Algeria shares with neighbouring Libya and Niger one of the finest collections of prehistoric rock art in the world, and seeking out the finely rendered paintings and carvings of Algeria’s south is one of the undoubted highlights of a visit to the country. These are more than mere paintings on remote rock walls. Many date back 12,000 years. Many depict animals that haven’t been seen in these parts for millennia and which are impossible to imagine in the barren heart of the world’s largest desert. Indeed, there is something at once poignant and improbable about standing amid the splendid, parched cathedrals and finding images that tell the story of when the Sahara was a green and fertile land rich in water and wildlife.
. . African Rock Art, by David Coulson and Alec Campbell, is the definitive text on the rock art of Africa, with informative narrative sections on the Sahara and lavish photographs and illustrations.
Many thoughts spring to mind as you contemplate the extraordinary detail, the whimsical beauty that the images portray. The most obvious response is one of wonder. In many ways the wonder we feel when viewing rock art may not be so dissimilar from the wonder when confronted with the improbability of a giraffe, for example, which prompted the artists to paint the images in the first place.
How on earth have such seemingly fragile works of art survived the considerable ravages of time? How is it that the artists who left behind these masterpieces were able to capture a sense of childlike simplicity in their conception of the natural world but do so with such exceptional skill? How different was the Saharan world they inhabited that creatures, such as the elephant, giraffe and lion once roamed these wadis? And who were they, these great artists whose work still captivates us? Most of the answers we know, but like any great mystery in this Saharan landscape of the imagination, there are many about which we can only speculate.
WHO WERE THE ARTISTS?
The question of who sat on rocky ledges mixing their paints or chipping painstakingly away at the rock is one that continues to baffle archaeologists and rock-art specialists, inviting speculation that has intrigued European travellers for centuries. In 1850 the great German explorer Heinrich Barth visited the Tassili N’Ajjer of southwestern Algeria and wrote that ‘No barbarian could have graven the lines with such astonishing firmness, and given to all the figures the light, natural shape which they exhibit’.
Some archaeologists attribute the images to the Neolithic ancestors of the modern Tuareg, the people who remained in the Sahara as the climate dried. Others claim that the Garamantes people, who inhabited Wadi al-Ajal across the border in Libya to the northwest from 900 BC to AD 500, were responsible, for they were a sophisticated people who made the desert bloom long after the rains stopped and other Saharan peoples fled south. Both claims may indeed be true, but the fact that much of the art predates these groups suggests that they were merely following a tradition set in motion by earlier indigenous inhabitants of the region.
The local Tuareg believe that the ancient artists saw their art as a school for their descendants, a history book of what they saw and how they lived. Or as one Tuareg told us, ‘perhaps they were people like we are today, because human beings always like to leave their mark, to leave something behind that will remain long after we have gone.’
THE DISCOVERY OF SAHARAN ROCK ART
Although the indigenous Tuareg inhabitants of the Sahara have known about the rock art in their midst for centuries, it has only recently captured the attention of the outside world. Two German explorers of the Sahara, Heinrich Barth and Gustav Nachtigal, reported their findings and even made sketches of some of the pieces in the 19th century, but it was not until the middle of the 20th century that serious studies of the art were carried out. Frenchman Henri Lhote visited the Tassili N’Ajjer in the 1930s and was so intrigued that he returned two decades later, in 1956, to undertake a major catalogue of the region’s art. Although it would be left to later archaeologists to investigate the meaning of what he saw, Lhote was the first to delineate the distinct periods from which the art dates and to realize that the images told of the ‘spiritual and religious existence of the different peoples which followed on, one after another’. At the same time, just across the border in the Jebel Acacus of Libya, a team from the University of Rome led by Professor Fabrizio Mori performed a similar task, proving that borders have never been a barrier to the flourishing of artistic creativity. The work done by these specialists and their successors was critical in ensuring that the Tassili N’Ajjer, like the Jebel Acacus in Libya, was inscribed on Unesco’s World Heritage List of Endangered and Protected Sites.
. . Travels and Discoveries in North and Central Africa, by Heinrich Barth, includes the author’s 1850s discovery of the rock art of the Tassili N’Ajjer.
THE CLIMATIC CONTEXT
When the Ice Age was at its coldest in the northern hemisphere, around 20,000 years ago (18,000 BC), it ushered in a period of low rainfall and barren landscapes across the Sahara – much the same as prevails today.
