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Volume 34, Number 1January/February 1983

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Paintings from the Past

Written by Martin Love
Photographs courtesy of Henri Lhote

In The Search for the Tassili Frescoes, (Hutchinson, London, 1959) Henri Lhote, a French expert on prehistoric cave art, says Algeria's Tassili-n-Ajjer, with its ancient "frescoes," constitutes "the greatest museum of prehistoric art in the whole world."

Actually, the "frescoes" are not frescoes at all; they're prehistoric paintings some 8,000 years old. But Tassili-n-Ajjeris without doubt the great "museum" that Lhote says it is: an assembly of 800 or more magnificent works of primitive art shelters in a virtually inaccessible region on the edge of the Sahara desert.

Today, Tassili-n-Ajjer is virtually empty of life—as is most of the Sahara. But this was not always the case; as various prehistoric campsites hundreds of miles from the Mediterranean littoral attest, the Sahara was once inhabited by man and beast and today the bones of wild creatures, humans and fish can still be found at the campsites—along with stone implements. Once, in fact, great rivers, rising in the mountain massifs of North linked to the Niger River, Lake Chad and other lakes—whose shrunken remains can still be seen in parts of southern Tunisia. And in the first century B.C., Strabo, the Greek geographer and historian, noted that horses were still common in the Sahara, and, according to the Elder Pliny, a little later, carnivorous beasts still existed in what he called "Libya"—the lands lying to the west of Egypt.

The first European to see the rock paintings and engravings on the sandstone of the Tassili-n-Ajjer was a French soldier named Lieutenant Brenans, who, in 1933, ventured into a deep canyon operation and noticed, on the walls of wadi cliffs, strange figures engraved in the stone: elephants, rhinoceroses, giraffes and, side by side, human figures.

Not long after, Brenans' discovery came to the attention of Henri Lhote, a pupil of the Abbe Breuil, the great expert on prehistoric cave art in France. In Algeria at the time, Lhote went right to Djanet, a town south of the Tassili plateau, met the lieutenant and, ultimately, examined the discoveries himself. He had, he wrote later, never seen anything "so extraordinary, so original, so beautiful."

Some 15 years later and again in 1956, Lhote led a team of painters and photographers to the plateau to copy and record the art work, under the aegis of the Museum of Man in Paris and with the financial support of the National Center of Scientific Research in France. Altogether, Lhote and his associates discovered some 800 paintings, many of which they carefully copied.

Exploring the Tassili, Lhote discovered that the prehistoric inhabitants of the region left paintings almost everywhere they found a favorable spot, particularly in their "homes": the caves and rock shelters in which they lived.

At a site called Tan Zoumiatak, for example, Lhote and his team, during their 16-month stay, found a large rock adorned with great, sometimes fanciful human figures painted with yellow ochre, and depictions of various animals that once roamed the region; the same was true of shelters at Tamrit, Timonzouzine, Jabbaren and Aouanrhet.

Most prehistoric art, as Lhote said, was probably inspired by religious beliefs, but the Tassili seemed different because the paintings could be found almost everywhere, often in places that did not appear to be religious sanctuaries. Most, moreover, seemed to have been done withoutany discernible order- suggesting a simple spontaneity.

In his book, Lhote said that the most ancient paintings—going back perhaps 8,000 years—consisted of small human figures with schematic bodies and round heads, all painted in violaceous ochre. This round-headed human type, he said, is a basic style found in many paintings of the Tassili, and later phases or periods of artistic development are derived to some extent from this phase. But he also found what he called an "evolved" period, characterized by the appearance of polychrome paintings or round-headed human figures, larger and with thickened limbs. At the end of this latter period, at an undetermined date, he said, a recognizable Egyptian influence crept into the art of the Tassili. In this period Tassili artists painted bodies in red ochre, and added stylized flowers similar to ancient Egyptian motifs. After the "evolved" period, artistic quality declined, the drawings became coarser, the forms heavier, and the details, if any, are carelessly executed. This "decadent" period marked the last attempts by the Tassili's early inhabitants to paint the round-headed figures.

