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Philip E. L. Smith
Problems and possibilities of the prehistoric Rock Art of Northern Africa

African Historical Studies, I, 1 (1968): 1-39

Racial and Physical Types

Very closely related to the previous topic is the subject of identification of physical and racial types in the prehistoric art of northern Africa. A good many authors have speculated on the racial types represented. Gautier suggested that Bushmen had once occupied the Maghreb, basing this on his study of the Tassili art 70. Joleaud apparently considered the Tassili art had been done by Bushmen and Negrillos  71. Frobenius also believed in an ancient Khoisan-speaking population in this part of Africa. More recently, Coon as well has suggested the presence of “Capoids” or ancestral Bushmen in northern Africa, though this suggestion is not based on the art 72. But such writers as Monod and Lhote are skeptical of these claims 73.

Far more prevalent are claims of recognizing Negro or negroid types or whites (“Mediterraneans,” “Europoids”) in the art. Lhote has suggested that there are no traces of negroids in the earlier engravings from Southern Oran or Tassili and insists that certain of them are clearly “Europoid.” 74 My own feeling is that it requires the eye of faith to see any clear indications of race in such simplified human profiles, and Mori 75 is of the same opinion 76. Mori also disagrees with Lhote's categorical statement that the Round-Head style of paintings at Tassili refers to a negroid population. Lhote bases this belief on three criteria: the general structure of the humans which is said to recall the modern Negro body build; body scarifications like those found among some West African Negro groups today; and “Negro” masks found in some drawings. Mori denies that there are any negroid characteristics present in these paintings and points out that the existence of masks, costumes, and ornaments in the art cannot properly be used to infer the racial affiliations of the makers since these elements may have diffused to Negro groups later 77. Fagg has also expressed doubt about the value of such elements as masks in this argument; he claims to have discerned a Baluba mask in a Roman wall painting from St. Albans in Britain 78.

The situation in later paintings is both better documented and more ambiguous. There seems no doubt that during the succeeding Pastoral phases one can identify facial profiles which are certainly not typical of most modern Negroes and recall Caucasian types; and in some of his Acacus paintings Mori has been able to recognize individuals with straight blond hair, light pinkish skins, straight or aquiline noses, and a Peul-type headdress. This picture of course agrees well with Egyptian records of blond Libyans and with the results of Sergi's earlier studies of skeletons from a pre-Islamic necropolis in the Fezzan, and it probably justifies Mori in postulating a very widespread distribution of Mediterraneans in the early Pastoral period with this type present as a majority in the central Saharan massifs 79.

Nevertheless, although Mori fails to see much good evidence for the presence of negroids in the art of the Acacus, he does not deny that they may well have been present. Indeed, his own discovery of a wrapped and dessicated “mummy” of a child at Uan Muhuggiag, dating to about 3500 B.C. and described as negroid, is evidence for this. His hypothesis is that, while Mediterraneans may have constituted a majority in the earlier Pastoral phases, in the later phases racial mixture was taking place with Negroes and the mummy is one record of this. He also suggests that the last of the herdsmen, at the end of the Pastoral period, were negroids, judging from the long limbs portrayed in the simple linear drawings of that time and the hints of facial prognathism in some cases. Breuil has described a number of scenes copied by Brenans at Tassili which purport to show relations between whites and Negroes. One such is said to show a mixed group of whites and Negroes paying homage to a seated white 80. In actual fact it is often very difficult to accept these racial determinations, at least on the basis of the drawings as published, and more studies should certainly be made on the originals before such judgments are accepted fully. When such studies are combined with the increasing evidence from burials, we shall certainly be in a far better position to make precise statements concerning the racial composition of North Africa in late prehistoric times. In his 1960-1961 season of research Mori discovered many collective burials in the Acacus dating to about 5000 B.C. 81. It is barely possible, too, that physical anthropological research might enable us to confirm an assumption which is usually taken as axiomatic in studies of North African art, that is, that the societies shown in the art were those of the artists themselves. We have only to remember the cases in southern Africa of paintings made by Bushmen observers of non-Bushmen peoples to recognize that we cannot take for granted an absolute idendity between artists and subjects.

70. E. F. Gautier, Le passé de l'Afrique du Nord (Paris, 1937).
71. L. Joleaud, “La faune des vertébrés et le peuplement humain de la côte occidentale de l'Afrique aux temps de l'Antiquité classique,” Bulletin du Comité d'Etudes historiques et scientifiques de l'A.O.F., 19 (1936), 96-112.
72. C. S. Coon, The Origin of Races (New York, 1962), 601.
73. Lhote, “Rapports,” 221.
74. Lhote, “Faits nouveaux,” 205.
75. Mori, “Rock-Art of the Acacus,” 226.
76. However, it should be remarked that the evidence from the skeletal materials, especially for the Capsian, is probably consistent with the presence of a “Mediterranean” physical type in the Maghreb in pre-Neolithic times.
77. Fabrizio Mori, “Comments on H. Haselberger 'On the Method of Studying Ethnological Art,'” Current Anthropology, 4 (1963), 212-213.
78. W. Fagg, “Comment on H. Haselberger 'Method of Studying Ethnological Art,'” Current Anthropology, 2 (1961), 366.
79. Mori, “Rock-Art of the Acacus,” 225-234; Mori, “Appendix,” 235-246; Mori, “Contributions,” 172-179.
80. Breuil, “Les roches peintes,” figs. 85-86.
81. Mori, “Appendix,” 235-246. The fact that these bodies were mummified, bound with cords and wrapped in vegetable fibers is in itself interesting in placing the familiar Egyptian practice in a broader North African context.