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Rock Art: A Pictorial Record of Human History

Updated on July 23, 2019
Emmanuel Kariuki profile image

Emmanuel is from Nairobi, Kenya, and loves researching its history. He is also an artist and likes to share what he knows with others.

 Rock Art
Rock Art | Source

Evidence in rock art indicates that at one time the Sahara was habitable and home to fishermen, hunters and herdsmen in separate epochs. While we cannot say with certainty when this was, radio- carbon-dating implies sometime around 5000 years ago. This evidence of abundant wildlife is depicted in rock art in the mountain ranges of the Sahara Desert. The Tasili N'Ajjer is one of the important galleries of this art. Other important Rock Art galleries are in Western Kenya and the South Africa. Save-Soderbergh (1987) estimates that as early as about 12,000 BC, the Nile and its basin were rich in fish with the surrounding areas that are now desert, teeming with much of the wildlife “nowadays typical of, for example Kenya and Tanzania.”

According to Willet (1971), there are over thirty thousand rock paintings and engravings known in all mountainous areas of the world and about half of them are in Tassili in Algeria.

Rock art can be classified into the three basic periods: Bubalus (Buffalo), Cattle and Horse. The horse period is further divided into the Chariot, Horseman and Horse sub periods. These are followed by the Camel period, which I think should have been a separate period.

Radio- carbon-dating, which I consider to be a very unreliable method, gives the earliest human occupation in the Tassili as 5450 with a give or take of300 years BC.” As we proceed, it will soon be clear why this method is likely to be late by 1000 years or more.

1. Bubalus or Buffalo Period – This period is named after the buffalo and is the earliest phase in the rock art. The people were hunter gatherers and had not domesticated animals. Buffalo bones were found and dated to give an indication of the period. These Bubalus bones are said to belong to the fourth millennium [3460 + 300 BC]. This in my opinion is very recent. The Badarian period which is associated with agriculture in Egypt is given by Baines (1984) to be 4500 BC, much earlier than the dating of the Bubalus period. The interpretation could be that there was still a hunter gatherer group in the Tassili region, at a time when the Egyptian calendar of 360 days in a year had already been developed. During this rock art period, the artists did not use paints. All the depictions are engravings. This period illustrates the elephant, rhinoceros, and hippopotamus that lived in the area with the buffalo, (Bubalus antiquus) as the most important in a natural and realistic style. The men are armed with clubs and throwing sticks. The most complex weapons are axes and bows. Assuming that the artists were still in Stone Age, the arrows would then have been tipped with bone or sharp stones. The Axe too would be fashioned with stone, most likely obsidian which can be razor sharp. Spears are not evident in the art which may imply that they had not been invented, or if they existed, were not used for hunting.

2. Cattle Period - This period shows that herding (pastoralism) was gaining importance as an economic activity due to the appearance of sheep and cattle in the art. Some cattle bones found at a site called Titerast were dated to 2610 + 250 BC, another very late period in the history of ancient Egypt. The 11th Dynasty started in 2380 BC and lasted up to 2160 BC and would appear to be within or close to the cattle period. It should be noted that even today, there are communities in the Kalahari Desert of South Africa who live a hunter gatherer life in our computer age.

Men in the cattle period are armed with bows, probably to defend their animals from rustling and competition for pasture. The Bubalus antiquus is absent in the art of this period. However, the other wild animals of the Buffalo era continue to be depicted in images that are markedly smaller. This may be a sign that Buffalos had been hunted to extinction and the other animals had ceased to be important when compared with domestic animals. Furthermore, the encroaching desert was driving the wildlife further and further south into present day Sudan, Kenya and Uganda. The only wildlife would be those animals that could survive in the marshes along the Nile, such as hippopotami. The art of this period is in the form of painting and not engraving. Herding livestock still is a full time job that probably left the artists with little time to employ laborious techniques like engraving.

3. Horse Period – The rock art of this periodshows a fascination with the horse. This proves that the Rock Artists were contemporaries of the various dynasties, unwittingly recording for posterity. Thehorse made its first appearance in Egypt around 1200 B.C. and was introduced by the Hyksos. Some writers credit the sea people of Crete with this feat. I choose to go with the Hyksos who also introduced the chariot, superior fighting techniques and body armour. The Hyksos ruled for over a hundred years despite numerous efforts to dislodge them. This was during the 2nd Intermediate period of Dynastic Egypt, which according to Aldred (1996), lasted between 1720- 1550 BC. By this time, Egyptian terrain and climate was much as we know it today –desert served by a single river that inundated once a year.

Pharaoh Amosis finally kicked out the Hyksos to usher the 18th dynasty. The horse from then on became an integral part of Egyptian warfare though it is doubtful whether ordinary folk could afford the purchase and upkeep of these animals. Even in this age, horses are not for everybody. The indigenous artists stylized the chariots in a manner that would imply that they did not get too close to them. Pharaoh Akhenaten was depicted in several wall reliefs riding on his chariot with his queen as his servants ran ahead on foot. These depictions prove that horses and chariots were a preserve of the ruling class.

Rock Art of Southern Africa

4. The Camel Period –This was the latest phase in Saharan rock art, which recorded the increasing importance of the camel. The date of the introduction of the camel, which is known fondly as the ship of the desert, is in doubt. 700 BC is a most likely date. After all, it doesn't seem to have been known in pharaonic times as it is absent in tomb paintings and hieroglyphs.

The development of Agriculture and later a mixed occupation that combined agriculture with pastoralism naturally led to advances in the material culture of the inhabitants of the Sahara. The gradual degeneration of the lush grasslands into a desert also meant that the population had to stay close to the only available river for survival, the River Nile. Pre-dynastic cultures are therefore as a result of these more settled communities, but as can be deduced from the above, some communities continued with their ancient way of lifelong enough to document the arrival of the horse and later the camel in rock art.

To the ancients, Rock Art was a medium like modern Newspapers and Television. With that medium, ancient men and women recorded for posterity the important milestones in their lives. It is therefore the duty of modern men and women to conserve and preserve these archives because we do not own them – we are only trustees. The real owners are the future generations who must be given the chance to be awed by these records left behind by their forefathers.


1. Aldred, C., 1996, Egyptian Art, Thames & Hudson, London.

2. Collier, J., 1970, In search of Akhenaten ,Ward Lock Limited - London

3. Millard, Anne, 1981, Ancient Egypt, Usborne Publishing, London.

4. Save-Sodergbergh, T., 1987, Temples and Tombs of Ancient Nubia, the International Rescue campaign at Abu Simbel, Philae and other sites, Thames and Hudson.

5. Willet F.,1971 African art: an introduction, Thames and Hudson

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2012 Emmanuel Kariuki


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