The Beautiful Tadrart Acacus Rock Art 10,000 years Ago
The Sahara keeps one of the great legacies of humanity. In almost all its extension, there are numerous samples of paintings and engravings from the Upper Palaeolithic, the Neolithic, and the Bronze Age. The cave Tadrart Acacus rock art in the Sahara is, along with its landscapes and the Tuareg culture, the great excuse to travel to the depths of this desert, in southern Algeria.
There was a time when the vast area we know today as the Sahara was not a desert, but a garden. In the corners of that natural paradise teemed with life and, although few memories remain today of that almost unimaginable past, some corners have preserved their remains. This is the case of the cave paintings of Tadrart Acacus, in Libya, a place that we are visiting today to put on your list of exotic trips to the African continent.
The history of Libya is full of surprises. As an old Arab proverb says, “surprise is the first step towards knowledge”. Surprising was that these people were able to conquer the great Sahara Desert, facing its sand, its thirst, its plagues.
While other towns flourished at the mercy of rivers and fertile areas, they dared to settle in the middle of nowhere and they succeeded. They made the desert a beautiful place, imbued with the character and culture that today has as its best heritage. At its heart, in the Fezzan desert, southwestern Libya lies one of the last wild environments on the planet: Acacus.
Declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO, its paintings and engravings represent the pinnacle of African Tadrart Acacus rock art. And by extension, one of the greatest exponents in the world.
The famous paintings are scattered throughout the Tadrart Acacus mountain range, which stretches for more than 250 kilometers in the middle of an uninhabited wasteland. Most of the paintings are on the outside of the rocky walls, or in small shallow caves, which makes them attractive for tourists who are not looking for the easy and obvious, but rather the hidden, the unheard of, the little known.
The sensations that invade the traveler once they are there are unique: knowing that those drawings were made at a time when that immensity of sand was water and vegetation. For miles stretch canyons, plains, and rocky islets over which the desert dunes climb. Some formations seem sculpted on the ground: faces, figures, animals are supposed to be seen by the observer. Erosion, over thousands of years, has thoroughly shaped the hardest rocks.
The Incredible Collection Of Tadrart Acacus Rock Art In The Sahara Of Tassili N’Ajjer:
More than 15,000 paintings and engravings are concentrated in a small portion of the Sahara desert if we look at its total dimensions.
It is not the only place where you can find them, but they are probably the best. You will also be able to see some precious engravings in Sudan, and in a remote area of Egypt, Gilf Kebir, today difficult to access.
But if we return to the south of Algeria, it must be said that the most beautiful paintings are in the “tableau” of Tassili. The great plateau to which it is not possible to access today for security reasons. It borders Libya and the Algerian authorities do not want to risk it by allowing foreigners to walk there. Let’s hope it opens soon and when it does, We won’t hesitate to go.
Tassili N’Ajjer means “plateau between two rivers”, a sign of what this region of the planet was like after the last glaciation about 10,000 years ago. A place that is, and deserves to be, a World Heritage Site. Since 1982.
It was on the Tassili N’Ajjer plateau that Henri Lothe spent many months cataloging and copying these paintings.
It was in 1956, after World War II, when he settled there with his collaborators. Nobody had done a job like this before, among other things because access can only be done on foot. Today is the same. The Tassili tableau is a labyrinthine sea of rock and is not suitable for wheeled vehicles.
It was an expedition of those of before. Think of the logistics and time required to live for months in a place as remote as this, without the support of roads and vehicles.
Among The Engravings, We Would Highlight Two Wonders And A Curiosity:
Some small gazelles carved into some gray rocks, on the uneven ground, very close to a shelter with some paintings. Some appear to be jumping or flying.
“The crying cows”, a place very close to Djanet where they say that there used to be a lake where the cows used to drink. One day it dried up and they cried. This is a popular story. Simple but forceful. The engraving is worthy of the great Picasso.
A curiosity: erotic prints. At least there is a concrete place to see them. On a pair of huge boulders, isolated from the nearest mountain, but close by, there are carvings of giraffes and elephants on one side. On the other, several figures with black features in more than explicit postures.
But How Are These Cave Paintings And Engravings Of The Sahara?
