You are here

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

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

Social Life and Ethnography

I have already suggested that the greatest contribution of the North African art is in the information it yields for the culture history of the region and, particularly, for the details of the lives of the peoples portrayed. The presence of art in any prehistoric period is indicative of something about the intellectual interests of those concerned, of course; but we have only to compare the late Palaeolithic art of the Ukraine — nearly all schematic or geometric — with that of western Europe to appreciate the differences in form. One tells us, especially in the cave paintings, a great deal about the fauna and something about the humans of the time, and from this and the spatial positions a great deal can be inferred about the motivations behind the art; whereas the Ukrainian art with its great emphasis on non-naturalistic engravings gives us little information which can be directly related to the lives or ideologies of the people.

When we compare North African prehistoric rock art (and indeed, African prehistoric art in general) with that from nearly all other areas of the Old World, one fact stands out: the important place given in Africa to human representations and human activities. This is particularly true if we compare it with, say, the Upper Palaeolithic art of Europe, but it is also true, I think, though less so, if compared with the Holocene art of northern Europe, Australia, and southwestern Asia. In this respect African art approaches in treatment the art of Mediterranean Spain as a great many writers have pointed out. There is no need here to interpret this distinctiveness in terms of any African weltanschauung, and I mention it only because it underlines one of my principal points: that in rock art in Africa the prehistorian has often an unusually sensitive tool for recovering palaeoethnological data to supplement those gathered by more orthodox excavating and collecting methods.

The earlier phases of art in northern Africa are not particularly rich in this kind of information, but with the Round-Head style and especially with the Bovidian Pastoral paintings an immense amount becomes available for interpretation. In the Tassili Lhote has described paintings showing scenes of conflict, hunting, traveling, camping, herding, and milking, and Mori has revealed the same in the Fezzan. Round huts, beds, and pottery containers are shown in some scenes. Clothing and body ornaments are often represented in some detail. There are good presentations of weapons and arms such as bows of several types, boomerangs or throwing sticks, shields, and lances. Scenes of dancing and coitus are frequent. The cattle are shown in great detail, with dappled or spotted hides, prominent udders, deformed horns, lyre-shaped horns, and without horns. Goats, sheep, and dogs are also identified. Breuil 61 believed that in the Tassili paintings copied by Colonel Brenans he could distinguish scenes of courtship, marriage, supplication, accusation, visiting, circumcision, commerce, and even women-exchange in rather complex situations between Negroes and whites 62. Another striking characteristic of these paintings, according to Breuil, and one he considered unique in perhistoric art is the deliberate expression of humor — not the ridicule of individuals by means of caricature but rather a gentle fun-poking by juxtapositions, by gestures and attitudes, and by repetition of a sequence of movements of a single act reminiscent of movie stills. That some of these scenes as described by Breuil and others might be interpreted in other ways goes without saying. Ethnographic art is notorious for revealing at times as much about its observers as about its makers. One can also wonder with Monod 63 whether the data from the Tassili justify such precise reconstructions of social life and organization — strong tradition of family life with important position of women and matriarchy — as has been given by Tschudi 64. Nevertheless, the very fact that such intimate inferences can be made is an index of the great detail shown in this art. Regardless of the interpretations of certain scenes, there is a hard core of precise information on such matters as clothing, ornaments, certain implements and tasks, and even on group interactions, which are unlikely to be preserved in any other way.

An excellent example of the use of rock art to attempt a reconstruction of tribal and ethnic migrations has recently been furnished by Cooke in a study of rock paintings in Rhodesia 65. By tracing the distribution of such elements as steatopygia, domesticated sheep, clothing, and headdresses, and by placing them in a context of geography, rainfall, linguistics, and place names, he has been able to suggest a southwestern movement from the Abyssinian region of sheepherders who en route to the Cape picked up various genes which transformed them into Hottentots. Such a detailed approach is not yet possible in northern Africa and probably never will be on the purely prehistoric horizons for obvious reasons. Nevertheless, various attempts have been made to document migrations and other forms of diffusion in and out of the Sahara, and in the past this has been one of the favorite games of some culture historians, sometimes using criteria which do not stand up well under closer examination. Very obviously an accurate chronology is necessary before we can be justified in making such statements about the extension of styles, elements, and people through space, and I have already mentioned the more acceptable hypotheses of Mori and Lhote, based on such finer chronologies, in connection with the possible migrations of cattle herders to the Nile Valley in the fourth millennium B.C. Such postulated migrations must also be put in a context of local ecologies, and some advances are now being made in this direction as well with the collaboration of various natural scientists.

