Saharan Peoples Create Rock Art

Some of the oldest African art, Saharan rock art provides visual evidence of the early environmental and cultural events that shaped this area’s history.

Summary of Event

The Sahara offers some of the oldest examples of African art. Dating perhaps to the tenth millennium b.c.e., rock art is found across the vast stretch of northern Africa from the Nile Valley to sites near the Atlantic Ocean; from Morocco’s Atlas Mountains to the southern foothills of the Ennedi highlands in present-day Chad. Major sites in the central Sahara include Tassili n’ Ajjer, Fezzan, Tibesti, Adrar des Iforas, and Hoggar. These artworks form a visual record of events that shaped the area’s history.

Rock art includes petroglyphs (engravings or carvings) and pictographs (paintings and drawings). Petroglyphs were gouged into the rock with stone tools and abrasives. Pictographs were executed by outline or flat wash using earthen-based pigments to create colors of black, red, brown, and white. Such paintings were created on walls of shallow rock shelters; engravings were produced both in rock shelters and on exposed rock surfaces.

Over hundreds of millennia, the climate of the Sahara gradually fluctuated between arid and wet periods. During such a wet period about 10,000 b.c.e., humans appeared in the area. Then a vast savannah, the Sahara supported cultural development for the next seven thousand years. This wet period came to a close when the climate shifted and ushered in an almost continuous dry era. By about 2000 b.c.e., the Sahara had transformed into desert.

Saharan rock art is not easily categorized. Representations of changing fauna, stylistic approaches, and production techniques have been used for classification. Although there is general agreement on major categories, there are differences of opinion on commencement dates and time spans. As paintings and engravings appeared in many regions across the vast expanse of northern Africa, developments occurred in different areas at different times. Rock art did not develop in a linear progression, and styles within a single area often overlapped. The establishment of a precise chronology has been further impeded by the fact that some sites are not associated with archaeological deposits or materials that would enable the use of radiometric dating.

Another source of disagreement is the interpretation of these art forms. Early works in particular reflect a rich, symbolic, perhaps spiritual, world. Depictions have been attributed to hunting magic and fertility or fecundity cults. Other images have been interpreted to be sacred beings. Original meanings are lost, and such symbolic speculations, however interesting, are based on guesswork. There have been efforts to correlate myths and legends of present groups, such as the Fulani, with rock art symbols, but scholars are unable to establish firm historical links between Saharan groups of several thousand years ago and inhabitants of the area today. There is less disagreement on the interpretation of later works, as artists turned away from the symbolic realm to address issues of daily life.

The earliest period of Saharan rock art is known as the Bubalus, or Large Wild Fauna, period. This style appeared sometime after 10,000 b.c.e. and continued in some areas for the next five thousand years. Its name is derived from large-scale depictions of the now extinct buffalo, Bubalus antiquus, which was distinguished by its long, forward-thrusting horns. These petroglyphs were formed with deeply incised, continuous outlines. It appears that they were done from direct observation, as there was demonstrated familiarity with animal anatomy and movements. Despite conventions such as the use of composite views (for example, animals often were shown in profile with horns depicted frontally), the overall style was naturalistic. Although the Bubalus was the primary image, works from this period also depicted other animals that inhabited the Sahara: elephant, giraffe, antelope, crocodile, rhinoceros, and hippopotamus. Humans were portrayed, but their images were small and schematic. They were shown holding boomerangs, clubs, and axes.

Many works of the Bubalus period appear to have a supernatural dimension. As this was a hunter-gatherer society, it is speculated that some images played a role in hunting magic, with humans seeking to gain control over animals they wished to trap or kill. Depictions of therianthropes are thought to represent supernatural beings. It has been suggested that these figures are precursors of Egyptian animal-headed deities, but no firm conclusions can be drawn. Although it frequently has been asserted that works of this period were highly developed at their first appearance, it should be noted that earliest examples of rock art might not have survived.

