Africa's ancient rock art: Can it be saved from destruction?

Untold priceless artworks are waiting to be recorded – and we must get there before they are destroyed by wars and vandalism
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The Independent Culture

We had been travelling by camel through the remote Tassili Mountains in south-east Algeria for five days. I had heard from a Tuareg friend of some huge animal engravings in a valley in this 50,000 square mile moonscape near the Libyan and Niger borders – and we had come to search for them. Now this friend signalled that I should dismount. We had arrived.

At first it was difficult to see what he was trying to show me: I could make out only a number of long engraved lines on the surface of the sloping river pavement. But as I walked across the smooth grey rock, I became aware that I was looking at an enormous head, impossibly large. I could feel my heart beat faster. This was extraordinary: the head belonged to one of several giant giraffes.

We counted nine, possibly more, all running to the right, their outlines beautifully incised. One giraffe stood out as the biggest; we measured it at 27ft from muzzle to rear hoof, the biggest single rock-art image on the African continent, probably on Earth. The whole ensemble covered an area of 1,100 sq ft. Above the giraffe was a lion measuring 5ft across. The images, we gauged, were likely 6,000 to 8,000 years old.

That exploratory mission took place in 2000, and arose following a phone call I had received in Nairobi four months earlier from that Algerian friend, Cheikh, who'd heard about recordings we had made in Niger in 1997 of two life-size giraffes and wanted to show me these, even bigger, engravings.

When I got home, I soon discovered that the French archaeologist Henri Lhote and his team had made an accurate drawing of the giraffes (which were first reported in 1934 by a previous expedition), which had been published in the 1970s. They had apparently never been successfully photographed, however, as many of the engraved lines were so worn as to be almost invisible – probably why such an extraordinary work of art was so little known.

The Trust for African Rock Art (Tara), which I had founded, was awarded a National Geographic grant, and in 2002 I led a return expedition to the site to record it using photogrammetry, a 3D multiple-imaging technique. This time we travelled with 16 camels, carrying equipment including a generator, some fancy computer apparatus and a humble stepladder.

With us was Professor Heinz Ruther, professor of Geomatics at the University of Cape Town, who was in charge of the photogrammetry. He took lots of additional shots of the giraffes and digitally stitched them together to produce the first still/3D photograph of the panel.

While he was busy with this complex endeavour, I went on with our local guide to investigate yet another report of images in another valley which, apparently, no outsiders had seen. There, we found 22 engravings of anatomically accurate hippos, the biggest of which was 15ft in length.

Hippo engravings are rare and nothing like this had ever been recorded. Most exciting of all, however, was the Egyptian-looking figure in among the hippos, shooting an arrow at one 6ft-long animal. For various reasons, we suspected that these engravings predated dynastic Egypt, yet there appeared to be possible connections to Egyptian beliefs and customs – hippo hunting, for one, was a pharaonic religious pursuit.

Later, a well-known Egyptologist friend confirmed our hunch. "Where do you think these people went when the Sahara dried up?" he asked me. "To the Nile Valley, where there was water," I replied. He nodded. "Taking their cultural beliefs and mythologies with them," he added.

For more than 20 years, rock art has been my passion. Africa has the greatest diversity of any continent and, of its 56 countries, most have examples; but the greatest concentrations are in the Sahara Desert and southern Africa. In the south, this art is mainly the work of ancestral Bushmen or San hunter-gatherers, while in the Sahara, most dates back to around 2,000BC to 6,000BC, when the climate was radically different; this art was made by many different cultures, the earlier hunter-gatherer type being some of the most remarkable.

Rock art comprises different forms but can be divided broadly into paintings and engravings, the latter including carvings, etchings and scrapings. There are also objects known as rock gongs, slabs used by ancient cultures for divining purposes. Africa's oldest scientifically dated k paintings, thus far, are to be found in southern Namibia and date to 28,000BC – comparable with the earliest rock paintings in Europe.

Indeed, there seems to have been a great age of rock art across the globe, which may have lasted around 50,000 years, and every continent has examples, except perhaps Antarctica. As for the time period involved, abstract rock engravings in South Africa's Cape have been dated to around 75,000BC, and there is even rock art being created today in Africa.

My own entry into this world was far from conventional. Though born in Paris and British by nationality, I have spent more than 40 years in Africa, working first as a Rank Xerox salesman, then for a property company, which is when I photographed my first rock paintings, in 1973, just outside Salisbury (now Harare, Zimbabwe), after a little boy showed them to me. Three years later, I returned to Paris to join a management consultancy firm, but quickly decided this life wasn't for me. I was unhappy and wanted to return to Africa with my camera – but how could I make a living like that?

My break came when the Royal Geographical Society in London, of which I had recently been elected a Fellow, invited me to stage an exhibition of my work. From that came my first book commission, documenting the mountains of Southern Africa. Mountain Odyssey was also the story, told through my diaries and 200 photos, of my 30,000-mile solo trip through seven southern African countries.

Mountain Odyssey paved the way for other illustrated books that took me to even more remote parts of eastern and southern Africa in the 1980s. There, I found rock art about which remarkably little seemed to be known. Intrigued and often moved by the beauty and obvious antiquity of this art, I made a point of going to see my friend Mary Leakey, the palaeontologist, on return trips to Nairobi (which was now my home base). Mary and I shared a passion for this heritage and it was she who first opened my eyes to the global importance and vulnerability of African rock art. "Somebody should set up a foundation or trust to create an awareness of the art and preserve it for future generations," she told me. "Sadly, I'm too old – but you aren't."

