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Late Pleistocene Rock Art along the Egyptian Nile

Côa in Africa

By Dirk Huyge
Page 2 of 2

Musées royaux d’Art et d’Histoire, Bruxelles

In our Antiquity previous publication (INORA Publications), we have advanced an age of about 16,000 to 15,000BP for this rock art. This age estimate is based on the plausible association of the petroglyphs with Late Palaeolithic settlement sites found at the very base of the rock art-bearing cliffs at Qurta (and a similar situation seems to exist at ATB11). These sites, excavated by a Canadian archaeological mission in 1962-1963, are currently attributed to the Ballanan-Silsilian culture (Wendorf & Schild 1989). The fauna of these Ballanan-Silsilian and other Late Palaeolithic sites in the Kom Ombo Plain (Churcher 1972) suggests a culture of hunters and fishermen with a mixed subsistence economy oriented to both stream and desert for food resources. It is essentially characterized by the following elements: aurochs (Bos primigenius), hartebeest (Alcelaphus buselaphus), some species of gazelle (especially Gazella dorcas), hippopotamus (Hippopotamus amphibius), wading and diving birds (including numerous goose and duck species) and some fish species (especially Clariasor catfish). With the exception of hartebeest, this faunal inventory perfectly matches the animal repertory of the Qurta rock art sites. Both in the Late Palaeolithic faunal assemblages and in the rock art large “Ethiopian” faunal elements, such as elephant, giraffe, and rhinoceros, are conspicuously absent.

As regards style and a number of iconographical particularities, it should, however, be stated that this Late Palaeolithic rock art shows remarkable affinities with the Late Magdalenian rock art of Europe. This is particularly evident from the human figures, most of which are very similar to the anthropomorphs of the Lalinde-Gönnersdorf type (general discussion and distribution map in Lorblanchet & Welté 1987).

egypt rock art

Bovids and stylised human

Moreover, some of the more elaborately executed bovids at Qurta are reminiscent of Late Magdalenian aurochs representations, such as those from the Grotte de la Mairie in Teyjat (Dordogne) (Barrière 1968). Both the Lalinde-Gönnersdorf type figures and the latter bovids are dated to the period of about 13,000- 12,000BP.The question whether or not the probable anteriority of the ATB11 and Qurta images to their European Late Magdalenian counterparts by several thousands of years has broader implications in terms of long-distance influence and intercultural contacts, is difficult to deal with on the basis of the current evidence.

The attribution of the ATB11 and Qurta rock art to the Late Palaeolithic has thus far provoked hardly any critical comments from the scientific community. One sceptic, Jean-Loïc Le Quellec (2007), has claimed that parallels for the Qurta rock art should rather be looked for in the Naturalistic Bubaline” style or school from the central Sahara and Libya, which he dates to the 6th and early 5th millennium BC. One glance at the latter, however [see, for instance, the article by Solheilhavoup (2007) in a previous issue of INORA], makes clear that the “Naturalistic Bubaline” school has absolutely nothing in common with the ATB11 and Qurta rock art. The “Naturalistic Bubaline” style, in fact, is not a naturalistic style at all, but rather a conventionalized caricature of nature. And, in contrast to what Le Quellec claims in his comment, the complete absence of large “Ethiopian” fauna (elephants, giraffe, and the like) is indeed an additional argument to date the rock art to the Late Palaeolithic. The latter animals, in fact, appear only later in the Egyptian natural environment, well after the onset of the Holocene, that is after about 12,000 BP. That is also the reason why they are abundantly represented in the much later “Naturalistic Bubaline” art of the Sahara.

Lastly, we owe a word of apology to our French colleagues for having “abused” the name of Lascaux with respect to the Qurta rock art (see the title of the Antiquity publication). It should be clear, however, that Lascaux has been used here as an icon (or rather THE icon) of Palaeolithic art. It was not our intention to state that Franco-Cantabrians were artistically active along the Nile or to claim that Lascaux was painted by “Egyptians”! Admittedly, the use of the word “Lascaux” has worked well in the media. Even though scientifically somewhat more correct, titling our contribution “Teyjat along the Nile”, would not, I presume, have aroused similar excitement. From a purely aesthetical point of view, Lascaux definitely remains unsurpassed. Scientifically speaking, however, the new find of a vast complex of open air Palaeolithic rock art in Egypt, a true Côa in Africa, opens as exciting avenues of thought as the discovery of that fabulous French cave almost seventy years ago.

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