Overlapping the Bubalus period, the Round Head period occurred from c. 8000-6000 b.c.e. Dates are more reliable because use of organic pigments has enabled carbon-14 testing. The period takes its name from large paintings of human figures with featureless faces and distinct, rounded heads. Many paintings were polychromatic; red ocher, white, or black contours were employed along with rows of dots and fine lines to represent body decoration and details. This period later incorporated people with elaborate headdresses and costumes who seem to float or dance through space. It has been suggested that these figures represent supernaturally transformed dancers and provide evidence of early African masquerades. It is further speculated that other images symbolize horned “goddess,” and larger “great god” figures. Some scholars believe that the horned “goddess” image is a predecessor of Hathor, the great cattle-headed deity of Egypt. Such scenes are probably imbued with sacred symbols, but as with the earlier rock art, interpretations are speculative.

The Pastoralist, or Cattle, period falls broadly within the limits of 5500-2000 b.c.e. New groups settled in the Sahara, and farming and herding replaced the hunting and foraging lifestyle. Wild animals were still depicted, but domestic stock such as sheep, goats, and especially cattle predominated in both paintings and engravings. Pastoral scenes representative of the Neolithic era generally replaced the symbolic drama of the Round Head period. Animals were smaller, and the human figure now played a more central role. Men were armed with spears or bows and arrows.

By the second millennium b.c.e., the Sahara had undergone climatic change. The new arid period left the area too dry for agriculture and herding. Many inhabitants moved southward and eastward to the plains near the Nile. After the Hyksos rule of Egypt in the seventeenth and sixteenth centuries b.c.e., metal weapons, horses, and horse-drawn chariots were introduced into the Sahara. Those who remained in the area integrated these imports into their art. The resulting styles constitute the Post-Neolithic period, which incorporates later Horse and Camel stages.

Horses were introduced to this general area during the first millennium b.c.e. Their rock art depictions were simple and schematic. Early wheeled vehicles, possibly chariots, were represented as single shafts with a horse on each side; later images depicted “flying” vehicles with teams of two to four horses driven by armed men. The extent of chariot use has yet to be determined, as they were impractical on the sand and rocks of the desert. Humans were also depicted schematically, their faceless bodies sometimes reduced to two triangles placed apex to apex. Men frequently held spears, shields, and daggers, possibly with metal blades. Representations of people riding horses and, eventually, camels replaced the “charioteer” images.

Debate exists about when camels were introduced into the Sahara. They appeared in central Saharan rock art, along with short inscriptions written in a script known as Libyco-Berber, in the last centuries before the common era. Their images were accompanied by smaller depictions of giraffes, Barbary sheep, antelopes, and ostriches. As the Sahara became more arid, camels, which were able to go for weeks without water, assumed a position of major importance. They became the primary means of desert transport and key components in the development of trans-Saharan trade. Rock art from this phase was schematic and crudely executed. No longer symbolic, it reflected the harsh reality of this desert environment as it is known in modern times.


Over the millennia, inhabitants of the Sahara marked the landscape in descriptive and symbolic ways. Their art forms a visual record of environmental and cultural changes that provides important insights into the history of this area. Paintings and engravings depict modes of subsistence, development of spiritual beliefs, development of agriculture and pastoralism, and the formulation of group life. They record the results of drastic climatic change. Although desert populations migrated to the north, south, and east, rock art attests to the continued development of cross-cultural contacts and exchanges, innovations in technology, and development of trade. Saharan cultures and art forms underwent change, but it is believed that key concepts were diffused to provide the basis for artistic traditions of many surrounding groups, including the Egyptians. Study of Saharan rock art demonstrates that these North African groups, far from being simple hunter-gatherers, developed complex cultures.

Further Reading

  • Clottes, Jean. World Rock Art. Los Angeles: J. Paul Getty Museum, 2002. Surveys forty thousand years of rock art. Includes discussions of artistic processes, methods of dating, interpretations, and preservation. Bibliography.
  • Coulson, David, and Alec Campbell. African Rock Art: Paintings and Engravings on Stone. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 2001. A good survey of African rock art. Bibliography, index, and outstanding photography.
  • Perani, Judith, and Fred Smith. The Visual Arts of Africa: Gender, Power, and Life Cycle Rituals. Upper Saddle River, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1998. An overall survey of African art that includes works from the Saharan area. Bibliography and index.
  • Visonà, Monica B., Robin Poynor, Herbert M. Cole, and Michael D. Harris. A History of Art in Africa. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 2001. A survey of African art that includes discussion of works from the Sahara. Bibliography and index.