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Tracking in Caves

The trackers during research in Aldène, some footprints in the foreground. Foto: Tracking in Caves

Project leaders

Prof. Dr. Thorsten Uthmeier, University of Erlangen-Nürnberg
PD Dr. habil. Andreas Pastoors, University of Erlangen-Nürnberg
Dr. Tilman Lenssen-Erz, African Archaeology, Institute of Prehistoric Archaeology, University of Cologne

Project description

This project combines archaeology with indigenous knowledge (www.tracking-in-caves.org). It aims at in-depth analysis of prehistoric human tracks mainly in the ice age caves of France. The desired deep insight is provided by track-reading of three professional, indigenous trackers from the Ju/'honasi-San in Namibia. Since 2013 Ui Kxunta, Thui Thao and Tsamgao Ciqae work together with Andreas Pastoors and Tilman Lenssen-Erz. Meanwhile they have made investigations on human tracks in Niaux, Pech Merle, Fontanet and – with higher intensity – in Aldène and Tuc d'Audoubert. In all these sites the trackers not only augmented the number of recognised footprints, but they also were able to make in almost all instances clear statements as to sex, age class and way of movement of the prehistoric cave visitors. Where preservation of tracks extends over larger distances they were also able to follow, as it were, particular people through the cave which includes discerning ways of walking or carrying of loads.

The analysis that is being applied to these data establishes a "demographic" profile of the visitors of the caves, tries to identify behavioural aspects and it looks into linguistic features that may be a particularity of the trackers' terminology while they were discussing the details of the tracks.  

Because of the novelty of the approach the project managers seek far-reaching cooperation in various fields of research, particularly in exchange with colleagues who apply scientific methods to track analysis.

The trackers during research in Tuc d'Audoubert. Foto: Tracking in Caves

Main stages of the project

2008  First draft of a project design, start of search for funding

2010  First contacts with indigenous trackers in Namibia

2013  Feasibility study in Namibia and France; funded by DFG

2014  – Digitization of footprints in Pech-Merle, funded by AICON 3D Systems

2015  "The Homecoming" – visit to over a dozen San communities in Namibia in order to present to them
          a TV-documentary (90', ARTE) of the research that was only possible with their indigenous knowledge;
          funded by Andrea von Braun Stiftung

2017  International Conference on Prehistoric Human Tracks in Köln and Mettmann, including indigenous ichnologists
          (track experts) from Namibia, Canada, Australia; funded by Volkswagenstiftung, Go-Aide-Stiftung et al.

2018  April: Start of a new, 3-year project intensifying research into prehistoric human tracks with indigenous ichnologists;
          funded by DFG;  September/October: field research in Namibia and France (Aldène, Tuc d'Audoubert)

Project structure

The project directly involves Andreas Pastoors as principal investigator, Thortsen Uthmeier (University Erlangen-Nürnberg), to whom funding was awarded, Tilman Lenssen-Erz as associated researcher, and Ui Kxunta, Thui Thao and Tsamgao Ciqae as indigenous ichnologists in part-time employment.

Constant cooperation is established with:
Association Louis Bégouën
National Heritage Council of Namibia (Dr. Alma Nankela)
University of Namibia (Goodman Gwasira)
University of Frankfurt, African Archaeology (Prof. Dr. Peter Breunig)
Nyae Nyae Conservancy (Tsamgao Ciqae)
Kalahari Peoples Fund (Megan Biesele)
Heinrich-Barth-Institut e.V.
EduVentures Namibia

Project expansion

In collaboration with the research team of P.Breunig from University of Frankfurt the knowledge of the indigenous ichnologists was called up for another research question:
In central western Namibia, in the close vicinity of the World Heritage Site of /Ui//aes-Twyfelfontein, the team of the University of Frankfurt has documented a wealth of hitherto undiscovered rock art sites. A typical feature of the rock art engravings in this region are carefully engraved animal spoor. When confronted with them, the trackers could in far more than 90% of the spoor depictions  identify details as to sex of the animal, age class and which of the four hoofs/paws (on quadrupeds). Generally also human feet, which are depicted a bit more stylised than animal spoor, comprise information about sex and age class. The first field research in September 2018 yielded this information on more than 500 engraved tracks, which accounts for >95% of the investigated spoor. In depth analyses and publication are under way.

The trackers at so-called "Newspaperwall" in the Doro !nawas mountains, analysing engraved animal spoor. Foto: Tracking in Caves

Tracking in Caves in the media

The novel approach of the project and also the conference in 2017 have attracted a lot of media interest. Besides the ARTE TV-documentary there were larger stories in GEO-Magazin, New Scientist, Die Zeit, Archäologie in Deutschland, Bild der Wissenschaft, Süddeutsche Zeitung, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, as well as numerous shorter articles in newspapers across Germany, Europe, Namibia and South Africa, including half a page in Science Magazine.


Andreas Pastoors, Tilman Lenssen-Erz, Tsamkgao Ciqae, Ui Kxunta, Thui Thao, Robert Bégouën, Megan Biesele & Jean Clottes (2015) Tracking in Caves – Experience based reading of Pleistocene human footprints in French caves. Cambridge Archaeological Journal, 25(3): 551–564.

Tilman Lenssen-Erz & Andreas Pastoors (2015) Fährtenleser blicken 17000 Jahre in die Vergangenheit. Archäologie in Deutschland 4, 2015: 14–19.

Andreas Pastoors, Tilman Lenssen-Erz, Bernd Breuckmann, Tsamkxao Ciqae, Ui Kxunta, Dirk Riepe-Zapp, Thui Thao (2016) Experience based reading of Pleistocene human footprints in Pech-Merle. Quaternary International, 430, Part A: 155–162. Online http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.quaint.2016.02.056

Tilman Lenssen-Erz & Andreas Pastoors (2018)  Tracking in Caves – Episoden aus dem Leben eiszeitlicher Höhlenkünstler. Analyse menschlicher Fußabdrücke mit indigenem Wissen und Methoden westlicher Wissenschaften. In: Jürgen Richter (Hrsg./ed.)  111 Jahre prähistorische Archäologie in Köln. Kölner Studien zur Prähistorischen Archäologie 9. Marie Leidorf; Rahden/Westf.: 122–129.

Tilman Lenssen-Erz, Andreas Pastoors, Tsamkgao Ciqae, Ui Kxunta, Thui Thao, Robert Bégouën, Megan Biesele & Jean Clottes (2018) Tracking in Caves: Reading Human Spoor in Ice Age Caves with San Hunters. Senri Ethnological Studies 99: 103–127.