Rock art is one of the most evocative pieces of heritage left for us by our ancient ancestors. By looking into its symbolism, we can look into the minds of people who lived thousands of years ago. Rock art can take us back to a time when the world was very different, to the time when Egypt was home to the greatest civilisation on earth. At that time, people were painting rock art in the centre of the Sahara, but even then the rock surfaces were far from bare. The Saharan painters of Pharaonic times were painting over rock art that was already some 6000 years old. And while Pygmy dancers entertained the great Pharaohs, their womenfolk painted the shelters of central Africa with a geometric art that is considered to be one of the most sophisticated of all the world’s arts. These great traditions, and hundreds of others, remain on the rocks of Africa to be discovered by anyone willing to take the time. Browsing this archive will introduce you to some of our greatest painted and engraved treasures, but words and pictures are a poor substitute for the real thing.
- The Continent Where Humanity and Art Began
- The Rock Art of Bantu-Language Speakers
- Warangi Rock Art, Tanzania
- Chewa Rock Art, Malawi and Zambia
- Kalanga Rock Art, Zimbabwe
- Northern Sotho Rock Art, South Africa
- Nguni Rock Art, South Africa
- The Hunter-Gatherer Rock Art of Africa
- The Batwa Rock Art of Central Africa
- The Hadza/Sandawe Rock Art of Eastern Africa
- The San Rock Art of Southern Africa
- The Pastoralist and Farmer Arts of Africa
- The Rock Art of Nilotic Speakers, East Africa
- Dogon Rock Art, Mali
- Khoekhoen Rock Art, South Africa
- Saharan Rock Art
- Many Peoples, Many Rock Arts, One Future
- Rock Art Tourism and the Alleviation of Poverty
More than a century ago, Charles Darwin stood almost alone when he argued that Africa was the most likely place for the origin of humanity. Since then, paleoanthropologists have, every year, uncovered more and more evidence to support Darwin’s proposition. A wealth of hominid fossil material has been found and in many different parts of Africa. In recognition of Africa’s superior claim as the birthplace of humanity, Sterkfontein in South Africa has been placed on the UNESCO world heritage list and is known popularly as the ‘Cradle of Humankind’.
Anatomically modern humans, people like us, have been living in Africa for at least the last 150 000 years. Europe, by contrast, has had anatomically modern human occupants for just the last quarter of this time period. These early Europeans, like the first inhabitants of Asia, Australasia, and the Americas were all descended from the same African ancestry. Everyone living on earth today shares this ancestry. Africa gave the world humanity; it also gave the world technology. The very first ‘fossils’ of technology, stone tools, were found in Africa and are nearly 2 million years old.
But where did art begin? This is a difficult question to answer. The oldest figurative art is in Chauvet Cave in France. It dates to some 33 000 years ago. The oldest figurative art in Africa comes from Apollo 11, a site near the Namibian-South African border. Pieces of painted stone were found buried in ground deposits dating 27 000 years ago. Although this is newer art than the French find, many predicted, on the basis that modern humans evolved in Africa, that, eventually, evidence of the oldest art would be found in Africa.
This prediction came true in January 2002 when a key new discovery on the southern Cape coast was made public. Chris Henshilwood announced the find of a piece of ochre decorated with a delicate geometric pattern. He dated the piece conservatively at 77 000 years old; in fact, it could be as old as 100 000 years. Certainly, the piece was made before any modern human walked in Europe. And so it appears that Africa is not only the cradle of humankind and technology, but also where art and culture began.
Warangi rock art has been found in about 50 rock shelters on the edge of the Masai escarpment in the Kondoa District of central Tanzania. The art is always painted with white or off-white, usually thickly applied, pigment. The dominant image in the art is a spread-eagled form that has a central vertical body and arms/legs spreading out from this horizontally and at right angles. These arms/legs often have fingers/toes. The form is more that of a stylised human than an animal. Next to this dominant image one finds a few recognisable animal forms, notably elephant and giraffe, as well as some geometric motifs.