Soon after, in 1996, I set up Tara. Among the founding trustees was Alec Campbell, an old friend from the 1970s who shared my passion. Together we set off to gather material for a book which had been commissioned the previous year. This was the beginning of the Tara archive. We crisscrossed the continent, travelling thousands of miles. By 2001, we had assembled a team of African and global professionals and were already supported by National Geographic, the Getty Conservation Institute and the Ford Foundation, and partners with national museums and state parties in various African countries.

We had now worked in 14 lands, but our greatest adventures had undoubtedly been on our Sahara expeditions, where we had done most of our pioneering work. I sometimes have to explain that the Sahara is bigger than the entire United States, with no roads!

In Tassili n'Ajjer, a mountain range in the Algerian section of the Sahara, we found some of the oldest and most extraordinary rock paintings. We travelled there in 1997, walking for 10 days on foot with Tuareg guides and donkeys. We covered 30 miles along silent canyons (which Henri Lhote had described in the 1960s as "forests of stone"); adorning the smooth canyon walls we found larger-than-life floating figures with circular heads, crowns and flowing gowns. Close by were one-eyed Cyclops-like figures, jellyfish and other otherworldly mythical creatures. Believed by many experts to be up to 9,000 years old, these images speak of a vanished world, when the Sahara was not a vast desert, but verdant and fertile.

Over the years we've become used to travelling in areas which most people might consider unsafe. When in Algeria, for instance, we rarely travel on roads but instead go hundreds of miles off piste, where it is safer. In the Sahara, our drivers are often armed, but not ostentatiously. Sometimes we have armed escorts: the shifting politics k of Saharan Africa and the rise of religious extremism are not making our job easier.

We regularly entrust our lives to our local crews, and always take great care in selecting them. On our expeditions in the 1990s, pre- satellite phones, we would sometimes disappear into the desert for six weeks at a time and our wives would have no idea where we were or whether we were still alive. On one of our biggest Sahara expeditions, in 1997, I got kidney-stone cholic as I was descending a mountain with donkeys. Fortunately, we were due to arrive that day in a small town which had a clinic (without running water). I was in more agony than I have ever experienced, and two days later, I was flown to a French hospital in Niger. If the kidney stone had moved a few days earlier, I do not want to think what might have happened.

On another occasion, in 2000, we organised an expedition to the Cave of Swimmers – made famous by the film The English Patient – in Egypt's Gilf Kebir in the "Western Desert" close to the Libyan border. Our route took us across the Great Sand Sea, a vast area of dunes; I remember going 1,000km without seeing another vehicle or person: no water meant no Tuareg pastoralists.

Since that expedition, another, bigger cave has been discovered, known as the Cave of Beasts, due to the strange, headless creatures depicted there. This cave contains some 8,000 individual paintings and is from the same ancient tradition as the Cave of Swimmers, from about 6,000BC. I plan to visit later this year.

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Detail from a large panel of San/Bushman paintings in Mashonaland, Zimbabwe depicting antelope, warthog, elephant, snake and human figures (David Coulson/www.africanrockart.org)

While this art represents thousands of years of Africa's extraordinary history and culture, and is, to quote Nelson Mandela, "the common heritage of all humanity", most African countries have yet to acknowledge its value, and it rarely, if ever, features in school curricula.

Moreover, in 2005, as then-UN Secretary General Kofi Annan commented, "African rock art is a cultural gift from our ancestors which can bring diverse people together, with pride and a common commitment to share and preserve it. Yet today… its future is uncertain. Perhaps the greatest threat is neglect. A lack of resources, combined with a lack of official interest, has left too many rock-art sites unguarded against vandals and thieves."

Not only vandalism and theft, but development, encroachment and mineral exploitation are all threats, many of which acts are based on ignorance – about the art's existence, its meaning and antiquity, and its importance. Tara's response is to engage local people through community projects, sometimes involving responsible cultural tourism.

Tara is also an official partner of Unesco's World Heritage Centre, and there are now 11 Unesco heritage rock-art sites in Africa – four in west and north Africa, two in eastern Africa and five in southern Africa – which have helped raise the medium's profile. Yet there are dozens of equally important sites in other parts of the continent which are all but unknown.

Since I set up Tara nearly 20 years ago, we have worked in 19 countries, recorded more than 800 sites and established a digital archive of 25,000 images. Now, a final updated copy of the collection has been acquired by the British Museum to form part of its global digital collections. This joint project, which will be launched tomorrow at the museum, will not only ensure the long-term preservation of this collection (my life's work) but will also ensure that this valuable, cutting-edge material can be seen and studied by the widest possible audience worldwide.

This could, of course, give the impression that we have recorded all or most of the rock art – but this is far from being the case. We still have many countries and remote areas to survey. Untold priceless artworks are still out there waiting to be recorded – and we must get there before they are destroyed as populations increase and wars and vandalism take their toll. We need support from partners who can help us with this task, and understand the scale and critical nature of this imperative. To quote Kofi Annan again, "We must save this heritage before it is too late." 1

For more: britishmuseum.org/africanrockart. Tara raises funds by organising trips to rock-art sites; for more information: africanrockart.org

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