. . The English Patient (directed by Anthony Minghella): yes, it’s pure Hollywood and no, it wasn’t filmed in Algeria, but no film captures the excitement of the discovery of Saharan rock art quite like this.
With the thaw of the Ice Age 12,000 years ago (10,000 BC), the climate of the Sahara again became temperate and wild animals and people returned to occupy most of the region. This was the Sahara’s golden age, when the region was bathed in what we would now call a Mediterranean climate, when vegetation and water were as plentiful as the wild animals that now adorn so many rock walls. At such a period in history the Sahara must have been a great place to live, with ample prey for hunters and a natural world that provided more than enough food for the small numbers of people spread across this immense land.
Another possible dry spell approximately 8000 years ago (6000 BC) saw the introduction of domesticated cattle from the west, but for the next 3000 years the Sahara continued to be covered with savanna, year-round lakes, pastureland and acacia trees. The temperate, often humid climate continued until 4500 years ago (2500 BC), when the last transition commenced and the Sahara began to become the vast, arid desert that it is today, a process that was drawn out over 1500 years. Perennial lakes were replaced by more-seasonal water sources and, as the region became progressively drier, oases replaced lakeside and mountain villages as the sites of settlements and agricultural or pastoral activity. It was also the period in which trans-Saharan trade became the dominant economic activity, fostered by an increased reliance on chariots, then horses and finally camels, which were introduced to the Sahara 2200 years ago (200 BC).
. . One painting discovered by Henri Lhote in the Tassili N’Ajjer and called The Negro Mask bears a striking resemblance to the masks later used by the Senoufo people of West Africa.
In addition to providing a human complement to geological studies of the Sahara’s history, the Saharan rock art provides an invaluable resource depicting humankind’s changing relationship with nature. The shift from a time when wild animals were dominant over humans towards domestication and a taming of the natural environment through food production and more intensive land-use practices could be Saharan rock art’s most enlightening legacy.
TYPES OF ROCK ART
The two main types of rock art in the Sahara are paintings and carvings (also known as petroglyphs).
WHY ROCK ART MATTERS
When the rock art of the Sahara was discovered by the outside world in the 19th century, few Europeans could believe that the paintings and engravings were the work of what were at the time believed to be the primitive cultures of Africa. Subsequent studies have proved such assumptions to be wrong and this is perhaps one of rock art’s greatest legacies: African civilisations may not have left many written records, but their civilisations were as advanced as any in Europe at the time. As such, Saharan rock art is a priceless record of an otherwise undocumented period of African history, representing as it does the earliest known form of African communication.
The evidence of symbolic and religious inspiration behind the art – many studies point to religious symbolism as the primary motivation behind the art – suggests that the natural world was central to the spiritual life of the ancients, thereby deepening our understanding of the ancient world.
By providing a detailed snapshot of the region’s human, geographical and climatic history, the rock art also provides a salutary lesson to the modern world in these days of creeping environmental catastrophe. After all, the artists of the green and pleasant land that the Sahara once was almost certainly never imagined that their world would one day become a desert. Not only is Saharan rock art a powerful reminder to not assume that the natural world as we know it will last forever, how well we protect art work that has survived the millennia but is now under threat from our supposedly advanced civilisation will also provide important signs as to whether we are capable of protecting the human heritage of those who went before us.
Rock-art specialists are also keen to point out that the human history represented in the Sahara is our own heritage with strong links to the artistic influences of the Western world. For example, in African Rock Art, David Coulson and Alec Campbell argue that the breaking down of boundaries in European art in the early 20th century, which led to genres such as the Cubism of Picasso and others, was inspired by the masks and statuettes of sub-Saharan Africa, art forms which may have themselves derived from the artists of the Sahara before they were driven south by a drying climate.
There is also a belief among some archaeologists that it was from the Sahara that such art spread to Ethiopia, Kenya and Egypt; and the Egyptian artists possibly drew on the Saharan art for inspiration in the great subsequent flourishing of Egyptian art.
The paintings (also called pictographs) were usually applied using a brush made of feathers or animal hair, a spatula made of stick or bone or the fingers of the artist. To ensure accurate proportions, the artists are believed to have painted the images in outline and then coloured them in. Most of the paintings in Algeria are red, which was achieved through the use of a wet pigment thought to have been derived from ground-andburned stone; the colouration came from soft rock containing oxidized iron (hematite or ochre). A liquid binder was then applied, most often egg-white or milk, although urine, animal fat and blood were also used on occasion. It is to these binding agents that we owe the remarkable longevity of the paintings.