Lhote postulates that the "decadent" period ended when cattle-tending herdsmen migrated to the Tassili and pushed out the indigenous population, a view he bases on the fact that Tassili rock shelters were ultimately covered with a new style of painting consisting of human and animal figures of relatively small size. He said that this new period—"Bovidian"—represents the "greatest naturalistic school" of pre historic art in the world, and pointed out that the animals probably occupied a place of great importance in the lives of the Bovidian herdsmen. Wild animals—the elephant, giraffe, ostrich, gazelle, antelope and lion—were treated no less skilfully by Bovidian artists and the abundance of animal depictions attests to the existence of a damp and rich pasture.

Lhote believed that the herdsmen of the Bovidian period came from the Nile valley, or at least had contact with the peoples of Egypt, and pointed out that some Tassili paintings show boats like the ones that could be seen cruising the Nile 5,000 to 6,000 years ago.

In recent years, Lhote's theories about the provenance has been challenged, in an amusing way, by Erich von Däniken, whose Chariots of the Gods proposed that astronauts from another planet had visited the earth sometime in the prehistoric past. As evidence, von Däniken included certain inexplicable facts concerning the 1513 Piri Reis map of the world (See Aramco World , January-February 1980) and the Tassili paintings, some of which, von Däniken believes, bear a striking resemblance to the space suits of today's astronauts (See page 14 and below).

But if the historical provenance of the Tassili paintings is uncertain, the artistic value is not. They are, quite simply, beautiful. Like many prehistoric cave paintings—Lascaux, for example, or Les Combarelles—the Tassili paintings have a freshness of color, an economy of line and a simplicity of treatment that are the envy of modern artists—and this is an additional reason to worry about their preservation. Because of their inaccessibility the Tassili paintings were once safe from man's often destructive curiosity. But since Lhote studied them, repeated wetting by tourists—to permit photography—has begun to erode them; and with the protective film of dust gone, the elements can now get at the colors.

Worse, perhaps, Tuareg entrepreneurs began, in 1968, to break off fragments of painted rock and sell them to tourists. The results, as one writer put it, are deterioration and destruction of man's most ancient artistic heritage.

Martin Love is a former assistant editor of Aramco World Magazine.

A Trip to Tassili
Written and photographed by Susan H. Findley

In 1978 I went to Algeria with my husband, Marshall, who was to teach for the Algerian Petroleum Institute. We lived in Bourmedes and at Zemouri al-Bahri, a fishing village on the Mediterranean. Whenever we could, though, we traveled south, deep into the country, and in 1979 set out to see the famous rock-paintings of the Tassili-n-Ajjer, a series of plateaus in southeastern Algeria on the northern edge of the Central Sahara. These paintings, we'd heard, depict life in the Sahara 7,000 to 9,000 years ago.

The Tassili region is wild, strange country: a region of eroded outcrops of sandstone, intricate ravines and wadis, of contorted columns of rock—all honeycombed with caves. For us, though, the attraction was the rock paintings of Jabbaren, Ouan Bender, Tharen, Tin Tazarift, Titeras-n-Elias, Tin Abou Teka, Ralan-Ralen and at Sefar—thought to be the best collection.

To get there was not easy. We left the Mediterranean coast in a small aircraft bound for Djanet, a former outpost of the French Foreign Legion a few miles from the Libyan-Algerian border. At noon, we landed in Djanet where we met an agent from Altour, the government-run tourist agency, and rode into town in one of the agency's Land Rovers. On the way, we passed large, black, rock mountains in bizarre shapes, and an oasis.

A gray mud wall separated the oasis from the road. Beyond the wall were date palms, orange and apricot trees, and beneath the trees were vegetables grown beside irrigation ditches that ran out from a central spring in the oasis. Djanet, farther on and built around a hill, is a town of mud walls and houses with courtyards and slits for windows. The inhabitants, mostly Tuareg, are thin, tall and dark, with the women in black veils and brightly colored dresses ending in trains.

The next day, after a night in a small hotel in Djanet, we purchased tickets to see the Tassili-n-Ajjer, now part of a national park. By mid morning we had piled into Land Rovers with 10 French-speaking tourists, and soon, at a ledge under a gigan tic rock pile, began to climb on foot, heading for a camp called "La Ville de Toile" the Town of Cloth, or Tamrit. Often, a guide would stand on top of a huge boulder and pull each person up one at a time. A fall would have been disastrous.

