The World's Largest Rock Art Petroglyph


The two life-size giraffe petroglyphs, known as the Dabous giraffe, are the largest known animal carvings in the world. Despite their remote location in the Sahara, the prehistoric rock art was inevitably attracting attention, to the extent that damage was occurring. Under the auspices of UNESCO, the Bradshaw Foundation was tasked with coordinating the Dabous preservation project, in association with the Trust for African Rock Art.
The preservation project was to involve taking a mould of the carvings from which to create a limited edition of aluminium casts, one of which would be gifted to the town of Agadez near the archaeological site, another of which would be located at the National Geographic headquarters in Washington D.C. A further element of the preservation project was to sink a water well in the area in order to support a small Tuareg community who would be responsible for guiding tourists at the Dabous site.
In the heart of the Sahara lies the Tenere Desert. 'Tenere', literally translated as ‘where there is nothing’, is a barren desert landscape stretching for thousands of miles, but this literal translation belies its ancient significance - for over two millenia, the Tuareg operated the trans-Saharan caravan trade route connecting the great cities on the southern edge of the Sahara via five desert trade routes to the northern coast of Africa.
rock art petroglyph niger africa
Dabous Giraffe Rock Art Petroglyph
One of the finest examples of ancient rock art in the world - two life-size giraffe carved in stone
And before the Tuareg? Life in the region now known as the Sahara has evolved for millennia, in varying forms. One particular piece of evidence of this age-old occupation can be found at the pinnacle of a lonely rocky outcrop. Here, where the desert meets the slopes of the Air Mountains, lies Dabous, home to one of the finest examples of ancient rock art in the world - two life-size giraffe carved in stone. They were first recorded as recently as 1987 by Christian Dupuy. A subsequent field trip organised by David Coulson of the Trust for African Rock Art, brought the attention of archaeologist Dr Jean Clottes, who was startled by their significance, due to the size, beauty and technique.
The two giraffe, one large male in front of a smaller female, were engraved side by side on the sandstone’s weathered surface. The larger of the two is over 18 feet tall, combining several techniques including scraping, smoothing and deep engraving of the outlines. However, signs of deterioration were clearly evident. Despite their remoteness, the site was beginning to receive more and more attention, as these exceptional carvings were beginning to suffer the consequences of both voluntary and involuntary human degradation. The petroglyphs were being damaged by trampling, but perhaps worse than this, they were being degraded by grafitti and fragments were being stolen.
bradshaw foundation petroglyph preservation protection niger africa
The silicon sections
bradshaw foundation petroglyph preservation protection niger africa
Cleaning the surface
Damon de Laszlo Bradshaw Foundation
Damon de Laszlo
The obvious answer to was to preserve the giraffe carvings because of their artistic significance, but also their placement within a palaeo-African context
The Chairman of the Bradshaw Foundation, Damon de Laszlo, saw that 'the obvious answer to this was to attempt to preserve them, not only because of their artistic significance, but also their placement within a palaeo-African context ie. a greener Sahara, and how this ties in with our 'Journey of Mankind' Genetic Map.' This preservation would take the form of making a mould of the carvings, and then cast them in a resistant material.
The point of this was two-fold; now was the time to take the mould because the carvings were still – just – in a perfect condition, and by publicising the importance of the carvings, their value would be realised and their protection prioritized. By chance, a year earlier saw the publication of 'Zarafa' by Michael Allin, depicting the fascinating tale of a giraffe from the Sudan being led across France in 1826 – the Dabous giraffe would travel to France nearly two hundred years later, but in a slightly different fashion.
One of the major aims of the Bradshaw Foundation is to preserve ancient rock art, but with a project of this nature and scale, we obviously needed permission from both UNESCO and the government of Niger. Moreover, it was important to ensure that the project would be carried out at the grass-roots level, with full involvement of the Tuareg custodians. Finally, consideration of the future preservation had to be catered for, and for this reason a well was sunk near the site to provide water for a small group to live in the area, a member of which would act as a permanent guide - to show where to mount the outcrop, where to best view the petroglyphs without walking on them, and to ensure no damage or theft.


Niger Africa Dabous
But who were the artists for the Dabous petroglyph carvings? The present-day custodians are the Tuareg, but their origin is historic, whereas the carvings are clearly prehistoric. Scientists came closer to the answer in 2000. During the Bradshaw Foundation expedition to the Tenere Desert in Niger in 1999 to take a mould of the Dabous giraffe carvings, the team travelled north of Dabous to explore an area of desert where there were reports of archaeological remains on the shores of an extinct lake. The team indeed found numerous and varied artifacts on the desert floor, ranging from arrow heads and stone axe heads to shards of pottery.
Grave female adult children Africa
Photo by Mike Hettwer
Grave with a female adult and two children. 'This strongly indicates they had spiritual beliefs and cared for their dead.' Elana Garcea, University of Cassino in Italy
Although there was clear evidence of sedentary life involving hunting and gathering, little did we realize we were standing on top of further evidence of this past life-style that reflected a greener Sahara, and evidence which would later provide clues as to who the original artists of the giraffe carvings just to the south were and when they were carved. At this time Dr Jean Clottes estimated that the carvings were between 7,000 and 10,000 years old.
It was a year later that the new evidence at the site, now named Gobero, was excavated. As reported in New Scientist August 2008, and in National Geographic magazine September 2008, Paul Sereno, one of National Geographic's explorers-in-residence, visited the 10,000-year-old site, during a dinosaur-hunting expedition in 2000. The subsequent excavation of a graveyard on the shore of this dried-up lake suggests that at least two Stone Age peoples once lived there. Some 200 graves excavated so far reveal intriguing clues about these desert dwellers.
Flint Tenere Desert niger africa
Flint from the Tenere Desert
The artists must have used a harder material like flint to carve the softer sandstone of Dabous
First came the Kiffian, who grew up to 2 metres tall and hunted wild game, the bones of which were found nearby. They vanished when the Sahara entered a dry spell about 8000 years ago, to be replaced by the shorter, leaner Tenerians when the rains returned a millennium later. Bones and artefacts imply that they herded cattle and hunted fish and wildlife. Presently it is not possible to say with any certainty which culture – the Kiffian or the Tenerian - was responsible for the carvings.
How were the carvings created? 10,000 years ago there was no metal - this was well before the Bronze Age - so how did the artists carve the lines? They must have used a harder material like flint to carve the softer sandstone of Dabous. The desert sands surrounding the outcrop are covered with numerous chisels of petrified wood, perfect for wearing away grooves and then polishing the surface. This in itself magnifies the significance of Dabous, for its scale and craftsmanship, and therefore the amount of time it must have taken to execute.
Dabous Giraffe Index
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