by Elaine Wallace
The Sahara Desert is one of the driest, harshest environments on Earth. With sparse vegetation and very little rain, only the hardiest, drought-adapted plants and animals survive there. But the Sahara was not always a desert. 10,000 years ago, it was a lush grassland with rivers, lakes, trees, and abundant wildlife. It’s hard to imagine how different it must have looked back then. Fortunately, we can catch a glimpse of that greener time in the ancient rock art of the region.
The Sahara region of Niger contains thousands of prehistoric engravings and paintings, some up to 9,500 years old. Ancient peoples chiseled the images into the rock using stone tools or painted them with paints made from local minerals and brushes of feathers or animal hair. They include extraordinary images of animals that we don’t associate with the Sahara, such as elephants, hippos, and monkeys. Little is known about the people who created them, but the images provide clues as to what life was like for them and how things changed as the Sahara transitioned from wet grassland to the desert we know today. They also show the vital importance of water and the dramatic impact on people and animals when water is scarce.
Most of Niger’s rock art is located in the Aïr Mountains and Djado Plateau in the northern part of the country. Archeologists classify it into different historical periods, beginning with the Early Hunter Period 12,000 to 9,000 years ago. This is when rainfall was at its peak and the region could sustain hunter-gatherer societies, which need lots of plants and animals to survive. The Early Hunter Period is characterized by engravings of large animals such as elephants, rhinos, hippos, giraffes, and buffalo. Humans are often shown as tiny figures dwarfed by the animals and hunting with boomerangs, sticks, clubs, axes, or bows. One of the most celebrated sites is at Dabous, where over 800 images are carved on a sandstone outcrop. The most impressive are two giraffes, thought to be around 8,000 years old and known for their beauty, life-sized scale, perfect proportion, and expert execution.
Next is the Pastoral Period, which began around 7,000 years ago when the Sahara began its transition from savannah to desert and images of cattle and other domesticated animals appear for the first time. At the beginning of this period, the region was wet enough to sustain permanent communities with subsistence economies based on fishing and hunting. But as it grew drier, these were replaced by nomadic herders. During very dry periods, people left the region altogether.
The Horse Period began around 3,000 years ago and signals the arrival of horses in the region. Images include hunters in horse-drawn chariots holding weapons and reins. Figures known as Libyan Warriors are also common, usually forward-facing figures with raised arms and splayed fingers, depicted with weapons, shields, headdresses, and clothing decorated with geometric patterns, often with stylized bodies consisting of two triangles or tulip-shaped heads and hourglass bodies. About 1,000 engravings of Libyan Warriors have been recorded in Niger and neighboring Mali and there is debate among historians about their origin and meaning.
Finally, there is the Camel Period, which began around 2,000 years ago. By then, the Sahara was as dry as today and the appearance of images of camels indicates that the region could no longer support horses. Niger has relatively few images from the Camel Period, suggesting that lack of water had forced people to leave the region and that it was visited only occasionally.
Niger’s rock art is a vivid reminder of the importance of water to the lives of the people and animals of the Sahara. Even the future of the art itself depends on water. Rock art sites are under constant threat from vandalism and unmonitored tourism, and they’re hard to protect because lack of water means that they’re mostly uninhabited. Only the Dabous site is fully protected, thanks to the drilling of a well that has enabled custodians to stay at the site full time.