Protecting cave paintings can restore Africa's pride in its history
SO LATE to be “discovered” by the rest of the world—Henry Stanley made the continent's first crossing only in 1877—Africa, it can be forgotten, is probably the cradle of humanity. Palaeoanthropologists, archaeologists and, more recently, geneticists have all bolstered the “out of Africa” theory, which holds that early man wandered out of the Rift Valley. Yet little is known of pre-colonial African cultures. Some vanished out of history, along with their languages and beliefs, before they ever came to be named. That is one reason why Africa's rock art is so precious. The faintest ochre scratches of prehistoric antelope in a cave open a rare window into Africa's—and humanity's—distant past.
Africa may have 200,000 rock-art sites, more than any other continent. The oldest known site, in Namibia, is between 18,000 and 28,000 years old. Several African universities now have programmes to decipher the paintings and carvings. They are being helped by the Kenya-based Trust for African Rock Art (TARA), which seeks to discover and digitally archive as much of the art as it can for future scholars.
The best is in the Sahara desert, particularly in Niger's Air mountains, in the Tibesti mountains of northern Chad and southern Libya, and in south-east Algeria's Tassili n'Ajjer range. Such desert sites are too remote to be damaged by graffiti, though wars involving the local Tuareg have resulted in some being shot up or smashed apart for sale to foreign collectors. David Coulson, one of TARA's founders, raves about a recent find in the Tassili n'Ajjer range: an anatomically perfect four-metre-long carving of a hippo hunted by an Egyptian-looking figure with a superbly sinuous bow. This in a region that dried up several thousand years ago.
Elsewhere in Africa, rock art often chronicles the hunting magic of Bushmen and Pygmies. Not much rock art survives in western Africa, and in eastern and central parts of the continent more recent but still invaluable paintings have been poorly preserved.
But there is progress. Locals are being encouraged to see the value of showing off their sites to tourists. National museums are being overhauled, with new displays of lost peoples. New history textbooks may follow. New finds are being made. A sensational discovery in a cave in Kenya is being kept under wraps until it can be properly dated.
Some think African rock art should provide a pan-African rallying point, free of politics or religion. A rich rock-art heritage could connect Libya and South Africa, two of the African Union's biggest backers, which sometimes struggle to find anything in common. Kofi Annan, a former UN secretary-general, is a big rock-art fan. He reckons it represents nothing less than the earliest record of the human imagination.