Rock paintings and petroglyphs of Sahara desert in Chad

February 16th, 2018 

Thousands of years ago the Sahara Desert was very different from today, with lot of water, vegetation and wildlife. The cave paintings and petroglyphs from caves of Ennedi in Chad, are an important source to know more about how Sahara desert was in the past.

Ennedi Sahara
Chad Sahara desert in Chad
The expedition to Chad among the mountains of Ennedi continues searching for caves once inhabited by primitive man, when the climate of Sahara desert was radically different from today and much more suitable to support some life. Being highly prone to erosion and therefore full of caves and natural refuges, the sandstone rock offered an ideal shelter to prehistoric people, and a closer look along the sides of these caves will reveal lot of cave paintings and petroglyphs left by ancient population, letting to know more about their way of life and how the Sahara desert was in the past.
Nomads hut in Sahara Nomads huts in Chad
Shelter of a nomad in Sahara desert

Although over thousands of years the climate of Sahara desert has changed, becoming progressively drier, it is inhabited still today.

In fact, looking around in search of caves containing rock paintings left by ancient population, it is quite common to find shelters of nomadic people belonging to Tubu ethnic group, coming here to graze their farm animals, usually dromedaries, goats and sheeps.

Elephant skin rock
Having a closer look to the surface of the mountains, we can see the typical pattern created by the erosion over the sandstone, which is called "elephant skin" since it really looks like the skin of such pachyderm. It is among these mountains of Ennedi region in Chad, in the heart of Sahara desert, that we will find lot of caves once inhabited by primitive man.
Cave in Sahara
We begin exploring this large cave in the sandstone, which overlooks an enchanting landscape.
Entrance to the cave Cave in the Sahara desert
Cave in Chad Primitive man cave
It is enough just to look at the walls of the cave from far away, to notice countless rock paintings, mostly red, that decorate the entrances to the various "rooms" and the ceiling. The rock art in the Sahara desert date back to different periods, starting from the Neolithic (the last phase of the Stone Age, about 10,000 years BC) until the beginning of the Christian era.
Primitive mortar
On the floor of the cave instead, it is not uncommon to find cavities that were probably used as a mortar to grind seeds and produce flour.
Rock art Rock art sample
Rock art in Chad Sample of rock art

For rock art we usually mean rock paintings (or cave paintings) and petroglyphs. The first were made by just using some kind of dye to paint directly in the rock, while petroglyphs were produced by engraving the rock (the sandstone is very soft) using a variety of tools. The rock art of Sahara desert is extremely interesting because it shows an environment totally different from today, populated by horses, zebras, buffaloes and of course humans, represented by shapes of great artistic value.

The age of cave paintings can be hypothesized on the basis of the drawing's style and the subject that they represent: generally, the rock paintings with softer lines that illustrate buffaloes with large horns and other animals typically wild, are the oldest (up to 7,000 years BC), while those with cattle having current features, men armed by bow, horses and camels (sometimes pulling carts) are the certainly the most recent (between 3,000 and 200 years BC). As we will see later, the most "stylized" shapes with lot of sharp corners, are the most contemporary and are probably dating back just to the era of Islamization (about a thousand years ago).

Although the rock art was mainly practiced among locations sheltered from strong sun, wind and water, we must not forget that sandstone is quite soft and therefore many cave paintings and petroglyphs have unfortunately deteriorated over the time. The dye used for rock art was usually prepared by mixing colored minerals, mainly kaolin, cardoon and ocher, then adding a glue perhaps based on egg whites or acacia resin.
Conglomerate Conglomerated rock

The conglomerate rocks are quite widespread in this region of Sahara desert and sometimes they look so regular, to seem artificially made by primitive men who lived in these caves, to create a kind of floor or facade.

But there is really no evidence about this: they are certainly natural and were formed by pebbles cemented together by sand over thousands and thousands of years.

Chad rock art
A very particular rock painting depicting animals and a series of large dots, with an unknown meaning (maybe a hailstorm that has surprised and amazed the artist?)
Wall of rock Cave inhabited by prehistoric
The sides of Ennedi mountains, punctuated by caves whose entrances are full of rock paintings.
Cave inhabited by primitive man
An entrance into a cave decorated with paintings representing many humans.
Sahara desert cave Cave in the Ennedi
Wasp nets

The vault and walls of this huge cave are completely covered by thousands of wasp nests. It is probably not a good idea to enter this cave during the summer, when the very short rainy season attracts the insects.
Cave painting
A huge cave painting depicting a cow.
Bottle shaped rock Canyon
Modern rock paintings Rock paintings
An oddly shaped rock, which looks like a bottle, houses a small shelter along the base, showing very modern cave paintings (probably less than 1000 years old). Their age can be guessed due to the simple shapes with sharp corners. Even one thousands years ago people were already always in a hurry, not having time to make better paintings like those older seen before :-)
Dromerary in the desert
The expedition in the Ennedi continues searching for more rock paintings sites, traveling among a fantastic landscape. If you are interested in rock art, archaeology, geology, history of the climate and way of life of ancient population in North Africa, the Sahara desert is definitely where to go.
A strange sandstone formation with furrows that make it look like trapped in a net.
Natural arch Sandstone arch
Natural arches Stone arches
In addition to exciting rock art, the Ennedi region in Chad is also known for its numerous natural arches of sandstone, often of huge size and astonishing shapes. A very welcome hike in the middle of nowhere, reveals an absolutely surreal world.
Hole in the rock
The hole in the mountain.
Organ pipe pinnacles Organ pipe rocks
The organ pipe rocks.
Mr. Stoneface
Pre-islamic tomb Pre-islamic tombs

Other interesting things related to humans activity that can be found among the Sahara desert in Chad, are the tombs dating back to pre-Islamic times, which consist essentially in a pile of large stones to seal an underlying niche. Unfortunately, serious studies have never been carried out on these intriguing archaeological finds, so we do not know much about their complete history.
Rocky desert
The rocky desert.
Dry river bed River bed in the desert
Vegetation in the desert
Much of this region of Sahara is crossed by dry beds of ancient rivers, some of them still filling a little bit during the short rainy season, letting some more vegetation to grow. However, a few steps away, without any availability of water, the true desert begins again.
Sheep in the shadow
A group of sheep takes advantage of the shadow of an acacia.
Well in the desert
The river bed is one of the best places to build a well. The water is good, as it is well filtered by the rocks and can be consumed without any problem, adding only a small amount of silver sulphate as a precautionary measure.
Clouds in the desert
Distant clouds try to win over the desert, but this victory only occurs very rarely.
Arch of sandstone Ennedi desert
Chad Ennedi in Ciad
Traveling among more natural arches and beautiful sandstone formations in Chad.
Rock paintings
We finally get to another beautiful rock art site. This might seem like a normal rocky wall, but a closer look at the cave in the middle shows a huge amount of cave paintings.

We then enter the cave through a narrow canyon, to enjoy the cave paintings more closely.
Narrow canyon
Rock art Sahara desert Cave paintings samples
Cave paintings Cave painting sample
Soon we find ourselves totally surrounded by these wonderful rock paintings, in excellent condition and very well highlighted on the rock, depicting cattle, goats and people with beautiful shapes (and with a large head) riding dromedaries.

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