When the Sahara was green – african rock art

african rock art | 12,000 years ago, at the end of the last Ice Age, the Sahara was a vast savanna crossed by large animal herds. With several lakes filled with fish scattered around and inhabited by semi-nomadic and pastoral communities.

By Manuela Tenreiro, online course African Art .

Rock art in the region is extremely rich because it provides us with an entirely different panorama of the region from the one we know today.

More than that: it reveals a long-gone culture of communities that developed animal domestication and agriculture in the region.

african rock art | Wadi Sura

In Wadi Sura (Egypt), in the mountains of Gilf Kebir, east of the Sahara, african rock art is truly a historical record of life in the region about 8000 years ago. Today a water scarce region of sand dunes, once a landscape full of animals, plants and lakes illustrated in ancient local rock art. One extraordinary example is the Cave of Swimmers where we see human figures swimming.

Gruta dos mergulhadoresDivers cave, Wadi Sura, Egypt, 8000 years ago.

Bubalus Period

The african rock art in the Sahara is also a register of a historical time when the region appealed to animals that still exist today in sub-Saharan Africa. There are antelopes, rhinos, giraffes, lions, elephants, ostriches, hippos and crocodiles, and the already extinct Bubalus, a wild species similar to bisons, which vanished from the face of the earth some 5000 years ago. Thus, representations of Bubalus determine its date (over 5000 years) and are grouped in what scientists call the Bubalus Period.

Also from this period are representations of very large animals in contrast with tiny human figures.

Petroglifo, Período Bubalus, Petroglyph, Bubalus period, Tassili n’Ajjer, Algeria.

Pastoral Period

african artThe study of other pictographs and petroglyphs spread around the Sahara by archaeologists and art historians, helped to build a chronological sequence that shows a culture developed around animal domestication. Between 5000 and 2000 BCE, the Pastoral Period corresponds to a time of climate and social change. Human figures get bigger and animals are mostly cattle herds although wild animals occasionally appear.

Horse Period

The Horse Period follows the Pastoral Period with representations of carriages and warriors when Egypt was already a powerful civilization.

Camel Period

Finally, around 2000 years ago, the Camel Period, when representations of this animal predominated showing its importance for the nomadic communities born out of desertification.

Saara pintura rupestreafrican rock art | Pastoral period (with camels added later), at the Manda Guéli cave, Ennedi mountains, Chad.


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Manuela Tenreiro

PhD in History of Art at the School of Oriental and African Studies, I specialized in Arts and Cultures of the African Diaspora in 2008. Previously, I obtained a bachelor degree in visual arts and photography from San Francisco State University, while working as a docent at Diego Rivera’s Pan-American Unity mural (City College). Creator, editor and translator of the online publication  conTRAmare.net while residing in Brazil between 2008 and 2017, I collaborated in various editorial and art education projects, as a writer, translator and researcher. In Rio de Janeiro, I attended Literary Translation courses and the Advanced Program of Contemporary Culture at the city’s Federal University. In 2017, I returned to my hometown, Lisbon, where I manage a private art studio with women artists and develop projects writing and translating art history projects.

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