The art is ascribed to the Warangi because of its pattern of distribution and because of oral traditions. Many of the shelters where this art occurs were used in boys’ initiation ceremonies right up until Tanzanian independence, at which time such ceremonies were strongly discouraged. Although it appears that the art is no longer made, its symbolism may still be known to some elders and can still be understood within the symbolic value system surrounding coming-of-age within Warangi society.
The ancestors of the Chewa and Nyanja peoples of central Africa were some of the most prolific of Africa’s Bantu-speaking farmer rock artists. To date, more than 400 Chewa rock art sites have been found, spread across central Malawi, eastern Zambia, and neighbouring areas of Mozambique. Nearly 70 percent of the known sites fall within the Dedza-Chongoni hills of Malawi, apparently a core area for Chewa art.
Chewa rock art divides into two separate traditions: the art of nyau and the art of chinamwali. As is typical of rock art made by Bantu-speaking peoples, the primary colour used is white and this is applied thickly by daubing. In the rare instances where the art is especially well preserved, black finger-painted decoration may be seen executed over the primary white design. The white pigment is a form of powdered clay, which can be dug out of most riverbeds in this area. The same pigment is used in traditional house decoration today. The black pigment is powdered charcoal. Both pigments seem to have been mixed using only water as neither is tightly bonded to the rock surfaces. Rock engravings (also known as petroglyphs) are unknown in these traditions.
The art of nyau is a tradition belonging to Chewa men. Nyau rock art, found at only a few dozen sites, is comparatively rare and fresh-looking when compared with chinamwali rock art. It depicts a range of masked men and, in particular, larger animal basketwork figures. These are readily recognisable as the elaborate masked characters that still perform in the ceremonies of the nyau closed association. Although the subject matter of the art is known, it is no longer remembered why the art was made. Research has shown that the nyau art tradition belonged to the specific historical context of the 19th and early 20th centuries, a time when nyau was forced to become an underground movement because of its suppression by Ngoni invaders, missions, and the colonial government. According to this explanation, the art served as a mnemonic device, helping teach young initiates about the construction and meaning of large nyau structures that could not be made during this troubled time. The art disappeared from use when suppression of nyau ended and initiates could once again learn by making and using the real structures.
Chinamwali art is much more common and, judging by the many layers of superpositions—more than a dozen at some sites—it is much older tradition than nyau art. It seems likely that this tradition of art has been passed down from the time of the earliest ancestors of the Chewa in this region, more than 1000 years ago, thus making it the traditional Chewa rock art. This art has been linked to Chewa women and to the girl’s coming-of-age ceremony: chinamwali. The painted symbolism is thought to revolve around concepts relating to water and fertility. It contains many instructive messages that teach and remind those attending chinamwali how to conduct themselves.
Designs similar to those in the rock art are modelled in clay and used in chinamwali and similar ceremonies in a number of places within central Africa. These designs each have a name, a dance, and an instructive song and the image helps the young girl to remember the many and complex teachings of the ceremony. The subject matter of these designs and their form suggest close parallels with Chewa rock art. It seems likely that the rock art images were also linked to song and dance. Today, chinamwali rock art is no longer made, but some of the shelters decorated with this art are still used for chinamwali ceremonies. There are indications that the secret meanings of many of the designs are still known, but there has been no published confirmation of this to date.
Kalanga rock art is a painted art tradition that is found in and around the Matobo (formerly Matopo) hills of Zimbabwe. Only a few dozen sites have been discovered to date. The paintings are executed by finger and in white pigment. Dominant images include the giraffe, elephant, and zebra. Particular to this art tradition is an image showing a pair of men standing on either side of a large circular object that is interpreted as a drum.
