Original image
© TARA/David Coulson

Explore 30,000 Years of African Rock Art

Original image
© TARA/David Coulson

Many people associate rock art with Lascaux and other sites in Europe. But Africa has a rich tradition of rock art depicting 30,000 years of life on the continent that gave birth to the human race. Much of this treasure trove is now online.

The African Rock Art Image Project comes from the British Museum, where for the past two years a curatorial team has been cataloging and digitizing some 25,000 photographs of rock art from across Africa, originally assembled by the Trust for African Rock Art (TARA). More than 10,000 images from northern African countries are online already, and another 15,000 images from the western, central, and southern regions will eventually join them.

The paintings and engravings were created by a wide variety of cultures from different eras. Here are a few of our favorites—and their stories.

In this intimate scene dating back perhaps 6,000 years, one person washes another's hair, and between them is a vessel possibly containing a hair conditioner of rancid butter. It's a detail from a larger painting located in the Uan Amil rock shelter in southwestern Libya that some say depicts the preparations for a wedding. Uan Amil was occupied mainly between 8,000 and 4,000 years ago. One researcher has suggested that based on the hairstyles, today’s Wodaabe nomads of Niger resemble the people shown here. As the British Museum notes:

Among numerous social groups throughout Africa, hairstyling and hairdressing hold great cultural and aesthetic significance. Coiffures have been regarded as indicative of ethnic origin, gender and stages of life development—as well as simply fashion—and have been related to power, age, religion and politics.

This pecked engraving rock of female camel carrying a load, accompanied by three calves, was discovered in the Tassili n’Ajjer ("plateau of chasms") region of southwest Algeria. Camels were domesticated in Africa in the early first millennium CE. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, Tassili n’Ajjer has more than 15,000 rock paintings and engravings dating back as far as 12,000 years ago. Some are 13 feet tall—the largest found in Africa.

People pressed their painted hands against this rock shelter wall sometime between 2000 BCE and 200 BCE in a desert region of Mauritania known as Guilemsi. The art in the region is unusually varied, with distorted humans, naturalistic cows, and abstract geometric patterns all sharing wall space. (These hand prints are unusual too.) Did different groups of people with unique artistic traditions decorate the caves at the same time, or does the diversity represent different time periods? Archaeologists aren't sure.

This lavishly decked-out warrior and horse were discovered in Niger's Aïr Mountains, a desert region in the north, and date from 1500 to 3000 years ago. Art from the so-called Libya Warrior era often shows chariots, charioteers, horses, and figures like this one, who has an ornate, three-plumed headdress, highly decorated clothing, three spears, and a shield. Some 1000 engravings of warriors have been recorded in this region of Niger and in neighboring Mali. Horses were first introduced to Africa via Egypt around 1600 BCE.

The life-size engraved figures found at the Niola Doa rock shelter in northeastern Chad are both vibrantly patterned and highly formal; figures posed and adorned in this manner have been found at a half-dozen sites in the region. Together, the thousands of painted and engraved images found in the mountainous Ennedi Plateau are one of the biggest collections of rock art in the Sahara, with a fantastic variety of styles and themes. They could be up to 7000 years old. Are the figures here wearing clothes (note the belt of birds around the waist of the left figure) or body paint, or are they sporting scarification? Are they girls? It isn't clear, but today, Niola Doa means "the place of the girls" in the local language.

All images © TARA/David Coulson

[h/t Archaeology]

6 Pioneering Facts About Mary Leakey

Fossil bones and the earliest footprints of our human ancestors are just a few of Mary Leakey’s groundbreaking discoveries. Get to know the legendary paleoanthropologist, and learn how her serendipitous finds forever altered scientists’ understanding of human origins.


Mary Leakey (1913-1996), née Mary Nicol, was destined to be an explorer: Her father, Erskine Nicol, was a landscape painter, and the family traveled extensively through France, Italy, and Switzerland. While staying in a commune in southern France, 12-year-old Mary became interested in archaeology after meeting Elie Peyrony, a French prehistorian excavating a cave. Mary dug through his tiny finds—which included fine points, scrapers, and flint blades—and sorted them into an amateur classification system.