The paintings are of fine and precise strokes. The natural and vivid colors, between white and black, through various shades ranging from yellow to various shades of red. In them, there is movement, life, beauty, and poetry.
The hands of those artists were not crude. They were talented, and I am sure that more than one great artist of our time was inspired by them. If not directly, yes through an illustration. Of course, they were the inspiration of the first known human civilizations: Egyptians, Phoenicians, Assyrians, and a long etcetera.
It is the fact that the older the paintings and engravings are, the more realistic and the better the line they present. As the centuries progressed, the artistic manifestations were more schematic. And they seem more crude, rushed, or childish.
It may be because symbolic thought makes its way into the human mind and then it is only enough to resort to simple schemes. Or that communication between groups is prioritized over time, not realistic representation.
Perhaps, simply, human life had become more complex and individuals did not have as much time.
Agriculture, livestock, production of artifacts for cooking and storing food, fabrics. All of this implies an investment of time infinitely greater than hunting and gathering for basic sustenance. In short, all these are ramblings of a traveler or tourist.
The fact is that the paintings and engravings on the rocks of the Tassili are an extraordinary representation of the fauna and human life between 8,000 and 5,000 years ago. It is said soon but it is not!
Herds of cows with long curved horns, like the ones you can still see alive in the oases of Egypt, Sudan, and even Ethiopia. That is, in the Nile basin.
Scenes of grazing and war, yes, but also of people dancing, swimming, riding horses. Women cooking, with their babies on their backs.
Even religious rituals, like a figure almost three meters high in whose belly you can see the sun with a cloud and rain and people worshiping him around his feet.
Next to the main burial mounds and on the sloping slope of a hill, a set of stone engravings can be seen. Although there is little information about them, some scientific studies have shown their authenticity and their prehistoric origin, dating them from 2,500 to 3,000 BC, which is a delay compared to the engravings found in the Algerian province of Tassili, from between 1,000 and 1,500 years earlier. Perhaps because the civilization that previously inhabited Tassili migrated to Northwest Africa in search of more fertile areas?
On the hillside, covered with giant and heavy inclined quartzite slabs, images can be found mainly of bovines that would indicate that the inhabitants of Western Sahara had nomadic and livestock customs rather than farmers or hunters.
At the beginning of 7,000 B.C., the abundance of rains allowed the valleys of the Sahara to be covered with forests, but around 5,000 BC, the decrease in rains gave rise to wide prairies and the appearance of herds of cattle and sheep. It is these representations that are collected in these engravings.
The engravings are dotted, possibly with rudimentary awls or sharpened stones; and the lines of its layout combine soft dots, with others that are thicker and further apart, or closer together, to suggest differences in color or thickness in the animals’ fur.
A little further away, there is another site where, curiously, the first representations of chariots pulled by beasts can be found, which may lead one to think that, before the Sahara deserted completely, the area was an obligatory passage in an important trade route with the rest of Africa.
Some archaeologists call these figures “tanks” because they actually resemble them in their layout and their studies suggest that they were not made by inhabitants of the area. But that it was a kind of beacon for merchants. that crossed the desert, since engravings of similar characteristics have been found in the ancient commercial routes of the desert.
Finally, we find another area whose engravings represent wild animals, a reminder that the Sahara, once, many many thousands of years ago, was a rich jungle. With the abrupt arrival of the monsoon rains in 8,500 B.C. the desert was replaced by savannahs and similar environments and quickly inhabited by prehistoric flora and fauna.
Although during this period of optimal humidity, the areas were dangerous for human occupation, after 7,000 B.C. human settlements spread throughout the Sahara.
It is difficult to date the rock carvings, not only here, but in any of the places in the world where they could be found. Unlike the paintings, in which there is the possibility of extracting organic substances to analyze, in the engravings, the only possibility that exists is to study geology and the subsequent substrates that erosion and environmental changes have been able to deposit on the surfaces of the stones.
For this reason, the dating of the Sahara engravings is only approximate, although it gives an exact idea of the life of the inhabitants of this area of the world before our era.
Exceeding 9 million square kilometers, the Sahara is the largest hot desert on the planet. It crosses the African continent from end to end. From the Red Sea to the Atlantic Ocean. The only exception to the absence of permanent rivers is the great Nile, which is far from the Tadrart.
