Dabous is located in north-eastern Niger, where the Ténéré desert meets the slopes of the Aïr Mountains. The area has been part of the trans-Saharan caravan trade route traversed by the Tuareg for over two millennia, but archaeological evidence shows much older occupation in the region dating back 8,000 years. More recently, it has become known to a wider global audience for its exceptional rock art.
Recorded in 1987 by French archaeologist Christian Dupuy, two remarkable life-size engravings of giraffe have generated much interest due to the size, realism and technique of the depictions. The two giraffe, thought to be one large male in front of a smaller female, were engraved on the weathered surface of a sandstone outcrop. The larger giraffe measures 5.4 m from top to toe and combines several techniques of production, including scraping, smoothing and deep engraving of the outlines.
Each giraffe has an incised line emanating from its mouth or nose, meandering down to a small human figure. This motif is not unusual in Saharan rock art, but its meaning remains a mystery. Interpretations have suggested the line may indicate that giraffe were hunted or even domesticated, or may reflect a religious, mythical or cultural association. It has also been suggested that the lines and human figures were later additions.
The engravings cannot be seen from ground level; they are only visible by climbing onto the boulder. They are thought to date from between 6,000 and 8,000 years ago – a period known as the Neolithic Subpluvial, when environmental conditions were much wetter and the Sahara was a vast savannah stretching for thousands of miles, able to sustain large mammals such as giraffe. The soft sandstone is likely to have been incised using a harder material such as flint; there are chisels of petrified wood in the surrounding desert sands which would have acted as good tools for abrading and polishing outlines. It is easy to imagine people in the past sitting on the rocky outcrop watching these long-necked, graceful animals and immortalising them in stone for future generations.
We can only speculate as to why the giraffe was selected for this special treatment. Any number of physical, behavioural, environmental or symbolic factors may have contributed to its significance.
While the giraffe have taken centre stage at this site because of their size and the skill of the execution, a systematic study of the area has identified 828 further engravings, including 704 zoomorphs (animal forms), 61 anthropomorphs (human forms), and 17 inscriptions of Tifinâgh script. The animals identified include: bovines (cattle ) (46%), ostrich (16%), antelope and gazelle (16%), giraffe (16%), and finally 12 dromedaries (camels), 11 canids (dog-like mammals), 6 rhinoceros, 3 equids (horses or donkeys), 2 monkeys, 2 elephants, and 1 lion.
Who might the artists have been? It is often the case in rock art research that artists are lost to us in time and we have little or no archaeological evidence that can offer insights into the populations that occupied these sites, sometimes only for a short time. However, in 2001 a site called Gobero was discovered that provides a glimpse of life in this region at the time that the Dabous engravings were produced.
Gobero is located at the western tip of the Ténéré desert in Niger, approximately 150 km south-east of the Aïr Mountains. Situated on the edge of a paleaolake and dating from the early Holocene (7,700–6,200 years ago), it is the earliest recorded cemetery in the western Sahara and consists of around 200 burials. Skeletal evidence shows both male and females to be tall in stature, approaching two metres. Some of the burials included items of jewellery, including a young girl wearing a bracelet made from the tusk of a hippo, and a man buried with the shell of a turtle.
This cultural group were largely sedentary; their subsistence economy was based on fishing (Nile perch, catfish, soft-shell turtles) and hunting (hippos, bovids, small carnivores and crocodiles). Microlithis, bone harpoon points and hooks, as well as ceramics with dotted wavy-line and zig-zag impressed motif were found in burials, refuse areas and around the lake. A hiatus in the occupation of the area (6,200–5,200 years ago) occurred during a harsh arid interval, forcing the occupants to relocate. The Gobero population may not be the artists responsible for Dabous, but archaeological evidence can help formulate a picture of the environmental, social and material culture at the time of the engravings.
Unfortunately, the engravings have been subject to deterioration as a result of human intervention such as trampling, graffiti and fragments being stolen. As a result, the decision was made to preserve them by making a mould of the carvings in order to make a cast in a resistant material. Permission was granted by both the government of Niger and UNESCO and in 1999 the moulding process took place. The first cast of the mould, made in aluminium, stands at the airport of Agadez in the small desert town near the site of Dabous – an enduring symbol of the rich rock art heritage of the country.
In 2000, the giraffe engravings at Dabous were declared one of the 100 Most Endangered Sites by the World Monuments Watch. Today, a small group of Tuareg live in the area, acting as permanent guides and custodians of the site.