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online news.html October 19, 1998

ANCIENT MASTERPIECES FOUND IN THE SAHARA

A 20-foot-high giraffe was incised on a sandstone outcrop in northeastern Niger some 7000-9000 years ago. (Click on images for larger versions.) (© David Coulson)

The engraved images of two giraffes, estimated to be some seven to nine thousand years old, have been found atop a 50-foot-high sandstone outcrop in the Sahara Desert of northeastern Niger. Recorded last November by documentary photographer David Coulson of the Trust for African Rock Art (TARA) and French archaeologist Jean Clottes, president of the Paris-based International Committee of Rock Art, the carvings, one of which is more than 20 feet in height, are among the finest examples of African rock art found to date; the larger of the two images may well be the largest-known single prehistoric work of art in the world.

Surrounded by hundreds of smaller engravings, the giraffes are carved in the so-called Bubalus style of the Large Wild Fauna period (ca. 9,000-6500 B.C.), typified by naturalistic renderings of the giant long-horned buffalo Bubalus antiquus (for which the period takes its name), rhinoceros, elephants, hippopotamus, giraffes, ostriches, lions, aurochs, and crocodile. Like many images from this period, the Niger petroglyphs are deep cut and polished. According to Clottes, the giraffes are among the finest images he has ever seen. "The technique is perfect," he said. "If you put this in the Louvre, it would look just fine."

The giraffe and its companion each have a long line emanating from their nose that terminates in the image of a small man. "We believe that this has important significance, perhaps representing shamanic association or symbolism," said Coulson. "We simply do not know. What is certain, however, is that the giraffe was of vital importance to early African populations, possibly being associated with the bringing of rain."

At the time the engravings were made the Sahara was a far more hospitable place. Rather than the parched landscape it is today, it was covered with trees, grasses, rivers, and lakes. The Sahara began drying some 3,000 years ago, reaching its current state around 2,500 years ago. "This art depicts another world," says Coulson, "one in which diverse cultures flourished alongside herds of game."

TARA, a non-profit research institution of which Coulson is chairman, was established in 1995 to document and where possible undertake measures to preserve the entire corpus of African rock art, which by Coulson's estimates, is carved or painted at what may be well over a half million sites. Despite the remoteness of many sites this art is subject to serious threats such as vandalism, graffiti, target practice, and mass tourism. "In the face of such threats," says Coulson, "TARA is endeavouring to create an awareness of the richness and value of the art. It is not only Africa's heritage but the world's heritage, whose significance is only now being recognized."

An expedition, sponsored by the National Geographic Society and the Bradshaw Foundation of Geneva Switzerland, will set out into the Sahara in January 1999 to make a mould of the giraffes and a survey of the whole site. "We realize that there will be some concern within the rock art community that making moulds of the giraffe might damage the image," says Coulson. "However, we will be using leading experts in consultation with UNESCO and we will be taking the utmost care in our work. We will also be leaving parts of the image protected to avoid any contamination of the rock that might subsequently result in erroneous dating of the engravings." While the images have been known to the local Tuareg, who dismissed their importance, Coulson and Clottes have not disclosed the precise location of the engravings, fearing destruction by tourists and curiosity seekers.--ANGELA M.H. SCHUSTER

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© 1998 by the Archaeological Institute of America
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