Kalanga rock art is under researched but, like most other rock arts of Bantu-language speakers, it appears that it was made for mnemonic purposes during an initiation ceremony, in this case probably a boy’s initiation ceremony. The rock art was made during the ceremony and each image helped the initiates remember a part of the complex series of instructions received during the initiation. These instructions helped transform the boys into men, teaching them the ways of adult society and, in particular, how to behave within marriage. Traditionally, boys would take up married life soon after their initiation. Although the rock art was instructional, the meaning of each symbol was such that it could be recognised only by the initiated. Outsiders could see the painted subjects, such as the giraffe and the elephant, but they could not penetrate the secret symbolic meanings and teachings encoded in these subjects.
In addition to its celebrated San (or Bushmen) hunter-gatherer rock art, southern Africa has a number of later rock art traditions made by Bantu-speaking farmers. The most extensive of these traditions in terms of area covered and number of sites is the rock art of the Northern Sotho. This art, always painted, is found spread across the greater part of northern South Africa. Northern Sotho rock art is easily distinguished from San rock paintings both by its colour and by its form. It is predominantly executed in white and applied thickly by finger. Occasionally, red and black pigments are also used, usually as decoration over the primary white design. The white pigment is a form of powdered clay found in many riverbeds in the area. The choice of white as the dominant colour is characteristic of rock art traditions belonging to Bantu-speaking agriculturists and, in fact, these arts have become colloquially known as the ‘late whites’.
The greatest concentration of Northern Sotho art is in the more remote hill areas of Limpopo Province, South Africa, especially the Soutpansberg and Waterberg mountains and the Makgabeng plateau. To date, approximately 500 sites of Northern Sotho rock art have been discovered. The art divides into an earlier and a later period. The early art depicts a variety of wild animals such as elephant, zebra, lion, rhino, kudu, hyena, and hippo, but the dominant subject is the giraffe. Almost all the art is concealed in large rock shelters in remote and secluded mountain areas. These places are the traditional venues for the secretive Northern Sotho boys’ initiation practices. Elders in some areas acknowledge a link between this art and traditional initiation practices, but state that even though some of the painted sites are still used for initiation ceremonies today, the tradition of making rock art has ceased.
It seems that each painted animal carried a particular instructive and symbolic message within the boys’ initiation ceremony and indications as to how this symbolism operated survive in the continued use of animal symbolism within modern initiation practices. Within the modern initiation lodge, for example, the fire is sometimes referred to as the lion cub, the magic tree as the giraffe, the cairn of stones as the hyena, and the structure under which food is placed as the elephant. Many of the instructive songs learnt by the initiates are also concerned with these same animals. The secret teachings in these songs are often unclear to the initiates, but the social messages concealed within this complex structure of animal imagery become progressively understood with age and experience.
In the latter half of the 19th century, Northern Sotho rock art underwent a dramatic change. The intrusion of white settlers into the region brought taxes, land clearance, and conflict. A series of wars to subdue Northern Sotho traditional leaders left many homeless and destitute and whole communities fled to the hill areas. Many of the old initiation sites became refuge settlements. A new form of rock art developed, dominated by depictions of steam trains, soldiers, settlers, and guns. The images capture a people’s tragedy, but also served a more important purpose. They poked fun at the troublesome new intruders and this pointed humour alleviated some of the social trauma of the times. The art marks the origins of protest art in northern South Africa—ordinary people sticking up for their right to land and self-determination, and fighting the destruction of their traditional structures and cultural values.
In contrast to Northern Sotho rock art, the rock art made by Nguni-language speakers is predominantly engraved. This art is found throughout the heart of KwaZulu-Natal Province in South Africa and a little way into neighbouring parts of Mpumalanga and Gauteng Provinces. The art comprises multiple sets of concentric circles joined by meandering lines. Researchers have shown that the circles represent homesteads: houses and granaries laid out around a central cattle kraal as seen from above. Sometimes, each hut is represented by a dot; other times a sold circle is used to evoke the ring of huts around the circular cattle kraal. The kraal, where the cattle are rested at night, lies at the heart of the homestead. The meandering lines represent the paths and cattle tracks linking various homesteads. The engraved tracks often wind their way across the rock surface to prominent circular depressions in the rock as if these depressions evoked the waterholes where cattle go to drink.
