Rock art of a Giraffe dabous niger dated at Approximately 9,000 years ago

Margie Jones

Giraffe with their long-necks and lanky gait have captivated humans for thousands of years. Rock carvings in the Sahara Desert in northern Niger, estimated to be 9,000 years old, represent the earliest recorded human association with a giraffe.

Rock art of a Giraffe dabous niger dated at Approximately 9,000 years ago

The Dabous giraffes, located north of Agadez in Niger, are some of the most striking examples of Saharan rock art known. It is not known who carved the figures, but they may have been created by the Tuareg people.

Rock engravings spanning several thousands of years are common in the Dabous area; over 300 are known, varying in size from quite small to the life-sized depictions shown here.

Probably dating to c.5000 – 3000 BC, each giraffe is engraved into a gently sloping rock face, the choice of location possibly a deliberate attempt to capture the slanting rays of the sun so that the shallow engravings were visible at certain times of the day; human figures representing local hunter-gatherers are drawn to scale below the giraffes. The naturalism, perspective, and attention to detail are striking.

Africa’s climate was much wetter during the period in which the engravings were made than it is at present, and the Saharan region was verdant grassland that supported rich wildlife.

Other examples of broadly contemporary rock art in the region depict elephants, gazelles, zebu cattle, crocodiles, and other large animals of the grasslands, although giraffes appear to have been especially important to regional hunter-gatherer groups.

Under the auspices of UNESCO, the Bradshaw Foundation was tasked with coordinating the Dabous preservation project, in association with the Trust for African Rock Art. The preservation project was to involve taking a mould of the carvings from which to create a limited edition of aluminium casts, one of which would be gifted to the town of Agadez near the archaeological site, another of which would be located at the National Geographic headquarters in Washington D.C.

A further element of the preservation project was to sink a water well in the area in order to support a small Tuareg community who would be responsible for guiding tourists at the Dabous site. In the heart of the Sahara lies the Tenere Desert. ‘Tenere’, literally translated as ‘where there is nothing’, is a barren desert landscape stretching for thousands of miles, but this literal translation belies its ancient significance – for over two millennia, the Tuareg operated the trans-Saharan caravan trade route connecting the great cities on the southern edge of the Sahara via five desert trade routes to the northern coast of Africa.

One of the finest examples of ancient rock art in the world – two life-size giraffe carved in stone

Dabous Giraffe Rock Art Petroglyph one of the finest examples of ancient rock art in the world – two life-size giraffe carved in stone and before the Tuareg? Life in the region now known as the Sahara has evolved for millennia, in varying forms.

One particular piece of evidence of this age-old occupation can be found at the pinnacle of a lonely rocky outcrop. Here, where the desert meets the slopes of the Air Mountains, lies Dabous, home to one of the finest examples of ancient rock art in the world – two life-size giraffe carved in stone.

They were first recorded as recently as 1987 by Christian Dupuy. A subsequent field trip organised by David Coulson of the Trust for African Rock Art brought the attention of archaeologist Dr Jean Clottes, who was startled by their significance, due to the size, beauty and technique.

The two giraffe, one large male in front of a smaller female, were engraved side by side on the sandstone’s weathered surface. The larger of the two is over 18 feet tall, combining several techniques including scraping, smoothing, and deep engraving of the outlines. However, signs of deterioration were clearly evident.

Despite their remoteness, the site was beginning to receive more and more attention, as these exceptional carvings were beginning to suffer the consequences of both voluntary and involuntary human degradation. The petroglyphs were being damaged by trampling, but perhaps worse than this, they were being degraded by Grafitti, and fragments were being stolen.

The obvious answer to was to preserve the giraffe carvings because of their artistic significance, but also their placement within a palaeo-African contexts Chairman of the Bradshaw Foundation, Damon de Laszlo, saw that ‘the obvious answer to this was to attempt to preserve them, not only because of their artistic significance, but also their placement within a palaeo-African context ie. a greener Sahara, and how this ties in with our ‘Journey of Mankind’ Genetic Map.’

This preservation would take the form of making a mould of the carvings and then cast them in a resistant material. The point of this was two-fold; now was the time to take the mould because the carvings were still – just – in a perfect condition, and by publicising the importance of the carvings, their value would be realized and their protection prioritized.

By chance, a year earlier saw the publication of ‘Zarafa’ by Michael Allin, depicting the fascinating tale of a giraffe from Sudan being led across France in 1826 – the Dabous giraffe would travel to France nearly two hundred years later but in a slightly different fashion.

One of the major aims of the Bradshaw Foundation is to preserve ancient rock art, but with a project of this nature and scale, we obviously needed permission from both UNESCO and the government of Niger.

Moreover, it was important to ensure that the project would be carried out at the grass-roots level, with full involvement of the Tuareg custodians. Finally, consideration of the future preservation had to be catered for, and for this reason, a well was sunk near the site to provide water for a small group to live in the area, a member of which would act as a permanent guide – to show where to mount the outcrop, where to best view the petroglyphs without walking on them, and to ensure no damage or theft.

Related posts