Mauritania

Highlight images

Country overview

Image count

208 images

Date range

Mostly 3,000 BC onwards

Main areas

Adrar and Tagant Plateaux, Tichitt-Walata area

Techniques

Engravings, painting

Main themes

Cattle, hunting scenes with antelope and ostrich, horse riders, camels

Introduction

Mauritania is one of Africa’s westernmost countries, stretching over 1,000 km inland from the Atlantic coast into the Sahara. Mauritania’s corpus of rock art is extensive and mostly appears to have been produced within the last 4,000 years.

Geography and rock art distribution

In total Mauritania covers about 1,030,700 km², most of which forms part of the western portion of the Sahara desert. The southern part of Mauritania incorporates some of the more temperate Sahelian zone, forming part of the geographical and cultural border between Saharan and Sub-Saharan Africa. The landscape of the country is generally characterised by its flatness, but the two major neighbouring plateaux in the East-Centre of the country – the Tagant in the South and the Adrar further North – are furnished with rock shelters, boulders and other surfaces upon which can be found abundant rock art, more often engraved than painted.

The principal concentrations of rock art in Mauritania are located in these two areas, as well as in the North around Bir Moghreïn (in the Mauritanian extension of the Zemmur mountains), the Hank ridge near the borders of Algeria and Mali and the Tichitt-Walata area to the east of the Tagant plateau.

Adrar

There are about thirty known rock art sites in the Adrar region, although, as with most Mauritanian rock art, study has not been comprehensive and there may be many more as yet undocumented. Engraved rock art sites dominate along the northern edge of the massif, with some of the most significant to be found at the sites of El Beyyed and El Ghallaouiya. Rarer paintings of cattle are also to be found at El Ghallaouiya, as well as at the site of Amogjar.

Tagant

Less well studied than Adrar, the Tagant plateau contains several painting sites showing horses and riders such as those at the sites of Agneitir Dalma and Tinchmart. The archaeologically significant area of the Tichitt-Walata ridge, a chain of escarpments known for its Neolithic settlements, is largely located within the wider Tagant region to the east of the plateau, and also features many engravings and some paintings.

Research history

Recording and research on Mauritanian rock art has been limited in comparison with other Saharan rock art traditions, and has mainly been undertaken by French scholars, as Mauritania was formerly part of French West Africa. The first major publications cataloguing rock art sites in the country were those of Théodore Monod (1937-8), based on recordings collected on expeditions made between 1934 and 1936 and covering the entire western Saharan region. Following this, the explorers Marion Senones and Odette du Puigaudeau published some paintings of the Tagant region in1939. A more comprehensive study of the paintings, engravings and inscriptions of West and North West Africa was made by Raymond Mauny (1954), and emphasised the importance of systematically recording and studying the images in their contexts. More recently (1993), Robert Vernet produced a synthesis of known Mauritanian rock art in his Préhistoire de la Mauritanie.

Many individual Mauritanian rock art sites have also been recorded and published over the decades since the 1940s, particularly in the context of associated archaeological sites, such as those at Tegdaoust and in the Tichitt-Walata region.

Themes

The range of subject matter in the rock art of Mauritania is similar to that of other Saharan countries, consisting primarily of images of domestic cattle, along with those of horses both mounted and unmounted, human figures and weaponry, wild fauna, hunting scenes, camels and Libyco-Berber/Tifinagh and Arabic script. Images of goats and sheep are extremely rare.

Some general geographic tendencies in style and type can be made out, for example, deeply cut and polished naturalistic engravings of large wild animals are concentrated in the North of the country. There is an apparent North-South divide in engraving style, with images becoming more schematic further south. Rarer painting sites are clustered in certain areas such as north of Bir Moghreïn in the far north, and certain Adrar sites, with horse and rider paintings most common in the Tagant and Tichitt-Walata regions.

Mauritanian rock art consists most commonly of similar-looking scenes of cattle, hunting tableaux, or camel depictions, but there are some exceptions of interest, for example: the monumental bull engraving from Akhrejit in the Dhar Tichitt, which is nearly 5 metres long; the unusually naturalistic paintings of cattle at Amogjar and Tenses in the Adrar; and the curiously shaped painted horses at Guilemsi in the Tagant-Titchitt region.

In addition, although images of chariots apparently drawn by oxen are known elsewhere in the Sahara, chariots in Saharan rock art are normally associated with horses. In Mauritania, however, there are several images of ox chariots or carts – both painted and engraved – as well as depictions of cattle apparently bearing burdens/saddles, or mounted. Moreover, Mauritania has no known depictions of chariots where the draught animal is identifiably a horse, although there are many images of horses and riders. Sometimes chariots are depicted independent of any animals drawing them, and in all there are over 200 known images of chariots in the country.

