The domesticated horse in northern African rock art

Throughout northern Africa, there is a wealth of rock art depicting the domestic horse and its various uses, providing valuable evidence for the uses of horses at various times in history, as well as a testament to their importance to Saharan peoples.

Fig. 1. Painted horse

Fig. 1. Painted horse and rider, Ennedi Plateau, Chad. © TARA/David Coulson. Image not yet catalogued.

Horses and chariots

The first introduction of the domestic horse to Ancient Egypt- and thereby to Africa- is usually cited at around 1,600 BC, linked with the arrival in Egypt of the Hyksos, a group from the Levant who ruled much of Northern Egypt during the Second Intermediate Period. By this point, horses had probably only been domesticated for about 2,000 years, but with the advent of the chariot after the 3rd millennium BC in Mesopotamia, the horse proved to be a valuable martial asset in the ancient world. One of the first clear records of the use of horses and chariots in battle in Africa is found in depictions from the mortuary complex of the Pharaoh Ahmose at Abydos from around 1,525 BC, showing their use by Egyptians in defeating the Hyksos, and horses feature prominently in later Egyptian art.

Some of the most renowned images of horses in Saharan rock art are also those of chariot teams: in particular, those of the so-called ‘flying gallop’ style chariot pictures, from the Tassili n’Ajjer and Acacus mountains in modern Algeria and Libya. These distinctive images are characterised by depictions of one or more horses pulling a chariot with their legs outstretched in a stylised manner and are sometimes attributed to the Garamantes, a group who were a local power in the central Sahara from about 500 BC-700 AD. But the Ajjer Plateau is over a thousand miles from the Nile- how and when did the horse and chariot first make their way across the Western Desert to the rest of North Africa in the first place? Egyptian accounts indicate that by the 11th century BC Libyans (people living on the north African coast around the border of modern Egypt and Libya) were using chariots in war. Classical sources later write about the chariots of the Garamantes and of chariot use by peoples of the far western Sahara continuing into the 1st century BC, by which time the chariot horse had largely been eclipsed in war by the cavalry mount.

Horse Riding

As well as the unique iconography of rock art chariot depictions, there are also numerous paintings and engravings across northern Africa of people riding horses. Riding may have been practiced since the earliest times of horse domestication, though the earliest definitive depictions of horses being ridden come from the Middle East in the late 3rd and early 2nd millennia BC. Images of horses and riders in rock art occur in various areas of Morocco, Egypt and Sudan and are particularly notable in the Ennedi region of Chad and the Adrar and Tagant plateaus in Mauritania (interestingly, however, no definite images of horses are known in the Gilf Kebir/Jebel Uweinat area at the border of Egypt, Sudan and Libya).

Fig. 5. Painted ‘bitriangular’

Fig. 5. Painted ‘bitriangular’ horse and rider with saddle, Guilemsi, Mauritania. © TARA/David Coulson. Image not yet catalogued.

Traditional chronologies for Saharan rock art areas tend to place depictions of ridden horses chronologically after those of horses and chariots, and in general use horse depictions to categorise regional stylistic periods of rock art according to broad date boundaries. As such, in most places, the ‘horse’ rock art period is usually said to cover about a thousand years from the end of the 2nd millennium BC. It is then considered to be succeeded by a ‘camel’ period, where the appearance of images of dromedaries – known only to have been introduced to the eastern Sahara from Arabia at the end of the 1st century BC – reflects the next momentous influx of a beast of burden to the area and thus a new dating parameter (read more about depictions of camels in the Sahara). However, such simplistic categorisation can be misleading. For one thing, although mounting horses certainly gained popularity over driving them, it is not always clear that depictions of ridden horses are not contemporary with those of chariots. Further, the horse remained an important martial tool after the use of war-chariots declined. Even after the introduction of the camel, there are several apparently contemporary depictions featuring both horse and camel riders.