. . Rock Art in Africa: Mythology and Legend, by Jean-Loic Le Quellec, is another wonderful book that will have you imagining remote desert worlds and the people who once inhabited them.
The carvings were achieved through a method known as ‘pecking’, which involved the use of a heavy, sharp stone. A second stone was sometimes used to bang the sharp stone like a pick. Like the paintings, the outline was usually completed first, often by scratching. Upon completion, some of the lines were ground smooth and, on occasion, the rock face was smoothed first as a form of preparation. After metal was introduced to the Sahara around 3200 years ago (1200 BC), a metal spike may have been used.
Although the varieties of subject matter across the many open-air galleries of Saharan rock art are endless, the two most common forms are human and animal figures. Often stylised, the human figures are shown in many different poses, from what may have been portraits to scenes of hunting, celebration and even making love, while animals are most frequently shown in motion, often pursued by hunters.
PERIODS OF SAHARAN ROCK ART
The rock art of North Africa is thought to have its origins almost 12,000 years ago (10,000 BC) in the central Sahara, although some historians believe that many paintings or carvings could date back even further. Although centuries of exposure to the elements have made it difficult to precisely date much of the rock art, most of the examples to be found in the Algerian Sahara fall within five relatively discrete historical periods.
. . It is believed that in 18,000 BC the Sahara was larger than it is today, reaching far into West and even Central African regions that we now know as the Sahel.
The first of these is most commonly known as the Wild Fauna Period (10,000–6000 BC); other names include the Early Hunter Period and the Bubalus Period after a species of giant buffalo that became extinct 5000 years ago. This era is characterised by the portrayal of elephants, giraffes, crocodiles, hippopotamuses, rhinoceroses and lions from the time when the Sahara was covered by the plentiful savanna.
The Round Head Period (8000–6000 BC), overlapping its forerunner, is known for human figures with formless bodies and painted, circular heads devoid of features. Paintings from this period are found only in the Tassili N’Ajjer and nearby Jebel Acacus in Libya, and often take on enormous proportions. Women are often shown with arms raised, perhaps calling for blessings from the massive male figures alongside. During this period the people of the central Sahara are believed to have been foragers in the era prior to the appearance of domesticated stock. Its later stages feature more decorative figures adorned with headdresses and unusual clothing.
. . Met Museum – Timeline of Art History (www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/nroc/hd_nroc.htm) is a compact introduction to the art of the Sahara, with a section dedicated to the Tassili N’Ajjer.
The next era was the Pastoral Period (5500–2000 BC), also known as the Bovidian Period, which coincides with the gradual transition from a temperate to arid climate. As such, this period in some ways marks the beginning of the modern Saharan world. Accordingly, human figures are shown in positions of dominance over the natural world, with spears, domesticated cattle, diminishing wild animals and ceremonies in keeping with more settled communities. Paintings of boats and the arrival of people with less Negroid features in the Tassili N’Ajjer also feature. Curiously, experts also believe that this was when the skill of the artists began to show a decrease in quality.
The Horse Period (1000 BC–AD 1) followed, with many images of horses or horse-drawn chariots, some seemingly propelled through the air, reflecting the fact that transport and movement became more sophisticated and enabled relatively long-distance travel. Cattle are by far the dominant forms. Human figures from this period are represented by two triangles, one upright and one upside down, joined at the apex with a circular head on top. Much of the Tuareg writing (Tifinagh) alongside the paintings is from this period.
. . The strange letters which appear on some rock walls are from the Tifinagh alphabet of the Tuareg, although many modern Tuareg are unable to read the letters in their ancient form.
The final era of Saharan rock art was the Camel Period (200 BC–present). Camels became the Sahara’s beast of burden and they are shown in abundance during this period. Paintings from the earliest part of this period are of the highest quality while more recent ones are nowhere near as finely conceived.
WHERE TO SEE ROCK ART IN ALGERIA
The desert realm of remote massifs in the far southeast of Algeria is littered with rock paintings and carvings, but it is the Tassili N’Ajjer National Park that qualifies as the premier rock-art site anywhere in the world. Home to more than 15,000 petroglyphs and pictographs spread over 80,000 sq km, the Tassili N’Ajjer is the Louvre, Prado and Uffizi of the rock-art world rolled into one and if you came to Algeria and saw only the Tassili N’Ajjer, you’d leave more than satisfied.