A very clear-cut instance of the value of rock art in documenting population movements into northern Africa is provided by the paintings and engravings of horse-drawn chariots which appear on rock surfaces across the Sahara from the Gulf of Sirte in Libya to the Niger. These are distributed along regular routes, and they have been used to show that by at least 1200 B.C., long before the camel was introduced, there were important trans-Saharan penetrations along this axis. This has required abandonment of older ideas that it was the camel which permitted the Mediterranean populations to penetrate the Sahara as far as the bend of the Niger. Yet without these rock drawings we should be hard put to document such movements. The references by such classical writers as Herodotus to charioteers and cavalry in the desert are vague, and apparently horse bones have so far been found at only one site on the surface at Jabbaren in the Tassili 66. How important was this route in the transmission of Iron Age technology from the Mediterranean zone across the Sahara in the first millennium B.C.?

Social Life and Ethnography. Peul Women “Phrygian” hairstyle. Mamou, GuineaThe matter of continuity of cultural tradition or of certain cultural elements within northern Africa from prehistoric times down to historic and even modern times, that is diffusion through time, has been considered by a number of writers. Mori has found in the Acacus district of the Fezzan paintings of the Pastoral period at Uan Amil I showing humans with non-negroid features wearing the “Phrygian cap” kind of headdress which is surprisingly like that worn today by the women of the Peuls in Guinea, who are also nomadic cattle pastoralists and considered by some anthropologists to be not fully negroid racially 67. This has been taken to imply a continuity of tradition within a subsistence type and perhaps even a continuity of physical type associated with that tradition. Mori has suggested that in connection with the question of the disappearance of the Bovidian Pastoralists in the Sahara berhaps during the second millennium B.C. it might be interesting to examine the possibilities of a linkage with such cattle-raising nomads of Central Africa as the Bantu-speaking Tutsi people of Ruanda-Urundi 68. Again, the presence of deformed horns of various kinds in the domesticated cattle in prehistoric art all across northern Africa indicates that this custom, still surviving in historic and modern times, is deeply rooted in a very long tradition.

There have been occasional attempts to estimate the sizes of local groups and of regional populations by calculating from the numbers of individuals shown in various kinds of scenes in prehistoric rock art. Pericot has attempted thus to obtain a figure for the population of Spain in Epipalaeolithic times and suggests about 100 individuals per horde 69. I am not aware of any such estimates based on North African art, and very obviously any such figures would have to be supported and checked by other kinds of information.

61. Breuil, “Les roches peintes,” 65-219.
62. See especially ibid., fig. 101. This scene, which seems to show a young female being led off by a “stranger” while watched by four other women, he calls with a certain whimsy, “Josephine vendue par ses soeurs.”
63. Monod, “The Late Tertiary,” 186.
64. J. Tschudi, “Die Felsmalereien im Edjeri, Assakao, Meddak (Tassili-n-Ajjer),” Actes du Congrès Panafricain de Préhistoire, II session, Alger, 1952 (Paris, 1955), 761-767.
65. C. K. Cooke, “Evidence of Human Migrations from the Rock Art of Southern Rhodesia,” Africa, 35 (1965), 263-285.
66. Lhote, “L'évolution de la faune,” 109.
67. Fabrizio Mori, Arte preistorica del Sahara Libico (Rome, 1960), 49.
68. Mori, “Contributions,” 177.
69. L. Pericot Garcia, “The Social Life of Spanish Paleolithic Hunters as Shown by Levantine Art,” Social Life of Early Man, S. L. Washburn, ed. (New York, 1961), 194-213.