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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

Methods and criticisms

These criticisms of some of the methods which have been used in the interpretation and analysis of North African rock art might be carried still farther, but this cannot be done in the present brief paper. It will have become apparent by now that the personal feeling of the writer is that, while prehistoric art is always valuable as a supplementary interpretative device, it is a dangerous tool when used alone. Even in the highly detailed and specific scenes of human activities found in the Sahara many of the events are ambiguous and susceptible to several interpretations. No prehistorian will deny that prehistoric art should, whenever possible, be supplemented by investigations of more material remains against which the often suggestive figurations can be checked. This is particularly true in the economic and subsistence fields, but it pertains also to more diffuse aspects. In the last analysis we cannot consider the art as a phenomenon in its own right divorced from the lives of the groups responsible nor can we be content with regarding it as a mystical or spiritual manifestation. We must search for an understanding of the contexts which gave rise to the art - - whether it was locally invented or borrowed — and which permitted or required it to develop as it did. We have only to think of the Upper Palaeolithic art of western Europe to recognize how greatly our interpretation and understanding of it is influenced by our knowledge of the data other than art which are available for the cultures of this period and of how greatly our picture of human activities and surroundings would be skewed if we had nothing but the art. Only archaeological excavation with its affiliated techniques will give us the required background to understand the prehistoric art of northern Africa.

If the excavations can be carried out in the immediate vicinity of the art, so much the better. In many cases, of course, this is not possible, as Bailloud found in the Ennedi where most art sites contained few or no traces of occupation debris 111. But this kind of research is not the only kind required, for it is also important to have a representative sampling of all types of sites in a given region in order to establish the nature of the occupations and archaeological changes since at least the early Holocene 112. As Caton-Thompson has remarked, “the first prerequisite for fruitful speculation on the age of rock pictures must lie with a knowledge of the prehistory of the area in which they occur.” 113. This remark is applicable to other aspects of rock art than the purely chronological one, of course.

In the past in northern Africa there has been a feeling of pessimism regarding the possibilities of relating the art to the dirt archaeology. Apart from a few investigations, such as Vaufrey's in Southern Oran in the 1930's, to identify the archaeological remains in the immediate vicinities of the art, most workers have contented themselves with the study and comparison of the art alone. Even as recently as 1952 Breuil could write than “en Tassili, où l'érosion très violente a emporté depuis longtemps les dépôts archeologiques, leur attribution à une ou à plusieurs phases archéologiques est purement speculative et ne saurait être inféré que par des comparaisons d'ordre artistique et ethnographique.114. Fortunately, this situation has changed greatly in the past decade, and new research programs have been instigated in several regions which are oriented towards a combined archaeology-art-environment approach to the problems. These have been carried out by Mori in the Acacus, Lhote in the Tassili, and Bailloud in the Ennedi, and some of the results of this research have now been made available. Simultaneously, such prehistorians as Hugot have continued research in the excavation of habitation sites of the Neolithic and other periods in the Sahara which promise, in conjunction with palynological and related studies, to provide a reliable archaeological and ecological background for the cultures believed responsible for the rock art or at least contemporary with it. Only a brief idea of these contributions can be given here: Mori's program of excavations in the vicinity of the rock art of the Acacus has brought to light stratified archaeological materials including pottery dated as early as 5500 B.C.; faunal materials including evidence of domesticated cattle in the sixth millennium B.C.; collective burials apparently associated with the earliest art; very valuable ecological data from pollen remains which will help provide a context for the nature of environmental and climatic changes during the lifetime of the art styles; and, finally, the several kinds of dating (post quem, ante quem) for a number of art styles shown on the walls by means of radiocarbon datings of levels which cover some of the wall art or which contain fallen fragments of the art. Thus, a minimum age of 4804? 290 B.C. is provided for the Round-Head style at Uan Telocat site by charcoal from an archaeological layer which covers the wall paintings, and this is pushed back even farther if, as Mori thinks, the date of 5500 B.C. relates to an early Bovidian Pastoral style. Similar evidence from several other Acacus sites indicates that the middle Pastoral phase dates somewhere between 5000 and 2700 B.C. In the Tassili Lhote has obtained a series of radiocarbon datings from several of his Bovidian Pastoral art phases, most of those published being in the fourth and third millennia B.C.; considerable information is also becoming available about the artifacts and industries, the climates, and the vegetational aspects of the prehistoric occupants of this massif, which was inhabited by at least the sixth millennium B.C. judging from a recently announced radiocarbon date of 5450?300 B.C. 115. Bailloud's results from the Ennedi have not yet been published in detail, but he was able to correlate his archaeological deposits with the art styles in broad outline and to demonstrate apparently that some of the Round-Head paintings could be related to the types of wavy-line pottery found by Arkell at Khartoum and Shaheinab in the Sudan, where, just as in the Round-Head art, there is no certain evidence of domesticated cattle 116.

All these new data suggest that the continuation of such research programs with multidisciplinary methods will before long enable us to review North African prehistoric art in a new light. Indeed, it should not be forgotten that one of the major contributions of this art, especially in the Sahara of Algeria and Libya, has been to focus attention on these regions as former centers of important prehistoric occupation and to stimulate archaeological excavations there. Without the art it is doubtful that the somewhat unspectacular nature of the occupation sites themselves would have overcome the physical obstacles to research in these difficult regions.

111. Gerard Bailloud, “Les peintures rupestres archaiques de l'Ennedi (Tchad),” L'Anthropologie, 64 (1960), 211-234.
112. There is, for example, some reason to believe that the occupation sites of the hunting groups would not, like those of the Pastoralists, be found in the interior of the central Saharan massifs where their art is frequently located but on the outskirts near the hunting steppes.
113. G. Caton-Thompson, Kharga Oasis in Prehistory (London, 1952), vi.
114. Breuil, “Les roches peintes,” 147.
115. Radiocarbon, 8 (1966), 87.
116. Bailloud, “Les peintures rupestres archaiques.”