Rock art of the Sahara


Explain how archaeologists have tried to understand the rock art of the Sahara over the years.

Through rock art we see how different people in various times of the past, represented the environment of the time, the animals surrounding them (wild or domesticated) and even representations of themselves showing the evolution of human species. For at least 40,000 years or even more human beings marked landscapes with these symbolic images leaving us with the only record on their everyday activities, rituals and so on. The most important thing is not the images in particular but rather the widespread of this phenomenon to different countries and regions. These visually striking images survive to this day, some in a rather good condition other to a bad stage, not only because of time and weather conditions but also due to vandalism[1].

The Saharan rock art is particularly an important region of interest. There was an increasing number of scholars during the beginning of the twentieth century, involved in the recording and study of the Saharan rock art. Heinrich Barth was the first scholar to mention Saharan rock art sites in his book ‘Travels and Discoveries in North and Central Africa'. [2] On 6th July 1850, Barth wrote: “No barbarian could have graven the lines with such astonishing firmness, and given to all the figures the light, natural shape which they exhibit.” [3]

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The Sahara covers huge parts of Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Morocco, Chad, Sudan, Mauritania, Mali, Niger and Western Sahara. The central part of Sahara is hyper-arid while the northern and southern parts have areas of sparse grass and trees. The climate of the Sahara has gone into a lot of changes in the last hundred thousands of years, from wet to dry.

Saharan rock art is divided into four main periods:

1. The Bubalus Antiquus Period

2. The Round Head Period

3. The Pastoral/ Bovidian Period

4. The Post-Neolithic Period / Horse Period

The actual chronology of the Bubalus period has been debatable between scholars for many years. Most scholars agree that these early representations/engravings are the result of Early Holocene, hunter-gatherer communities, around 10,000 years ago. Other scholars argue that all the Saharan rock art is the result of Neolithic pastorals from around 7,000 years ago. At the beginning of the Holocene these regions were richer in vegetation and there were populated by animals that are now extinct. The art of this period is mostly characterized by the representation of large animals, such as the now extinct buffalo Homoiceras antiquus, elephants, rhinoceros, hippopotamus, giraffes, ostriches and large antelopes. The areas that this period is mostly concentrated in are the Wadi In Elobu, Wadi Tilizagen and Wadi Alamasse.

The Round Head style was given its name by Henri Lhote and it's found as early as 8500 years ago. As its name implies, the period is characterized by anthropomorphic figures with rounded heads, completely lacking any facial features. This style is mainly found at Tassili-n- Ajjer, Acacus and Ennedi. There representations of animals such as antelopes and the now extinct Barbary sheep as well as ritual scenes and some enigmatic elements with are difficult to give a specific meaning to.

The Pastoral phase also known as the Bovidian period (7000 years ago) is characterized by scenes from everyday life such as milking of animals, building of caps and exchanges of objects. This art is very naturalistic and animals are represented with great accuracy. During this period somatic types and ‘racial' featured begin to be depicted. Ritual scenes and sacrifices of animals are also present.[4]

The so called Horse period has taken its name by the increased number of horse and chariot representations which was introduced from the east. The art of this period shows a high degree of stylization especially in the human bodies represented in ‘bitriangular' style and in the representation of chariots. The French scholar Henri Lhote was the first to suggest that these chariots might be linked to the trade routes crossing Sahara. Recent research by Mario Liverani showed that the Garamantian civilization was a complex one with political and military power and also controlled trade routes between the Mediterranean coast and sub-Saharan Africa. This art provides the right evidence for these caravan routes, showing the trade of goods and animals.[5]

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Most scholars and archaeologist were led to stick with the recording of the Saharan rock art rather than attempting to interpret it because of its complexity. On the other hand some conclusions and interpretations have been made. The earliest known rock art, was done by forages in the central Sahara and it dates back 12,000 years ago. It involves large animals with very simple lines which shows the subject rather than its formal shape. This early art was more symbolic rather than obvious. It reflects changes in human attitudes toward the natural environment and with the pass of time art became more naturalistic[6].

Tassili n' Ajjer is a mountain range in the Saharan desert in southeast Algeria. It's one of the most famous North African sites of rock painting. In an area called Jabbaren, Lhote identified twelve consecutive civilizations. According to Lhode the Bovidians at Jabbaren, engraved their pictures before they painted them. There are quite a number of alien-like figures which Lhote called Martians. The Swiss author Erich von Daniken named a figure (which measures 6 meters by 3 meters) ‘The Great Martian God'. This figure is the largest single figure at Tassili and it occupies the ceiling of a large shelter. The giant figure painted on the walls, according to Berber Tuareg mythology, might have inhabited the earth before the human race[7].

At Tassili n' Ajjer, in a site called Sefar, there is a very famous drawing which Lhote called ‘The Great God of Sefar'. The figure stands over 3.25 m high and it's surrounded by figures and animals. Lhote ascribed the drawing to the round head period, connecting it with a fertility cult.

[1] Chippendale C. and Tacon S. , The archaeology of rock art, pg.1

[2] Augustin Holl, Saharan Rock Art: Archaeology of Tassilian pastoralist iconography, pg. 1

[3] Anthony Ham, Libya, pg. 235



[6] Coulson, D. and A. Cambell, African rock art: paintings and engravings on stone