Chronology

As is the case with all Saharan rock art, sites found in Mauritania are very difficult to date, especially absolutely. Monod remarked: ‘it is impossible to propose even approximate dates: no landmark pinpoints the end of the Neolithic and the arrival of Libyan (Berber) horsemen’ (Monod, 1938, p.128). Relative chronologies of rock art styles are easier to identify than specific dates, as they may be based on visible elements such as superimpositions in paintings, and the darkness level of accrued patina in engravings. In Mauritania, researchers have generally paid particular attention to patina as well as themes and styles in order to try and place a timeframe on different rock art traditions. Even this is an inexact science – however, Monod did propose a three-phase chronology, with 1) ‘Ancient’ prehistoric rock art showing large wild fauna and cattle, 2) ‘Middle’ pre-Islamic art showing horses, camels, riders, arms and armour, hunting scenes and Libyco-Berber script and 3) ‘Modern’ Islamic-era art with modern Tifinagh and Arabic inscriptions.

Mauny later proposed a more nuanced chronology, based also on style and technique, along the same lines as Monod’s. Mauny’s proposed divisions include a ‘naturalist’ period from 5,000–2,000 BC, a cattle pastoralist phase from 2,500–1,000 BC, a horse period from 1,200 BC onwards, a ‘Libyco-Berber’ group from 200 BC–700 AD and a final ‘Arabo-Berber’ phase from 700 AD onwards (Mauny, 1954). While the oldest rock art, such as the paintings at Amogjar, could be more than 5,000 years old, it appears that most Mauritanian rock art probably post-dates 2,000 BC, with some, particularly that involving camels, made within the last 2,000 years.

Further evidence from the archaeological record and historical knowledge is helpful in ascribing dates and authorship to some of the rock art. The time period over which rock art was produced in Mauritania coincided with dramatic changes in the climate and the desertification of the Sahara, which settled at present levels of aridity following increased dry periods: around 1,500 BC in the North, and by the mid-1st Millenium AD in the South. There is some evidence for a combination of hunting and pastoral activity in the North-East prior to the desertification, with pastoralism becoming an important means of subsistence in the South after 2,000 BC.

The first solid archaeological evidence for horses this far west is from about 600 AD. However, horses and chariots could have been introduced over a thousand years before, possibly by early Berber peoples from the North, who are thought to have made increased incursions from the 4th Millennium onwards, and with whom much of the rock art is usually associated. Chariot images can be reasonably assumed to date from the time we know chariots were in use in the Sahara – i.e. not earlier than 1,200 BC.

Interpretation

Generally, the study of Mauritanian rock art traditions has focused more on cataloguing the images and categorising them by style, technique and perceived age than investigating their potential cultural significance. The limitations in the ability to scientifically date these images, and the fact that they are not usually associated with other archaeological materials, hinders effective attempts at interpretation or ascribing authorship, beyond basic ‘Neolithic’ ‘pastoralist’, or ‘early Berber’. Even this may not be clear-cut or mutually exclusive: for example, incoming Berber peoples in the Adrar Plateau after 2,000 BC are thought to have been cattle pastoralists, as their non-Berber predecessors probably were. In addition, while the desertification process was definitive from this time on, fluctuations and regional microclimates made pastoralism viable relatively recently in some areas – in the Adrar there is still evidence of cattle rearing as late as 1,000 BC or after, and some areas of the Tagant region may have been able to support cattle as late as the 18th century. Thus subject matter alone is not necessarily indicative of date or authorship: depictions of cattle may be Berber or non-Berber, as old as the 4th millennium BC or as recent as the 1st, if not later.

It is possible to make some more specific inferences based on style. Some of the more naturalistic cattle paintings from the Adrar have been compared in style to the Bovidian style paintings of the Tassili n’Ajjer in Libya, and some of the more geometric designs to others in Senegal and Mali. Links have also been suggested between some cattle and symbolic images and modern Fulani and Tuareg traditions and iconography. In terms of significance, changes to rock art style over time, from naturalistic to schematic, have been remarked upon as perhaps somehow reflecting environmental changes from savannah to steppe and desert. It has also been debated whether some of the geometric symbols and images of riders on horseback were the result of conflict, perhaps made by the victims of Berber invasions as catharsis or to ward off evil.

At this point, however, such inferences are fragmentary and speculative, and it is clear that more comprehensive study of rock art in context in the region is desirable, as it potentially holds much interest for the study of the history and prehistory of Mauritania. It is also an endangered resource, due to a combination of environmental factors, such as extremes of temperature which damage and split the rocks, and human interference from looting and vandalism.