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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

Egypt and the Sahara

The whole question of the influence of Egyptian culture on the cultures of the rest of Africa is a complex one, and a vast literature has been devoted to it. In earlier days, when the art of the regions west of the Nile was coming to light, it was often assumed that Dynastic Egypt was in some way responsible for part of it. Much of this assumption was based on analogies such as the occurrence of zoomorphic humans in the art of both regions. With the increasing knowledge of the Predynastic phases in Egypt and of the “Neolithic” in the Sahara and Maghreb in the present century, various writers attempted to see archaeological links beginning on this horizon. The subject of Saharan and other North African art was inevitably drawn into these discussions. Vaufrey strongly supported the hypothesis that the art and material culture of the Neolithic of Capsian tradition had been influenced by Predynastic and Dynastic currents from Egypt, using such evidence as solar discs on animals, including horses after 2000 B.C., to support this position 43.

The temple complex on the Nile River at Karnak, Egypt.

In recent years there has been a considerable amount of criticism from Saharan art specialists, especially Lhote, of the views proposed by Vaufrey. Indeed, more and more there seems to be a trend to see the influences as going in the other direction, from west to east. Breuil stated some years ago that he thought it possible that the Bovidian Pastoral style art of the Sahara might have given rise to the primitive naturalistic art of Egypt and Crete at the end of the Neolithic 44. Lhote, as already mentioned, has rejected rams with discs and horses as effective criteria of Egyptian influence and, while not denying all Egyptian contributions, emphasizes that the Sahara is at least as rich in Neolithic cultures as is Egypt and that the high antiquity now demonstrated for Bubalus art and Bovidian Pastoral art in the Sahara suggests west-to-east movements as much as anything else 45. A. C. Blanc, using the concept of the desert as a great pump which attracted groups in moist periods and squeezed them out in arid periods, even suggests that Saharan art and culture were the basis for Dynastic Egyptian art and culture rather than the reverse 46. Mori, after some initial hesitations on this subject 47, has concluded, as a result of his more recent discoveries in the Acacus and his establishment of a firmer chronology, that there is little evidence for Predynastic Egyptian influences on the pre-Pastoral and Bovidian Pastoral art of the Sahara, because the latter are already so well developed at such an early date, before anything similar can be recognized in Egypt 48. He now favors the idea of Saharan groups influencing the developments in the Nile Valley, probably by the mechanism of non-Negro pastoral peoples migrating to the Nile Valley ca. 3500 B.C., during Predynastic times, and having some effects on the birth of classic Egyptian art in the Protodynastic period about 3200 B.C. (This would apparently explain the absence of the Round-Head style in Egypt or, as far as is now known, anywhere east of the Ennedi: it had disappeared much earlier. The relative rareness of paintings in the Nile Valley in prehistoric rock art might be explained by the scarcity or absence of large sandstone rock-shelters with great smooth surfaces which are found in the Saharan massifs.) Mori's hypothesis does not, of course, rule out Dynastic Egyptian feedback influences on Saharan art, and he mentions several cases in the Acacus where he believes this is evident 49, while Lhote also considers that such elements found in the Saharan art as boats, a figure resembling the god Ra, and some cases of cattle with discs or attributes between the horns can be regarded as reflecting Dynastic Egyptian influences, particularly in the Libyan desert 50. Huard has also discussed some of these indications of contacts 51.

From Lhote's comments 52 one judges that few Egyptologists are yet prepared to accept this hypothesis of Saharan art being responsible for the birth of the art of Protodynastic and early Dynastic Egypt. The Egyptologist Donadoni has expressed a cautious viewpoint concerning Egypt-Fezzan relations and he appears to be puzzled that so many “Egyptian” elements should be found so early in the Sahara 53. Yayotte, another Egyptologist, suggests that the resemblances between the two areas are not due to influences of one on the other but to common ancestral stocks with similar religious rites and cultures which led in one case to the Saharan Bovidian Pastoralists and in the other to the Egyptians 54. Somewhat similar views concerning the relations between Egyptian and African culture have recently been expressed by Fairman 55, though he does not discuss Egyptian art or influences from the Saharan region, and by the prehistorian Huard 56.

This is hardly the place to summarize the attitude or attitudes Egyptologists are taking to this problem, and such a survey would have to be done by an Egyptologist. To a prehistorian the views of Lhote, Mori, and others seem reasonable, even if still not fully demonstrated; on the other hand one might argue that such vague explanatory phrases as “common archaic substratum” which may suffice for very general discussions in the earlier stages of research, have themselves still to be satisfactorily confirmed by archaeological and other materials. Two things are now necessary in order to remove some of the difficulties. One is more excavation in the Nile Valley of Egypt on horizons in and before the fourth millennium B.C. Some new information in this respect has been gained in the last few years as a result of salvage archaeology in Egyptian and Sudanese Nubia, but it is really astonishing how little we know about “Neolithic” or immediately pre-Neolithic developments in Upper and Lower Egypt in spite of so many years of research. The second need is for an intensive study of Predynastic and Protodynastic Egyptian art, especially paintings, tackled less from the viewpoint of its supposed ancestral position to Dynastic art and more from the viewpoint of its role and position in societies ranging from simple food-producing villages to fairly complex towns in an environment which was not typically African. These data should come from pottery and other occupationsite contexts as well as from rock art; in many cases they would have the advantage of being rather closely dated. Such a project would have the purpose of providing a corpus of materials against which the Saharan art could be compared in a precise rather than a general way. Fortunately, Mori is now engaged in just such a program and, when its results are made known, we should be in a far better position to judge the Sahara-Egypt diffusion problem properly 57.

