Tassili n’Ajjer, or “Plateau of Rivers”, is a vast sandstone plateau in south-east Algeria, at the borders of Libya, Niger and Mali. Covering an area of 72,000 sq. km., this lunar landscape is of great geological and archaeological interest, and has one of the most important groupings of prehistoric cave art in the world. More than 15,000 drawings and engravings record the climatic changes, the animal migrations and the evolution of human life on the edge of the Sahara Desert. Subjects include large wild animals such as giraffe, antelopes and crocodiles; cattle herds; and humans depicted as hunting and dancing.
The age of the earliest images at Tassili n’Ajjer is uncertain and estimates range from the 7th to the 5th century BC. The estimates are based on studies by archaeologists and also by experts in other scientific fields looking at excavations, fauna, climate, types of weapons and inscriptions. Based on the style and content of the images themselves, experts date them to four chronological periods.
The oldest engravings, sometimes known as “Round Heads” because of the human shapes, date from before 4,500 BC. They reveal a verdant savanna, teeming with animal life, in stark contrast to the arid desert of today. Among the earliest works are depictions of the extinct giant buffalo.
The next phase is known as Bovidian”, from the many pastoral scenes depicting cattle and herdsmen with bows. From other evidence these images can be dated to around 4500 – 4000 BC, corresponding to the arrival of cattle in North Africa.
The third “horse” phase is dated to 2,000 BC and the appearance of horses in this area, while the “camel” tradition emerges in the last period with the arrival of the wheel, chariots and shields.
One of the most famous images is known as the Running Horned Woman and was found in a secluded and difficult-to-access rock formation. For that reason experts believe that the place may have been a ‘shrine’ and the female figure a goddess.
The geological formations of eroded sandstone are also of outstanding scenic interest and include over 300 natural arches.
Tassili n’Ajjer was inducted into the UNESCO World Heritage Site list in 1982.
Text Alun Harvey