scholars who have tried to classify and date the Saharan rock art have
had to face an extremely complicated task, for very many populations
have nomadised over most of the Sahara during the last millennia.
Moreover, archaeological excavations are rare in the Sahara, and the
relationship between these excavations and the rock art has still to be
proved. In addition, direct dating of the paintings and engravings has
not yet been carried out with much success in this zone, even if the
modern C14 techniques (AMS) for the paintings, and the mineralogic
analysis, with an electronic microscope, of the composition of the
patinas of the engravings have greatly advanced these last few years.
These difficulties are reflected in the various chronologies that the
scholars of the different 'schools' have proposed. Some of the classical
chronologies are summarized in this table. It should be noted that the
classifications proposed by the different scholars are difficult to
summarise up in a chronological table as they come from very complex
analysis of a large number of rock art works and archaeological,
climatological, paleo-botanical and paleo-zoological data. We want
however to underline that Lhote defined the "Round Head" group for the
Tassili, but that the "Bubaline" group concerns the central Sahara and
the Algerian Atlas. Whereas the "Round Head" group, defined in a
delimited area, could be associated with a single ethnic group, the
"Bubaline" one could hardly be associated with a single ethnic group
nomadising in such a large region.
Cultural relations between the
hunter-gatherer, or herder, groups of the Tassili and the ones of the
Atlas have therefore to be proved by means of more convincing arguments
than the engraving technique and style and the fauna depicted.
Mori, Muzzolini, Tauveron-Aumassip and other scholars used the same
names to define the rock art styles in different regions of the Sahara.
Whereas stylistic criteria seem convincing to characterize ethnic groups
of contiguous areas, such as Tassili and Tadrart Acacus, they appear
much less convincing for far off regions.
These schematized classifications seem therefore questionable for
prehistorians and anthropologists, who attempt to associate rock art
styles with the nomadic populations which inhabited the Sahara in the
past millennia, but they are useful to illustrate the extraordinary
cultural field that has been covered, in different regions and ages (?),
by all the ancient populations of the Saharan.
Some writers place the "schematic"
engravings among the oldest rock art representations. However,
we do not mention them in the present table, as it is quite
impossible to distinguish them from the same kind of more recent
engravings: only the rock surface alteration, strongly affected
by different exposures to weathering agents, and superpositions
of known engravings are useful to distinguish between them.
Moreover the more "schematic" a picture is, the more widely
distributed it is, a fact which weakens comparisons and
Cueva de las Manos,
Patagonia (J. Schobinger, C.J. Gradin, 1985, L'arte delle Ande e
Patagonia, Le orme dell'uomo, Jaca Book)
"short" chronology proposed by Alfred Muzzolini and Jean-Loïc Le
Quellec is based mainly on the presence of domesticated cattle
in the 'bubaline' engravings, and on the reliable C14 dates for
the remains of domesticated animals. They think that these
dates, obtained in the course of archaeological excavation,
don't go back beyond 4500-4000 BC. In addition, important
stylistic analogies exist between certain "bubaline" engravings
depicting large wild animals and those showing domestic animals.
However, the argument based on the presence of domesticated
cattle isn't entirely convincing.
On the basis of DNA data it is likely that the wild "bos taurus"
species split about 22000 bp into a European-Near East version
and an African version. Therefore, there may have been an
independent domestication of cattle in Northern Africa. The
process of domestication may have taken a period of time during
which the physical features of the animals were modified by
selective breeding. This would mean that the remains of wild and
of early domesticated cattle cannot be clearly distinguished. It
should, however, be noted that some researchers have found
several petroglyphs at a few sites, which are superimposed by
bubaline engravings and show a degree of groove erosion much
greater than the bubaline ones.
On the other hand, the presence of sheep among the "bubaline"
engravings definitely shows that these are domestic animals
introduced by man, since wild sheep have never existed in
Africa. The date of this introduction is now well known : it
does not go back beyond the 5th millennium BC. As far as the
"Round Heads" are concerned, Muzzolini remarked that some bovids
are represented, but not in hunting scenes. He therefore
concluded that they were domestic. But here again, in the
absence of sheep, the argument is not very convincing.
The difference between the chronologies is essential, because in
the "long" chronology, the oldest representations ("bubaline"
and "Round Head" styles) would be the work of groups of
hunter-gatherers, whereas in the "short" chronology, all the
rock art would have been produced by groups who, in the
Neolithic period, had learnt how to produce their means of
subsistence, thus gaining a certain independence with regard to
the surrounding environment.
For the classification of Saharan rock art, scholars have often
used the animals depicted as "fossil indicators": the camel and
the horse for the periods (schools and/or styles) bearing their
names; the giant buffalo (previously called a "bubalus") for the
bubaline, and domestic bovids for the bovidian. Scholars first
grouped the works studied by following stylistic criteria, by
analysing the subjects depicted, by the superpositions and by
They then arranged them in a chronology essentially based on the
presence of animals considered as "fossil indicators" (as
outlined above). But it is clear that the use of this criterion
alone is insufficient to classify works where these animals are
A sheep superimposed
to an "ovoid" sign. W. In-Tullult - Messak Settafet - Libya
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