In The Search for the Tassili Frescoes, (Hutchinson, London, 1959) Henri Lhote, a French expert on prehistoric cave art, says Algeria's Tassili-n-Ajjer, with its ancient "frescoes," constitutes "the greatest museum of prehistoric art in the whole world."
Actually, the "frescoes" are not frescoes at all; they're prehistoric paintings some 8,000 years old. But Tassili-n-Ajjeris without doubt the great "museum" that Lhote says it is: an assembly of 800 or more magnificent works of primitive art shelters in a virtually inaccessible region on the edge of the Sahara desert.
Today, Tassili-n-Ajjer is virtually empty of life—as is most of the Sahara. But this was not always the case; as various prehistoric campsites hundreds of miles from the Mediterranean littoral attest, the Sahara was once inhabited by man and beast and today the bones of wild creatures, humans and fish can still be found at the campsites—along with stone implements. Once, in fact, great rivers, rising in the mountain massifs of North linked to the Niger River, Lake Chad and other lakes—whose shrunken remains can still be seen in parts of southern Tunisia. And in the first century B.C., Strabo, the Greek geographer and historian, noted that horses were still common in the Sahara, and, according to the Elder Pliny, a little later, carnivorous beasts still existed in what he called "Libya"—the lands lying to the west of Egypt.
The first European to see the rock paintings and engravings on the sandstone of the Tassili-n-Ajjer was a French soldier named Lieutenant Brenans, who, in 1933, ventured into a deep canyon operation and noticed, on the walls of wadi cliffs, strange figures engraved in the stone: elephants, rhinoceroses, giraffes and, side by side, human figures.
Not long after, Brenans' discovery came to the attention of Henri Lhote, a pupil of the Abbe Breuil, the great expert on prehistoric cave art in France. In Algeria at the time, Lhote went right to Djanet, a town south of the Tassili plateau, met the lieutenant and, ultimately, examined the discoveries himself. He had, he wrote later, never seen anything "so extraordinary, so original, so beautiful."
Some 15 years later and again in 1956, Lhote led a team of painters and photographers to the plateau to copy and record the art work, under the aegis of the Museum of Man in Paris and with the financial support of the National Center of Scientific Research in France. Altogether, Lhote and his associates discovered some 800 paintings, many of which they carefully copied.
Exploring the Tassili, Lhote discovered that the prehistoric inhabitants of the region left paintings almost everywhere they found a favorable spot, particularly in their "homes": the caves and rock shelters in which they lived.
At a site called Tan Zoumiatak, for example, Lhote and his team, during their 16-month stay, found a large rock adorned with great, sometimes fanciful human figures painted with yellow ochre, and depictions of various animals that once roamed the region; the same was true of shelters at Tamrit, Timonzouzine, Jabbaren and Aouanrhet.
Most prehistoric art, as Lhote said, was probably inspired by religious beliefs, but the Tassili seemed different because the paintings could be found almost everywhere, often in places that did not appear to be religious sanctuaries. Most, moreover, seemed to have been done withoutany discernible order- suggesting a simple spontaneity.
In his book, Lhote said that the most ancient paintings—going back perhaps 8,000 years—consisted of small human figures with schematic bodies and round heads, all painted in violaceous ochre. This round-headed human type, he said, is a basic style found in many paintings of the Tassili, and later phases or periods of artistic development are derived to some extent from this phase. But he also found what he called an "evolved" period, characterized by the appearance of polychrome paintings or round-headed human figures, larger and with thickened limbs. At the end of this latter period, at an undetermined date, he said, a recognizable Egyptian influence crept into the art of the Tassili. In this period Tassili artists painted bodies in red ochre, and added stylized flowers similar to ancient Egyptian motifs. After the "evolved" period, artistic quality declined, the drawings became coarser, the forms heavier, and the details, if any, are carelessly executed. This "decadent" period marked the last attempts by the Tassili's early inhabitants to paint the round-headed figures.
Lhote postulates that the "decadent" period ended when cattle-tending herdsmen migrated to the Tassili and pushed out the indigenous population, a view he bases on the fact that Tassili rock shelters were ultimately covered with a new style of painting consisting of human and animal figures of relatively small size. He said that this new period—"Bovidian"—represents the "greatest naturalistic school" of pre historic art in the world, and pointed out that the animals probably occupied a place of great importance in the lives of the Bovidian herdsmen. Wild animals—the elephant, giraffe, ostrich, gazelle, antelope and lion—were treated no less skilfully by Bovidian artists and the abundance of animal depictions attests to the existence of a damp and rich pasture.
Lhote believed that the herdsmen of the Bovidian period came from the Nile valley, or at least had contact with the peoples of Egypt, and pointed out that some Tassili paintings show boats like the ones that could be seen cruising the Nile 5,000 to 6,000 years ago.
In recent years, Lhote's theories about the provenance has been challenged, in an amusing way, by Erich von Däniken, whose Chariots of the Gods proposed that astronauts from another planet had visited the earth sometime in the prehistoric past. As evidence, von Däniken included certain inexplicable facts concerning the 1513 Piri Reis map of the world (See Aramco World , January-February 1980) and the Tassili paintings, some of which, von Däniken believes, bear a striking resemblance to the space suits of today's astronauts (See page 14 and below).
But if the historical provenance of the Tassili paintings is uncertain, the artistic value is not. They are, quite simply, beautiful. Like many prehistoric cave paintings—Lascaux, for example, or Les Combarelles—the Tassili paintings have a freshness of color, an economy of line and a simplicity of treatment that are the envy of modern artists—and this is an additional reason to worry about their preservation. Because of their inaccessibility the Tassili paintings were once safe from man's often destructive curiosity. But since Lhote studied them, repeated wetting by tourists—to permit photography—has begun to erode them; and with the protective film of dust gone, the elements can now get at the colors.
Worse, perhaps, Tuareg entrepreneurs began, in 1968, to break off fragments of painted rock and sell them to tourists. The results, as one writer put it, are deterioration and destruction of man's most ancient artistic heritage.
Martin Love is a former assistant editor of Aramco World Magazine.