An overview of Cave painting in Eritrea

About Eritrea - History & Culture

The art of rock painting is a depiction of things or inscription of people’s activities on rocks of early human activity. In the absence of written evidence regarding prehistoric lifestyle, paintings provide a crucial evidence to understand the ancient life style.

As historians suggest, these prehistoric images are painted or engraved on rocky surfaces and caves. Rock paintings can be considered a masterpiece for prehistoric people, not only because they depict the whole world of people’s life, but also because of their many other characteristics. They also reveal contextual information about the environment in which the people lived, the economic system of subsistence they had gone through, the religion they had embraced and the gods they worshiped.

Rock paintings are also referred to as illustrations or abstract images and present in indifferent corners of the world. This is why the art of rock paintings can be considered a universal expression of human thought.

With regard to the distribution and importance of ancient rock art sites in Eritrea, most of the rock art sites in Eritrea are located around Adi-Keih, a town in the Southern region of Eritrea. It is also known for the presence of large and varied quantities of archaeological remains. Other rock art sites are documented throughout the city of Haikota and along the Barka River.

The inscriptions of animals, humans and abstract representations around the historical site of Kohaito were documented here. In the northern part of the country, rock art sites are located in the area of Karura.

The central part of the country is characterized primarily by rock excavations, rather than rock paintings. Particularly, noteworthy are two studies, Baati Mariam and Daero- Paulos, where the inscriptions of human characteristics are very prominent. Rock art sites are also visible throughout the town of Ti’o, Mhbae Werki, Hrum, Qortamit.

There is also a study of camels and geometric designs in all of the above mentioned sites. The red and black paints that characterize a large number of Eritrean rock arts show that all red and black paints are taken from a wide variety of colors. A study by Paulo Grazzi in around 1960, showed the presence of manganese hydrogen and hematite in these paints. Since these findings are crucial to understand the archeological background of the local civilizations, the foundation of the art of rock paintings in Eritrea requires further research and study.

Thematic representation in rock art varies from site to site, and the following are the most frequent ones.

The depiction of the cow and its calf is an indication of pastoral communities. This type of representation is found in locations such as Adi-Ganza, Nieshto-Kewhi and a number of other sites. These are represented horizontally, with the exception of a few cases. These are represented in aggregate forms without any form of clothing and are often depicted with cows.

Characteristics of a group of warriors - here men are painted with broad shoulders while boasting their metal spears. Notable examples include the sites of Zban Una Libanos and Ksad Qerni.

Animal characters such as cats are also found - these types of paintings appear in sites such as Adi-Aloti and Zaban Kabsa. These types of paintings show images of everyday life and are rare in Eritrea. In fact, the only example of this type is the very blurred image at the nearby Indaba site and the Hishmele site. In Eritrea, the majority of paintings represent livestock herds of bulls, sheep, goats, etc.

It is important to mention some of the most famous sites of rock art for readers to know them well. These sites are mainly located near the town of Adi Keih where paintings are found in caves.

In caves around Hishmele, the painting includes 17 cows and 8 human beings with red paint. Sheep are found in the upper part of the shelter, and in the southern part there is a painting of 8 animals without a sheep and a long horn representing sheep.

Ad-Aloti: This site is located in the archaeological area of Qohaito and contains about 50 fossils of animal character, mostly of camels and donkeys. Shepherds are depicted at the top of the stone with a round head and a long stick. With the exception of some, all animals carry loads, which indicate that animals were used as a means of transportation.

Mealewya: Unlike other sites of art, the rocks surrounding the city of Adi Keih, this site is characterized by inscriptions beginning with paintings. These inscriptions include four human beings with spears and a few animals.

May Nefhi: In this site, there are inscribed and stereotyped shapes on the walls of the caves, where differences in the size of the figures are indicators of the age difference.

While flat visions represent men, the round visions will represent the very final. These will be very few examples of the many sites of rock art in Eritrea. They are considered indicators of geographic distribution and key themes of Eritrean shrimp sites. Sites will be widely distributed within the country; their existence and distribution so that they can be protected by the community living around these areas.

By conveying its importance and its social and historical values, the art of rock paintings is protected from vandalism and any kind of destruction that may come in the future.