Nestor Nunez
Reyna Lara
Andre Norris
David Bivens
Joaquin Medina
Latoya Mikell

African Rock Art was and is a very important part of African culture. These paintings have been found in such exotic locales as Libya, the Sahara Desert, Algeria and  South African sites. Most of these paintings were made at about the beginning of the 5th millennium BC into the 2nd.These pictures were painted in caves or on rock walls of cliffs, hence the name Rock Art. Although people admire rock art, the design techniques, usage, and preservation of this unique artform help the viewer understand the lifestyles of these prehistoric artists.

The two main types of rock art were paintings and engravings. Paintings were usually made in rock shelters in mountain ranges. Paintings were made by mixing pigments with binders such as blood or egg albumen and applying this mixture to the wall. The colors selected for rock paintings came from the earth. All tribal painters used devised methods to portray different tones of color in their paintings. Minerals and colored stones were grounded into powders and mixed with animal fat. The color black was made from soot or charcoal. Naturally these artists needed tools, so they made workable brushes from hollow bones. Others used feathers, brushes, and sticks to make their paintings more detailed.

In South Africa, paintings varied in three main styles: monochrome, bichrome, and polychrome. Ancestors of the San or Bushmen tribes performed most of their work in polychrome styles. These were the hunter-gatherer peoples of the region. Works in the polychrome style produced some of the finest achievements of rock art. The San incorporated the use of linear patterns within their paintings to show carefully composed groups. The engravings, on the other hand, were found on boulders and rocks on the interior plains of South Africa. Pecking was one of the most used techniques in engraving. This technique involved the use of a sharp object to puncture the rock surface and create dotted images. Incising was also used although not as frequently as pecking. This technique involved cutting the rock surface with a sharp object to create outline shapes of images. Scratching was a technique that involved images made on rocks by scratching away the patina of very dark rocks. The lighter surface underneath would then be exposed in the shape of the artists' choice.

It is obvious that art is most often used to convey thoughts or ideas. Prehistoric artists were no different. Their art was used to display their cultures, beliefs, activities and lifestyle. By looking at these pieces, the viewer can create a mental picture of not only the artist but also the world at the time of the drawing.

Early engravings in Tassilin-Ajjer, Algeria, and in Fezzan, Libya reflect upon the importance placed on their hunting economy and represent the significance of such wild animals as the buffalo, horses, elephant and many others. Most of the human figures in these art pieces are armed with clubs, throwing sticks and various other arrows. The paintings often represent men and women with large heads or masks. This helps show how these tribesmen used to hunt and fight for their livelihood.

In both paintings and engravings, a "cattle period" occurred. During this time, domestic cattle were represented throughout many art works. This indicates that the basis for human life had shifted to Pastoralism. The Cattle period led to the short-lived Horse Period, which still depicted cattle but also wild sheep and domestic dogs. The next period was known as the Camel Period in which present-day fauna was the only animal drawn and represented. Along with the depiction of fauna, weapons were also integrated into the artworks. At first, only spears were depicted, but as time moved on, other weapons, such as swords and firearms, were included.

During the Camel Period, the style of drawing was highly schematic. The Camel Period is now still in existence and the nomadic Tuareg tribes still paint and engrave their precious camels on rocks in the Sahara. In the 19th century the Khoikkhoiun and Bantu-speakers made some of the surviving examples of work. Their life was represented mainly as that of a Neolithic or New Stone Age life. The work of these artists had a profound significance to them. Some even believed that their pictures were instruments of magic that would bring them luck when hunting. The often-mentioned San Bushmen not only painted battles and tribal dances but also various animals and scenes of their daily life.

As is the case with many types of precious historical objects found in nature, very few people are actually involved in the preservation process. Although many admire and love African rock art, there are still others whom, along with Mother Nature, try to rid the world of ancient rock art. In some cases ancient artists tended to paint over older pictures which created many layers of paintings. Some of these paintings or engravings have been preserved by the help of preservation groups who make it their duty to protect rock art for generations to come.

Mother Nature, although sometimes destroying artworks, could not destroy rock art works protected by overhanging rocks. Many of these rock art finds are nonetheless in danger of being lost forever. Weather conditions such as wind, rain, water and differences in temperature fracture the surfaces of rock and flake off and fade rock images. Human vandalism has to share some part of the blame too. Certain sites are located in national parks and are very easily accessible. People scratch, scribble and even paint over the art. In some extreme cases, certain individuals have been caught trying to remove rock art and severely damage it. Ignorance is usually to blame for these actions because sometimes people are not educated enough to know that their hands or other body parts contain natural oils that can damage the rock art.

African rock art has been a significant piece of African culture for  ages. Their design techniques sketched a more intelligent portrait of these primitive artists. Instead of being referred to as brutes, the advancements they created have helped trim the art landscape and caused forthcoming artists to re-evaluate their methods of drawing.  If not for the findings of African rock art, the world would not only have lost beautiful pieces of human imagination, the world would also never have known of the lifestyles these ancient tribesmen lived. 


Brentjes, Burchard. African-American Art. New York:  Clarkson N. Potter, 1965.

Glubok, Shirley.  The Art of Africa.  New York:  Harper and Row, 1965.

Encyclopedia Americana. vol. 22, 1993 ed.

New Encyclopedia Britannica.  vol. 13, 26. 1993 ed.

















Buck - link to Rock Research Centre in S. Africa
Link to Rock Research Centre in South Africa-opens new window.