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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


The present paper is intended both as a review and as a critique of the present status of research into the prehistoric rock art of northern Africa. It should be stated at the beginning that no short account such as this one could hope to deal adequately with this immense subject as far as a description of its development through time or its geographical distribution is concerned. I am more concerned with outlining what seems to me to be the documentary significance of this rock art for anthropology and for culture history, to discuss some of the problems which need to be investigated, and to offer some suggestions for new or better concepts and techniques of analysis. It may appear somewhat inappropriate that in a colloquium devoted to historical studies I have chosen to discuss prehistoric materials 1. There are several explanations. The first is that I am not sufficiently acquainted with the historical records of northern Africa to deal properly with the later rock inscriptions, and my principal interests are in the prehistoric range. The second is that prehistory is a relative term, the line between history and prehistory in Africa is often difficult to establish, and the materials I am discussing often have a very direct relevance to the problems of the historic or protohistoric periods. The paper is offered with all the modesty required of one who is neither an authority in art (prehistoric or otherwise) nor, strictly speaking, an Africanist but a prehistorian whose own field research on excavated sites and rock art in northeastern Africa has made him acutely aware of the possibilities of these documents and of some of the limitations and failings of past and present studies in the prehistoric rock art of this part of the continent 2.

It is probably true that, for a number of reasons, the rock art of northern Africa offers, to a greater degree than that of any other region of the world, an extremely powerful instrument for interpreting and supplementing the culture history of half a continent in the time range involved. Its geographical distribution is very wide, from the Atlantic to the Red Sea and from the Anti-Atlas Mountains of the Maghreb to the Niger River and Sudanic region. Within this area of about ten million square kilometers nearly 30, 000 individual engravings of all periods and about the same number of paintings are known 3. Most of the paintings and engravings are well preserved, and it is unlikely that many have been destroyed or badly defaced by natural action 4; so they can be fairly easily deciphered, and they can be accepted as reasonably representative of all periods in the past when rock art was being done. They offer unusually great detail as far as content is concerned and cover a very wide range of topics or motifs. Finally, this art is found in fairly close proximity to a distinctive and well documented advanced civilization in the Nile Valley which often provides valuable clues in its own art, artifacts, and texts concerning the significance and age of some of the art of the eastern and western deserts.

Rock Art: locations of the main prehistoric centers in North Africa

Rock Art: locations of the main prehistoric centers in North Africa

Writing as an anthropology-oriented prehistorian, I should like to discuss the importance of these documents, to assess the value of the information they have yielded in the past, and to suggest how we can extract even more information from them than is currently being done. No claim at all is made, of course, that only anthropologists and prehistorians can use these documents with profit; their value to historians, geographers, zoologists, climatologists, and many others needs hardly to be mentioned. Nevertheless, it is true that for those anthropologists who are especially interested in the events and processes of culture history — and prehistoric archaeologists by definition fall into this group — such remains of the past possess an unusual importance.

It may be useful at this point to recall the uses to which archaeologists try to put documents of this kind when they are fortunate enough to have them available in such quantities and detail. First of all they often present data concerning the subsistence practices of the groups responsible, the weapons and tools used, the game hunted, and the status of domesticated animals (but rarely of plants). From certain of these data additional inferences can often be made about climatic conditions and the natural environment at the time the art was done. At times extremely valuable information is available concerning human physical types which even detailed skeletal analysis might not reveal (for example, the Upper Palaeolithic paintings in France which indicate that lightskinned and fair-haired people were already present in western Europe in late Pleistocene times). Relationships between groups or societies can sometimes be distinguished, as for example in the South African Bushman paintings which portray scenes of warfare or conflict with other peoples. Migrations and other forms of diffusion can sometimes be reconstructed through the distribution of motifs, specific elements, and portrayals of physical types. At times one can get some suggestive insights into such social aspects as the sexual division of labor and the degree of stratification within a society. Certain aspects of ideological behavior can at times be inferred, including some which can reasonably be interpreted as relating to religion, magic, or mythology. Occasionally we can attempt some estimates of the demography and population density of the societies represted in the art. Finally, rock art allows us to say something about the degree of technical skill and esthetic interests of at least some of the members of the societies; indeed, in the text-free periods of the past, art constitutes an intellectual expression which reveals the beliefs, interests, and esthetic senses of the makers better than any other evidence which has survived.

1. This paper was presented at the Colloquium on African History at Boston University, February 11, 1967.
2. In this paper I am not directly concerned with defining art per se nor in the methodology of definition and analysis of art in general. This important topic has to be left aside, as well as the whole problem of esthetic values and other aspects of culture or how art exhibits the patterns of a culture. All these lie outside the limited aims of this paper.
3. Henri Lhote, “L'évolution de la faune dans les gravures et les peintures rupestres du Sahara et ses relations avec l'évolution climatique,” Miscelanea en Homenaje al abate Henri Breuil, 1877-1961, E. Ripoll Perelló, ed., 2 (Barcelona, 1965), 85-86.
4. Ibid., 92.