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Archaeology / Review Essay

Vol. 5, NO. 1 / December 2019

Central Saharan Rock Art

Jean-Loïc Le Quellec

Letters to the Editors

In response to “Central Saharan Rock Art

The nineteenth-century German explorer Heinrich Barth was one of the first Europeans to observe and record the remarkable images engraved on rocks in the central Sahara.1 In 1937, the anthropologist Leo Frobenius published a book, Ekade Ektab, demonstrating that Barth’s discoveries were far from the only examples, and that many other images have adorned the rocks of this region since prehistoric times.2 Other researchers were also hard at work, and a series of important discoveries were made throughout the central Sahara in the following decades. Further engravings, located in the southwestern Fezzan region of Libya were reported by Paolo Graziosi.3 In the Hoggar Mountains of southern Algeria, François de Chasseloup-Laubat, among others, reported images of human figures.4 Paul Huard studied engravings and paintings discovered in northern Chad.5 Paintings in the Acacus Mountains of western Libya were painstakingly analyzed and documented by Fabrizio Mori.6 Over the border in southeastern Algeria, Charles Brenans, Henri Lhote, Yolande Tschudi, and Jebrine Machar ag Mohamed began assembling an inventory of paintings from the Tassili n’Ajjer plateau.7

When Lhote presented his team’s findings as part of a major exhibition at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris during 1957 and 1958, artists and scientists alike were enthusiastic.8 Among specialists, there was little doubt that the iconography constituted an unparalleled ethnological record of African prehistory. Ancient peoples, it seemed, had inscribed direct testimony of their material culture, mythology, and way of life on the sunburnt rocks of the central Sahara. Usually limited to reconstructing the distant past from vestiges in bone or stone, historians now had at their disposal depictions of people hunting for large animals, migrating with their herds, assembling tents from animal skins, checking the straightness of arrowheads, styling their long hair into a bun over the forehead, and indulging in countless other activities that leave no other trace in the archaeological record.

Grand Narratives

In the 1970s, Huard began working with the Egyptologist Jean Leclant to consolidate the documentation of Saharan rock art. The pair theorized that a prehistoric hunting culture had emerged in the vast expanses between the Nile Valley and the Atlantic around 6,000 BCE during the Holocene climatic optimum (8,500–3,500 BCE). These populations flourished for millennia, hunting antelopes, buffalo, giraffes, elephants, hippopotami, and large felines, before acquiring domesticated cattle and sheep.9 This culture gradually expanded to encompass the whole of northern Africa, then retreated southward and toward the Nile to escape the deteriorating conditions that eventually led to the current aridity of the region. This thesis was later refined by Huard’s wife, Léone Allard-Huard, who was able to draw on new discoveries made during the final decade of the twentieth century.10

At the turn of the millennia, Huard and Leclant’s ideas might have seemed the ideal basis for a definitive ordering of the thousands of images inventoried since Barth’s initial discoveries. The authors may have quibbled about matters of chronology and dating, but specialists agreed that the rock art itself attested to a succession of wide-ranging cultures inhabiting the region. The first of these groups was thought to be the Bubalus people (ca. 10,000–8,000 BCE), whose artists created many images of Pelorovis antiquus, an extinct species of buffalo, and their successors, the Round Head artists (ca. 6,500–4,000 BCE). The latter are named for the distinctive, featureless, globular heads depicted atop their anthropomorphs.11 Following these groups were the so-called Bovidians (ca. 4,000–1,500 BCE), a population of shepherds who left behind portrayals of their beloved herds. In the art from the succeeding Caballine period (ca. 1,500 BC–0), horses appear for the first time, and are shown harnessed to chariots. Finally, in the Cameline period (0–), scenes involving camels and their drivers emerged as recurring motifs. This iconography embodies the story of Saharan civilization.