Leakey’s parents were artists, but hunting for fossils was part of her heritage: Her maternal great-great-grandfather was John Frere, an 18th-century English government official and antiquarian who’s credited with first recognizing Stone Age flint objects as early weapons and tools.


Leakey was intelligent, but she also had a rebellious streak. As a teen, she was expelled from several Roman Catholic convent schools—once for intentionally creating an explosion in a chemistry lab. Figuring she wasn’t cut out for a classroom, Leakey never finished high school, and decided to pursue independent studies in art, geology, and archaeology at the University of London instead. (“I had never passed a single school exam, and clearly never would,” the scientist later wrote in her 1986 autobiography Disclosing the Past.)


Mary Leakey—who inherited her father’s artistic skills— ended up working as an illustrator for archaeological digs. An archaeologist introduced her to Cambridge University paleontologist Louis Leakey, who needed an illustrator for his book Adam’s Ancestors (1934). The two became lovers, but their union resulted in scandal, as Leakey was still married at the time. The couple married in 1936, after Leakey divorced his first wife.


Mary Leakey's first major discovery came in 1948 when she found a fossil skull fragment of Proconsul africanus, an ancestor of apes and humans, which later diverged into two separate species. The fossil was thought to be more than 18 million years old.


In 1978, Leakey was on an expedition in Laetoli, in Tanzania, when members of her camp engaged in a spirited elephant dung fight. A scientist fell down, and he noticed strange indentations on the ground that had been recently exposed by erosion. They turned out to be tracks made around 3.7 million years prior, from animals that had walked over damp volcanic ash. Examining these prints took several years, but the team's efforts paid off when Leakey noted that one of the prints seemed to be made by a hominin. This discovery showed that early humans began walking upright long before scientists thought they had.

Additional source: Ancestral Passions: The Leakey Family and the Quest for Humankind's Beginnings, Virginia Morell

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Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
Stones, Bones, and Wrecks
Researchers Unveil an Unusual New Theory For How Easter Island’s Statues Were Made
Original image
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

The Moai statues of Easter Island present one of the world's greatest technical mysteries. The stone heads (actually full bodies) that dot the island in the South Pacific are massive and number in the hundreds, prompting archaeologists to wonder how they got there in the first place. Now, as Newsweek reports, a group of researchers believe they're closer to finding an answer.

European sailors first arrived on Easter Island in 1722 and were greeted by a native population of 1500 to 3000. Along with the residents were 900-odd statues carved from solid rock, meaning there were fewer than four people for every massive monolith.

How was such a thin population able pull off such an impressive feat of architecture? According to researchers from Chile, New Zealand, and the U.S., it's possible they had help. Their new study published in the journal Frontiers in Ecology and Evolution suggests that the statues were carved and erected at a time when Easter Island supported a much larger population. Using data from the island, they estimated just how high the island's numbers may have reached.

Easter Island has the agriculture potential to sustain a maximum population of 17,500, researchers say. This estimate is based on the weather and soil quality of the island, 19 percent of which is capable of growing the sweet potatoes that fed inhabitants. "Despite its almost complete isolation, the inhabitants of Easter Island created a complicated social structure and these amazing works of art before a dramatic change occurred," lead author Cedric Puleston said in a statement.

If the Moai were constructed by a much larger group than the Europeans encountered, that would clear up some of the mystery surrounding the island. But it would also raise more questions. How, for instance, did the population fall so quickly in the few centuries between the statues' construction and first contact with Europeans? One theory is ecocide, which happens when an area is exhausted of its resources faster than it can replenish them.

The mystery of how the towering monoliths were transported across the island after they were built still remains. The indigenous people told Dutch explorers that the Moai walked themselves, an explanation an MIT professor put to the test when he designed a 2000-pound sculpture that could be shimmied long distances. But despite the numerous theories, hard evidence related to the figures' origins remains scarce.

[h/t Newsweek]


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