Berber Horses

As the more manoeuvrable rider rose in popularity against the chariot as a weapon of war, historical reports from classical authors like Strabo tell us of the prowess of African horsemen such as the cavalry of the Numidians, a Berber group that allied with Carthage against the Romans in the 3rd century BC. Berber peoples would remain heavily associated with horse breeding and riding, and the later rock art of Mauritania has been attributed to Berber horsemen, or the sight of them. Although horses may already have reached the areas of modern Mauritania and Mali by this point, archaeological evidence does not confirm their presence in these south-westerly regions of the Sahara until much later, in the mid-1st millennium AD, and it has been suggested that some of the horse paintings in Mauritania may be as recent as 16th century.

Certainly, from the 14th century AD, horses became a key commodity in trans-Saharan trade routes and became items of great military value in West Africa following the introduction of equipment such as saddles with structured trees (frames). Indeed, discernible images of such accoutrements in Saharan rock art can help to date it following the likely introduction of the equipment to the area: for example, the clear depiction of saddles suggests an image to be no older than the 1st century AD; images including stirrups are even more recent.

Another intriguing possibility is that of gaining clues on the origins of modern horse breeds from rock art, in particular the ancient Barb breed native to the Maghreb, where it is still bred. Ancient Mesopotamian horses were generally depicted as heavily-built, and It has been suggested that the basic type for the delicate Arabian horse, with its dished (concave) facial profile and high-set tail, may have been developed in north-east Africa prior to its subsequent appearance and cultivation in Arabia, and that these features may be observed in Ancient Egyptian images from the New Kingdom. Likewise, there is the possibility that some of the more naturalistic paintings from the central Sahara show the similarly gracile features of the progenitors of the Barb, distinguishable from the Arab by its straight profile and low-set tail. Like the Arab, the Barb is a desert horse: hardy, sure-footed and able to withstand great heat; it is recognised as an ancient breed with an important genetic legacy, both in the ancestry of the Iberian horses later used throughout the Americas, and that of the modern racing thoroughbred.

The symbolism of the horse

However, caution must be taken in drawing such comparisons based on morphology alone, especially given the gulf of time that has elapsed and the relative paucity of ‘naturalistic’ rock art images. Indeed, there is huge diversity of horse depictions throughout northern Africa, with some forms highly schematic. This variation is not only in style – and, as previously noted, in time period and geography – but also in context, as of course images of one subject cannot be divorced from the other images around them, on whichever surface has been chosen, and are integral to these surroundings.

Fig. 12. Human figure

Fig. 12. Human figure painted over by horse to appear mounted (digitally enhanced image). © TARA/David Coulson

The nature of the depictions in this sense speaks intriguingly of the apparent symbolism and implied value of the horse image in different cultural contexts. Where some Tassilian horses are delicately painted in lifelike detail, the stockier images of horses associated with the so-called ‘Libyan Warrior’ style petroglyphs of the Aïr mountains and Adrar des Ifoghas in Niger and Mali appear more as symbolic accoutrements to the central human figures and tend not to be shown as ridden. By contrast, there are paintings in the Ennedi plateau of Chad where galloping horse figures have clearly been painted over existing walking human figures to make them appear as if riding.

Fig. 14. Engraved horse

Fig. 14. Engraved horse, Eastern Aïr Mountains. © TARA/David Coulson. Image not yet catalogued.

In each of these cases, the original symbolic intent of the artists have been lost to time, but with these horse depictions, as with so much African rock art imagery, there is great scope for further future analysis. Particularly intriguing, for example, are the striking stylistic similarities in horse depictions across great distances, such the horse depictions with bi-triangular bodies (e.g. figs 5 &13), or with fishbone-style tails which may be found almost two thousand miles apart in Chad and Mauritania.

Whatever the myriad circumstances and significances of the images, it is clear that following its introduction to the continent, the hardy and surefooted desert horse’s usefulness for draught, transport and fighting purposes transformed the societies which used it and gave it a powerful symbolic value.

Fig. 15. Painted horse, Terkei

Fig. 15. Painted horse, Terkei, Ennedi Plateau, Chad. © TARA/David Coulson. Image not yet catalogued.