During the 1990s, some scholars estimated that the oldest of these images originated at the end of the Pleistocene epoch, around 10,000 years ago,12 while others argued for a much earlier beginning in the middle of the Pleistocene, 20,000 or more years ago.13 These estimates were poorly argued and frustratingly approximate. Dating issues, along with irreconcilable disagreements among specialists arising from competing interpretations of the art’s anthropological and mythological meanings, caused historians gradually to lose interest in the issue. As beautiful as the images are, the notion that they can inform us about the movements of the ancient central Saharan populations is largely illusory. Indeed, the chronological position of a piece of rock art is virtually impossible to pin down with any degree of certainty. Reconstructing a reliable history of human settlement in the African subcontinent seems, at best, a remote possibility.

In the late 1980s, the work of Huard and Leclant was subjected to a fresh critical appraisal. Their ideas did not emerge unscathed. Alfred Muzzolini was able to demonstrate that there was no consistent archeological basis for the large-scale hunting culture imagined by the pair.14 He also argued that the Bubaline was more a style than a period, and one that could still have been in use when the Bovidian shepherds populated the subcontinent.15 The Bovidian period, Muzzolini suggested, was composed of several stylistic and cultural nuclei, whose delineation would allow for a more credible and fine-tuned approach to establishing the chronology of pastoral images.16 This systematic reassessment led to the development of a new chronology, which posited that central Saharan rock art emerged around 5,000 BCE.17 After some initial resistance, the scientific community has largely accepted Muzzolini’s view.

In Search of Meaning

Attempts to discern meaning from the rock art of the central Sahara have often led researchers astray, giving rise to flights of fancy and an array of conjectures without any firm grounding in the archaeological record. Around the time of the Paris exhibition, Lhote made the surprising suggestion that the images were evidence that pharaonic civilization had extended westward during the Eighteenth Dynasty of Egypt (1,539–1,293 BCE). Others suspected that many of the discoveries predated pharaonic art, seeking instead to identify the origins of Egyptian mythology. Some figures were interpreted as a prefiguration of Anubis, while others were thought to depict the deity Bes. The absence of any explanatory framework, and the enigmatic nature of many compositions, invited superficial comparisons and woolly speculation.

During the 1980s and 1990s, numerous researchers sought to explain rock art in terms of so-called entoptic signs, telltale indications that the imagery was the expression of altered states of consciousness. The highly subjective nature of such interpretations generated all manner of speculation, especially in relation to shamanism and ritualistic practices.18 The notion of shamanism embraced by researchers was so loosely defined that its traces could easily be found throughout the rock art. These interpretations were first proposed by David Lewis-Williams as part of his doctoral thesis, in which he sought to elucidate meaning from rock art attributed to the San people of southern Africa.19 These ideas proved remarkably malleable, and they were subsequently applied to Paleolithic art from around the world.20 In the case of the Saharan imagery, many instances of parallel or intersecting lines, or groups of dots have been designated entoptic, despite the obvious caution that the simpler the sign, the more widespread its adoption.21

A New Chronology

The founding of the Association des Amis de l’Art Rupestre Saharien (Association of the Friends of Saharan Rock Art) in 1991 was an important event because it served to revitalize the field.22 The journal of the association, Les Cahiers de l’AARS, publishes work by both professionals and serious amateurs. Yves and Christine Gauthier, among the amateurs, have demonstrated the value of cartographic methods for refining the chronology of rock paintings.23 This approach has also been used to more accurately date circular lithic monuments known as corbeilles (baskets) that are characteristic of the central Messak plateau in southwestern Libya. Some examples feature a stela decorated with engravings in a style associated with the region.24 The stelae date from between 4,550–4,370 and 4,220–3,960 BCE. So, too, the engravings. Prior to this discovery, the so-called Messak style of engraving had long been thought to belong to the much earlier Bubaline period.25

