THE TASSILI PREHISTORIC ROCK PAINTINGS - Page 5


2. THE TASSILI ROCK PAINTINGS

2.1 Conditions in the Sahara and the Tassili plateau:
      Neolithic period 4000 BC-2000 BC.

Rainfall in the Sahara during the Neolithic period from 4000 BC to 2000 BC was higher as today as the abundance of wildlife in that period shows. The many wildlife images depicted among the Tassili rock paintings and engravings are a proof of this and include elephants, giraffes, lions, ostriches, gazelle, Oryx, mountain sheep, rhinoceros, wild oxen, apes and wart hogs.
We may assume that many parts of the Sahara during this period were covered with savanna vegetation: scattered trees, covered with grass during the rainy season, comparable to the present savanna vegetation in the Sahel, the climatic zone south of the Sahara. Neolithic camp sites with finds of flint stone arrow points and stone tumuli or burial sites on the Hoggar plateau and adjacent areas in the Sahara, confirm human habitation. C14 radio-carbon analysis of campfires remains, including bones of larger wild life, indicate dates of human habitation of the Hoggar plateau between 4000-2000 BC.  
Present day transhumant pastoralists in the Sahel zone, during the rainy season, move their herds from one suitable grazing spot to another in the low lands, using seasonal rivers and creeks to water their herds. At the beginning of each dry season, when grazing opportunities are running out, these herdsmen move their herds to areas near rivers where still sufficient grazing and water is available for their herds.
Similarly we may assume that during the rainy season, the prehistoric transhumant pastoralists grazed their herds at the Hoggar plateau at an elevation of 1 000 meter, which is proven by the many Neolithic campsites found in that area.  At the beginning of the dry season the Neolithic pastoralists moved their herds up to the Tassili N Ajjer plateau, at an elevation of 1500 meters, where during this season still sufficient grass and water would have been available for their herds. The many rock paintings and samples of Neolithic household goods found in the Tassili plateau caves confirm human habitation in this area. Household goods included among others: pots, stone knives, axe points and grinding stones. C14 radio-carbon analysis of campfire remains and pollen from the Tassili plateau caves, indicate that this area was also inhabited during the period              4000 -2000 BC.
The Tassili n’ Ajjer plateau, the location of the rock paintings, is a large sand stone plateau in the Sahara in South Algeria about 700 km long by 100 km wide, rising above the surrounding Hoggar massif. During the Neolithic period the Tassili plateau rainfall was higher as today, as is proven by the remnants of oak-, cypress-, olive-, alder- and lime trees which still are found to day in Tassili.  
Today water is rarely present on the Tassili plateau, remaining in deep shaded rocky cracks, locally called gueltas. The only perennial river in the central Sahara is in the Iherir area. In the past long before the Neolithic population lived on the plateau wind erosion and the arid climate created rock formations resembling ruins or stone forests. In other areas of Tassili fluvial action over the millennia formed narrow deep gorges in these flat plateaus, which resulted in a unique network of steep-sided valleys with caves interspersed with some flat areas.
The prehistoric rock paintings are mainly found in the caves of these steep sided valleys. Images of the Tassili landscape are shown in cvsalg110-171  

2.2 Description of the Tassili rock paintings

The Tassili prehistoric rock paintings show a wide range of styles from the naturalistic to the near abstract. Some of the paintings are really beautiful with a high artistic value. As an introduction a selection of details from 21 rock paintings is shown here: tas007-029. These photos were taken by the professional photographer Jean-Dominique Lajoux in 1961. Lajouxs’ images in my opinion give a better impression of the rock paintings as compared with the copies made by the artists of the Lhote team between 1955 and 1970.

An overview of the Tassili paintings show following subjects:

-Humans, predominantly with Negroid features, while some locations show humans with   
  Caucasian features. The main clothing styles appear to be rather similar to present day
  traditional rural West African styles of clothing: long flowering dresses and head cloth
  for women and men and loin cloth for young men, while dancers depicted, used also
  body paint designs similar to the present West African style. A few images show
  Egyptian style short clothing.
-Village life scenes: Village gatherings in which people meet in front of their huts to chat;
  pregnant women deliver their babies; parents playing with their children inside and
  outside their huts; people watering their cattle, sheep and goats; people dancing; women
  harvesting grains; young men with spears, hunting a lion which had taken one of their
  sheep; young men picking wild fruits from a tree; ceremonies and rituals, some of an
  erotic nature, probably related to fertility or procreation rites.  
-Livestock: Cows with several different types of horns, udders, skin designs and colors;
  sheep, goats and dogs, also with variations in skin design and types.
-Wildlife: Elephants, giraffes, wild mountain sheep, lions, ostriches, gazelle, Oryx,
  rhinoceros, wild oxen, African buffalo, apes, wart hogs, crocodiles and fishes.
-Divinities: Some images show large strange types of divinity figures, with worshippers
  around. An example is shown in tas006
 
The average size of the rock paintings

The average size of the composite rock paintings is large and measures typically 120- to 300 cm wide and 400- to 600 cm high. For example the composite rock painting with livestock scenes in the Iherir area, which will be analyzed in section 3.4, measures 300 cm wide by 250 cm high and depicts 120 humans, 280 domestic animals, 47 wild animals and 66 objects such as drinking vessels, hut frames and mats.

