First Evidence of Pleistocene Rock Art in North Africa: Securing the Age of the Qurta Petroglyphs (Egypt) through OSL Dating

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The existence of pre-Holocene rock art in North Africa has been a subject of debate ever since 1974, when some Saharan (Libyan) petroglyphs were first attributed to the Upper Pleistocene by F. Mori (1974), a suggestion that received virtually total rejection (e.g. Muzzolini 1992; Le Quellec 1998: 246-9). Thus far, the oldest petroglyphs identified in North Africa with some degree of certainty, the so-called 'fish trap' motifs and associated figurative and geometric scenery of el-Hosh in Upper Egypt, have been ascribed to the Early Holocene and are tentatively dated to ~9000 cal yr BP (Huyge et al. 2001; Huyge 2005). It has now become clear that even older art, of fully Pleistocene age, exists in the saine geographic area: the rock art of Qurta.

The particular circumstances of the finding of the Qurta rock art have been detailed in a number of preliminary reports (Hwge et al. 2007; Huyge 2008; Huyge & Claes 2008). At Qurta, situated on the east bank of the Nile between Edfu and Aswan (24[degrees]37'45" N, 32[degrees]57'45" E) (Figure 1), three rock art sites have been identified: Qurta I, II and III (henceforth QI, QII and QIII). These sites are located in the higher parts of the Nubian sandstone scarp bordering the Nile floodplain, at an elevation of about 35-45m above the current floodplain. At each site, several rock art locations, panels and individual figures have been identified, with a total of at least 180 individual images. The majority are naturalistically drawn animal figures (Huyge & Ikram 2009). Bovids (Bos primigenius or aurochs) are predominant (over 75 per cent of the total number of drawings), followed by birds, hippopotami, gazelle, fish and hartebeest (Figure 2). In addition, some indeterminate creatures and several highly stylised representations of human figures (mostly shown with protruding buttocks, but no other bodily features) appear at the sites. On the basis of the intrinsic characteristics of the rock art (subject matter, technique and style), its patination and degree of weathering through sand erosion and/or water run-off, as well as the archaeological and geomorphological context, we have proposed the attribution of these petroglyphs to the Late Pleistocene, specifically to the Late Palaeolithic period (~19 000-18 000 cal yr BP; Huyge et al. 2007; Huyge 2009). This interpretation has met with very little criticism from the archaeological community, but proof in the form of indirect or direct science-based dating evidence has hitherto been lacking.




During the 2008 field campaign, it became clear that some rock art panels at QII, particularly panels QII.4.2 and QII. 5.1, were partly covered by sediment accumulations trapped between the engraved rock face and coarse Nubian sandstone rock debris that became separated from the scarp (Figure 3). The nature and possible provenance of this covering sediment have been investigated using petrographical thin sections. Comparison with reference samples shows that this sediment is not a disintegration product of the local Nubian sandstone, and also that it is different from recent wind-blown material. Instead, the sediment is identified as being derived from the 'Wild Nile' palaeofloodplain deposits of the region, through aeolian reworking. These floodplain sediments were deposited prior to ~14 500 cal yr BP, i.e. during the Late Pleistocene (Paulissen & Vermeersch 1989). The aeolian reworking occurred at a stage with a different environmental setting than the one that characterises the area at present, marked at that stage by a greater areal extent of the 'Wild Nile' deposits in the region. Thin section analysis of the sediment covering panel QII.4.2 shows that it has a purely aeolian origin and hence is ideally suited for optically stimulated luminescence (OSL) dating. In contrast, the sediment cover of panel QII. …