Arid and inhospitable, with summer temperatures approaching 50°C and an annual rainfall so low that it all but defies measurement, the Jebel Akakus -eroded sandstone mountains in the far southwest corner of Libya – is a demanding environment today. But it is most certainly a stunning place. Tolkien-like sandstone pillars, arches, chasms and monster-cut shapes eroded by sandstorms crouch high over wide wadis, the pancake-flat valleys of pale terracotta sand – where water flows if it ever rains – with their scatter of viciously thorny acacias, scrubby bushes and ground-creeping Wild Gourds which tantalisingly resemble melons but are dry and inedible.
As you might imagine, in spite of the Tuareg having been very familiar for generations with these drawings and carvings, they were discovered’ – as it’s always expressed – by Western explorers, in this case two German explorers, Heinrich Barth and Gustav Nachtigal, in the late 19th century. To add insult to injury, these two gentlemen were firmly of the view that only Europeans – and not barbarians’ as they so indelicately put it at the time – could have drawn them! It wasn’t until 1955 that this injustice was put right by Professor Fabrizio Mori, a palaeoethnologist at Rome University who began the first systematic studies of the drawings.
Kenya Wildlife Nature Travel Photo Gallery
Most experts agree that the paintings were done using crude brushes made of feathers or animal hair or by using a stick, a bone spatula, or just fingers. The outlines are thought to have been done first, then coloured in. Some are realistically proportioned, others not. Most of the drawings are red in colour. To make the paint’, it’s thought that the artists ground and burnt iron-rich rock, then mixed this with a binder such as egg white, milk, perhaps urine, animal fat or blood. By serendipity, it’s these binders that give the drawings their longevity. The much fewer white-coloured drawings that we saw used some mix of white clay or rock, perhaps with vegetable dyes and binders such as egg albumen.
The carved drawings in the rock must have taken far more effort. Cut with stone tools, chipped and smoothed, they are realistic and often incredibly life-like images of wild cattle, elephants, giraffe, huge wild buffalo and crocodile. Some are so large that they reflect the size of the animal itself. They are certainly not carvings that could be completed in an afternoon; maybe, Aref Salim thought, they were done by communal effort. Others show hunting scenes depicting thorn branch leg traps (carved as circles with spokes) attached by ropes to specially shaped boulders that would slow down the movements of a large mammal and allow the hunters to kill it more easily.
Incredibly, in Wadi Matkhandouch, a shallow, acacia-lined, sandy ravine on the eastern edge of the Akakus, some of the boulders, with a waistline-like cut to hold the rope, are still scattered about on the ground. I picked up one or two; it was an almost surreal experience imagining that these were maybe 7,000 years old and had lain here on the ground ever since, left behind on a pasture-like savannah and now in the same spot in arid, stony desert. In many countries such amazing artefacts would be housed in a museum and treated with due reverence. Here they were available for anyone – or anyone getting this far – to pick up and examine.
Who were these people with these albeit primitive artistic skills? And what did their drawings tell us about everyday life before the North African climate dried out so catastrophically? I needed to consult some experts to get the answers.
The sequence of events seems to have been that people settled originally in the Sahara around 10,000 bc when the climate there was more humid, perhaps getting ten or fifteen times the quantity of rain it receives today. The first colonists were hunter-gatherers. They collected grasses and wild cereals like sorghum and millet; they fished and hunted river animals including crocodile, hippopotamus and turtles as well as savannah animals such as antelopes and Barbary sheep. By 5000 bc the hunter-gatherers were combining hunting, fishing and gathering with pastoralism, herding cattle, sheep and goats to graze more extensive grasslands. Archaeologists searching the Akakus region have found the remains of domestic animal stalls as well as partially ground grass seed in the fossilised animal faeces of Barbary sheep, all of which indicates that they were being fed.