That’s not to say that there are not impressive rock art sites elsewhere, and in most cases you’ll find them to be less overrun with large groups of tourists. In addition to the neighbouring national park, there are some fine sites close to Djanet, especially the iconic engraving of la Vache qui Pleu (Crying Cows) at Tagharghart, while the paintings are also outstanding at Tamdjert, close to Illizi.
. . The carving known as la Vache qui Pleu (Crying Cows) at Tagharghart is considered one of the masterpieces of Saharan rock art and experts believe that the artist spent months studying the site before beginning.
Elsewhere, the Tassili du Hoggar provides an even more spectacular backdrop to the paintings and engravings, with the latter especially fine at Tin Tarabine.
Away to the northwest, the rarely visited Tassili d’Immidir has hundreds of fine paintings, a wildly beautiful landscape and scarcely a tourist in sight. The Tassili d’Immidir can be accessed from either In Salah or Tamanrasset.
There are also some rock engravings at Taghit on the western fringe of the Grand Erg Occidental.
THE PROTECTION OF ROCK ART
The rock art of the Sahara may have proved to be extraordinarily durable down through the millennia, but it has never been endangered like it is today. While the local Tuareg proudly seek to safeguard the art forms and have lived alongside them for millennia, the same can’t be said for tourists and oil companies prospecting in desert areas – their increasing encroachment into the rock-art world is the major threat to the art’s survival.
. . Le Grand Dieu du Sefar (The Great God of Sefar) in the Tassili N’Ajjer rises over 3.25m tall and, according to Henri Lhote, dates back 8000 years and belongs to the Round Head Period of Saharan rock art.
Although oil companies have caused some damage through their prospecting, one company has set up plans for the art’s preservation.
While the vast majority of tourists respect the rock art and leave it as they found it, a greedy few have decided that it would make a beautiful (or lucrative) souvenir of their visit to Algeria. Other than security concerns, the subsequent belief by the Algerian authorities that tourists cannot be trusted is central to the requirement that visits to southern Algeria can only be undertaken with a professional guide.
Algeria’s suspicion of travellers on this score has not been misplaced. One of the most publicised cases came in 2004, when five German tourists went missing. Fearing a terrorist abduction, the Algerian authorities mounted a massive search, only to discover that the tourists in questions had deliberately escaped their guide to go rock art hunting. They were finally discovered with a distressing array of 130 rock art pieces in their bags. They were sentenced to three months in prison and fined UK£262,000.
Sadly, such stories are all too common in Algeria, as well as in neighbouring Libya and Niger. Acts of vandalism have included chipping away sections of the rock wall and throwing water on the paintings to enhance the light for taking photographs, as well as using complex silicon processes designed to copy the paintings, all of which have placed in jeopardy the survival of art forms that have existed for over 12 millennia.
. . Bradshaw Foundation (www.bradshawfoundation.com/africa/) contains up-to-date news on rockart protection, as well as galleries of photos from Saharan rock-art sites.
In addition to damage caused by humans, the impact of the Sahara’s harsh climate is also playing a part. On a recent visit to the Jebel Acacus of Libya, we found a badly faded painting that was vividly colourful just five years ago. The cause? Unusually heavy rains that caused water to run down the rock, thereby erasing the painting.
ROCK ART RULES OF ENGAGEMENT
It seems extraordinary that we should have to say this, but the basic rule of observing rock art is to leave the paintings and engravings as you find them.
More specifically, the various organisations dedicated to studying and protecting rock art (see below ) have laid out a number of guidelines that you should follow in order to avoid accelerating the natural deterioration of the art:
ROCK ART ASSOCIATIONS
If you want to learn more about Saharan rock art or about efforts being undertaken to preserve rock art across Africa, contact the outstanding Trust for African Rock Art (TARA; x254-20-884467; www.africanrockart.org; PO Box 24122, Nairobi, Kenya). It’s also worth keeping an eye on its upcoming expeditions to see if the association is heading to Algeria and whether you can join it.
In Germany the Heinrich-Barth-Institut (tel 0221-556680; firstname.lastname@example.org; www.archaeoafrica.de) at the University of Köln is also dedicated to the study of rock art, while the American Rock Art Research Association (www.arara.org) flies the flag in the USA.
In France the excellent nonprofit Association des Amis de l’Art Rupestre Saharien (http://aars.fr/index_en.html) promotes studies of Saharan rock art and has a range of publications and forums for discussion.