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Culture - Arts | Society | Science - Education

African rock art "under severe threat"

Rock painting at Tassili, Algeria:
«Threatened by neglect, vandals and thieves.»

© TARA & David Coulson
afrol News, 9 February
- Ancient African rock art, principally found in the Sahara and in Southern Africa, is generally "under severe threat, above all from neglect and thieves." The UN has now taken an initiative to make the continent's leaders "to play a more active role" in saving this "priceless cultural heritage of all humankind."

In Algeria's remote Tassili Mountains, in the middle of the Sahara desert, 7000 years old images testify of prehistoric man's hunting of buffalos, elephants and hippos. They are proof of human settlements in what was once a moist Sahara and they are proof of mankind's artistic instincts, which already were well developed in prehistoric times.

In what is now the Sahara desert - in particular in Algeria, Niger and Libya - different generations of rock painters let us study 5000 years of human and natural history, up to the last centuries BC. The slow drying of the Sahara is documented. We see how cattle were domesticated about 5500 years ago, with populations moving down from the mountains to the plains. We see how the horse was introduced some 3200 years ago, and finally, the camel, some 2700 years ago.

This illustrated history book has been preserved by nature for several millenniums, but it is increasingly threatened. Although on UNESCO's World Heritage List since 1982, the rediscovered rock paintings of Tassili are deteriorating at an increasing rate. Art collectors, thieves and vandals are adding to the damages from the sun and the wind.

The remote sites of the Tassili, where unrest has mostly prevented tourism for a long time, are even well off. Scientists hold that many hundreds of thousands of individual images exist all over Africa, most of them not even registered by science. Only in Lesotho, almost 100,000 rock paintings have been discovered.

Southern Africa is especially rich in rock art. In Namibia, the oldest rock paintings - approximately 26,000 years old - are found in the Apollo 11 cave. Throughout the region, the San people painted the rocks until the late 19th century. In South Africa's Drakensberg Mountains, more than 30,000 known paintings represent all periods.

But it is also the Southern African region that is most threatened by thieves, vandals and lack of resources to protect the rock art. Scientists tell of tourists throwing water or soft drinks at the painting to get colourful photos, vandals scratching their initials into prehistoric friezes, art thieves tearing away big chunks of a painting and important prehistoric sites without wards.

The destruction rate of African rock art during the last decades has been greater than in any previous period. Scientists are struggling to register as many paintings as possible so that they can be studied and protected. But as soon as the paintings are discovered, vandals or thieves take advantage of their lack of protection.

The problem has now reached such a magnitude that UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan has called on the continent's leaders to play a more active role in saving this "priceless cultural heritage of all humankind." Africa's rock art was "severely threatened," Mr Annan said. "Its future is uncertain. Perhaps the greatest threat is neglect. A lack of resources, combined with a lack of official interest, has left too many rock art sites unguarded against vandals and thieves," he added.

- We must save this cultural heritage before it is too late, he declared, calling on Africa's leaders to take a new and more active role and on private businesses, foundations and individuals to contribute their expertise and resources. "We at the United Nations will continue to do our part," Mr Annan promised, without giving details.

The UN leader in particular said African governments should educate their children in taking pride of their history as presented through rock art and engage local communities in their protection. Mr Annan further joined Nelson Mandela in lending his support to the Trust for African Rock Art (TARA), a non-profit organisation dedicated to the conservation of Africa's rock art heritage, registered in Kenya and the US.

The UN is currently engaged in the protection of some few rock art sites, those inscribed in UNESCO's World Heritage List. These include Algeria's Tassili, Tsodilo in Botswana, Tadrart Acacus in Libya, the uKhahlamba and Drakensberg Park in South Africa and the Matobo Hills of Zimbabwe. Further, the UN together with Interpol regulates the international trade of art and prehistoric items.

The most famous sites where African rock art is found are mostly centred in Southern Africa - in particular South Africa, Namibia, Lesotho, Zimbabwe and Botswana - and in the Sahara desert - in particular Algeria, Niger and Libya. Other famous ancient rock art sites are found in the Greater Horn area, including Ethiopia and Kenya.

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