The vast majority of the settlement pattern engravings follow the particular ‘central cattle pattern’ form that is unique to Nguni settlements. Judging by the overall distribution, the majority of this art was made by ancestors of modern-day Zulu speakers and other closely related groups. On the periphery of the area in which these engravings are found, such as in the Magaliesberg hills outside of Johannesburg, there are a few sites showing settlement pattern engravings that are more Sotho- or Tswana-like in their layout. It therefore seems that some Sotho-Tswana groups who were living in close interaction with Nguni groups took up this art rock tradition. The exact rationale behind the making of these engravings remains somewhat uncertain, though the widespread distribution and regularity in subjects suggests that this art links to a central and repeated Zulu-speaker traditional practice and that the making of rock art was highly ritualised. Given the repeated association of African farmer rock art with initiation rituals, it seems likely that an initiation ritual is somehow implicated by these engravings as well. Under the rule of King Shaka, and at his insistence, most Zulu-speaking groups abandoned traditional initiation practices in the early 1800s, which may explain the demise of this rock art tradition.
Africa has four main hunter-gatherer rock art zones. Each zone has its own particular style of depiction and these are described and illustrated here. Within each zone one finds considerable regional variation; however, broad and common uses of colour, technique, subjects, and symbolism suggest that each zone is a particular and distinctive artistic tradition. The subjects and symbolic concerns of each tradition are very different, but they are united by a common concern with the spirit world and with spirit world forces.
The central African hunter-gatherer rock art zone, called the ‘Schematic Art Zone’ by J. Desmond Clark, contains nearly 3000 hunter-gatherer rock art sites. Approximately 90 percent of these comprise superimposed layers of massed, finger-painted, geometric designs; the other 10 percent of sites comprise highly stylised and distorted animal forms plus rows of finger dots. Both seem to have a history extending back many thousands of years.
Although the geometric art always dominates, the two traditions go together as a pair: they are regularly found near each other, but in only a handful of cases can they be found together at the same site. Both are found in the same overall distribution, an area that encircles the central African rainforests and includes Angola, Zambia, Malawi, northern Mozambique, the Democratic Republic of Congo, southern and western Tanzania, western Kenya, Uganda, Congo, and the Central African Republic. The dominance of geometric rock art distinguishes this area from the other hunter-gatherer rock art regions in Africa, all of which, by contrast, contain a high percentage of brush-painted animals, humans, and human-animal conflations.
Throughout most of central Africa, the prefarmer hunter-gathering populations exist today only in archaeological deposits and oral traditions. Modern central African Bantu-language speakers remember these people as the Batwa (a word that is used widely in eastern, central, and southern Africa to refer to any autochthonous hunter-gatherer people). In those areas close to southern Africa, they are remembered as being very distinct from the San (or Bushmen) and the rock art bears this out: Batwa rock art is entirely different from San rock art. The dividing line between southern African San rock art and central African Batwa rock art follows the Zambezi River and the Anglo/Namibia border. The archaeological remains also show strong divergence along this same line. The later Stone Age lithic technologies vary to such an extent that they have been given different names: those in southern Africa are known as the Wilton/Smithfield, whereas those of central Africa are known as Nachikufan. The cultural distinctions between central and southern Africa hunter-gatherers are thus profound.
The only surviving groups of central African Batwa are the so-called forest Pygmies. Genetic studies appear to confirm the archaeological division between the ancestral heritage of these groups and that of the southern African San. Geneticists suggest that there is great antiquity to the division between the San and the Pygmies, perhaps with a divergence in excess of 40,000 years. Pygmy groups are known to have occupied many sections of the central African ‘Schematic Art Zone’ even into historical times, and it is probable that the full former distribution of these groups can be recognised from the distribution of the art. Certainly, elements within recorded Pygmy traditions help us understand central African rock art.
