15,000 artworks over ten millennia reveal the evolution of human life on the edge of the Sahara
Tassili n'Ajjer has been described as the finest prehistoric open-air museum in the world. Set in a vast plateau in the south-east of the Algerian Sahara at the borders of Libya, Niger and Mali, and covering an area of 72,000 square kilometres, Tassili is home to an exceptional density of paintings and engravings which record climatic changes, animal migrations and the evolution of human life on the edge of the Sahara from c 10,000 BC to the first centuries of the present era.
Over thousands of years, successive groups of peoples left many archaeological remains, habitations, burial mounds and enclosures. However, it is the rock art, which was first discovered in 1933, that has made Tassili n’Ajjer world famous.
The art comprises more than 15,000 paintings and engravings on exposed rock faces, and includes pictures of wild and domestic animals, humans, geometric designs, ancient script, and mythical creatures, such as men with animal heads and gods or spirit beings.
Great god of Sefar (c 10,000 BC). Photo source.
The art covers five distinct periods, each of which corresponds to a particular fauna, and can be characterised by stylistic differences. While most researchers agree on the order of the art periods, much debate surrounds the actual dates for each of them. Dating the art is extremely difficult and is usually done according to the style, content, degrees of fading, superimposition, associated archaeological dates, and evidence of changing climate. The chronology outlined below has dates that may be amended in future years.
The oldest art belongs to the Wild Fauna Period (or ‘naturalistic period’), which is estimated to have existed between 12,000 and 6,000 BC. It depicts the fauna of the savannah, which inhabited the area when it was much wetter than today and includes elephants, giraffes, hippos, rhinos, and other animals.
Petroglyph depicting a possibly sleeping antelope, located at Tin Taghirt on the Tassili n’Ajjer in southern Algeria. Photo credit: Linus Wolf
The so-called Round Head Period (or ‘archaic period’), from approximately 9500 BC to 6,000 BC, is associated with schematic figures that evoke possible magic-religious practices. Generally, Round Head figures are seen in profile with round, often featureless heads, seemingly floating through space (depicted in the featured image and the picture below). In one scene, women are depicted with raised hands, as though seeking blessings from a huge figure that towers above them. Fabrizio Mori describes the scene: “We become aware, in them, of a sense of affectionate, fearless subjection (to the divine), of pure worship.” The art tends to portray and ethereal world where man is a part of nature rather than standing apart from it.
Round Head Figures. Photo credit: Mohammed Beddiaf
The Pastoral Period (or ‘Bovidian period’) from around 7,200 BC to 3,000 BC is the dominant period in terms of the number of paintings, during which there is the representation of bovine herds and the scenes of daily life. They have an aesthetic naturalistic realism to them and are among the best known examples of prehistoric mural art
An engraving of an ancient species of cow. Photo credit: Mohammed Beddiaf
The Horse and Libyan Warrior Period (‘Equidian period’), which dates from approximately 3200 BC to 1000 BC, covers the end of the Neolithic and protohistoric periods, which corresponds to the disappearance of numerous species from the effects of progressive desiccation and to the appearance of the horse. Horses have also been depicted pulling chariots, driven by whip-wielding
unarmed charioteers, suggesting that the chariots were not used for fighting, but possibly for hunting. However, chariots with wooden wheels could not have been driven across the rocky Sahara and into the mountains where many of the chariot paintings occur.
A depiction of two horses and chariot. Photo source.
Some of the last artistic images reflect the taming of camels in the aptly named Camel Period, which dates from around 2,000 BC to 1,000 BC. This period coincided with the onset of the hyper-arid desert climate and with the appearance of the dromedary (a camel with one hump on its back).
While thousands of paintings and engravings from Tassili n'Ajjer have now been recorded, it is likely that there are many more yet to be found. The images have shed light on the lives of the ancient people of the Sahara but have also left us with many questions about who painted them and what it all means.
Featured image: The Round Head People. Photo source.
Rock Art of the Tassili n Ajjer, Alger – by David Coulson and Alec Campbell
Tassili n’Ajjer – UNESCO
African Rock Art: Tassili–n–Ajjer – Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History
Mori, Fabrizio, 1998. The Great Civilisations of the Sahara. L’Erma di Bretschneider, Rome.