Debate over 7,000-year-old rock art in barren Sahara Desert that may depict people swimming
About 7,000 years ago in the Sahara Desert, artists painted giraffes, cows, goats, dogs, and people who appear to be swimming in a dog paddle-type motion. Some scientists believe the artists witnessed these scenes in what is now the harsh and barren Sarah Desert, but which was once a lush, green landscape as recently as 5,000 to 6,000 years ago.
The paintings are on the walls of a cave in the mountainous Gilf Kebir plateau in the New Valley Governorate of southwest Egypt, near the border with Libya. Physical scientists researching in the area recently drew a tentative link between the figures, who may or may not be swimming, and two lakes 124 miles (200 km) south. An archaeologist discounts the notion, saying the timing is off and the figures in the cave paintings may not even be swimming.
The Cave of the Swimmers inspired Michael Ondaatje’s book The English Patient, which was made into a popular 1996 movie of the same title. In a story about recent scientific analyses of the paintings , Phys.org wrote:
The Cave of the Swimmers has captivated imaginations ever since it was discovered by the Hungarian explorer László Almásy in 1933. The shallow cave’s paintings are about 7,000 years old, give or take a thousand years, and show human figures performing what looks like a kind of Neolithic doggy paddle.
Confronted by the seeming inconsistency of swimmers in a desert landscape, Almásy hypothesized that the artists were realistically depicting their surroundings and that the climate had in fact been wetter back then.
Archaeologist Andras Zboray, who is researching there, questions whether the people in the paintings are actually swimming.
“The ‘swimmers’ move towards ‘headless beasts’ in a straight line, more as if floating in air than swimming” says Sahara rock-art researcher Andras Zboray. “They are clearly symbolic, as are the beasts, with an unknown meaning.”
Zboray explains that there is also a “clear temporal disconnect” since the standing bodies of freshwater in Gebel Uweinat date to roughly 9,000 years ago, while most of the rock art in the surrounding areas dates from 7,000 to 5,500 years ago.
That said, the giraffes engraved on the cave’s walls about 7,000 years ago were likely from that area of Egypt. The area as recently 5,000 years ago had been grassland with lakes and many animals, including giraffes and even hippopotamuses.
Giraffes and what look like a goat, a dog, people and cows on cave walls in the Egyptian Sahara ( NASA Photo/Chris McKay )
Cattle depicted in Sahara Desert cave paintings at Gebel el Uweinat, southwestern Egypt ( NASA Photo/Chris McKay )
Researchers discovered signs of possible life called carbonate deposits and microbialites, on canyon walls not far from the paintings at Gebel el Uweinat. They speculate if the paintings at Uweinat are truly swimmers, the artists may have voyaged to the lakes and taken inspiration from swimming or seeing swimmers there.
"Indeed, we found that there were lakes not far from the Cave of the Swimmers," Chris McKay of the NASA Ames Research Center told Phys.org. "The deposits look like a bathtub ring around the canyon walls."
Mount Uweinat in the eastern Sahara, the area in which the dried lakes were identified ( NASA photo/Wikimedia Commons )
McKay and his crew were researching the lake deposits in the Egyptian desert to ascertain how microbes that may have left the deposits could survive under such extreme conditions and whether they could live on Mars. They had joined an archaeology group studying the rock art at Uweinat.
Featured image: People have speculated the figures in Egyptian cave paintings are swimming. ( NASA Photo/ChrisMcKay )
By Mark Miller