Pygmy traditions, such as those of the Mbuti, recorded by Colin Turnbull, are dominated by two major ceremonies: molimo and elima. Molimo is organised by men; elima by women. Both ceremonies traditionally take place in a clearing in the forest and involve singing around campfires night after night, sometimes for as long as a month. Molimo is often held after the death of an important member of the group or in the case of a violent argument. Elima usually marks important women’s occasions, such as coming of age. Turnbull describes how the songs in both ceremonies seek to bring out the spirit of the forest. During molimo, the spirit of the forest emerges literally and its unearthly song can often be heard encircling the campfire in the darkness (the song is in fact sung by boy through a special molimo pipe).
Turnbull argues that the purpose of calling out the spirit of the forest in these ceremonies is to restore harmony within the camp and the forest. He argues that the Mbuti see this state of harmony as essential to allowing the dead to be released back to the forest and to giving heath and fertility to the girls. Smith and Blundell argue that it is these same concerns that underlie central African Batwa rock art. The stylised animal depictions mark the symbols and concerns of the ceremony of molimo (specifically, calling the spirit of the forest) and the geometric designs represent the symbols and concerns of elima (specifically, fertility and rain divination). They argue that this is why the two arts are found separately, and yet not far from each other. The arts were made by different groups within the same society and, together, they form a conceptual whole.
One of the most intriguing of Africa’s hunter-gatherer rock art traditions is found in central Tanzania. Whereas the other traditions cover huge geographic areas and are represented at many thousands of sites, this tradition occurs at just a few hundred sites in a small area of land less than 100 km in diameter, as sort of island within the more widespread central African Batwa rock art tradition. The art contrasts with the geometric Batwa art in that it is made up entirely of animal and human forms. Its closest parallels are with San art, but a number of its elements, such as its distinctive human head forms, are unique.
The area in which the art is found corresponds closely to the known distribution of the Sandawe and Hadza peoples. Both speak click languages that have their only parallels amongst the San languages of southern Africa. The Sandawe and Hadza stand can be distinguished from their neighbours not only by their special click languages, but also because they appear to have a hunter-gatherer ancestry extending back long before Bantu-speaking farmers arrived in this area. Both Sandawe and Hadza have been living amongst farmer groups for many centuries and their beliefs and traditions show much evidence of borrowing. However, they also maintain a number of special rituals and beliefs that are not found amongst neighbouring groups.
There are a handful of tantalising reports of Sandawe individuals making rock art early in the 20th century. These accounts provide evidence that the practice of rock art was linked to particular Sandawe rituals, most notably to simbo. Simbo is a trance dance in which the Sandawe communicate with the spirits by taking on the power of an animal (the lion). Elements in the art provide independent confirmation of this link because they display a range of features that can be understood only by reference to simbo and to trance experiences. For example, groups of human figures are shown bending at the waist (just as happens during the simbo dance), taking on animal features such as animal ears and tails, and floating or flying, a representation of the experiences of those possessed in the dance. The bizarre head forms seen in the rock art are no doubt another key element in the symbolism of simbo but, like much of this art, for now they remain enigmatic.
San rock art is perhaps the best known and best understood of all the African rock arts. For decades, researchers believed that the art was simply a record of daily life or a primitive form of hunting magic. Those were the days of ‘gaze and guess’, when it seemed that the longer one gazed at the art, the better one’s guess would be as to its meaning. Thankfully, those days are gone. More recently, researchers, by linking specific San beliefs to recurrent features in the art, have been able to crack the code of San rock art.
What has been revealed is one of the most complex and sophisticated of all the world’s symbolic arts. Far from a general view of life, San rock art focuses on a particular part of San experience: the spirit world journeys and experiences of San shamans. Thus we see many features from the all-important trance dance, which is how the shamans gained access to the spirit world. We see dancers with antelope hooves showing that they have taken on antelope power, just as San shamans describe in the Kalahari today. We see shamans climbing up the so-called threads of light that connect to the sky-world. We see trance flight.
