Africa / Art / History / Recommended books / Religion

Rock Art

Some time ago, I have used this painting as an illustration for one of my poems (see Heading to Somewhere). Being located in the Tassili mountains in the Sahara (in what is now Algeria) in an area that has turned dry and nearly uninhabitable several thousand years ago and having partially faded, it seemed to me to be a good symbol of death but also of the peace that is also symbolized by the desert as well as by the peaceful scene of grazing cattle.

Later I started thinking about who made it, and why. In our society today, people make art for the fun of it, to express themselves, to create something beautiful, to get the feeling of accomplishment that comes from mastering something, often also simply to earn money. I was wondering what the motivation behind this painting might have been.

There is a tradition of thinking that art for art’s sake is something new and modern and that in pre-modern times, art in this sense did not exist yet and that instead art was normally functionalized in some other cultural, often religious context. This idea is probably true for much of medieval art, but is in many cases extended to other “pre-modern” non-European cultures. Thinking about this painting, however, makes me doubt if that is true.

The painting shows a herd of cattle. The different colors and fur markings indicate that these are domesticated cattle. Wild species tend not to have so much variety. This points to Neolithic times, after the invention of cattle herding and before the Sahara dried out around 5000 years ago. The painters of this picture probably belonged to a cattle-herding culture.

There are three different cultures from which the painter might have come.

The first group are the Nilo-Saharans, people who seem to have been the original inventors of cattle herding about 9000 to 8000 BCE in the eastern Sahara, with the earliest domestication of cattle in the world.

The second group of people from which the painter might have come belong to the Afro-Asiatic language family. Originally a purely African language family, one of its branches, the Semitic languages, spread out of Africa, hence the name “Afro-Asiatic”.

The third group are the speakers of Niger-Congo-Languages. Some people belonging to this language family, like the Fula, adopted a cattle herding lifestyle.

If we apply the idea that pre-modern art is not independent art and is in most cases religious, we can ask the question: does this painting make any sense in the framework on the religions of those three groups? In recent years, by comparing cultures and especially comparing languages and relating this to archaeological findings, it has been possible to find out quite a lot about the ancient African religions. So let’s take a look at what is known about what these people believed.

The Nilo-Saharans who spread west had a religion scholars call the Sudanic Religion. It is a pure monotheism with a belief in a creator god, connected to the sky or the sun, originator of a divine law and typically connected with a system of sacral kingship. Forms of this religion, which is maybe the oldest monotheistic religion, still exist in some Nilo-Saharan groups (e.g. among the Massai), although in many areas it has been replaced by Islam or Christianity now.

The religion of the Afro-Asiatic groups seems to have been a form of what is called “henotheism”. Each clan had a clan deity. People did not believe that their good was the only god but they worshiped only this one god. There is no creation mythology, instead there is typically a story how the forefather of the clan formed an alliance with the particular deity. This pattern can still be seen in the Abrahamic religions, where Abraham formed an alliance with a god and his offspring become the chosen people of this god (while other peoples are the chosen peoples of their respective deities – only later this was reinterpreted into a form of monotheism). This form of religion still exists among people from the Omotic branch of the Afro-Asiatic language family.

The belief system of the ancient Niger-Congo-peoples was characterized by three elements: the worship of ancestors, the belief in a creator god and the belief in local “spirits” typically associated with rivers or forests. Since these local spirits are believed to be part of the created world, they are not gods, so actually it is more appropriate to describe this religion also as a form of monotheism. There is only one god, although local spirits, often thought of as very powerful and potentially dangerous, are worshipped while the creator god, who keeps out of the affairs of the world, is often not worshipped at all.

Now let us look again at the painting from the desert. What sense does this painting make in any of these belief systems? The simple answer is: none. I cannot imagine any spiritual meaning of this painting in any of these religions. I come to the conclusion that it is completely secular. It might have had a function of showing off riches, but it seems quite likely to me that it was painted just for the fun of it.

I suppose that we might be on a totally wrong track if we are trying to interpret all ancient art as something connected to some religious motives. I think that instead, art started as art for art’s sake, and only part of it was functionalized in the context of religions or political systems of power, especially in cultures in which strong systems of power emerged. For example, when the Sahara dried up, a lot of people where squeezed together in the Nile valley, resulting in a chain of small states along the valley. The southern ones where Nilo-Saharan, with a variety of the Sudanic religion, while the northern ones where Afro-Asiatic, with local clan deities. The high density of population in an area with limited resources triggered the emergence of more complex cultures and larger political structures. When these small states where merged into one empire, their religions, each centered on a single deity, where merged into a new polytheistic belief system. In this context, art then became functionalized for religious and political purposes.

Some art might already have had such functions before, but I believe the cattle painting might be an example of pure art. I, at least, view and enjoy it as such.

(The picture is from

References: Ehret, Christopher: “The Civilizations of Africa: A History to 1800., Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 2002” – This book is a good first introduction into early African history.

12 thoughts on “Rock Art

  1. Fascinating piece. I like your idea of it being secular art, and i tend to agree with the observation. If you ever get a chance try reading John E. Pfeiffer’s writings on the caves of Lascaux and Altamira.

    • I am fascinated by Lascaux and especially by some of the paintings of Altamira. Here, I am also not convinced that this art had any spiritual function. It is possible, but it is just a theory.
      There is some very interesting rock art in southern Africa as well, some of it quite old, some of it younger. E.g. there is very beautigul rock art in the Draakensberg area of Namibia (the rock art of that area has been extensively documented by the late Harald Pager and his team). The painters there where Khoi-San. The belief system of the San (I don’t know how representative that is for other people of the area but it was probably similar) is non-theistic. They believed in something like a power or energy that was not thought of as something personal. By trance dance, you can get into connection with it in order to fix imbalances in life or health. But there is no idea of a god. Theistic ideas seem to arise together with relationships of power, which are largely absent from San culture.
      The older belief system of the Nilo-Saharans also seems to have been non-theistic. Only after agriculture was invented by them (independently from the middle east) they developed this monotheistic system with sacral kingship. Our hunter-gatherer ancestors seem to have been a bit more rational about these things (

  2. So interesting. I lean toward also thinking it is simply art. Creativity is a strong drive of human behavior. But even more I agree with the larger point, that it seems in studying prehistory we tend to view our ancestors almost mechanistically.

    • Maybe a type of art that people should take up again and continue, like some people reanimated flint knapping as a living technology.
      I am not an expert on prehistoric rock art, but a lot of the things I have seen appeal to me a lot.

      • Indeed, or at least preserve as well as they can what reprezents the beggining of arts, as a communion with nature. I love African art history because continues its inception, still keeping the roots and traditions.

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