Sahara and North Africa
In the dry deserts of the Sahara is some of Africa’s oldest surviving rock art, made some 12,000 years ago. Engraved just after the last Ice Age it belongs to a much wetter and richer time for the Sahara region than exists today. In the rock art we see hippo, crocodile, giraffe, elephant, lion, ostrich as well as forms of prehistoric bovids that became extinct more than 5000 years ago. None of these animals survives in the harsh desert climate that characterises the modern Sahara desert.
Decades of research, by a range of specialists, has given us a rich understanding of the age, sequence and regional variation in Saharan rock art, but, though the art is now well recorded, the meaning of its complex symbolism remains elusive.
Like all of Africa’s hunter-gatherer arts, this is far from a simple record of daily life: we see mysterious creatures that are part-human part-animal; giraffe with lines emanating from their mouths that meander across the rock-face until they finally join to a floating human form and many other mysterious features.
Unfortunately we do not have the rich ethnographic testimony that has allowed us to penetrate the meaning of rock art symbolism in other parts of Africa; this is a very ancient art, separated by many millennia from the peoples of today. Cracking its code is amongst the greatest of research challenges in our time.