The artists also used visual metaphors to illustrate their experiences, such as showing shamans ‘underwater’ and ‘dead’. These renderings capture aspects of how it feels to be in a trance. The artists also show action in the spirit world, such as capturing the rain animal, their activation of potency for use in healing or in fighting off enemies or dangerous forces. But the art was far from just a record of spirit journeys. Powerful substances such as eland blood were put into the paints so to make each image a reservoir of potency. As each generation of artists painted or engraved layer upon layer of art on the rock surfaces, they were creating potent spiritual places.
Africa’s pastoralist and farming groups engaged in more rock art traditions than did the hunter-gatherer groups, but each tradition occurs at fewer sites and each is more localised, typically being found at a few hundred sites each, rather than at many thousands as is the case for the hunter-gatherer traditions. Pastoralist and farmer traditions tend to use white as their primary colour and the pigment is most often applied by hand rather than using a brush. Many pastoralist and farmer groups did not make rock art, choosing instead to make their ritual art in a medium that could more easily be hidden, such as wooden and clay figurines and hut paintings.
Spread across Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda, and northern Tanzania is a tradition of painted and engraved rock art that is composed of highly stylised representations of long-horned and short-horned cattle. Because of this specific distribution, researchers believe that this art was made by ancestors of modern Nilotic speakers. The art is thickly engraved or painted by finger. When painted, the images are red and/or white. In rare cases, panels of images of cattle also include a few human images.
There are some noticeable regional variations in this art. In central Kenya and in the Serengeti in Tanzania, for example, rather than finding images of cattle, one finds depictions of cattle brands and shields. Groups such as the Samburu, Pokot, Turkana, and Masai still use many of the same brands, which are marks of ownership, and shield forms depicted in this rock art. A link has been demonstrated between this rock art and the ceremonial meat-feasting practices of male warriors. Special places, often rock shelters, are still used in these ceremonies today, but rock art is no longer made. However, it is likely that the art-making did continue until very recently, judging by the particularly fresh appearance of many of the images.
The Dogon are the only known group in Africa to continue the practice of rock art. Painted shelters in Dogon country have been photographed since the early 1900s and we can see in this record the appearance of a series of new images as well as regular repainting of old images. The paintings are applied by finger in red, white, and black pigments. The images depict a range of human ancestral figures, masks, weapons, items of material culture, snakes, lizards, and a variety of other images that have cosmological and historical significance to the Dogon.
Local elders explain that the art is made as part of a boy’s initiation ceremony and this testimony is supported by early ethnographic reports. Some of the painted rock shelters are still used in initiation rituals and many of the painted shelters retain their circumcision stone in front of the rock art. Although the subject matter of the paintings may be publicly known, the symbolism of the art remains a closely guarded secret, known only to the initiated.
There has been much debate over the cultural differences between the San and the Khoekhoen (formerly Khoi) of southern Africa. Some have argued that Khoekhoen are simply San who had taken on stock, while others contend that key elements in the language and culture of the Khoekhoen derive from Angola or western Zambia and, therefore, that the Khoekhoen originally must have migrated down from the north. Rock art research has recently tilted the balance of evidence strongly in favour of the migration theory. If the Khoekhoen came from Angola or western Zambia, their ancestral art tradition would have been the Batwa geometric rock art tradition. It has now been shown that there is a band of this type of art across Botswana, Zimbabwe, into northern South Africa, and then along river systems to the northern and western Cape Provinces of South Africa. This can only be explained by tying it to Khoekhoen migrations. More recent movements, such as the historically recorded Nama move into Namibia, are matched by assemblages of fresh-looking geometric rock art. There is tantalising historical evidence that some Khoekhoen groups were making geometric art long, long ago. Research into these rock arts provides us with fascinating insights into our ancient history and heritage.
