For thousands of years, giraffes have captivated people with their long necks and slouchy gait. The rock carvings, estimated to be 9,000 years old, in the Sahara Desert in northern Niger, reflect the earliest human contact with giraffes.
Some of the most prominent known examples of Saharan rock art are the Dabous giraffe, found north of Agadez in Niger. It is not clear who carved these figures, but the Tuaregs may have created them.
In the Dabous district, rock inscriptions spanning several thousand years are common; over 300 are known, ranging in length from the very small to the life-sized representations shown here.
Possibly dating from 5000 – 3000 BC, each giraffe is carved on a gently sloping rock face, the choice of location may have been a deliberate attempt to capture the oblique rays of sunlight so shallow engravings are visible at certain times of the day. Human figures representing local hunter-gatherers are drawn to scale below the giraffe. The naturalism, perspective and attention to detail are outstanding.
Africa’s climate was much wetter during the period in which the inscriptions were made than it is today, and the Sahara region was verdant grasslands that supported abundant wildlife.
Other examples of contemporary rock art in the area depict elephants, antelopes, zebu cattle, crocodiles, and other large animals of the grasslands, although giraffes seem to be particularly important to the animal hunter-gatherer groups in the area.
Under the auspices of UNESCO, the Bradshaw Foundation is tasked with coordinating the Dabous conservation project, in association with the Trust for African Rock Art.
The conservation project involves molding the carvings to create a limited edition of cast aluminum, one of which will be donated to the town of Agadez near the archaeological site, one of which will be located at National Geographic headquarters in Washington DC.
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 that stretches for thousands of miles, but this literal translation carries its ancient meaning – for more than two millennia. For centuries, the Tuaregs operated a trans-Saharan caravan trade route connecting the major cities on the southern edge of the Sahara through five desert trade routes to the northern coast of Africa.
Dabous Giraffe Rock Art Petroglyph one of the finest examples of ancient rock art in the world – two life-size giraffes carved in the rock and in front of the Tuareg? Life in the region today known as the Sahara has evolved over millennia, in various forms.
Concrete proof of this age-old occupation can be found at the top of a barren 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 giraffes 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.
Two giraffes, a large male before a smaller female, are carved side by side in the weathered surface of the sandstone. The larger of the two is over 18 feet tall, incorporating a number of techniques including scraping, smoothing, and deep etching of contours. 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.
The obvious answer is to preserve the giraffe carvings for their artistic significance, but also their place in the classical-African context Bradshaw Foundation President, Damon de Laszlo, finds that ‘ The obvious answer to this is to try to preserve them, not only for their artistic significance, but also for their place in the classical-African context.
The Sahara is greener and how does this relate to our ‘Human Journey’ Genetic Map. “
This preservation would take the form of creating a mold of the carvings and then casting them in a durable material. The point of this is twofold. Now is the time to get the mold because the carvings are still – just – in perfect condition, and by publicizing the importance of the carvings, their value will be realized and their protection prioritized.
By chance, the year before that, Michael Allin’s publication of ‘Zarafa’ had been published, which describes the fascinating story of a giraffe from Sudan being led through France in 1826 – the Dabous giraffe was to come. France almost two hundred years later but in a slightly different fashion.
One of the main goals of the Bradshaw Foundation is to preserve ancient rock art, but with a project of this size and nature, we clearly need permission from both UNESCO and the Niger government.
Furthermore, it is important to ensure that the project will be carried out at the grassroots level, with the full participation of the Tuareg custodians. Ultimately, future conservation considerations had to be met, and for this reason a well was sunk near the site to provide water to a small group living in the area, a member of the community.
That will act as a regular guide – to indicate where to mount the overhang, where the petroglyphs can best be viewed without walking on them, and to ensure no damage or loss of steel.