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African Rock Art : the Greatest Surviving Witness of Our Cultural Evolution

The origin and evidence of modern humans is well-known. Africa is the origin and home of our ancestors. Modern humans evolved in Africa and left the continent between 90,000 and 75,000 years ago.

One of the greatest things they carried with them while living in Africa was culture. The cultural manifestation of humanity emerged in Africa and can be seen through various examples. Today, thanks to breakthroughs in archaeology, humanity’s cultural evidence can be better understood. Archaeology encompasses several specialized fields of study, based on the evidence and methodological approaches applied. The evidence left by humans is a testimony of their lives and evolutionary trends over millions of years.

Although early humans had very rich cultural heritage, it is not well known in the archaeological record. Around 10,000 years ago, humans started cultivating plants. Not long after, Africans began breeding animals. This evidence shows the first domestication of animals and humans’ sedentary practices. This turning point was followed by the beginning of agriculture, which gave birth to civilizations.

Culture is something that develops slowly over millennia. Culture, which began on the African continent, includes the greatest achievements of human creativity. For example, the first evidence of human cognitive behavior – apparent before humans left Africa ? was documented in Blombos Cave in South Africa, approximately 90 – 100,000 years ago. This discovery indicates that, in terms of art, our ancestors had basic knowledge of chemistry as well as the ability to plan.

Rock art makes up the most extensive records of human thought on earth. It shows the very emergence of human imagination. It is a priceless treasure and is irreplaceable. Rock art is not just about the distant past. It is about today and tomorrow as well.

Rock art refers to human-made markings placed on the natural stone and it shows humanity’s cultural, cognitive, and artistic beginnings. It further reveals the emergence of humanity’s symbolic behavior before the advent of writing. It is commonly perceived as the visual language of prehistoric societies. The markings on natural rock surfaces may be prehistoric or historic, and they often are found in caves or rock shelters. Rock art is a very widespread phenomenon, occurring in locations around the world. The occurrence and preservation of rock art in various parts of the world became possible due to the selection of the suitable geology to manipulate the art.

Prehistoric rock art represents the strongest evidence of humanity´s cultural, cognitive, and artistic beginnings. The art has portrayed and influenced the beliefs and cultural conventions of many societies. Rock art is, therefore, an integral part of humanity´s collective memory and the greatest surviving witness of our cultural evolution.

Around 30,000 years ago, a very developed and sophisticated painting and engraving tradition evolved in Africa. For example, there are painted stones in Namibia which date back to roughly 27,500 years ago. However, there is no known rock art evidence between 25,000 to 10,000 years ago in the context of South African rock art. Researchers believe that the great majority of African rock art depicting animal and human figures were made within the last 7,000 to 5000 years. Although these dates are suggested from the South African context, similar estimates could be made for other African rock art sites as well.

North African rock art sites are dated back to about 12,000 years ago. These vulnerable rock art sites portray paintings of cave swimmers, beasts, hunters, and warriors, symbolizing the diversity of life and the environment in the area about 12,000 years ago. The caves show that the Sahara desert, which is now known for its sand dunes and harsh environment, was characterized by marshy areas, lakes, and savanna plains.

East African rock art predominantly consists of abstract paintings. These paintings include concentric circles and spirals as well as various types of linear designs of cross-hatched patterns. Researchers suggest that the abstract nature of the East African paintings presents significant obstacles to interpretation. Due to the rare association of datable archaeological artifacts or charcoal, it is impossible to date them adequately. The artwork also includes animals and human figures represented by engravings and paintings incorporating different colors.

The art that represents pastoralism in the Sahara and the Horn of Africa is dated between 3,000 and 4,000 years ago. This art seems to have declined after this time although it continued in some areas. During these millennia, dramatic climatic changes took place and the art of the period reflects a changing attitude towards nature and property. Furthermore, man became much more important and human figures, accordingly, assumed a central role within the art. However, from this time onwards, man no longer appears as part of nature, closely allied to other animals, but is instead portrayed as being above nature, yet able to still derive sustenance from it.

Eritrean rock art has to be seen within the context of general African rock art. Eritrea´s geographical and ecological diversity contributed to the distribution of rock art sites over much of the country. The nature of Eritrea´s prehistoric rock art can be explained by considering the nature, content, and meanings attached to it as well as its preservation conditions. Evidence of rock art is well documented across the country, with the most prominent sites being Adi-Älewti, Iyago, Karibosa, Saro, Mai-äini, and Quarura.

Eritrea’s prehistoric art is disproportionately distributed across the country. Regions with invaluable rock art heritage include the Adi- Keih, Tserona, and Mai- äini regions of Zoba Debub, Ghala Nefhi region in Zoba Maekel, Nakfa and Qurora regions in Northern Red Sea, and the Asmat areas in Zoba Anseba. The central and northern highlands of the country, however, have the highest concentration of rock art. The highlands are the source of major drainage networks of the longest rivers in Eritrea. Thus, large concentrations of paintings and engravings are found in the central highlands, along cliffs and valleys forming the basins of major rivers.

Rock art in Eritrea features different color pigments, various human and animal figures, and geometric styles. It reflects earlier society’s socio-economic and cultural lives. However, to date, no systematic research has been done on the rock art, and the lack of efforts to ensure preservation conditions is of great concern. The handful studies conducted on specific locations focused on identifying their general styles, distribution, and preservation conditions. As a result, the absolute dates of various types of rock art in Eritrea can only be explained relative to African and, specifically, the Horn of African sites. Therefore, considering the similarities in style and typology as well as the history of pastoralism in the region, the rock art sites in Eritrea could date back to 5,000 to 10,000 years ago.

The vulnerability and ongoing deterioration of this rare and priceless heritage calls for immediate action. These rock art sites have been exposed to destructive human actions and natural alterations. At present, African rock art sites, including Eritrean sites, are critically endangered. Hence, organized inventory, research programs, awareness, and preservation activities have to be developed in collaboration with African rock art foundations. Because, as former South African leader Nelson Mandela once stated, “Africa’s rock art is not only the common heritage of all Africans, [it] is also the common heritage of humanity.”

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