Laas Geel Complex and The Magnificent Ancient Rock Art of Somalia
Thousands of years ago, humans from the Neolithic age, decorated the walls of rock shelters with paintings of animals and humans at a site called Laas Geel in present day Somalia. Their work would last 5,000 years and would one day attract the attention of the 21st century. The caves provide a glimpse into the little known history of this part of the world. Even with the history of political instability, war, natural weathering, and other factors, the paintings have survived intact, retaining their clear outlines and vibrant colors. They are thought to be among the best and oldest preserved rock paintings in Africa.
Laas Geel, meaning ‘source of water for camels’, is a complex of rock shelters and caves located 55 kilometers (34 miles) northeast of Hargeisa, the capital of Somaliland, an autonomous region of war-torn Somalia. In an area encompassing a nomadic village, the Naasa Hablood hills, the site overlooks a wide district of countryside, where nomads graze their livestock and human settlement is sparse. Much of Somalia is now comprised of vast badlands and the parched Laas Geel region no longer draws herds of cattle coming to graze and water. The complex is located near a confluence of two dry rivers, which lends credence to its name. Locals knew of the place for centuries but avoided it due to what they believed to be the haunt of demons and evil spirits.
Depiction of a herd of cattle at Laas Geel ( Wikimedia Commons )
In November and December 2002, an archaeological survey was carried out by a French team in Somalia to search for rock shelters and caves containing stratified archaeological infills. On December 4, French archaeologist Xavier Gutherz from Paul Valery University, and his team ‘discovered’ the Laas Geel caves and spectacular paintings scattered among ten rock alcoves. In November 2003, a mission returned to Laas Geel and a team of experts undertook a detailed study of the paintings and their prehistoric context.
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Laas Geel rock shelter near Hargeisa, northern Somalia, known for containing Neolithic rock art. Photo by Najeeb, 2005. ( Wikimedia Commons )
As is the case with rock art sites, the dating remains a problem even at Laas Geel as the only thing it is based on seems to be small fragments of pigments found in layers believed to date to 3500-2500 BC. There is not a single ceramic segment found at Laas Geel’s Shelter 7, which is the only excavated shelter and upon which the dating estimation is based on. Little is known about the civilization at the time and which painting techniques were used to create the rock art, and some scholars believe the paintings could be anywhere from 5,000 to 11,000 years old.
The complex is comprised of approximately 20 shelters or rock caves made of naturally occurring rock formations of varying size, the largest being ten meters long with a depth of about 5 meters. These shelters feature polychrome (multi-colored) painted panels that are considered to be the oldest known rock art in the Horn of Africa, a peninsula in Northeast Africa. Shelter 1 is one of the most important shelters at Laas Geel due to the richness of variations and composition of its rock art. The size of this shelter is 170 m2, with a ceiling that is completely covered with paintings and is considered the artistic and creative center of the complex.
One of the Laas Geel alcoves ( Wikimedia Commons )
It is estimated that there are 350 animal and human representations, as well as numerous tribal marks among the rock art at Laas Geel. Some of the cave paintings are stunningly well preserved as they have been sheltered from the elements by the granite overhangs. Others have faded due to rock degradation and the effects of weathering and erosion. The caves house a constellation of brown, orange, white and red pre-historic sketches on the walls and ceiling. The paintings depict mostly animals, including cows and dogs, but they also show humans. Lesser animals depicted in the artwork include monkeys, antelope, giraffes and possibly jackals or hyenas. The herders and wild animals point to the interglacial period when the now arid Horn of Africa region was lush and green, and home to many wild animals.
Detail of the Laas Geel cave paintings near Hargeysa, Somaliland/Somalia, showing a cow. This cow has a straight back and unique head and horns. Photo by: Najeeb, 2005. ( Wikimedia Commons )