Rock art occurs in two main areas in Libya: the Tadrart Acacus and the Messak Plateau. The oldest works of rock art, from the Acacus Mountains, are engravings of mammals from the Wild Fauna Period (Early Hunter Period) and could be up to 12,000 years old. Thousands of paintings dating from up to 8,000-9,000 years ago show a diversity of imagery and include scenes of hunting, pastoralism, daily life, dancing and a variety of wild and domesticated animals. The Messak Plateau is home to tens of thousands of engravings, and only a few paintings have been located in this region to date. The area is best known for larger-than-life-size engravings of animals such as elephants, rhino and bubalus (a now extinct buffalo), and some of the most iconic depictions in Saharan rock art, such as the ‘Fighting Cats’ scene.View featured rock art site
Mostly 10,000 BC to AD 100
Acacus Mountains, Messak plateau
Hunting, daily life, pastoralism, dancing, wild/domesticated animals, prehistoric buffalo
Rock art occurs in two main areas in Libya: the Tadrart Acacus and the Messak Plateau. The oldest works of rock art, from the Acacus Mountains, are engravings of mammals from the Wild Fauna Period (Early Hunter Period) and could be up to 12,000 years old. Thousands of paintings dating from up to 8,000-9,000 years ago show a diversity of imagery and include scenes of hunting, pastoralism, daily life, dancing and a variety of wild and domesticated animals. The Messak Plateau is home to tens of thousands of engravings, and only a few paintings have been located in this region to date. The area is best known for larger-than-life-size engravings of animals such as elephants, rhino and bubalus (a now extinct buffalo), and some of the most iconic depictions in Saharan rock art, such as the ‘Fighting Cats’ scene.
The fourth largest country in Africa, Libya is located in the Maghreb region of North Africa, bordered on the west by Tunisia and Algeria, Egypt to the east, and the Mediterranean Sea to the north. Except for the narrow strip along the coast, where 80% of the population resides, Libya lies entirely within the Sahara Desert. The main areas of rock art lie in the south-western corner of the country, with the Tadrart Acacus continuing into south-eastern Algeria, where they are simply known as the Tadrart. The Acacus in Libya and the Tadrart in Algeria are now listed and combined as a trans-frontier World Heritage Site by UNESCO, linking these two geographically divided sites into a cultural whole.
The Messak rock art has been known to Europeans since Heinrich Barth’s expedition in 1850, although it was not until 1932 that the engravings were methodically studied by Leo Frobenius. Some initial interpretative hypotheses about the rock art in the Acacus were formulated in the late 1930s by Italian archaeologist Paolo Graziosi. Subsequently, the region became the subject of systematic investigation by Fabrizio Mori, another Italian archaeologist, who also published the first scientific papers on Libyan rock art in the 1960s. Since then, consistent surveying has continued in this region and stratigraphic excavations of archaeological deposits have established a cultural sequence dating back to the Holocene Period.
Chronology and early rock art
Rock art chronology in North Africa is based largely on the combination of stylistic features, superimposition, subject matter and the degree of weathering or patina. While not an exact science, chronological periods are recognisable in the depictions, which generally correspond to climatic and environmental phases. Some of the oldest images are found on the Messak plateau and represent a Sahara that was significantly wetter and more fertile than today, exemplified by representations of large mammals – some of which are aquatic species – incised into the rock faces.
The chronology of the Tadrart Acacus during the Holocene has been established more firmly through the excavation and dating of archaeological sites. Based on this evidence, these earliest images may coincide with the first Holocene occupation of the area by specialised hunter-gatherers – known as the ‘Early Acacus’ Period – which some researchers date to around 11,000 years ago.
Round Head Period
From around 9,000 years ago, the archaeological record in the Acacus changes; sites are larger, featuring more formalised stone structures with heavy grinding equipment and large pots. Subsistence strategies based on hunting and gathering remain, but archaeological evidence suggests the presence of corralling Barbary sheep and the storage of wild cereals. Fragments of grinding stones with traces of colour from the Takarkori rock shelter, dating from between 6,800–5,400 BC, may have been used as palettes for rock or body painting, and have been connected chronologically to the Round Head Period. A large proportion of paintings in this period portray very large figures with round, featureless heads and can often be depicted in ‘floating’ positions; women often have their hands raised, interpreted as postures of supplication.
The introduction of domesticates into the region has been identified archaeologically at around 8,000 years ago, although full exploitation of cattle for dairying is much later at around 6,000 years ago. The development to full pastoral systems in the region is complex and prolonged, so it is challenging to track any changes from the rock art itself, but the painting of large herds must be connected to a full pastoral society.
Horse and Camel Periods
Historical records have tended to date the introduction of both the horse and the camel in northern Africa rather than the archaeological record. Yet, in terms of rock art research in this region, less attention has been given to these styles; the reason for this may be that the earliest rock art attracted more scholarly consideration than the later depictions. However, their representation certainly demonstrates the changing natural and cultural environment and associated human responses and adaptations.
The rock art of Libya is a visual testament to the changing fortunes of this part of the Sahara and the cultural groups who have occupied and navigated the area over thousands of years. The engravings and paintings act as a legacy, tracing the environmental effects of climate change, how people have adapted to that change and the cultural worlds they have created.