On 31 December 2019, UNESCO deemed 1,121 sites on five continents unique, irreplaceable and authentic. They are the sites included on the World Heritage List, and they all have such exceptional cultural or natural value that they transcend borders, rendering their protection an international duty.
This list, created within the Convention concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage adopted by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) in 1972, is an instrument to protect sites considered to be of extraordinary cultural and/or natural value, which are therefore considered the concern of all of humanity.
Pilar Fatás Monforte at Twyfelfontein, Namibia
It is not easy to get a site on this list; when the states submit candidates to the World Heritage Committee, they have to demonstrate their exceptional universal value based on a series of well-grounded criteria, they have to prove the authenticity and integrity of the site, and they must have taken all the measures needed to appropriately and comprehensively protect, preserve and conserve it.
Among all the World Heritage sites, almost 50 contain rock art, specifically 48 of them. In most of them, the rock art itself is the World Heritage, while in others it is one of the added values of a landscape or natural area which is also categorised as a World Heritage Site. This large number reflects the fact that rock art is the only universal art form over time and space; it is the oldest art form made from 43,000 years ago until today. This exceptional, universal feature of rock art has gradually been reflected on the List until reaching the current map, which reveals its widespread geographic distribution (above).
Chronologically, the first two rock art sites to be designated World Heritage Sites were the Prehistoric Sites and Decorated Caves of the Vézère Valley in France and the Rock Drawings in Valcamonica in Italy, both in 1979. In 1985, the Cave of Altamira in Spain (Figure 1), the Rock Art of Alta in Norway and the Rock-Art Sites of Tadrart Acacus in Libya were added. Very few were considered again until 1994: the Serra da Capivara National Park in Brazil, the Rock Paintings of the Sierra de San Francisco in Mexico (Figure 2), the Lines and Geoglyphs of Nasca and Palpa in Peru and the Rock Carvings in Tanum in Sweden. Furthermore, other sites that contain rock art are registered on the World Heritage List of Natural Sites, such as Mesa Verde National Park in the United States, Kakadu National Park in Australia and Tassili n’Ajjer in Algeria.
The Cave of Altamira in Spain
© Museo de Altamira. Photo P. Saura
In that same year, 1994, the World Heritage Committee reconsidered the list, since until then many of the categories that can be called “traditional” had expanded, like cathedrals, historical cities and national parks, while other forms of heritage had been neglected, such as prehistorical and industrial sites (just to cite two extreme examples). Furthermore, its growth had been extremely uneven in terms of its geographic distribution, as the majority of sites were in Western countries.
After realising this, the Committee presented the Global strategy for a representative, balanced and credible World Heritage List, which set new registration strategies to make the list more varied, more representative of the world’s cultural and natural richness and more geographically balanced. Since then, virtually every year, and sometimes twice a year, sites with rock art have been honoured as World Heritage.
Indeed, rock art can be found in all inhabited regions of the world: forests, steppes or deserts, mountains or valleys; in the depths of caverns or in open shelters and rock pools. All we have to do is look at landscapes like the deserts in the Air and Ténéré Natural Reserves in Niger, where huge rocks are peppered with engravings of elephants, oryxes, giraffes, ostriches and gazelles; the steep cliff walls of the Grand Canyon and Chaco Canyon in the United States; and the almost glacial landscapes like Alta in Norway.
Sierra de San Francisco in Mexico
In terms of the motifs depicted, the majority are animals, particularly the ones characteristic of the landscape or the climate where they were rendered: elands in Maloti-Drakensberg Park in South Africa and Lesotho; guanacos in Cueva de las Manos in Argentina’s Patagonia; giraffes, lions and rhinoceroses as in Twyfelfontein (Figure 3) in Namibia and Matobo Hills in Zimbabwe; horses as in the Archaeological Landscape of Tamgaly in Kazakhstan; camels in Wadi Rum in Jordan; and deer, bison, horses and goats as in the Paleolithic Cave Art of Northern Spain, which together with Altamira has been a World Heritage Site since 2008.
While in Palaeolithic art, the oldest form existing, few human figures were painted or carved and the depictions are not very naturalistic, since around 10,000 years ago people have featured in rock art in hunting, gathering, grazing, dancing or fighting scenes. Magnificent examples can be found in the Rock Art of the Iberian Mediterranean Basin and the Cliff of Bandiagara in Mali, as well as the vast red and black figures in Mexico’s Rock Paintings of Sierra de San Francisco. In contrast, depictions of anatomical parts like the vulva and especially the hand, either in outline or as handprints, have been common motifs on five continents since the most ancient art; the best example is unquestionably Cueva de las Manos in Argentina.
When what is depicted has no counterpart in nature, we tend to call it a sign. They are also quite frequent and widespread throughout the world and over time; they can be simple geometric shapes like triangles, circles, rectangles or dots, or more complex shapes like spirals and labyrinths, and they can come in multiple variations and combinations. They are found in almost all European caves with Palaeolithic rock art, in Africa in Chongoni (Malawi) and Lopé-Okanda (Gabon), in the Americas in Yagul and Mitla in Mexico, in Australia in Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park and Kakadu National Park, and more recently the carvings in Sulaiman-Too Sacred Mountain in Kyrgyzstan.
While the motifs are varied, so are the techniques used to make them. The most common colours in drawings and paintings are red and black, but white tones are also frequently found in sites like the Kondoa Irangi Rock Paintings in Tanzania. The carvings were made by hitting or incising the rock to create shallow or deep grooves: Côa Valley in Portugal and Siega Verde in Spain are two masterful examples of outdoor carvings. And we cannot forget geoglyphs, huge figures on the ground or mountainsides made by removing or adding rocks to make the lines of each figure, such as the emblematic Lines and Geoglyphs of Nazca and Pampas de Jumana in Peru.
However, if all rock art has one thing in common, it’s unquestionably its fragility, since it is constantly exposed to both natural and human-made factors which can degrade it. In addition to raising awareness of the need to enlist everyone in safeguarding this heritage, UNESCO also created the List of World Heritage in Danger for all sites that run the risk of disappearing or seriously deteriorating. Today, the Rock-Art Sites of Tadrart Acacus in Libya and Air and Ténéré Natural Reserves in Niger are on this list, both of them due to the social instability of the two countries.
One can only conclude that rock art is a visual book recounting our history and our way of understanding the world. Yet it’s not only about the past but is also part of our identity, of what we are today, and it’s even living culture in numerous communities. Therefore, both the oldest and the most recent rock art become meaningful in their contexts, meaning their landscape, society and culture. Understanding this should lead us to appreciate the extraordinary importance of this cultural expression and the need to preserve not only its physical integrity through protection and conservation measures but also its associated values. Those sites on the World Heritage List have already been showcased and protected, but let us not forget that there may be as many as 400,000 known sites with rock art on the planet, and they all share the values and features outlined here. Therefore, we all can and should contribute to preserving them.
Rock Art on UNESCO’s World Heritage List