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 Somaliland. 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.
“We believed it was drawn by the devil with blood,” said caretaker Musa Abdi Jama [via csmonitor], “and believed that when we slaughtered a goat for protection, the devil would come and suck the blood from the sand.”
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, some in touching scenes, such as a woman giving water to a dog. 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 )
The most frequently depicted animal in the rock art paintings is the cow. Some are schematic outlines, others are drawn in elaborate detail with radiant neck stripes and decorated with what looks like traditional fabrics and ceremonial robes. The painted bovines at Laas Geel are depicted with heads appearing like beakers and situated close to the horns, often large ones. This could also be a symbol of fertility joining the body through a line (possibly representing the spine). These parts are combined in various colors and produce a complete polychrome figure. The colors are comprised of various shades of red, orange, yellow, white, and violet.
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Laas Geel Rock Cave Paintings, photo by: Theodore Hoffsten. 2012. ( Wikimedia Commons )
In nearly all the artwork, human representations are found, though less numerous than the cows. Ancient humans of the area are shown raising their hands and worshipping cows with large lyre-shaped horns. A few tiny hunters run amidst the herds. They are painted in the same colors and techniques as the cows, usually with chests striped in white or red. These mostly appear under the udders or the hind areas of the bovines. Some appear to be wearing trousers, but no feet appear. A circle or radiating lines surround the heads, which narrow into the shape of a tulip. The representation of the human figures at Laas Geel are ambiguous, and some researchers have suggested they may depict deities or imagined figures.
Human figures depicted in a scene with a cow at Laas Geel ( J McDowell / Flickr )
Today the archeological site is at risk due to destruction, looting, and clandestine excavation. Dust continues to destroy the rock art and according to chief site guide, Muse Abdi Jama, the once clear pictures on the rocks are fading on a daily basis as a result of wind propelled dust that has ensued with a strong dark coat on top of the paintings. Adding to the difficulties is the fact that Somaliland is not internationally recognized, and this ambiguous political status has prevented the historic artwork from being listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
In recent years, the Laas Geel rock paintings have become tourist attractions drawing visitors from around the world. We can only hope that with more attention comes greater efforts to conserve and protect these treasured artworks from the past.
Featured Image: Some of the many paintings inside the Laas Geel caves, near Hargeisa in Somaliland/Somalia. Photo by: Abdullah Geelah. 2006. ( Wikimedia Commons )
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