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Sahara Rock Art Traces Life of Prehistoric Man


CAIRO — The story of man's journey on the continent that gave him birth is told on rocks throughout northern Africa's great Sahara.

It was a greener, gentler Sahara then, an idyllic place where prehistoric man paused to draw pictures of life as he saw it. And the Saharan rock art he created remains a dramatic--albeit endangered--record of his sojourns:

A boy tethers a pet giraffe. Salukis--desert greyhounds--lead hunters to the kill. Antelopes roam. Herders chat as cattle gather. Full-bodied women in finery swing exaggerated skirts into the wind.

Each year prehistorian Lech Krzyzaniak spends months in the still of the desert, studying rock art at the fringe of an Egyptian oasis, Dakhla. "The chronicle of man," he calls it.

Egypt's rock art is powerful, Krzyzaniak said, a great legacy overlooked far too long in favor of Egypt's famed pyramids, tombs and temples.

"You'll be out there in your Land-Rover, riding the sands, and you'll look up at the rocks around you. You know that's where they climbed, to draw," Krzyzaniak said.

That's when Krzyzaniak and his wife and colleague, American art historian and UCLA graduate Karrla Kroeper, must climb also. The best is at the top of the sandstone hills of the Western Desert.

It's a world where time has had no meaning--until now. Desert adventurers and campers have discovered Dakhla, and as civilization encroaches, Krzyzaniak and Kroeper fear for the preservation of the rock art.

Already outsiders are putting their marks on rock tableaux so fragile that details sometimes disappear at the touch, Krzyzaniak said.

In 1988, Krzyzaniak discovered a dry riverbed 6 miles long and 6 miles wide, its hills gigantic canvases for ancient artists. Dakhla Bedouins call it the Wadi of Pictures.

Krzyzaniak and Kroeper have been recording the trove of rock art ever since for Cairo's Canadian Institute, which pays for several major archeological projects in Dakhla.

The team sometimes sketches and sometimes photographs the rock art. They make rubbings by gently pressing aluminum foil against the lines. Kroeper, of the Egyptian Museum in Berlin, makes plaster molds of particularly remarkable scenes.

Dakhla's first rock artists were hunters and gatherers who entered the wadi more than 10,000 years ago. They climbed the rocky hillsides as rain blanketed low-lying areas. For as long as six months a year they watched the panorama unfold below them: the water slowly receding, green fields emerging in its wake, herds of wildlife coming and going.

"Man had a lot of free time up there," Krzyzaniak said. "Sometimes he picked up a pebble and hammered, sometimes just used his fingers to dig into the colorful rocks around him."

At first the artists painted geometric designs, zigzags, maybe an attempt to express immortality. Next they drew hunting scenes, with stick figures for man.

Next came the most extraordinary of the rock art, female figures with jewelry-clad arms, high coiffures and ultrawide skirts, perhaps miniature copies of huge statues depicting local goddesses.

But times were changing in the wadi below. Hunters became herders and artists drew cattle, donkeys, hunting dogs, big cats on the prowl. And sandals.

Why sandals? Nobody knows, Krzyzaniak said. Just as nobody knows why it was taboo to draw a zebra.

Some of those questions may be answered by archeologists, who'll compare relics with lifestyles pictured on nearby rock art.

These prehistoric artists weren't masters, just ordinary people drawing a processional of lifetimes for 6,000 years. Sometimes they used the same rock, drawing new things over old.

"That's the beauty of rock art," Krzyzaniak said. "It's so human."

And fascinating indeed for modern viewers, perhaps too fascinating for its own good--whether in Africa, Scandinavia, Italy or the Southwestern United States. There, 1,000 years before Columbus, the peoples of the Anasazi carved elaborate petroglyphs--rock art--into canyon walls.

All of it is endangered. Some by humanity's touch. Some by pollution. Or both.

If rock art vanishes, historians stand to lose far more than pretty pictures. Rock art tells man's story much more meaningfully than does another, similar legacy: cave art found in southwestern Spain and France.

Those paintings, from 28000 BC to 10000 BC, mainly feature animals, rarely humans or scenes of daily life.

But the Sahara, which contains the world's greatest concentration of rock art, has thousands of different kinds of scenes. Man's story is told on rocks great and small, from the Atlantic Ocean to the Red Sea, from the Mediterranean to just north of Khartoum along the Nile.

Africa's first rock art may have come from Bushmen. But art historians have difficulty dating sub-Saharan art older than 2,000 years.

Three areas of the northern Sahara long have been recognized for fine and abundant prehistoric rock paintings and engravings: southern Oran province along Algeria's Mediterranean coast, the sandstone massif of Tassili-n-Ajjer in southern Algeria and the Fezzan in southwest Libya.

The best artwork, some larger than life, fills the rock shelters of Tassili-n-Ajjer. Some of the Tassili-n-Ajjer drawings are so extraordinary it was unequaled until Greece and Rome.

The first rock artists arrived there about 8000 BC and only scratched or gouged rock surfaces to produce pictures. Later artists painted their stories, producing remarkable scenes by mixing the colors of ground rock with blood or milk.

They pictured themselves first with European-like features, then with black African features. Their Sahara was a safari of elephants, lions, rhinos, hippos, giraffes, rams. A golden age.

It remained so until 4,000 years ago, when rock artists of that day--chariot people, outsiders--began painting changes of scene. Climate changes, dwindling water supplies, man and beast vying for life in a lifeless landscape.

Then in many parts of the Sahara, rock art fell silent.

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