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© TARA/David Coulson
© TARA/David Coulson

Explore 30,000 Years of African Rock Art

© TARA/David Coulson
© 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]

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Photograph by Sofía Samper Carro. "Fishing in life and death: Pleistocene fish-hooks from a burial context on Alor Island, Indonesia," Antiquity, Sue O’Connor, Mahirta, Sofía C. Samper Carro, Stuart Hawkin, Shimona Kealy, Julien Louys and Rachel Wood.
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Stones, Bones, and Wrecks
These 12,000-Year-Old Fish Hooks Are the Oldest to Ever Be Discovered in a Grave
Photograph by Sofía Samper Carro. "Fishing in life and death: Pleistocene fish-hooks from a burial context on Alor Island, Indonesia," Antiquity, Sue O’Connor, Mahirta, Sofía C. Samper Carro, Stuart Hawkin, Shimona Kealy, Julien Louys and Rachel Wood.
Photograph by Sofía Samper Carro. "Fishing in life and death: Pleistocene fish-hooks from a burial context on Alor Island, Indonesia," Antiquity, Sue O’Connor, Mahirta, Sofía C. Samper Carro, Stuart Hawkin, Shimona Kealy, Julien Louys and Rachel Wood.

Prehistoric people who lived on Indonesia’s rugged and remote Alor Island held fishing in such high importance that even the dead were supplied with equipment for snagging a fresh catch. While digging at an archaeological site on the island’s south coast in 2014, scientists found a group of ancient fish hooks, which were buried with an adult human around 12,000 years ago. They’re the oldest fishhooks to ever be discovered in a grave, according to a new report published in the journal Antiquity.

Archaeologists from Australian National University found the partial skeleton while excavating an early rock shelter on Alor’s west coast. The bones—which appeared to belong to a female—were interred with five circular one-piece fish hooks made from sea snail shell. Also found was a perforated bivalve shell, buried beneath the skeleton’s chin. It’s unclear what purpose this artifact served, but experts did note that it had been smoothed and polished, and appeared to have once been dyed red.

Ancient fish hooks discovered in Indonesia by archaeologists from Australian National University
Rotating fish hooks found with the burial

Photograph by Sofía Samper Carro. "Fishing in life and death: Pleistocene fish-hooks from a burial context on AlorIsland, Indonesia," Antiquity, Sue O’Connor, Mahirta, Sofía C. Samper Carro, Stuart Hawkin, Shimona Kealy, Julien Louys, and Rachel Wood.

Prehistoric fish hooks found in Indonesia by archaeologists from Australian National University.
Circular rotating fish hooks found with the burial

Photograph by Sofía Samper Carro. "Fishing in life and death: Pleistocene fish-hooks from a burial context on AlorIsland, Indonesia," Antiquity, Sue O’Connor, Mahirta, Sofía C. Samper Carro, Stuart Hawkin, Shimona Kealy, Julien Louys and Rachel Wood.

Researchers used radiocarbon dating to determine the age of charcoal samples found near the burial ground. From this, they determined that the fish hooks and human remains were buried during the Pleistocene Epoch.

Alor Island, the largest island in the volcanic Alor Archipelago, is rocky and lacks a variety of plant life and protein sources. For these reasons, fish was likely an important staple food for ancient residents, and the act of fishing may have also been considered cosmologically important, archaeologists say.

The burial on Alor Island "represents the earliest-known example of a culture for whom fishing was clearly an important activity among both the living and the dead,” the study's authors wrote. Additionally, if the skeleton indeed belonged to a woman (the bones themselves haven't yet been conclusively identified), the hooks might suggest that women in ancient Alor were tasked with hook-and-line fishing, just like those in ancient Australia.

Archaeologists have identified prehistoric fishing hooks at sites around the world. They range from 23,000-year-old hooks, discovered on Japan’s Okinawa Island (the world’s oldest-known fishing implements), to slate hooks from Siberia’s late Mesolithic period (the second-oldest hooks ever found in a gravesite).

The fishing hooks discovered on Alor are circular instead of J-shaped, and resemble other ancient hooks that were once used in countries like Japan, Australia, Mexico, and Chile. Some experts have suggested that these similarities in technology were the result of migration, cultural contact, or even from fish hooks left in migrating tuna. The researchers at Australian National University argue against this theory, hypothesizing that the similarly shaped hooks are instead evidence of “convergent cultural evolution in technology” around the globe.

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Courtesy of the Megiddo Expedition, Tel-Aviv University
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Stones, Bones, and Wrecks
3100 Years Ago, an Elite Family Stashed Their Silver Jewelry in a Beer Jug
Courtesy of the Megiddo Expedition, Tel-Aviv University
Courtesy of the Megiddo Expedition, Tel-Aviv University

Instead of containing traces of alcohol, a 3100-year-old beer jug discovered by archaeologists in Israel was stuffed with silver jewelry. Unearthed in 2010 at the Bronze Age settlement of Megiddo, the vessel contained several dozen ancient baubles, ranging from bracelets to beaded works, according to Science News. One of the researchers, Eran Arie, presented the findings earlier this month in Boston at the annual meeting of the American Schools of Oriental Research.

The jewelry-bearing jug likely belonged to a high-ranking Canaanite family, who hid it in the corner of a courtyard. A bowl, and perhaps a cloth shroud, was placed over the container to conceal it. It's unclear why the family left their expensive hoard there, as it likely comprised the majority of their personal wealth, but the find does shed light on how wealthy families tried to keep their valuables safe.

A bowl concealed an Iron Age jug with its neck removed, to accommodate a hoard of precious jewelry.
A bowl concealed an Iron Age jug with its neck removed, to accommodate a hoard of precious jewelry.
Courtesy of the Megiddo Expedition, Tel-Aviv University

 A 3100-year-old jewelry hoard, including earrings, beads, a ring, and silver jewelry wrapped in linen cloths.
A 3100-year-old jewelry hoard, including earrings, beads, a ring, and silver jewelry wrapped in linen cloths.
Courtesy of the Megiddo Expedition, Tel-Aviv University

The owners removed the jug's narrow neck to place the jewelry inside. The cache included 35 silver works—including earrings, rings, and a bracelet, wrapped in two linen cloths—along with carnelian and beads made from electrum, an alloy of gold and silver, which were once probably park of a necklace.

Experts haven't figured out who the jewelry's owners were, but one theory is that they were connected to the government because the courtyard and its surrounding building were once located near the city palace. Since the building appeared to have been destroyed—perhaps in a battle—it's thought that the family fled during a time of crisis, leaving their treasures to sit undetected for millennia. 

[h/t Science News]

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