Laas Geel, Somaliland
Laas Geel, one of the most important rock art sites in the region, is located in the north-western part of the Horn of Africa, in Somaliland, in the road that links Hargeisa and Berbera. The site is placed on a granite outcrop that rises from a plateau at an altitude of 950 meters above sea level, at the confluence of two seasonal rivers, a key fact to explain the existence of rock art in the outcrop. Even today, the name of the site (“the camel’s well” in Somali) makes reference to the availability of water near the surface of the wadis. The panels are placed at three different levels and distributed mostly throughout the eastern flank of the outcrop, although isolated depictions can be found in other slopes.
The site was discovered in 2002 by a French team led by Xavier Gutherz which studied the beginning of Pastoralism in the Horn of Africa. Along with the paintings, lithic tools were found scattered throughout the site, and tombs marked with stelae and mounds can be seen in the neighbourhood. The paintings are distributed along 20 rock shelters, the biggest being around 10 meters long. Most of them correspond to humpless cows with curved or lyre-like white horns (sometimes with reddish tips) and marked udders. Paintings are enormously colourful, including red, white, black, violet, brown and yellow both isolated and combined. However, the most distinctive feature of these cows is their necks, depicted rectangular, abnormally wide and either blank or infilled with red and white stripes, either straight or wavy. These strange necks have been interpreted as mats hanging from the actual neck, in what could be interpreted as a ceremonial ornament.
Cows appear isolated or in groups of up to fifteen, although no clear representation of herds can be made out, and they are often associated with human figures with a very standardized shape: frontally depicted with arms outstretched to the sides, and wearing a kind of shirt, usually white. Heads are small and sometimes surrounded by a halo of radial dashes as a crown. These figures always appear related to the cows, either under the neck, between the legs or behind the hindquarters. In some cases they carry a bow, a stick or a shield. Along with humans and cows, dogs are well represented too, usually positioned near the human figures. Other animals are much scarcer: there are some figures that could correspond to antelopes, monkeys and two lonely depictions of a giraffe. Throughout most of the panels, geometric symbols are also represented, often surrounding the cows.
Unlike many other rock art sites, Laas Geel has been dated quite precisely thanks to the excavations carried out in one of the shelters by the French team that documented the site. During the excavation parts of the painted rock wall were recovered, and therefore the archaeologists have proposed a chronology of mid-4th to mid-3rd millennia, being one of the oldest evidences of cattle domestication in the Horn of Africa and the oldest known rock art site in this region. Unfortunately, although bovine bones were recovered from the excavation, they were too poorly preserved to determine whether they correspond to domestic or wild animals.
When discovered, Laas Geel was considered a unique site, and although its general characteristics corresponded to the so-called Ethiopian-Arabic style, its specific stylistic features had no parallels in the rock art of the region. As research has increased, some other sites, such as Dhaga Koure, Dhambalin and Karin Hagane, have provided similar depictions to those of Laas Geel, thus reinforcing the idea of a distinctive “Laas Geel” style which nevertheless must be interpreted within the broader regional context.
Laas Geel is a marvellous example of the potential of African rock art still waiting to be discovered and studied. Not only the quality of the images depicted is astonishing, but the archaeological data associated with the site and the landscape itself help to reconstruct a key episode in human history elsewhere: the moment in which animals started to be domesticated. The strong symbolism which surrounds the figures of cows and humans is a permanent testimony of the reverence these communities paid to the animals that provided their sustenance.