The study of central Saharan rock art has also benefitted from the digital revolution in photography. In addition to facilitating the archiving and preservation of images, specialized software, such as DStretch, has proven invaluable in processing photographs by accentuating features imperceptible to the naked eye.26 When photographs collected from a famous site in Tassili n’Ajjer were processed using DStretch, the original inventory of 51 subjects recorded by Lhote was expanded to 165. In some cases, the software revealed dozens of figures on walls that were previously thought blank.27

Algorithms employed by phylogeneticists have also been adopted by archaeologists.28 Once a sufficiently large collection of related rock art images has been assembled, each example is described using lines of code. Algorithms derived from phylogenetics can then be used to develop hypotheses with respect to the origins and evolution of the images. Where these hypotheses coincide with those developed using other methods, such as cartography, the results are mutually reinforcing.

Phylogenetic methods were first applied to central Saharan rock art as part of a study involving depictions of two major groups of therianthropes, namely figures with the heads of wild dogs, typically found in the Messak Settafet, and figures with the heads of jackals, found in the neighboring region of Tassili n’Ajjer. The evolutionary process that was reconstructed for the two styles using phylogenetic analysis suggested that the Messak images predate those from Tassili n’Ajjer. It seems likely that the artists in both areas may have developed their own mythical beings from a shared cultural heritage, each community adopting the common therianthropic motif, but varying its appearance.29 Phylogenetic analysis allows researchers to examine the work of the engravers and painters of the central Sahara in minute detail without becoming mired in the sort of haphazard and subjective comparisons that characterized earlier work, especially in relation to Egyptian mythology. Although improved, this process can be made still more rigorous by incorporating other methods, such as cartographic analysis, with the goal of producing replicable and refutable results.

From all the documentation currently available, a new chronology has emerged that is still a little imprecise in places, but is nonetheless reliable, and arranges central Saharan rock art in a cohesive and comprehensible sequence.30 The earliest rock art seems to belong to the Round Head period, originating in the Acacus Mountains and Tassili n’Ajjer, and is estimated to have begun ca. 5,500 BCE. The Messak style appears to date from around 4,250 BCE. In the fertile period between the Bougdouma-Oyo arid event (ca. 5,200 BCE) and the post-Neolithic arid event (ca. 2,200 BCE), domestic cattle appear frequently in rock art, notably in the Messak style and the group of styles jointly labeled as pastoral. Better adapted to harsh climates than cows, sheep and goats are depicted with increasing frequency in Iheren paintings dating from around the middle of the fourth millennium BCE.31 Better adapted to harsh climates than cows, sheep and goats appear in paintings dated as late as the first millennium BCE. After the post-Neolithic arid event, the Caballine period began throughout the Sahara. This was followed by the Cameline period, beginning around the fifth century CE, when the camel became a motif in rock art following its arrival in the area. This overall vision is affirmed in the majority of recent research.32

Translated and adapted from the French by the editors.


