Tsodilo is a major geological landmark in the Kalahari Desert, which has been called the "Louvre of the Desert" due to the quality and quantity of the rock art to be found there, consisting of over 4500 paintings and numerous carvings which provide a vivid insight into early perceptions of the surrounding environment while giving artistic expression to contemporary ways of life. As one of the highest concentrations of rock art in the world the site is of major international significance, and affords a unique opportunity to comprehend the traditions, cultures, and technologies of the people of the Kalahari region from prehistory to the present. It has also been compared with Uluru in central Australia in terms of both its rock formations which, from a geological perspective, represent exceptional examples of tectonic and geomorphic processes, and as a basically natural feature which has become an icon in a cultural landscape.
The area is dominated by the ancient rock formations that make up the Earth’s crust, with massive multicoloured quartzite rock formations rising from the sand dunes to the east and a dry fossil lake bed to the west. These rock formations are called inselbergs (German: "island rock"), denoting a prominent isolated hill rising from and surrounded by an extensive lowland erosion surface in a hot dry region. Four of the inselbergs form a cluster which, because of their height, shape, and spatial relationships have given rise to a distinctive name for each: Male, Female, Child, and Grandchild. At 400m above sea level, Male is the highest peak in Botswana. The group is visible from the Okavango River, 40km away.
The archaeology ranges in time from the Middle Stone Age to traditional societies, and the sites consist of caves, rock shelters, seasonal camps, and settlements. The large number and diverse types of artefacts make it the richest site yet discovered in southern Africa.
The rock paintings are deliberately large and can be seen from great distances. Most of it has been painted using red ochre extracted from locally occurring hematite. The animals depicted are mostly "big game" such as the giraffe and rhinoceros, depicted both in outline and silhouette. There is also a large number of geometric designs, often lines and grids enclosed in circles, ovals and rectangles. Human figures are also common.
The Tsodilo area was originally occupied by the N/hae, who left in the mid-19th century. Its first appearance on a map was in 1857, as a result of information collected by Dr. David Livingstone during his explorations in 1849–56. In the 1850s the earliest known horsemen, Griqua ivory hunters, passed through the region. The !Kung later arrived in the area and made at least a few of the paintings. The rock art was first sketched and brought to Western attention in 1907 by Siegfried Passarge, a German geologist.
Local traditions describe Tsodilo as being the home of all living creatures, more particularly home to the spirits of each animal, bird, insect, and plant that has been created. Though exact interpretation and dating of the rock art is uncertain, the art itself clearly shows that the site has always had a spiritual resonance for the area's inhabitants, a tradition continued today by the !Kung people.
The site was judged by UNESCO to satisfy several criteria for inclusion on the list of World Heritage Sites, for its outstanding rock art and for its symbolic and religious significance to the human communities who continue to inhabit the region. As a result it was inscribed to the list in 2001.
- UNESCO Site entry. Accessed 14 January 2008