Niger is geographically diverse, having both the Sahel (savannah) and the Sahara (desert). The majority of the country’s rock art – made up predominantly of engravings – is located in the northern desert area, in and around the Aïr Mountains, where some of the art is thought to be several thousand years old. The Djado Plateau in the north-east is also rich in art that includes both paintings and engravings. One of the most celebrated sites of rock engraving is at a place called Dabous, to the west of the mountains. Here, two life-size giraffe were carved on the top of an outcrop, and may be up to 6,000 years old. Other notable areas for engravings are Iwellene in the northern Aïr Mountains, where some of the art is thought to be several thousand years old, as well the sites of Tanakom and Tagueit in the south-eastern Aïr Mountains, where engravings are located on the sides of two wadis (dry riverbeds).View featured rock art site
Mostly 10,000BC – AD 100
Aïr Mountains, Djado Plateau
Engravings, fine line paintings
Wild animals, cattle, Barbary sheep, ostrich, horses, giraffe (Dabous)
Niger is geographically diverse, having both the Sahel (savannah) and the Sahara (desert). The majority of the country’s rock art – made up predominantly of engravings – is located in the northern desert area, in and around the Aïr Mountains, where some of the art is thought to be several thousand years old. The Djado Plateau in the north-east is also rich in art that includes both paintings and engravings. One of the most celebrated sites of rock engraving is at a place called Dabous, to the west of the mountains. Here, two life-size giraffe were carved on the top of an outcrop, and may be up to 6,000 years old. Other notable areas for engravings are Iwellene in the northern Aïr Mountains, where some of the art is thought to be several thousand years old, as well the sites of Tanakom and Tagueit in the south-eastern Aïr Mountains, where engravings are located on the sides of two wadis (dry riverbeds).
Links have been made between the rock art of Niger and that of several other countries – in particular, between the so-called Libyan Warrior art found in the Aïr Mountains and the rock engravings of the Adrar des Iforas in Mali. Stylistic similarities also exist with some of the art of the Tadrart (Acacus) and in south-east Algeria. Further associations have been made between the Early Hunter art of the Djado Plateau and art in south-west Libya and south-east Algeria. Equally, similarities have been observed with the Tazina-style engravings in south-western Algeria and south-eastern Morocco.
Geography and rock art distribution
Covering an area of 1.267 million km², this landlocked country borders seven others. Its south-western borders flank the Niger River, with Burkina Faso, Benin and Nigeria to the south; its north-eastern borders touch the borders of Algeria, Libya and Chad in the central Sahara, and Mali to the west. The climate is mainly hot and dry with much of the country covered by the Sahara desert. In the extreme south, on the edges of the Sahel, the terrain is mainly shrub savannah.
Unlike other regions in northern Africa, in the absence of a generally agreed chronology, scholars have categorised the rock art of Niger regionally and stylistically, making connections where possible with rock art of other regions. The rock art of Niger can be broadly divided into the following regions:
Aïr Mountains (northern Niger)
Consisting predominantly of engravings, the majority of depictions in this region fall within the so-called Libyan Warrior period or style of art, dating from 1,500–3,000 years ago, characterised by forward-facing figures with metal weapons and horses. Approximately 1,000 engravings of warriors have been recorded from the Aïr Mountains in Niger, as well as the Adrar des Iforas in bordering Mali. Based on investigations into the garments worn, accessories, headdresses and weaponry, and by studying the placement and superimposition of images, it has been proposed that there are two main stages of this Libyan Warrior rock art. The oldest is linked to a pastoral economy based on cattle-rearing, when metal had been introduced to the region and the use of the spear took over from the traditional bow. This region also hosts images of wild animals such as Barbary sheep and ostrich, as well as cattle.
Here, both paintings and engravings occur. The earliest engravings include images of wild animals such as elephants, rhinoceros, giraffe and other game, and dated to the Early Hunter or Bubalus Period; human figures are very rare. Tazina-style engravings – similar to those found in south-eastern Morocco – also occur, as well as polychrome fine-line and finger paintings that are unique to this area.
The number of cattle depictions is small, but particular images of calves attached to a lead can be compared stylistically with images of cattle in Tassili n’Ajjer, Algeria. Moreover, Henri Lhote noted the resemblance between these rock art depictions and the husbandry practices of the present day Wodaabe people of Niger, who use a similar calf rope. The calf rope (a long rope comprising loops within which the heads of the calves are secured) is both practical and symbolic, ensuring the cows always return to their home camp, while also physically dividing the camp into male and female halves. It is interesting to note the close relationship between the rock art of regions that today are politically discrete.
History of rock art discovery in Niger
Until relatively recently rock art research has been sporadic in Niger. In the 1920s Major Gen. Francis Rodd, a British explorer and army officer, made two great expeditions into the Sahara. He was the first person to make a serious study of the Tuareg and documented some of the rock art in the Aïr Mountains. Subsequently, French colonial officers noted some sites around 1960. However, it was French archaeologist Henri Lhote who undertook major recording programmes throughout the 1960s and 1970s to document, trace and publish several thousand engravings. Very little information is known relating the rock art to known cultural groups, either past or present. Most of the sites were not habitation sites, and were probably only occasionally visited by nomadic societies in the past, so very little (if any) archaeological evidence remains. Most of the art predates the residence of the Tuareg, who now inhabit this area and who appear to have no direct connections with the art. The Tuareg recognise old script which sometimes accompanies images as it closely resembles their own writing, Tifinagh; however, it is incomprehensible to them if it is more than 100 years old.
The relative chronology for rock art in Niger can be based, as in other Saharan regions, on stylistic classifications:
Early Hunter or Bubalus Period rock engravings are executed with deeply incised and smoothened lines, mainly depicting big game such as elephants, rhinoceros, giraffe and other game (with rhinoceros occurring most often), and are found on the Djado Plateau, as well as the Mangueni and Tchigai plateaux in north-east Niger. In the eastern Aïr Mountains, archaeological traces of human occupation during this early wet phase are evident, dating back 9,500 years.
Although the Bovidian Period is sparsely represented in comparison to other rock art regions, both on the Djado Plateau and the Aïr Mountains, this period can probably be dated to between 7,000 and 4,000 years ago. A few cattle are depicted in a similar fashion to the big game of the Early Hunter Period, which raises the question of whether the nomadic cattle-herding culture emerged from a hunting lifestyle, or at least rapidly succeeded it.
Engravings in the Tazina style are found on the Djado Plateau and have been likened to those in south-eastern Morocco. While dates in Niger are not generally agreed, the Tazina period in Morocco is dated from c.5,000–2,000 BC.
Consisting predominantly of rock engravings and found in the Aïr Mountains, the Horse Period and Libyan Warrior Period date from around 3,000–1,500 years ago. Depictions are of horses with so-called Libyan Warriors, with metal weapons or with chariots and charioteers. Human figures, which often appear with horses, were sometimes depicted with elaborate apparel; others were drawn with stylized bodies consisting of two triangles joined at the apex. Wild animals such as Barbary sheep and ostrich, as well as cattle, appear in this art. Art of the Horse Period is not widely represented in the Djado Plateau, suggesting that Berber groups did not reach the region in any great numbers – but it has been proposed that certain peculiarities of style may suggest an influence from Aïr.
A small number of engravings from the Camel Period occur on the Djado Plateau, but as camels were introduced to the Sahara up to 2,000 years ago, the relative lack of depictions suggests that the plateau was scarcely frequented during this hyper-arid period.