 
Palimpsest: Overlapping of images.

Most paintings show several layers of images in different styles, which overlapping of images is called a palimpsest. This overlapping of two or more layers of images in different styles shows that several different cultural groups and generations of people have used the same area for their paintings, whereby each group painted images in their own style, disregarding images from previous groups. Examples are images: tas013Lajoux and cvsalg016

Composite pictures illustrating village life

A major characteristic of these paintings is their composite nature. Each painting describes a specific village life story divided over several components or scenes, whereby each component or scene shows a different aspect of the same story comparable to a “strip” story. To illustrate this point, I refer to the detailed analysis of one Tassili composite rock painting from the Iherir area, recently published in a monograph entitled: Sahara Rock Art, 2004, Archeology of Tassilian Pastoralists Iconography by Holl, A.F.C.                                                             
Holl, a professional archeologist, anthropologist and university professor specialized in West African anthropology, developed a useful pictorial analysis method for interpretation of composite rock paintings. Holl applied his analysis method to a large composite rock painting depicting many cattle and humans, located in the Dr. Khen shelter in Iheren, in the Central Tassili, north of the Wadi Tadjelamine bend, some thirty kilometers west of Iherir. The structure of this painting was identified as a narrative, representing an allegory and morality play with a complex story line, which was divided into distinct compositions and organized into different tableaux and individual scenes. The analysis of this Tassili rock painting shows that it describes village life of traditional African pastoralists, supporting my assumption on this issue. For an example of Holls’ pictorial analysis method see images tas031-047. A short note explaining his pictorial analysis method is given in section 3.4  

 
Source of the paint material or pigments, range of colors and painting technologies

The prehistoric artists obtained their pigment or coloring material from ochreous schists. Schists are rocks whose minerals have aligned themselves in one direction in response to deformation stresses. The result of this is that these rocks split in parallel layers. Each layer of these rocks had a different position and was therefore exposed for a different period to sunshine. This resulted in different ochre pigment colors for different layers, ranging from dark to light depending on the number of hours of sunshine received. Ochre is a mineral composed of clay and hydrated ferric oxide and is used as a pigment varying from dark brown to light yellow. In the case of the Tassili n’Ajjer ochre schists, the range of colors is very wide: The most protected schists gave a very dark ochre color, almost the color of dark chocolate, while colors of other layers ranged from brick red, light red, and yellow shades up to a greenish hue.
A white color was obtained from locally available kaolin. The result of the availability on the Tassili plateau of this wide range of ochre shades is that the palette of colors used in the Tassili rock is much richer as compared with the palette of red ochre, kaolin white and oxide of manganese found in prehistoric rock paintings in other locations. Image tas030 taken in the Nubian mountains in West Sudan shows the collection of ochre from caves, in a similar way as during the Neolithic period at the Tassili plateau. Some Nubian tribes, from West Sudan, used ochre as pigment or coloring material base for body painting till recently.(Riefensthal)
The artists grounded these pieces of ochre schist to powder in a stone grinder, which is confirmed by the many examples of prehistoric grinding stones found in the Tassili caves. After the colored schist powder was obtained it was mixed with a media.
Most likely this was based on casein, a milk product, as cattle were ample available to the prehistoric Tassili people. Another possibility for a media could have been acacia gum, taken from the many acacia trees growing in the area.

2.3. Comparing prehistoric Tassili images of village life with those of 20th Century
       traditional West African pastoralists: An agriculturalist’s interpretation


As mentioned earlier, familiar with present day village life of traditional rural West African societies through my work as a socio economic agriculturalist, I was able to compare 20th century village life scenes of traditional rural West African societies with those depicted in the prehistoric Tassili rock paintings and observed many similarities between the two groups. I also refer to my web site: www.cvsanten.net, : Liberia section,  which contain some of my photographs of village life of traditional West African societies. It is my intention to upload in the near future additional photographs of traditional village life scenes from other West African countries.  

In the following list similarities in village life between the prehistoric pastoralists and modern day West African traditional pastoralists are shown:
•    Herds with cattle, sheep and goats;
•    People watering and tendering their livestock;  
•    People making camp sites: unloading or loading household goods on cattle, constructing huts made from straw mats on wooden frames;
•    Village people meeting in front of their huts; eating; chatting; admiring a newly born baby or a newly born calf or lamb; drinking from large earthenware containers; taking care of dogs as pets; participating in grain harvesting; hunting; picking fruits; dancing; erotic activities; rituals and praying to divinities.

