Tsamkxao Cigae is a hunting guide at a tourist lodge in Namibia, his homeland. Animal tracks are an open book to him — he can tell which elephant in a herd has left a particular footprint.
If he wants to, he can even tell where his wife and children are by reading the tracks in his village. A mobile phone call isn’t necessary.
The hunting guide, 30, is a member of the San people of Namibia, hunter-gatherers also known as Bushmen and considered to be the best trackers in the world.
Two German archaeologists specializing in prehistoric rock art, Andreas Pastoors and Tilman Lenssen-Erz, have used the tracking skills of Cigae and two of his countrymen to interpret 17,000-year-old human footprints in Pyrenean caves.
Their extraordinary project, called Tracking in Caves, has received funding from the German Research Foundation DFG.
Dr. Pastoors, a researcher at the Neanderthal Museum in Mettmann, Germany, and Dr. Lenssen-Erz, a member of the Africa Research Unit at the University of Cologne’s Institute of Prehistoric Archaeology, have been studying rock paintings for years — Dr. Pastoors in southern France, and Dr. Lenssen-Erz in South Africa.
While the prehistoric cave paintings in the Pyrenees are world-famous, the footprints of the people who made them — during a time variously known as the Stone Age or Paleolithic Period — had previously been only of marginal interest.
“We, as western scientists, lack the ability to read them,” Dr. Pastoors noted.
In preparing for the project, the San trackers had to learn how to get around in caves. And since bear tracks are in some of the Pyrenean caves, they also visited the Cologne Zoo to look at bears’ paws. No bears live wild in Africa today.
The research team travelled by minibus from Germany to southern France, where the trackers examined some 500 footprints in several caves. Although their findings give no cause to rewrite the history of cave paintings, they were able to dispel misconceptions.
Tracks in the Tuc d’Audoubert cave, for instance, had been thought to come from a ritual dance by several adolescents. The San trackers’ theory is more mundane: an adult about 38 years of age and an approximately 14-year-old child removed clay at the spot.
A footprint in another cave was previously regarded as the only one extant of a person wearing a shoe during Europe’s Ice Age. The trackers came to a different conclusion: it, too, was made by a barefoot person, whose toe-prints were recognizable.
“Our assessment is certain,” Cigae said.
The use of traditional folk knowledge in modern science is not new, but it had never before been employed to examine the activities of prehistoric Pyrenean cave people.
Findings from the Tracking in Caves project should be incorporated into future research on Pyrenean caves, Dr. Pastoors said, adding that careful evaluation of the transcripts of conversations by the three San trackers in their mother tongue could bring to light a few more interesting insights.
The trackers determined that the tracks they examined had come from 28 people in all, mostly between the ages of 10 and 20. Of the footprints from people aged 30 to 60, they said, none were from women.
As the tracks were only a sampling, the archaeologists conceded that it was impossible to draw any general scientific conclusions.
Neither was it possible, according to Dr. Lenssen-Erz, to use them in assessing the cave paintings’ significance. Rather, he and Dr. Pastoors said they wanted to “highlight individual moments” in the lives of Stone Age people.
Even a simple knee-print is valuable, indicating that people didn’t wear trousers 17,000 years ago.