Africa’s Sahara Desert is over 5 million square kilometres in extent. It was and is an arid land. However, increased rainfall between 10 000–2500 BC, saw stony plains and sand dunes begin to support steppe and savannah vegetation, dry rivers flow, empty lakebeds fill, and mountain valleys become forested. Wild animals spread across the land, with the inevitable result that people soon followed.
Such wild animals included elephant, rhinoceros, hippopotami, giraffe, antelope, ostrich, lion and other predators, bubalus (wild cattle), aurochs, crocodiles, and fish. At first, people lived by gathering wild foods and hunting. After about 5000 BC domestic cattle appeared, and sheep, goats, and dogs were brought from Asia Minor. Different environments favoured different lifestyles. Some people remained hunter-gatherers, some herded livestock, and some added fishing to their repertoire. A little before 1000 BC, horses, chariots, and writing systems began to spread through the northern Sahara, followed by knowledge of copper and iron working. Shortly before the Christian era, camels penetrated the Sahara. Islam had spread to most areas by 900 AD.
The art consists of engravings (petroglyphs) pecked and incised onto rock surfaces and paintings (pictographs) drawn by applying pigment to sheltered rock surfaces. Engravings usually measure between 20 and 100 cm but some exceed five metres. Paintings are usually smaller (5–50 cm), but a very few exceed two metres. Paintings were made with a brush or other implement in one or more colours. Outlines are in-filled with flat colours made from iron oxides, clays, charcoal, and liquid binders. A very few engravings have paint in their lines. Engravings occur mainly on sheltered rock faces, although some are carved into pavements and boulders. Paintings are found almost invariably in rock shelters and under rock projections; none occurs in deep caves. All the art is exposed to the weather, and thus it is fragile and slowly deteriorating. Engravings are more widespread than paintings, the latter being found in some abundance only in Tassili, the Akakus and Ennedi Mountains, and Djebel Uweinat. Some form of rock art is found almost every where rock occurs in the desert.
Rock art is often found in large panels and its images are dominated by wild animals, domesticated animals, and people. The images of people are depicted in a manner that may show a sequence of time. The human images occur in a wide range of symbolic contexts and actions: we see pastoral images, unclothed people, ornately clothed people, people holding weapons, and people riding chariots, horses, cattle, and camels. Alongside these clearly representational images are found less clearly figurative images, such as concentric circles, spirals, and more complicated geometric designs. One also finds pictures of animal and human tracks as well as hollows ground into the rock. Landscape details are rare and images of plants almost nonexistent.
Researchers have various opinions regarding the age of the earliest Saharan rock art, but most agree on a sequence based on themes or so-called styles. Each style has its own geographical distribution, a distinctive painting/engraving technique, a different intensity of patinas (desert varnish), and depicts a particular set of animals, people, and weapons.
The art probably commenced with large, animal engravings more than 10 000 years ago, although a few researchers believe it started as late as around 5000 BC. These early engravings, confined to the Central Saharan Mountains, are known variously as Early Hunter, Early Wild Animal, or Bubalus art. Early paintings, known as Round Head art, are confined to Tassili n’ Ajjer and the Akakus Mountains and depict mainly human figures in profile, some wild animals, and, possibly, domesticated cattle. These paintings are thought to date to between 8000–6000 BC and seem to express an unreal and spiritual world.
After 5000 BC and the adoption of pastoral lifestyles, pictures classified as Bovidian, Pastoral, or Cattle art appear. Cattle, sheep, goats, and the occasional dog dominate over wild animals and are depicted singly and in scenes involving both men and women. Hunting scenes become more common and the art appears less obviously symbolic than earlier works.
After the introduction of horses, chariots, metals, and writing about 3000 years ago, the wild animals depicted tend to include only those adapted to dry conditions, such as giraffe, antelope, ostrich, and predators. An unreadable, ancient Berber script appears in both paintings and engravings. Clothed men with throwing spears, lances, and swords become common and women virtually disappear. Depending on location, these artworks are known as Libyan Warrior or Horse art.