At the end of the last ice age, when the ice sheets retreated, the north of the Sahara dried up. In the rest of its extension, much larger than the current one, monsoon rains kept it green just over 10,000 years ago.
However, some two thousand years later, around 4200 BC, the rains retreated further south and stayed where they are now, in the tropical belt of Africa. The north dried up. It became desert hopelessly.
Walking through the Tadrart Acacus rock art also implies seeing a bit of all this history. Of the life of its ancient inhabitants and what they decided to record in the rocks.
Saharan Tadrart Acacus rock art includes paintings and engravings of wild (elephants, giraffes, rhinos, buffalo, etc.) and domesticated animals (cows, sheep, goats, horses, and camels), human beings, abstract drawings, and inscriptions in Tuareg languages. They are found in the most inhospitable places and are an invaluable document on the history of the peoples who inhabited this region for at least twelve thousand years.
The first recorded engravings in North Africa are due to a group of French army officers traveling through Algeria in the year 1847. The German explorer Heinrich Barth crossed the Sahara from Tripoli to Timbuktu in 1850 and found similar engravings in the Fezzan.
Another German explorer, Friedrich Gerhard Rohlfs, the first European to cross all of North Africa from Tripoli to the Gulf of Guinea, made the same discovery.
The First World War had to end before a third explorer, this time the first geologist to prophesy the presence of great energy resources under the desert sands, the Frenchman Conrad Kilian, discovered paintings of giraffes in 1928.
The frescoes of Tassili n’ Ajjer were discovered in 1938, but it was the French Henri Lhote who began the first cataloging of these works in 1956. In 1954, an Italian expedition, including Paolo Graziosi, discovered a large collection of engravings of animals and women in the wadi the Kel.
The oldest samples of cave Tadrart Acacus rock art seems to belong to a period immediately after the last ice age. 10,000 years ago, the climate became more humid and the Sahara took on the appearance of wooded savannah, with forests in the mountains, until 5,000 years ago it began to desertify, in a process that lasted until 3,000 years ago when it became practically uninhabited. Many of the paintings, drawings, and engravings that are being discovered are even more than 12,000 years old. In Fezzan, it is believed that the paintings date back to 30,000 years old.
The Story Of Acacus: ( Tadrart Acacus rock art )
Tadrart Acacus rock art
The first European to notice the existence of the Acacus engravings was Heinrich Barth, in 1850. Much later, the Frenchman Fourneau wrote about them, although he never saw them. Already in 1930, it was the Italian Royal Geographical Society that carried out an expedition to trace the paintings, but its findings were not made public until 1940. And a full exploration of the area was not carried out until 1950, by the archaeologist Italian Fabrizzio Mori. His work was the one that finally managed to value the immense cultural value of the place.
Five Main Periods Can Be Distinguished In Tadrart Acacus Rock Art Of The Sahara:
1: Graffiti or buffalo period, from 10,000 to 9,000 BC (12,000 years ago). At this time, large bovids such as the Pelorovis and scenes of magic and religious rites were represented as graffiti. Strange headless or round-headed creatures with alien-like masks, antelope-headed elephants, and stylized figures participating in rituals appear. An example would be the Lycaon Man, by Mesak Mellet. It is also known as the period of wild fauna, due to the representations of these animals.
2: Roundhead period, 9000 to 6000 BC. C. It is the most mysterious, in that people appear who appear to be wearing strange helmets like a diver’s that have given rise to numerous esoteric interpretations, but it is also a period of great artistic quality.
3: Period of the hunters and the shepherds, from 7000 to 2500 a. C. At the beginning of this period, the abundant rains allowed all the valleys to be covered with forests, but around 5000 BC, the decrease in rains gave rise to wide prairies and the appearance of herds of cows that appear in paintings and engravings. Crop scenes also appear in this later period. In general, the works are quite naturalistic.
4: Period of the horses or Garamante, 2000 to 1200 a. C. (about 3,500 years ago) Numerous representations of horses in the Libyan area, with chariots, since the Garamantes were supposed to have invented the wheel.
5: Camel Period, around 100 B.C. C. The introduction of camels marks the end of an era since desertification has caused the majority of the population to go elsewhere.