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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 from the African continent. Africa is the origin and home of our ancestors. Modern humans evolved in Africa and left the continent between 90,000 – 75,000 years.

Hence, one of the greatest things they carry with them while living in Africa was culture. The cultural manifestation of humanity emerged in Africa and can be evidenced through various ways. Nowadays, thanks to the continuing scientific breakthrough in the field of archaeology, humanity’s cultural evidence can be better understood. The field archaeology encompasses several specialized fields of study based on the evidence and methodological approaches applied. The evidence left by humans is a testimony to their life-ways and evolutionary trends over millions of years.

Early humans had very rich cultural heritage and yet it is not well known in the archaeological record. That is why since then very little is known. Around 10,000 years ago humans started cultivation of plants. Right after Africans started to breed animals as livestock and domesticates. This evidence shows the first domestication of animals and sedentary life of society. This turning point was followed by the beginning of agriculture that marked a cradle of civilization.

Culture is something that develops slowly over millennia, and that culture we develop includes the greatest achievements of human creativity; and it began in the African continent. For example: the first evidence of human cognitive behavior ? before they left Africa ? was documented on Blombos cave in South Africa dated to 90 – 100,000 years ago. This discovery indicates that, in terms of art, our ancestors had a basic knowledge of chemistry as well as the ability to plan. Hence the beginning of artistic expression and meaning as well as symbolic behavior are intertwined in the evidence.

Rock art makes up the most extensive records on earth of human thought. It shows the very emergence of the human imagination. It is a priceless treasure. And it 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 show humanity’s cultural, cognitive, and artistic beginnings. It further shows the emergence of human’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 more often occur in caves or rock shelters. Rock art is a very widespread phenomenon on our planet, occurring in nearly all places of the world. Their occurrence and preservation in various parts of the world is due to proper selection of the suitable geology to manipulate the art. Prehistoric rock art represents by far the largest evidence of humanity´s cultural, cognitive and artistic beginnings. The art has profoundly portrayed and influenced the beliefs and cultural conventions of societies up to the present. 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, painted stones from Namibia dated to roughly 27,500 years. However, there is no known rock art evidence between 25,000 to 10,000 years mainly on the context of South African rock art. Researchers in this field of study believe that the great majority of animal and human figures of [South] African rock art were made within the last 7,000 to 5000 years. Although, these dates are suggested from the South African context, similar scenario could be suggested for other African rock art sites too.

The North African rock art sites (the Sahara desert) are dated from about 12,000 years ago. These vulnerable rock art sites portray paintings of cave swimmers, beasts, hunters, warriors, and these symbolize the diversity of life and environment in the area about 12, 000 years ago. The caves tell that the Sahara desert now known for its sand dunes and harsh environment was characterized by marsh areas, lakes and savanna plains.

The East African rock arts are represented predominantly by abstract paintings in nature. The abstracts are represented by concentric circles and spirals and various types of linear designs of cross-hatched patterns. Researchers, argue that the abstract nature of the eastern African paintings, presents significant obstacles to interpretations. Due to seldom association of datable archaeological artifacts or charcoal it is impossible to date them adequately. The paintings also include animals and human figures represented by paintings of different colors, and engravings. The art that represents pastoralism in the Sahara and Horn of Africa is dated between 3,000 and 4,000 years. This art seems to have declined after this time but continued in some areas. During these millennia a dramatic climatic changes took place and the art of the period reflects a changing attitude towards nature and property. Besides, man becomes much more important and human figures play a central role in the art. However, from this time onwards man no longer appears as part of nature, closely allied to other animals, but is portrayed as being above nature, yet able to derive sustenance from it.

The Eritrean rock arts have to be seen in context of the general African rock art. Eritrea´s geographical and ecological diversity necessitated the distribution of rock art sites over much of the country. The nature of Eritrea´s prehistoric rock art can be explained considering the nature, content, meanings attached to it and the preservation conditions. Evidence of rock art is well documented across the country, and among these, the most prominent sites include Adi-Älewti, Iyago, Karibosa, Saro, Mai-äini, Quarura… etc. The prehistoric art is disproportionately distributed across the country. Among the potential regions of invaluable rock art heritage already known to our archives include the Addi Keih, Tserona and Mai-aini 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, constitute the highest concentration of rock art. The highlands are the source of major drainage networks of the longest rivers in Eritrea. Large concentrations of paintings and engravings are thus found, particularly in the central highlands, along cliffs and valleys forming the basins of major rivers.

The rock arts from Eritrea are represented by different color pigments and figures of animals, human and geometric styles and symbolize evidence of society’s socio-economic and cultural way of life. However, to date no systematic research is conducted and their actual preservation conditions are of a great concern. The handful studies conducted on specific localities focused on identification of their general styles, distribution and preservation condition. As a result, the absolute dates of the rock arts in Eritrea can only be explained relative to studies to African and specifically to the Horn of African sites. Therefore, considering the similarities on style, typology and the history of pastoralism in the region, the rock art sites in Eritrea could span perhaps from the 10,000 to 5,000 years before present.

The vulnerability and ongoing deterioration condition of this rare and priceless heritage is seeking swift community based safeguarding actions. These rock art sites have been exposed to continuing and destructive human actions and natural alterations. At present, African rock art sites (including the Eritrean sites) are critically endangered. Hence, organized inventory, research programs, sustainable awareness and preservation activities have to be initiated and promoted in collaboration with the African rock art foundations.

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