A final phase, the ‘Camel’ (or ‘Horse/Camel’ period in Ennedi), involves mainly paintings and engravings of camels and horses, often being ridden, and some antelope. This phase has no depictions of women.
In most areas, the rock art painting and engraving traditions ceased with the introduction of Islam more than 1000 years ago. However, engraving and, to a lesser extent, painting, have continued sporadically. The most recent art (graffiti) tends to depict vehicles, machine guns, and inscriptions in Arabic, Tifinagh, and Latin script.
Research into Saharan rock art began in the 1930s. Early researchers focused their efforts on locating and recording the art, defining different styles, and attempting to derive a sequence for these styles. Recent research has expanded beyond this firm empirical basis to consider the purpose and meaning of the art. Almost certainly, early art was religious and symbolic in nature, expressing perceptions of the world and people’s positions in it. Although Pastoral art obviously reflects lifestyles and the importance of livestock, much of it may also have symbolic meaning. For example, a drawing of a giraffe may have evoked a range of symbolic meanings related to such things as rain, fertility, and morality, as well as simply depicting the animal itself; cattle may have been symbols of social importance, rites of passage, kinship, or ownership. Libyan Warrior engravings may express the ideas of power and male dominance.
There have been many well-illustrated publications on Saharan rock art over the years, in a variety of languages, including French, English, Spanish, German, Italian, and Portuguese. However, only very recent publications are still in print.
As the place where art began, our rock art heritage is truly a heritage that unites us across Africa. No wonder then, that South Africa’s President Thabo Mbeki chose a rock art image to be placed at the centre of his country’s new post-Apartheid coat-of-arms. The image is a piece of San rock art from the Linton Stone, now on permanent display in the South African Museum in Cape Town.
Almost every cultural and linguistic group in Africa has made rock art in some place at some time, and while each tradition is unique and distinctive, if one goes back far enough, they all appear to have a common root. Rock art is thus a symbol of Africa’s richness and diversity and also of its common and unifying ancestry.
Rock art is naturally robust and enduring. If cared for, it will survive for our enjoyment and benefit for many millennia, but if it is insensitively exploited or disregarded, it will be destroyed in just a few years and once destroyed, it is gone forever. Our rock art is a proud reminder of a history of cultural achievement in Africa that stretches back countless millennia; it is unparalleled in its fineness and sophistication. We must take care of it.
Rock art not only provides us with a strong sense of pride in a rich African past, it can also play a key role in our future. Cultural tourism is the fastest growing section of the tourism industry and tourism is the fastest growing industry in Africa. There is no better place to experience cultural heritage than in Africa—where culture began. Ultimately, in coming to Africa, everyone is coming ‘home’ as this is where all our ancestors lived.
Africa’s rock art heritage is the best in the world and it is also among the world’s best understood rock art, thanks to many decades of quality rock art research. We can thus take visitors to a rock art site and explain many aspects of its history, complex symbolism, and metaphors. Each site has its own fascinating and unique story. And, because of research and study, the stories are ‘real’; the days of standing bewildered in front of the art, guessing at its meaning, are, thankfully, gone.
Rock art tourism is particularly valuable because it takes people to remote rural areas where the benefits of tourism are most desperately needed and where investment and jobs will be of greatest benefit in the fight against poverty. For conservation reasons, and to make it a richer and more rewarding experience, all visitors to rock arts site must be accompanied by a guide. Poor site management can result in a site being destroyed in just a few years. So although the development of a sensitive and sustainable public rock art requires significant investment of time and money, once that investment is made, the site will provide permanent jobs and income for centuries to come. The future of Africa’s ancient rock art is in our hands; if we take care of it, it will make our own future that much richer.
Benjamin Smith, RARI
David Coulson, TARA
Alec Campbell, TARA