Rock paintings in Tsodilo Hills, Botswana.

The Louvre of the Desert: The Impressive Rock Paintings of Tsodilo, Botswana

(Read the article on one page)

Tsodilo (also referred to as the Tsodilo Hills) is a site in Botswana that contains one of the highest concentrations of rock art in the world. It has been claimed that in an area of just 10 square km (6.21 square miles), more than 4000 or 4500 individual paintings (scattered over 400 rock art sites) have been found. As a result, Tsodilo has been referred to as the ‘Louvre of the Desert’.

The archaeological record of Tsodilo provides a chronological account of human activities and changes in the environment over at least 100,000 years, though not continuously. Thus, the rock paintings at this site span from the Stone Age all the way until the 19th century AD. It has, however, been pointed out that these paintings have not always been dated accurately.

The “Family” of Tsodilo

Tsodilo is situated in the Okavango Sub-District, Ngamiland District, northwestern Botswana, and is close to the country’s border with Namibia. This site lies in the Kalahari Desert, and is made up of huge quartzite rock formations. To the east of Tsodilo are ancient sand dunes, whilst to its west is a dry fossil lake bed. The Tsodilo range is made up of four main outcrops, and is revered as a sacred site in the landscape by the indigenous peoples who live in the area.

Map of Botswana.

Map of Botswana. ( Public Domain )

For some indigenous groups, such as the Hambukushu, the outcrops of Tsodilo are believed to have once been a family. The highest on these is commonly referred to as ‘Male’. Apart from its height, which measures at 410 m (1345.14 ft.), this outcrop can also be distinguished by its barren look and its steepness.

The second highest hill is known as ‘Female’, which measures at 300 m (984.252 ft.). Unlike ‘Male’, this outcrop has a gentler slope. Additionally, ‘Female’ may be said to be more ‘fertile’, as it contains the most vegetation, including fruit trees, tubers, edible roots, and timber. Furthermore, it is here that one can find the most water springs and rock paintings.

The two smallest hills are known as ‘Child’ and ‘Grandchild’. In another version of the story, ‘Grandchild’ is called ‘First Wife’, who was left by ‘Male’ for a taller woman, i.e. ‘Female’.

Tsodilo Hills in Northwestern Botswana.

Tsodilo Hills in Northwestern Botswana. (CC BY-SA 2.0 )

With regards to the over 4,000 or 4,500 rock paintings at Tsodilo, it is believed that the majority of them were most made by the San people, whilst others were made by the Khoe people. Others have speculated that the San people made some of the paintings, whilst the Khoe and later Bantu immigrants, including the Hambukushu, made the majority of them.

As mentioned earlier on, the paintings at Tsodilo have not been dated accurately. This is due to the fact that the pigments (which contain organic material suitable for dating) used to produce many of the paintings have disappeared over time, leaving behind stains which indicate original motifs on the rock.

The Division of Tsodilo

The rock paintings of Tsodilo may be divided into three groups – red paintings, white paintings and polychrome paintings. The bulk of the rock paintings in Tsodilo are red paintings. One source claims that of the over 4,000 known paintings, over 3,800 of them are red paintings. Another source claims that the red paintings were produced using “a red ochre mix made from local red hematite, blood, and fat”. It has been found that about half of all the red paintings depict animals, about a third depict geometric designs, and the remainder human figures and a few handprints.

Faded red paintings at Tsodilo.

Faded red paintings at Tsodilo. (CC BY-SA 2.0 )

As for the white paintings, they were produced using a “powdery or greasy white pigment”. Most of these paintings can be found in sheltered areas such as caves. For example, 97 of the 200 white paintings are found in the White Paintings Shelter, whilst another 60 can be found in other caves and shelters. The remaining 43 can be found in unsheltered sites. Unlike the red paintings, the white paintings are dominated by geometric designs, which make up 50% of the motifs. Human figures and animals each make up a quarter of the motifs.

Comparison of Red and White Rock Art at Tsodilo

Comparison of Red and White Rock Art at Tsodilo. (CC BY-SA 3.0 )

Register to become part of our active community, get updates, receive a monthly newsletter, and enjoy the benefits and rewards of our member point system OR just post your comment below as a Guest.

Top New Stories

Asokan pillar at Vaishali, Bihar, India.
Centuries removed from the prehistoric Indus Valley Region, the Mauryan and Kushan dynasties are among the most significant cultural and artistic regimes in Indian history. The prominence of the Mauryan's longest leader, and the interactions of the Kushan with their Persian, Chinese, and Greek neighbors creates distinctive visual narratives that have shaped the culture of India as it is today.

Human Origins

Detail of ‘God creating the Sun, the Moon and the Stars’ by Jan Brueghel the Younger.
Although most mainstream scientists and most of the developed world now accept the theory of evolution and the scientifically established age of Earth and the universe, there is still a group of people that resist the status quo and insist, based on a particular literal interpretation of Genesis 1-11 in the Hebrew Bible

Ancient Technology

Representation of an ancient Egyptian chariot.
The wheel can be considered mankind’s most important invention, the utility of which is still applied in multiple spheres of our daily life. While most other inventions have been derived from nature itself, the wheel is 100% a product of human imagination. Even today, it would be difficult to imagine what it would be like without wheels, since movement as we know it would be undeniably impossible.

Opinion

El Caracol Observatory at Chichen Itza (Wright Reading/CC BY-NC 2.0) and Composite 3D laser scan image of El Caracol from above
In 1526, the Spanish conquistador Francisco de Montejo arrived on the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico and found most of the great Maya cities deeply eroded and unoccupied. Many generations removed from the master builders, engineers, and scientists who conceived and built the cities, the remaining Maya they encountered had degenerated into waring groups who practiced blood rituals and human sacrifice.

Our Mission

At Ancient Origins, we believe that one of the most important fields of knowledge we can pursue as human beings is our beginnings. And while some people may seem content with the story as it stands, our view is that there exists countless mysteries, scientific anomalies and surprising artifacts that have yet to be discovered and explained.

The goal of Ancient Origins is to highlight recent archaeological discoveries, peer-reviewed academic research and evidence, as well as offering alternative viewpoints and explanations of science, archaeology, mythology, religion and history around the globe.

We’re the only Pop Archaeology site combining scientific research with out-of-the-box perspectives.

By bringing together top experts and authors, this archaeology website explores lost civilizations, examines sacred writings, tours ancient places, investigates ancient discoveries and questions mysterious happenings. Our open community is dedicated to digging into the origins of our species on planet earth, and question wherever the discoveries might take us. We seek to retell the story of our beginnings. 

Ancient Image Galleries

View from the Castle Gate (Burgtor). (Public Domain)
Door surrounded by roots of Tetrameles nudiflora in the Khmer temple of Ta Phrom, Angkor temple complex, located today in Cambodia. (CC BY-SA 3.0)
Cable car in the Xihai (West Sea) Grand Canyon (CC BY-SA 4.0)
Next article