The above list of characteristics, relevant for both prehistoric and 20th century traditional rural groups, leads to the following description of pastoralist societies:

1. During the wet season transhumant pastoralists move their herds between areas with
    good grazing and watering in the savanna, with scattered trees and wet season grass
    vegetation. During the dry season the herds are moved to higher elevated locations or  
   near to rivers where still sufficient grass for grazing and water is available.    
2. The pastoralist economy is based on cattle, sheep and goats, with a diet based on milk
    and in some tribes with blood, supplemented with grains and fruits collected or
    exchanged with farmers.
 
3. Rituals relate to live circles of men and livestock within the seasonal changes. These
    include practical subjects such as watering, grazing and taking care of livestock;
    collecting wild fruits and grains; & hunting; and cultural subjects such as praying to
   divinities and conducting fertility rituals.
4. Huts made from straw mats, easily foldable and movable between seasons and    
    village camp sites.
5. Clothing is made from wool and skins: loin cloth for men and long dresses for men and
    women; use of earthenware drinking vessels; the keeping of dogs as pets.  

 NB. My personal study of prehistoric rock paintings is based on visits
         to two major Tassili sites: Sefar and Jabbaran and four minor sites: Tamrit,
         Tin Aboteka, Tin Tazarift and Tin Itinen. See Map tas002 Tassili plateau &  
         tas003 Tamrit, Sefar and Jabbaren area.
      
Conclusion
Comparing the characteristics of village life and culture of present day African transhumant pastoralists as represented by the Fulani or Peul, Tuaregs, Boran, Masai, Nuba and other pastoralist groups, with images shown in the prehistoric rock paintings I found  many similarities and refer also to Holl, who in his monograph arrived at a similar conclusion.  Based on this I concluded that the prehistoric Tassili people were transhumant pastoralists, who moved their livestock between different grazing lands according to season, in the lowlands during the wet season and on the Tassili plateau during the dry season.
   
NB.1.It should be noted that in spite of the similarities between village life images
          of the prehistoric Tassili inhabitants and those of traditional rural societies
          in West Africa of today there is no proof that present day West African
          traditional rural societies are the direct descendants of the prehistoric
          pastoralists from the Tassili plateau.
       2.In spite of this, I propose to conduct detailed studies of present day
          traditional rural West African societies, which could provide additional
          information on specific details of village life of prehistoric Tassili
          pastoralists.
       3.The rock paintings were probably made during the dry season when the
           herds of the pastoralists were grazing on the Tassili plateau and movement
          was more restricted as compared during the rainy season, which would have
          given artist-pastoralists an opportunity to create their rock paintings.
 
       
2.4. A hypothesis on the motivation of the prehistoric pastoralists
       to create rock paintings. 
   

Studying the rock paintings, I was also struck with the question: What could have been the motivation of the pastoralists to create these rock paintings? Making the paintings   must have taken a lot of time and effort, in particular as some images which were up to 6 m high or located in positions, difficult to reach, as for example paintings on cave ceilings.

Reviewing carefully the motifs selected in the rock paintings I concluded that the prehistoric artists had similar motivations as anyone today or whenever during the past who felt the urge to draw pictures. This is a felt need to portray their world and to share this with others, for example with the young generations.

I therefore formulated the hypothesis that the Tassili paintings were made to initiate the young Tassili generations in the important aspects of the pastoralists’ life and that the paintings formed part of the teaching material of the Tassili “bush school”.   

In this context, I refer to the West African  “bush school” a traditional informal none literate training institution, which was created probably thousands years ago and which in most traditional West African societies was still in use, till recently. Thus all teenage boys and girls of West African tribal societies were obliged to join the “bush” school for a period of time, ranging from several years in the past to only a few months in modern times. These bush schools are far removed from the villages and the teenagers are for the first time in their life separated from their families. In these training camps, tribal elders teach the teenage boys and girls the most important aspects of the tribe’s culture and practical skills such as traditional medicine, hunting, keeping livestock and farming.

Probably at the time of the prehistoric Tassili pastoralists the bush schools were located in the isolated caves on the Tassili plateau and the paintings served as teaching material to explain the pastoralist world. In fact, most of the scenes depicted would fit in very well as teaching material with activities usually undertaken in the African “bush school”.

In conclusion, when studying the extraordinary collection of the Tassili rock paintings, one is struck by the observation that:
-The rock paintings cover a wide range of fascinating aspects of traditional village life,
  which are rather similar to village life scenes of present day traditional West African
  tribal rural societies.
-The Tassili rock paintings were probably created with the intention to be used in the
  initiation of young generations of pastoralists in the African “bush school”.