Sunday, November 20, 2011

The Rich History of "Where There Is Nothing"

From a distance, the Dabous rock outcrop seems generally unremarkable, and fittingly characteristic of the Tenere desert in which it's found. The Tenere, which literally translates to "where there is nothing," is, today, a barren expanse of desert stretching for several thousand miles between the borders of the Sahara and the Air mountains. The area was not always this arid, nor so seemingly desolate, however, as archaeological research from a nearby extinct lakebed has demonstrated.

Excavation at the once-aquatic site, later dubbed Gobero, began in 2000 by a team led by dinosaur paleontologist and geologist Paul Sereno. Rather than discovering remains of ancient reptiles, however, they encountered a Neolithic burial ground spanning several millennia and featuring two distinct groups (both culturally and ethnically) whose periods of occupation can be accurately mapped onto ancient climatic shifts in the green-ness of the Sahara.

During the early holocene, Gobero was occupied by the Kiffian people. Individuals were generally broadly built and up to 2 meters tall, making them well suited to their hunting lifestyle. Corpses were tightly bound and buried in a utilitarian manner, without associated grave goods. The group did have, however, a sophisticated material culture, complete with bone harpoon points and hooks, as well as a distinctive ceramic style characterized by elaborate wave-like lines. Around 8,000 years ago, the region began to desiccate and its occupation by the Kiffians came to an abrupt halt.

Arid conditions persisted for about 1,000 years, during which the region bore a generally resemblance to what is seen today. Around 6,000 years ago, however, the return to more favorable climates enabled a second occupation of the site by the Tenerian people. The group was distinct from the areas prior occupants both ethnically and culturally. Individuals were of a shorter, leaner build and were cattle pastoralists in addition to engaging in hunting and fishing. Their ceramic culture was less aesthetically motivated than that of the Kiffians, but had a unique material culture which was equally sophisticated. They are associated with a multitude of green rocks found at the site, which were used to make various tools; the discovery of the origin of such stones, which were sourced from the Alallaka quarry 160 km north of Gobero, has informed the understanding of the Tenerians as engaged in systems of long distance trade. The burials, too, bear a marked difference to those of their predecessors as they feature grave goods, evidence of a more developed symbolic dimension to the ritual.

These findings, in addition to providing invaluable depth to our understanding of the history of human occupation of the Sahara as it correlates to the region's changing climate, are key to explaining the origins and significance of the world's largest known petroglyphs. Carved into the sandstone base of the Dabous outcrop are two life-sized giraffes, a male and a female, the larger of which (the male) is over 18 feet tall. First reported by Christian Dupy in 1987, the carvings have continued to deteriorate since their discovery as a result of human pedestrian traffic, graffiti, and the stealing of several fragments for sale on the black market.

The petroglyphs, which Dr. Jean Clottes has estimated to be 7,000-10,000 years old, were produced through several different carving techniques. The deep lines were carved with flint tools, which were harder than the sandstone rock, while petrified wood chisels, found in the sand surrounding the outcrop, are presumed to have been used to wear down groves and polish the rock's surface.

It is hard to object to calling the carvings anything but monumental. Incised on the rock floor of the Dabous outcrop, they are only wholly visible from above; this vantage point, which would be uncommon in the daily lives of their creators, imbued the carvings with a sense of significance, likely even of the supernatural. Lines running from the mouth of each giraffe to small, stylized, anthropomorphic figures have been cited as possible evidence of the ritual use of the carvings by shamans. The line, it is argued, could be a symbolic representation of the transferal of attributes associated with the giraffe, such as the gift of foresight or predication.

Such arguments, while supported by modern ethnographic analogies, cannot be definitively proven. In fact, any theory about the symbolic significance of the carvings are ultimately speculative. We do not know who created them, and we certainly do not know why. Nevertheless, the discovery of the nearby Gobero site, whose occupation overlaps with the estimated date of the carvings' production, has shed invaluable light on the enigmatic depictions.

(A comparison of Kiffanian and Tenerian skulls)

Its discovery gives rise to a myriad of questions concerning the giraffes, such as whether it was the Kiffians or Tenerians who created them. Both groups had the technology to produce such sophisticated carvings, and both had symbolic material culture. The personal ornamentation of the Tenerians, along with their engagement in long distance trade, implies a degree of social complexity which could be cited as evidence for the development of increasingly complex rituals involving such monumental representations. This argument is also supported by the extent of their occupation of the area (about 3,000 years).

The comparative ceramic cultures of the two groups seem to evince the alternate argument, that the Kiffanians created the carvings. The abstract designs on the pottery are the only images associated with either group, and the Kiffian style appears more aesthetically-motivated than that of the Tenerians.

Either argument would be strengthened by evidence that the supposed creators came to the area from a region in which similar carvings, rituals, or giraffe-symbols were found. Serano et al analyzed the skull morphology of both groups, and compared the results to those which characterized various populations in Western Africa. The Kiffian skulls were characteristic of remains from Mali, Mauritania, Maghreb Caspian, and Maghreb Iberomaurusian; the Tenerian skulls could not be associated with any of the tested populations, and further research is needed in order to determine their heritage.

Neither the style nor subject of the carvings were necessarily an external innovation which was then brought to the region, however. The argument for local innovation is supported by the recent realization that the area surrounding the Dabous outcrop is littered with similar, smaller-scale carvings and paintings (see image above). Regardless of the origin of this cultural practice, the degree to which it flourished in the region is indisputable.

Several millennia after the end of its holocene-era occupation, the Tenere desert became a transient home to the Tuareg operators of the Trans-Saharan trade route. Rather than tuareg, an arabic term which means "abandoned by god," these traders called themselves imohag, "free men" in their native tongue. Such histories of the region have been known to westerners for centuries, a fact to which the writings of Herodotus testify. The shift in focus, and therefore valuation, from such cosmopolitan narratives to ones concerning small-scale, tribal societies, however, is as novel as it is necessary.

In 2000, in response to their deteriorating condition, the Bradshaw Foundation endeavored to preserve the carvings by making a mould of them. Immediate action was necessary because of the rate of deterioration; in addition to producing casts in the best possible condition, the process would aid preservation efforts by generating publicity about the site, making its protection a priority. In addition to the mould, the foundation funded the digging of a well which would supply water to a local tribe. The plan was for members of the tribe to act as guides and protectors of the carvings, and by establishing a dependable water source, they were able to ensure the potential for future, grass-roots preservation efforts.

The first cast made from the mould was returned to Niger, and given to the nearby town of Agadez. The town chose to install the cast at their ariport, where it has become a symbol of the heritage of the surrounding region. The Tenere is far from the barren land its name suggests. Narratives of trade span millennia, and ritual sacra 10,000 years old are as compelling as any modern image. Between preservation (i.e. of the surrounding smaller-scale rock art) and excavation (i.e of the 115+ remaining Gobero graves), further efforts are needed to flesh out the story and protect its various chapters, but it seems hard to object to the assertion that such projects seem well on their way.

All images have click-through links to their sources. If any of them are not working, however, it can be assumed that all images of the giraffe petroglyphs (and associated projects) came from The Bradshaw Foundation and images from the Gobero site came from Project Exploration: People of the Green Sahara. Higher resolution images from the Gobero site can also be found in a post from

1 comment:

  1. Fascinating case study Olivia - and a great title. The research at Gobero is a great example of the shifting climate of the Tenere/Sahara. And I love those giraffes!

    Isn't it interesting how the archaeological discussion of 'Kiffian' and 'Tenerian' frames the evidence in terms of homogeneous cultural groups. Shades of culture-history still resonating there...