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Rock Art in the Green Sahara

The Sahara is the world's largest hot desert, spanning the entire northern part of Africa. Yet it hasn't always been dry -- archaeological and geological research shows that it has undergone major climatic changes over thousands of years. Rock art is one of the best records of the life of past peoples who lived across the Sahara. It often depicts extraordinary images of life, landscape and animals that show a time when the Sahara was much greener and wetter than it is now. To find out more, visit https://www.britishmuseum.org/africanrockart The African Rock Art Project is supported by Arcadia (https://www.arcadiafund.org.uk/) This film is in collaborative partnership with the Leverhulme Trust-funded project: “Peopling the Green Sahara. A multi-proxy approach to reconstructing the ecological and demographic history of the Saharan Holocene”, Paul Breeze, Nick Drake and Katie Manning, Department of Geography, King’s College London Modelling and mapping of the Green Sahara ©Kings College London Images ©Trust for African Rock Art (TARA)/David Coulson & ©Kings College London Animation and Motion Graphics by Soluis Heritage (http://www.soluis.com/).

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Video transcript

The Sahara is the world's largest hot desert spanning the entire northern part of Africa. Yet it hasn't always been dry, archaeological and geological research shows that is undergone major climatic changes over thousands of years. Natural climatic shifts brought the African monsoon rains further north transforming the landscape. This period between 11,500 and 5,000 years ago is called the African Humid or Green Sahara period. Rain was far more abundant and vast areas of the Sahara became savanna grasslands crossed by numerous waterways and lakes. People have lived in the Sahara for thousands of years relying on these water systems hunting, gathering, fishing and later herding animals along its fertile corridors. Rock art is one of the best records of the life of past peoples who lived across the Sahara It often depicts extraordinary images of life, landscape and animals that show a time when the Sahara was much greener and wetter than it is now. Some of the oldest rock art found in the Sahara is 8,000 to 12,000 years old This period is called the Early Hunter period and it often focuses on naturalistic engravings representing wild animals Generally large mammals represented are typical of the savanna or wetland environments that existed during the early Green Sahara. These engravings have been connected to hunter-gatherer fisher cultures followed wild game and waterways across the Sahara The Messak plateau in the central Sahara contains thousands of rock art engravings including some of the oldest rock art in the Sahara. Found in this plateau is a large engraving depicting a crocodile walking with its hatchling life-sized at more than two metres long, it dates back to a time when crocodiles were found in waterways before the Sahara became drier, around 5,000 years ago. There are still a few relic populations of crocodiles that can be found even today in isolated Oases. Here we can see an engraving showing the outlines of a human figure next to a large elephant. It is a good example of the naturalistic style of the early hunter period the image probably depicts the savanna elephant which roams the grassy plains and woodlands of the savanna and is now found largely in southern and eastern Africa. These two exceptional engravings of giraffes are in northeastern Niger The area has been part of the trans-Saharan caravan trade for up to two millennia but archaeological evidence shows much older occupation dating back over 8,000 years The two giraffes are life-sized measuring 5.4 meters the engravings cannot be seen from ground level they are only visible by climbing onto the outcrop. It is easy to imagine past peoples watching these long necked graceful animals in the former savanna below and immortalizing them in stone for future generations. Most rock art found today in the Sahara dates from the pastoral period roughly 7,500 to 4,000 years ago. This type of rock art focuses on domesticated cattle and scenes of daily pastoral life. Animals began to be domesticated in the Sahara around 7,500 years ago and represent a major shift in lifestyle of the local people in a period that was progressively getting drier and less green. In the Tassili n'Ajjer plateau in Algeria is a site known as the crying cows. These skillfully engraved images depict long horned cattle with carved teardrops appearing to roll down their faces They're thought to date between 7,000 and 8,000 years ago when this environment was wetter. These engravings are incorporated in a local myth that tells of a shepherd who engraved them after being unable to find water for his herd. Climatic data shows a period of aridity around 8,000 years ago which may coincide with these engravings and with the associated myth. Camels were present in North Africa from roughly 2,000 years ago when the Sahara was as dry as it is today. Their ability to survive in harsh climates allowed major trans Saharan trade to flourish as people, goods and ideas moved across the desert a new type of rock art developed. Now called the camel period. In addition to camels subjects include highly stylized human figures, flocks of goats caravans, palm trees and hunting or battle scenes. This camel is part of a complex scene located in Chad on the southern edge of the Sahara probably representing a camp with animal herds. Camels feature widely in rock art across the Sahara their resistance to heat and ability to survive with small amounts of water have made them key animals for inhabitants of the Sahara deeply bounds their economy, material culture and lifestyle. It is not surprising that camels are considered the ships of the desert transporting people, commodities and goods throughout the Sahara. Around 7,000 years ago the Sahara began changing to a desert with natural climatic shifts. As it dried out grasslands and lakes disappeared desertification processes were accelerated as vegetation which helps generate rain was lost causing even less rain and the soil lost its ability to hold moisture, the result: desert. As the Sahara dried out rock art has become one of the best records of life in the past and the animals and humans that inhabited it for thousands of years. Although its original purpose and meanings have long since been lost the expressive power of the engravings and paintings still remains allowing us to gain a small view into the world of the people that lived in the Sahara thousands of years ago when it was a sprawling green savanna. Sadly now the extremes of man-made climate change is causing rock art to be endangered and destroyed forever losing thousands of years of our shared human history.