Niola Doa, Chad
The Ennedi Plateau is a mountainous region in the north-eastern corner of Chad, an impressive sandstone massif eroded by wind and temperature changes into series of terraces, gorges, cliffs and outliers. Although it is part of the Sahara, the climate of the Ennedi Plateau is much more suitable for human habitation than most of the desert, with regular rain during summer, wadis (seasonal rivers) flowing once or twice a year, and a relatively large range of flora and fauna – including some of the few remaining populations of Saharan crocodiles west of the Nile. Throughout the caves, canyons and shelters of the Ennedi Plateau, thousands of images – dating from 5000 BC onwards – have been painted and engraved, comprising one of the biggest collections of rock art in the Sahara and characterised by a huge variety of styles and themes.
Within this kaleidoscope, a series of engravings have become especially renowned for their singularity and quality: several groups of life-sized human figures depicted following very regular stylistic conventions. They were first reported internationally in the early 1950s; during the following decades more sites were discovered, almost all of them around Wadi Guirchi, and especially near a site known as Niola Doa. To date, six sites have been documented, totalling about 40 depictions. Most of the figures were engraved on big, vertical boulders, in groups, although occasionally they appear isolated. They follow a very regular pattern: most of them are life-sized or even bigger and are represented upright facing right or left, with one arm bent upwards holding a stick resting over the neck or shoulder and the other arm stretched downwards. In some cases, the figures have an unidentified, horizontal object placed at the neck, probably an ornament. Interspersed among the bigger figures, there are smaller versions which are slightly different, some of them with the arms in the same position as the others but without sticks, and some facing forwards with hands on hips. In general, figures seem to be naked, although in some cases the smaller figures are depicted with skirts.
Another characteristic feature of these images is their abnormally wide buttocks and thighs, which have been interpreted as steatopygia (a genetic condition resulting in an accumulation of fat in and around the buttocks). Although the best documented examples of steatopygia (both in rock art and contemporary groups) correspond to southern Africa, steatopygic depictions occur elsewhere in North African rock art, with examples in other parts of the Ennedi Plateau, but also in Egypt and Sudan, where they occasionally appear incised in pottery.
In addition, almost all the figures are decorated with intricate geometric patterns (straight and wavy lines, squares, meanders and, in one case, schematic birds), which could be interpreted as garments, tattoos, scarifications or body paintings. In some cases, figures appear simply outlined, but these very rare cases were probably left unfinished. The decorative patterns extend to the ears, which are always depicted with geometric designs, and to the head, where these designs could correspond to hairstyles.
The decorative richness of the Niola Doa engravings has led to their interpretation as ritual scenes, probably special occasions when body decoration was part of a more complex set of activities with dancing or singing. On some occasions, comparisons have been established between the geometric designs of Niola Doa and different types of body decorations (body painting, scarifications). Scarifications, in particular, have a long tradition within some African cultures and in many cases parallels have been documented between this kind of body decoration and material culture (i.e. pottery, pipes, wood sculptures or clothes). The relative proximity of groups with well-known traditions of scarifications and body painting has led to comparisons which, although suggested, cannot be wholly proved.
Regarding their chronology, as with most rock art depictions the Niola Doa figures are difficult to date, although they undoubtedly belong to the older periods of Chadian rock art. Some parallels have been made with the Round Head-style figures of the Tassili n’Ajjer (Simonis et al 1994). However, the Round Head figures of Algeria have a very old chronology (up to 9000 years ago), while the rock art at the Ennedi Plateau is assumed to be much newer, up to the 5th or 4th millennium BC. These engravings could, therefore, correspond to what has been called the Archaic Period in this area, although a Pastoral Period chronology has also been proposed. In several other sites around the Ennedi Plateau, similar images have been painted, although whether these images are contemporary with those of Niola Doa or correspond to a different period is unclear. Regardless of their chronology, what is undeniable is the major impact these depictions had on later generations of people living in the area: even now, the engravings at one of the sites are known as the ‘Dancing Maidens’, while the name of Niola Doa means ‘The place of the girls’ in the local language.