  1. Heinrich Barth, Reisen und Entdeckungen in Nord- und Central-Africa in den Jahren 1849 bis 1855, vol. 1 (Gotha: Justus Perthes, 1857). 
  2. Leo Frobenius, Ekade ektab. Die felsbilder Fezzans. Ergebnisse der DIAFE X (X. Deutsch-innerafrikanischen forschungsexpedition) nach Tripolitanien und Ost-Algier mit ergänzungen der DIAFE XII aus Zentral-Algier (Leipzig: Otto Harrassowitz, 1937); Leo Frobenius and Douglas Fox, Prehistoric Rock Pictures in Europe and Africa (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1937). 
  3. Paolo Graziosi, “Recherches préhistoriques au Fezzan et dans la Tripolitaine du Nord,” L’Anthropologie 44, no. 1–2 (1934): 33–43; Paolo Graziosi, L’arte rupestre della Libia, 2 vols. (Naples: Edizioni della Mostra d’Oltremare, 1942). 
  4. François de Chasseloup-Laubat, Art rupestre au Hoggar (haut Mertoutek) (Paris: Plon, 1938). 
  5. Paul Huard, “Répertoire des stations rupestres du Sahara oriental français,” Journal de la Société des Africanistes 23 (1953): 43–76. 
  6. Fabrizio Mori, Arte preistorica del Sahara libico (Rome: De Luca, 1960). 
  7. Henri Lhote, À la découverte des fresques du tassili (Paris: Arthaud, 1958); Jolantha Tschudi, Les peintures rupestres du Tassili-n-Ajjer (Neuchâtel: À La Baconnière, 1956). 
  8. Copies of Tassili paintings from Lhote’s missions sold by the tens. Novelists such as Philippe Diolé and Roger Frison-Roche also drew inspiration from the Great Desert. Philippe Diolé, Sahara Adventure, trans. Katherine Woods (New York: Julian Messner Inc., 1955); Roger Frison-Roche, La Montagne aux Écritures (Paris: B. Arthaud, 1952); Roger Frison-Roche, Carnets sahariens: L’appel du Hoggar et autres méharées (Paris: Flammarion, 1965). 
  9. Jean Leclant, Paul Huard, and Léone Allard-Huard, La culture des chasseurs du Nil et du Sahara, 2 vols. (Alger: CRAPE [Mémoires du Mémoire du Centre de recherches anthropologiques, préhistoriques et ethnographiques], 1980). 
  10. Léone Allard-Huard, Nile-Sahara: Dialogues of the Rocks. I. The Hunters (Crest: chez l’auteur, 1993); Léone Allard-Huard, Nile-Sahara: Dialogues of the Rocks. II. Man the Innovator (Crest: chez l’auteur, 2000); Léone Allard-Huard, Nile-Sahara: Dialogue of the Rocks. III. Innovative Peoples: The Horse, Iron and the Camel (Divajeu: chez l’auteur, 2011). 
  11. Lhote jokingly nicknamed these figures “martians,” a name that some readers unfortunately took seriously. Jean-Loïc Le Quellec, Des Martiens au Sahara: Chroniques d’archéologie romantique (Arles: Actes Sud, 2009). 
  12. Sources supporting these now obsolete views include Ginette Aumassip, Chronologies de l’art rupestre saharien et nord africain (Calvisson: Editions J. Gandini, 1993); Umberto Sansoni, Le più antiche pitture del Sahara: L’arte delle Teste Rotonde (Milano: Jaca Book, 1994); Fabrizio Mori, “Le Messak Settafet, une zone d’art rupestre unique au monde,” Les Dossiers d’Archéologie 197 (1994): 2–3; Rüdiger Lutz and Gabriele Lutz, “The Bubalus Rock of Wadi in Elobu: A Chronological Indicator of Early Rock Art in the Messak Sattafel and Messak Mellet, Fezzan, Libya,” in The Prehistory of Africa: Colloquium XXIX and Colloquium XXX, XIII International Congress of Prehistoric and Protohistoric Sciences, ed. Ginette Aumassip, J. Desmond Clark, and Fabrizio Mori (Forlì: Abaco, 1996), 137–50. 
  13. Marina Lupacciolu, “Problems of Chronology of the Rock Art of the Sahara,” in The Prehistory of Africa: Colloquium XXIX and Colloquium XXX, XIII International Congress of Prehistoric and Protohistoric Sciences, ed. Ginette Aumassip, J. Desmond Clark, and Fabrizio Mori (Forlì: Abaco, 1996), 85–88. 
