Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History

African Rock Art of the Northern Zone

Thematic Essays

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By Geographical Region & Time Period
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The art of the Sahara is diverse and still not well understood. Conventionally, the art is believed to broadly fit into one of four stylistic and chronological categories. The earliest of these, known as the Bubaline Period, comprises engravings only, and there are many images of wild animals and therianthropic (part-human, part-animal) figures. The three later periods—Bovidian, Caballine, and Camelline—include both paintings and engravings and are marked by the appearance of specific domestic animals in the art.


In spite of an initial breakthrough in the understanding of the symbolism of these images in terms of the beliefs and practices of specific extant Saharan peoples in 1966, little further work has been done in using this approach to investigate the meaning of the images. Many new discoveries have been made in recent years; scholars are hopeful that among these a clue to the meaning of some of the images will be found.

Geoffrey Blundell
Origins Centre, University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, South Africa
The Dabous site in northern Niger. A Tuareg sits atop a rock right above a slab entirely covered with petroglyphs.

The Dabous giraffes. An exceptional representation of giraffes. The first one, a male, is seventeen feet tall. The lines issuing from their mouths extend to a human figure.

Head of the male giraffe. The techniques used to make this spectacular work of art include deep carving, low relief for the spots, smoothing of the lines, and polishing of the head.

Head of the second giraffe, a female closely following the male. A cast of the animals was made in 1999 by a professional firm (Mérindol, Avignon, France) during an expedition led by David Coulson (Trust for African Rock Art) and funded by the Bradshaw Foundation.


The shaded area highlights the northern zone of African rock art.