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,
Glubok, Shirley. The Art of Africa. New York: Harper and Row,
Encyclopedia Americana. vol. 22, 1993 ed.
New Encyclopedia Britannica. vol. 13, 26. 1993 ed.
Link to Rock Research Centre in South Africa-opens new window.