  14. Alfred Muzzolini, “Que sont les ‘Chasseurs’ et les ‘Chasseurs-Pasteurs’ du Fezzan?Espacio, Tiempo y Forma, Serie I, Prehistoria y Arqueologia 4 (1991): 269–82. See also Jean-Loïc Le Quellec, “‘Chasseurs’ et ‘Pasteurs’ au Sahara central: Les ‘Chasseurs archaïques’ chassés du paradigm,” Palethnologie 1 (2008): 401–09. 
  15. Alfred Muzzolini, “Les débuts de la domestication au Sahara et les gravures rupestres les plus anciennes (‘école bubaline’),” Bulletin de la Société de Préhistoire de l’Ariège 26 (1991): 211–33. 
  16. Alfred Muzzolini, L’art rupestre préhistorique des massifs centraux sahariens (Oxford: British Archaeological Reports, 1986); Alfred Muzzolini, “Le ‘Bovidien’ dans l’art rupestre saharien: Un réexamen critique,” L’Anthropologie 96, no. 4 (1992): 737–58. 
  17. Alfred Muzzolini, Les images rupestres du Sahara (Toulouse: chez l’auteur, 1995); Alfred Muzzolini, “Rock Art,” in Encyclopedia of Precolonial Africa, ed. Joseph Vogel (Walnut Creek: Altamira Press, 1997), 347–52. 
  18. It is arguable whether shamanism even existed in Africa. See Jean-Loïc Le Quellec, “Existe-t-il un chamanisme africain?Religions & Histoire 5 (2005): 28–31; Insar Haq, “Shamanism in Africa: A Valid Concept or Wishful Thinking?” (BA thesis, University of Manchester, 2016). 
  19. J. David Lewis-Williams, Believing and Seeing: Symbolic Meanings in Southern San Rock Paintings (London: Academic Press, 1981). 
  20. For example, J. David Lewis-Williams and Thomas Dowson, “The Signs of All Times: Entoptic Phenomena in Upper Paleolithic Art,” Current Anthropology 29, no. 2 (1988): 201–45; Jeremy Dronfield, “Subjective Visions and the Source of Irish Megalithic Art,” Antiquity 69 (1995): 539–49; Tony Berlant, Evan Maurer, and Julia Burtenshaw, Decoding Mimbres Painting: Ancient Ceramics of the American Southwest (New York: Prestel, 2018). 
  21. Henri Paul Francfort, Roberte Hamayon, and Paul Bahn, The Concept of Shamanism: Uses and Abuses (Budapest: Akadémiai Kiadó, 2001); Jean-Loïc Le Quellec, “Chamanes et martiens: même combat! Les lectures chamaniques des arts rupestres du Sahara,” in Chamanismes et arts préhistoriques: Vision critique, ed. Michel Lorblanchet, Jean-Loïc Le Quellec, and Paul Bahn (Paris: Errance, 2006), 233–60. Patricia Helvenston and Paul Bahn, “Archaeology or Mythology? The ‘Three Stages of Trance’ Model and South African Rock Art,” Les Cahiers de l’AARS 10 (2006): 111–26. 
  22. Amis de l’art rupestre Saharien
  23. Yves Gauthier and Christine Gauthier, “Un exemple de relations monuments—Art rupestre: ‘Corbeilles’ et grands cercles de pierres du Messak (Libye),” Les Cahiers de l’AARS 9 (2004): 45–63; Yves Gauthier and Christine Gauthier, “Monuments funéraires sahariens et aires culturelles,” Les Cahiers de l’AARS 11 (2007): 65–78; Yves Gauthier and Christine Gauthier, “Art rupestre, monuments funéraires et aires culturelles: Nouveaux documents concernant le Messak, le sud-est du Fezzān et l’Oued Djerat,” Les Cahiers de l’AARS 12 (2008): 89–104; Yves Gauthier, “Nouvelles réflexions sur les aires de distribution au Sahara central,” Les Cahiers de l’AARS 13 (2009): 121–34; Yves Gauthier and Christine Gauthier, “Des chars et des Tifinagh: Etude aréale et correlations,” Les Cahiers de l’AARS 15 (2011): 91–118. 
