they would like to report on the course and purpose of the conference in their local communities. This workshop gave a clear mandate to two authors working on the completion of this so-called „Community Report„. First and foremost, this report was designed to allow track experts to illustrate their personal impressions and experiences in the context of the conference for their home communities.
The contributions to this conference will be published in a monograph issued at Springer Publishers, New York.
Field research in 2018
Research in 2018 had two key tasks: intensive reading of Pleistocene human tracks in France and reading engraved animal spoor in Namibia.
For the research in France two caves were chosen, Aldène and Tuc d’Audoubert. Here very careful observations with a lot of time should enable the trackers to identify and follow, as it were, specific individuals through the cave. Differently from caves such as Niaux or Pech Merle, which contain human footprints,too, Aldène and Tuc d’Audoubert have preserved tracks over long stretches and in different places. Thus the indigenous s ichnologists were able to partly track single individuals in different places of both caves. They also confirmed in more detail their findings from the feasibility study in 2013 that even small children went into the caves – apparently sometimes groups like small families would enter the caves together.
In Aldène the trackers identified places were someone slipped, where a boy played with his toes in the mud or where a young woman readjusted the baby she was carrying on her back. In Tuc the tracks of a couple were observed in several places that apparently was after bear bones. In both caves, the trackers made the observation that some of the prehistoric people would be carrying some load when leaving the cave while on entering they had had nothing to carry.
Regarding practical issues of field research it should be mentioned that in both places the TiC-team was welcomed, hosted and supported in an extraordinary way. While in Tuc it was the owners family or Robert Begouën who showed exceptional hospitality, in Aldène the Club of Speleologues and the responsible of the monuments administration, Philippe Galant, made every effort to guarantee a carefree stay near the site. It was also in this context that during a public talk in the village next to the cave, Cesseras, more than 100 people attended and listened to the ichnologists from Namibia, France and Germay.
Research in Namibia focussed on rock engravings in a hitherto unexplored region not far west of the World Heritage Site /Ui//aes-Twyfelfontein. The main research question of this part of the project was about finding out whether the engravings of animal spoor in prehistoric rock art of Namibia contain detailed information that tells an informed observer more than just which species a specific spoor denotes. The clarity of most such engravings instilled the working hypothesis that spoor depictions of large game animals produced within a hunter-gatherer culture would contain information that is particularly accessible to hunters also of today.
As research area some rock art sites in Doro !nawas region were chosen where a large quantity of spoor engravings can be found. Here the three experts of the Tracking in Caves project should read every discernible spoor engraving as if they were real spoor, while the accompanying archaeologists were to produce a record of these in-depth analyses.
As a result of the spoor analyses of the trackers 513 engraved animal and human spoor were identified with very few exceptions were not the full set of data was discernible, i.e. age class, sex, left or right and –with quadrupeds- fore- or hind legs.
The perhaps most remarkable result is the species list that springs from these spoor, which is much richer than the list of animals that are engraved in the rock art of the region. Among the animals which are represented (partly exclusively) in their spoor are species that today are rare or absent in the area, such as buffalo, bushpig or monkey. Carnivores are also represented with a rather wide variety of species: aardwolf, African wildcat, caracal, cheetah, jackal, leopard and lion.
It has been mentioned before that despite its proximity to /Ui//aes-Twyfelfontein WHS the rock art of the Doro !nawas region reported here was hitherto unknown to the public and to heritage institutions. In front of this background the project leaders offered to members of the National Heritage Council as well as to representatives of the /Uibasen and Doro !nawas Conservancies an opportunity to get a glimpse at the wealth of art in that region by guiding an excursion to some of the most remarkable sites. Besides the rock art also many artefacts from the Later Stone Age were shown to the participants so that they could easily grasp the wealth of the cultural heritage that lay undiscovered so near to a busy place like /Ui//aes-Twyfelfontein, which has some 60,000 visitors per year.