Many people associate rock art with Lascaux and other sites in Europe. But Africa has a rich tradition of rock art depicting 30,000 years of life on the continent that gave birth to the human race. Much of this treasure trove is now online.
The African Rock Art Image Project comes from the British Museum, where for the past two years a curatorial team has been cataloging and digitizing some 25,000 photographs of rock art from across Africa, originally assembled by the Trust for African Rock Art (TARA). More than 10,000 images from northern African countries are online already, and another 15,000 images from the western, central, and southern regions will eventually join them.
The paintings and engravings were created by a wide variety of cultures from different eras. Here are a few of our favorites—and their stories.
In this intimate scene dating back perhaps 6,000 years, one person washes another's hair, and between them is a vessel possibly containing a hair conditioner of rancid butter. It's a detail from a larger painting located in the Uan Amil rock shelter in southwestern Libya that some say depicts the preparations for a wedding. Uan Amil was occupied mainly between 8,000 and 4,000 years ago. One researcher has suggested that based on the hairstyles, today’s Wodaabe nomads of Niger resemble the people shown here. As the British Museum notes:
Among numerous social groups throughout Africa, hairstyling and hairdressing hold great cultural and aesthetic significance. Coiffures have been regarded as indicative of ethnic origin, gender and stages of life development—as well as simply fashion—and have been related to power, age, religion and politics.
This pecked engraving rock of female camel carrying a load, accompanied by three calves, was discovered in the Tassili n’Ajjer ("plateau of chasms") region of southwest Algeria. Camels were domesticated in Africa in the early first millennium CE. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, Tassili n’Ajjer has more than 15,000 rock paintings and engravings dating back as far as 12,000 years ago. Some are 13 feet tall—the largest found in Africa.
People pressed their painted hands against this rock shelter wall sometime between 2000 BCE and 200 BCE in a desert region of Mauritania known as Guilemsi. The art in the region is unusually varied, with distorted humans, naturalistic cows, and abstract geometric patterns all sharing wall space. (These hand prints are unusual too.) Did different groups of people with unique artistic traditions decorate the caves at the same time, or does the diversity represent different time periods? Archaeologists aren't sure.
This lavishly decked-out warrior and horse were discovered in Niger's Aïr Mountains, a desert region in the north, and date from 1500 to 3000 years ago. Art from the so-called Libya Warrior era often shows chariots, charioteers, horses, and figures like this one, who has an ornate, three-plumed headdress, highly decorated clothing, three spears, and a shield. Some 1000 engravings of warriors have been recorded in this region of Niger and in neighboring Mali. Horses were first introduced to Africa via Egypt around 1600 BCE.
The life-size engraved figures found at the Niola Doa rock shelter in northeastern Chad are both vibrantly patterned and highly formal; figures posed and adorned in this manner have been found at a half-dozen sites in the region. Together, the thousands of painted and engraved images found in the mountainous Ennedi Plateau are one of the biggest collections of rock art in the Sahara, with a fantastic variety of styles and themes. They could be up to 7000 years old. Are the figures here wearing clothes (note the belt of birds around the waist of the left figure) or body paint, or are they sporting scarification? Are they girls? It isn't clear, but today, Niola Doa means "the place of the girls" in the local language.
All images © TARA/David Coulson