At one stop, we sat on boulders and looked out over the valley where, long ago, herds of wild animals roamed free and where rivers flowed freely; now, to procure water, engineers have to sink wells into the dry soil.

Finally we saw a red circle on a rock, with a cross inside. It was a Tuareg sign which apparently designated our arrival in Tamrit, actually little more than several tents, including one that served as a kitchen and another used as a communal dining room. The donkeys had arrived ahead of us and were waiting patiently with their attendants along with foam pads, blankets and sleeping bags.

When we had flown south, the entire surface of the earth resembled a series of lakes and rivers, except that instead of water, they contained only sand. The sand rivers and streams created a maze of zigzag channels and although wind erosion had obviously played a part in their creation, it was almost inconceivable that these formations could have been formed by anything other than large quantities of water.

Now that we were on the ground, what had appeared to be mud or sand, was in fact sandstone, the "lakes" were large, flat areas covered with sand, gravel and flat rocks, and the dried up streams were relatively flat passages between towering rocks. Often the passages were close together and the tall rock formations had partially fallen, or there were cross passages washed or fallen out between the long-dried-up streams.

To travel across the vast areas of the plateau, you sometimes follow a lake bed for more than a mile, then go up one or another "stream"; there are hundreds of stream beds, each miles long, numerous "lakes" and thousands of towering rocks and ridges. Without a guide, it would be impossible to find your way through the area. We heard stories about how French soldiers got lost—and perished—just a short distance from their camps.

Finally, though, we came to a huge overhang. Inside, on the rock wall, there was a lovely drawing of two grazing antelopes with little horns and white breasts. We had arrived at the paintings.

The next day, on the way to Sefar, site of the most extensive rock paintings, the Tuaregs led us through a rock pass in the plateau and into a valley covered with deep sand. The going was difficult, but by noon we reached Sefar's camping area and that afternoon saw the paintings—perhaps the most unusual collection of outdoor paintings in the world.

They were on the smooth undersides of rock overhangs and colored vividly with red, white, gray, yellow, blue, purple and black—scenes of how people lived and worked thousands of years ago when the region was green and fertile. Men had stood once on these moon-like plateaus and watched herds of elephants, lions, giraffes and antelope. Today, the animals are gone, but their former presence is recorded in the drawings.

First, we saw a large, red-colored human hand. Then, if one looked closely, one could see another painting underneath of people squatting in a semi-circle. Often we could see paintings superimposed on other paintings, indicating that several generations had lived around Sefar.

We then came to a painting of two men in loincloths, decorated belts, armbands, masks and decorative hairstyles, one lifting a stick above his head with his other arm outstretched. The other man has both arms outstretched and appears to befalling, holding onto an animal horn. Another painting showed a proud warrior, elegantly dressed with a headdress similar to those worn by the ancient Egyptians. All of the figures are done in profile with both eyes on one side of the face.

Our eyes then fell on what the French call forme symbolique—abstract painting. The symbol looked like a large tulip—a long stem topped by circles within circles—and may have been a fertility symbol. Next there was a large giraffe, then running antelope—so precise that the figures came alive—and finally, under another overhang, herds of cattle with long horns, like Texas longhorns, their muscle and bone structures almost medically exact.

The most impressive and the most famous painting of the Tassili-n-Ajjer is a scene of several different animals being chased by hunters; in the lead there is an antelope, a small, baby-like ghost figure floating over his back. Out of the scene rises a huge figure with outstretched arms and a white mask. His muscles are flexed and on his stomach is the same abstract symbol we had seen before—a circle within a circle.

The paintings we viewed were only a small fraction of the numbers on the rock overhangs at Sefar. We couldn't help wondering how many paintings had been eroded in the thousands of years.

The next morning we marched back to Tamrit to begin our descent from the plateau, spent one more night in the desert, and returned to Djanet. After a night at the hotel, one of two at Djanet, we decided to cross the Sahara to Tamanrasset, some 1,127 kilometers (700 miles) to the northwest where there was an airport and daily flights to Algiers. Two days later 1 had left Algeria and, on a white sand beach in Jacksonville, Florida, was reflecting on my experience. I realized that I had gone from the prehistoric past to the 20th century in 48 hours and had brought with me unforgettable images left by man before history began.

This article appeared on pages 6-15 of the January/February 1983 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.

Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for January/February 1983 images.