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African Rock Art

African Rock Art has long been the subject of study for archaeologists, anthropologists and art historians. In recent years, it has become a topic of particular interest to the wider public as new discoveries and technologies enhance our understanding, and as conservation groups highlight the need to protect the sites of this ancient art form.

African Art Beginnings

African Rock Art varies as widely chronologically as it does regionally. While some African Rock Art was executed as recently as the 19th century, many examples have been found to date back several thousand years, and evidence suggests that certain traditions may go back as far as 50,000 years. The oldest rock art which can so far be reliably dated has been traced to 27,000 BCE: the “Apollo 11” cave paintings of southern Namibia, discovered in 1969.

Rock Art in Southern Africa

The Apollo 11 paintings are the earliest found so far in a long tradition of San Art throughout southern Africa, most notably Namibia, Zimbabwe and South Africa. The San, or Khoisan — sometimes colloquially referred to as bushmen — are a group of people indigenous to the area with roots going back to the dawn of time. A 2009 DNA study published in the journal Science found that the San are the oldest population in Africa, and in turn likely on Earth.

San rock art spans several centuries, from the prehistoric era of the Apollo 11 cave paintings, continuously right up to the 19th century, when Dutch and British colonists were depicted. In all ages, they are among the most sophisticated of African Rock Art, specifically in two key attributes: portability, and three-dimensionality. Many paintings have been found not on fixed wall surfaces, but on portable tablets and stones; and a relatively complex palette of pigments allowed for more sophisticated rendering of three-dimensional figures than the more basic palette of similar styles in North Africa.

San painting is perhaps best typified by the famous eland paintings of the Drakensberg Mountains in South Africa.

North African Rock Art

The study of North African Rock Art provides fascinating insight into the changing land of the Sahara. The rock art of the region is divided into categories generally dictated by style and subject matter — which evolves along with the environment.

The earliest rock carvings are from the “Bubaline” period of circa 8000 BCE, which takes its name from a now-extinct species of wild cattle. It has also been referred to as the Large Fauna period, again relating to the subject matter of the carvings: large-scale depictions of animals including giraffes, rhinos, elephants and bubals. These images, found primarily in the Fezzan region of modern Libya, reflect the more lush environmental nature of the Sahara in that period.

The later periods, encompassing both carving and painting, comprise:

  • Archaic or “Round Head” style of Algeria’s feted Tassili n’Ajjer site, circa 8000–6000 BCE;
  • Bovidian or Pastoralist period, circa 5000–2000 BCE, reflecting the move from hunting–gathering to herding, similar in style to both the Drakensberg San paintings and cave paintings of Southern Europe;
  • Caballine or Horse period, depicting horses, chariots and “Libyan Warriors,” circa 2000 BCE;
  • Camelline or Camel period of the first millennium BCE, completing the pictorial evolution of the Sahara to present-day desert with the advent of the camel.

Rock Art of Central Africa

Less extensively explored to date than the Saharan and San arts to the north and south, the rock art of Central Africa is proving a rich and diverse source of study.

Famed anthropologist Mary Leakey was among the first to document rock paintings in East Africa with her study of the art of the Kondoa region of Tanzania. Intriguingly, Kondoa’s painted depictions of animals seem to bear more than a passing relation to the southern region’s San art, and appear strikingly different from geographically closer finds. The predominant style elsewhere in Central Africa tends toward geometrical abstraction.

Rock Art Conservation

As scholars seek to improve understanding of rock art in Central and East Africa, there is particular concern over conservation in those areas; but it is an issue all over the continent. Organizations like the Bradshaw Foundation, Trust for African Rock Art and Tanzania’s Rock art Conservation Centre do invaluable work to preserve this remarkable aspect of human heritage. Many provide interesting volunteer opportunities in Africa, and are partly supported by the sale of rock art prints.