  24. The Messak style is defined in Jean-Loïc Le Quellec, “L’art ‘classique’ de la civilisation du Messak (Fezzān, Libye),” Studia Africana 7 (1996): 8–42. 
  25. Savino di Lernia and Marina Gallinaro, “The Date and Context of Neolithic Rock Art in the Sahara: Engravings and Ceremonial Monuments from Messak Settafet (South-West Libya),” Antiquity 84, no. 326 (2010): 954–75. 
  26. See Jean-Loïc Le Quellec, Frédérique Duquesnoy, and Claudia Defrasne, “Digital Image Enhancement with DStretch: Is Complexity Always Necessary for Efficiency?” Digital Applications in Archaeology and Cultural Heritage 2, nos. 2–3 (2015): 55–67. 
  27. Frédérique Duquesnoy, “Apport des outils numériques et informatiques à l’étude des images rupestres du Sahara central: Exemple d’application aux peintures de Séfar (Tasīli-n-Ăjjer), Algérie” (PhD diss., Aix-Marseille Université, 2015). 
  28. Jean-Loïc Le Quellec, “Phylomémétique et archéologie,” Les Nouvelles de l’Archéologie 149 (2017): 5–14. 
  29. Jean-Loïc Le Quellec, “Lévi-Strauss au Sahara,” in Arts et symboles du Néolithique à la Protohistoire (Séminaires du Collège de France), ed. Jean Guilaine (Paris: Errance, 2003), 83–88; Jean-Loïc Le Quellec, “Aréologie, phénétique et art rupestre: L’exemple des théranthropes du Sahara central,” Les Cahiers de l’AARS 16 (2013): 155–76; Jean-Loïc Le Quellec, “Que nous disent les hommes à tête de chien du Sahara?La Recherche 485 (2014): 46–49; Jean-Loïc Le Quellec, “Théranthropes du Sahara: L’invention d’une méthode d’étude,” Archéologia 518 (2014): 46–51. 
  30. Jean-Loïc Le Quellec, “A New Chronology for Saharan Rock Art,” in The World of Rock Art: An Overview of the Five Continents, ed. Bansi Lal Malla (New Delhi: Aryan Books International, 2013), 23–44. Jean-Loïc Le Quellec, “Périodisation et chronologie des images rupestres du Sahara central,” Préhistoires Méditerrannéennes 4 (2013). Jean-Loïc Le Quellec, “I petroglifi del Sahara centrale: Il contesto cronologico e stilistico (The Petroglyphs of the Central Sahara: Stylistic and Chronological Framework),” in La fragilità del segno (Florence: Istituto Italiano di preistoria, 2017), 47–64. Jean-Loïc Le Quellec, “Arts rupestres sahariens: Etat des lieux depuis 2010, et perspectives,” Abgadiyat 12 (2017): 47–109. 
  31. Muzzolini defined the Iheren style
    by means of two discriminating criteria: (1) the pictorial technique, consisting of elegant outlines and internal details which are executed in thin lines, also including some internal polychromous tinted flat areas, and (2) the human figure stereotypes, which exclusively represent europoid types.
    Alfred Muzzolini and Aldo Boccazzi, “The Rock-Paintings of Tikadiouine (Tassili n’Ajjer, Algeria) and the Iheren-Tahilahi Group,” Proceedings of the Prehistoric Society 57 (1991): 23. 
  32. Christian Dupuy, “F. Soleilhavoup, L’art mystérieux des Têtes Rondes au Sahara, Éditions Faton, Dijon,” Sahara 19 (2008): 207–09. Amel Mostefai, “Contribution à l’étude de l’art rupestre tassilien: À la recherche d’un sens à Ozan Ehéré (Tasīli-n-Ăjjer, Sahara central, Algérie)” (PhD diss., Université de Toulouse, 2014). Frédérique Duquesnoy, “Apport des outils numériques et informatiques à l’étude des images rupestres du Sahara central: Exemple d’application aux peintures de Séfar (Tasīli-n-Ăjjer), Algérie” (PhD diss., Aix-Marseille Université, 2015). 

Jean-Loïc Le Quellec is Emeritus Research Director at the Institut des Mondes africains at the CNRS.

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