One final and more personal note might be added on this subject in order to emphasize that the situation is not a simple one and that there is a number of confusing threads to be raveled out. Most specialists of Saharan art base themselves, when comparing Egyptian art with that of the rest of northern Africa, on the fairly well known examples of Dynastic and Predynastic sculptures, engravings, and pottery designs of the Nile Valley, supplemented by the studies of Winkler on the rock engravings and paintings from the valley and deserts of Upper Egypt which presumably go back to the Badarian 58. Using this corpus, it is true that it is difficult to see in Egypt very close resemblances to the earlier art of the Sahara and Maghreb, or the roots of Protodynastic and Dynastic art. But this temporary state of affairs could be changed by new discoveries. For instance, near Kom Ombo in Upper Egypt in 1962 we discovered a large series of rock engravings on the sandstone cliffs several kilometers east of the present Nile which show antelopes, gazelles, hippopotamus, a few schematic humans, and especially great numbers of cattle executed in a naturalistic style which seems unique so far in Egypt, although reminiscent in some ways of Saharan art 59. For whatever it is worth, there are also some stylistic resemblances with a recently discovered group of engravings on a cave wall in the coastal zone of Cyrenaican Libya, which unfortunately cannot be directly dated but might be contemporary with the Capsian; these Libyan drawings, it is suggested, belong to the general “Mediterranean art province” of Graziosi 60. The problem of establishing the age or ages of the Kom Ombo engravings, which are not yet fully published, is a complicated one, and, without going into details here, it can be said that there is some internal evidence that the oldest ones are the work of hunters or possibly of groups in a very incipient phase of cattle domestication. There is no clear-cut evidence of animal domestication or of sedentary life, and Mori, in correspondence, has expressed the opinion that they are earlier than the beginning of the Pastoral period in the Sahara, that is before the sixth millennium B.C. and among the earliest art of North Africa. Unfortunately, they are mainly found high on the cliffs at Gebel Silsila, and, although the only archaeological sites found in the immediate vicinity date to the final Pleistocene, there seems no opportunity at present to relate the engravings directly to the archaeological materials. If they really are as old as the internal evidence suggests, then it means we must not dismiss too readily the possibility that even at this early stage the Nile Valley was an important locus for the development or transmission of techniques, styles, and themes of art in northern Africa. Only more field work will resolve this problem.

43. Vaufrey, L'art rupestre.
44. Breuil, “Les roches peintes,” 149.
45. Lhote, “Faits nouveaux,” 198-199.
46. A. C. Blanc, “Sur le facteur fondemental des mouvements des cultures pré et protohistoriques en Afrique du Nord: la fuite du désert,” Prehistoric Art of the Western Mediterranean and the Sahara, L. Pericot Garcia and E. Ripoll Perelló, eds. (New York, 1964), 179-184.
47. Fabrizio Mori, “Some Aspects of the Rock-Art of the Acacus (Fezzan Sahara) and Data Regarding It,” Prehistoric Art of the Western Mediterranean and the Sahara, L. Pericot Garcia and E. Ripoll Perelló, eds. (New York, 1964), 230.
48. Fabrizio Mori, “Appendix to the Conclusion,” Prehistoric Art of the Western Mediterranean and the Sahara, L. Pericot Garcia and E. Ripoll Perelló, eds. (New York, 1964), 244.
49. Mori, “Rock-Art of the Acacus,” 230.
50. Lhote, “Faits nouveaux,” 210.
51. P. Huard, “Etat des recherches sur les rapports entre cultures anciennes du Sahara tchadien, de Nubie et du Soudan,” Bibliotheca Orientalis, 21 (1964), 282-289.
52. Lhote, “Faits nouveaux,” 209.
53. S. Donadoni, “Remarks about Egyptian Connections of the Sahara Rock Shelter Art,” Prehistoric Art of the Western Mediterranean and the Sahara, L. Pericot Garcia and E. Ripoll Perelló, eds. (New York, 1964), 185-188.
54. Lhote, “Faits nouveaux,” 210.
55. H. W. Fairman, “Ancient Egypt and Africa,” African Affairs (Special issue, Spring 1965), 69-75.
56. P. Huard, “Art rupestre,” Missions Berliet; Tenere-Tchad, H. J. Hugot, ed. (Paris, 1962), 143.
57. Fabrizio Mori, “Sulla analogie e possibilita de contatti fra le culture sahariane connessee all'arte rupestre e quelle pre- e protodinastiche egiziane,” Quaternaria, 7 (1965), 301-302.
58. H. A. Winkler, Rock Drawings of Southern Upper Egypt, 2 vols. (London, 1938-1939).
59. This research was carried out by the Canadian Prehistoric Expedition funded by the Canadian government through the National Museum of Canada during the recent international salvage program in Nubia.
60. U. Paradisi, “Prehistoric Art in the Gebel el-Akhdar (Cyrenaica),” Antiquity, 39 (1965), 154, 95-101.