Africa's Imperiled Rock Art Documented Before it Disappears

By David Braun
National Geographic News
October 5, 2001

Panoramas of hunting and war, graceful images of animals loping across the savanna, ghostly handprints of people who lived long ago—ancient artists daubed millions of images like these across Africa, recording the world as they saw it.

The paintings, which can be found in more than a million sites across Africa, are a precious depository of information on how ancient Africans interpreted their physical and spiritual worlds. Whereas their bones and implements may tell us when and where they existed, how they lived and died, and even what they ate, it is only through their art that we can know a little about their thoughts.

Photographer and explorer David Coulson is criss-crossing the vast continent to document Africa's rock art and make the world aware of its importance before it disappears.

Significant rock art exists in at least 30 countries in Africa, said Coulson. "We estimate that there are well over a million sites in Africa, and sometimes one single site might have thousands of images," he said.

The ancient rock images—some that date from more than 20,000 years ago—have withstood the effects of time, weather, and the activities of countless human generations largely because they were painted on the walls of caves or under cliff overhangs, where their creators sought shelter.

For decades, scientists and others have been warning that the rock art is vanishing.

Many of the images have been defaced with graffiti left by colonial explorers, settlers, bandits, and modern populations. Others are being rubbed out by pollutants in rain. Some sites that housed rock art have been dynamited to make way for burgeoning housing development and the construction of roads and dams.

Coulson and his colleague Alec Campbell have produced the first comprehensive photographic book of Africa's rock art for distribution in the English-speaking world. "We are certainly the first to visit all the sites ourselves," Coulson said.

Much more work on the project remains to be done. "The story has only been partly told," he said. The team has published two articles in National Geographic on Saharan rock art, for example, but the remarkable rock art by the Bushmen of Southern Africa is still little known, as is rock art in eastern and central Africa.

Ancient Origins

To expand awareness about the value and importance of this African heritage, Coulson and others founded the Trust for African Rock Art (TARA), based in Nairobi, Kenya. He believes, and other experts have concurred, that Africa has more ancient rock paintings and engravings than any other continent, most of it found in northern and southern Africa.

Tom Hill, a founding trustee of TARA, said: "We know from human evolutionary science that modern Homo sapiens began in Africa. It stands to reason, therefore, that Africa would contain both the oldest and the greatest amount of rock art in the world."

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