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The Rock Art of Congo
Photos Text by Richard Oslisly
The rock art of Congo is situated in the middle Niari valley, 250km south west of the capital Brazzaville, established in karstic relief on a schisto-calcareous environment.
Man visited these caves and rock shelters for long periods - the excavation of the Ntadi-Yomba rock shelter revealed occupations of hunter-gatherers dated to 7000 BP. The rock paintings are rare and were done either with ochre or charcoal. From the hundreds of caves surveyed, only five had cave paintings. The most significant forms are lizards and geometric motifs of which some present square parrallelograms.
The two shown below, from the Congo, have been photographed by R. Lanfranchi (1994).
rock art africa congo
rock art africa congo


Implications for the Environment by Richard Oslisly
Taken from 'African Rain Forest Ecology and Conservation'
An Interdisciplinary Perspective, Edited by William Weber, Lee J. T. White, Amy Vedder and Lisa Naughton-Treves. Yale University Press, New Haven and London 2001
Africa is extremely rich in prehistoric archaeological remains. These include the extraordinary geological deposits of eastern Africa, where many important human fossils have been discovered, as well as the extensive areas of rock art in the Sahara and in southern Africa. However, there is a strong bias in the literature toward regions with open countryside, which are more easily explored. Little information exists for the tropical forested regions of central Africa, long considered a hostile environment that had resisted human settlement.
Early archaeological research in central Africa was sporadic. The forest vegetation soon covers any remains of settlements, and early discoveries were mostly by informed geologists working on large engineering projects. More systematic archaeological research began in the 1960's, particularly in the context of the “Bantu phenomenon” of the past five thousand years, when agriculturalists from just south of the Sahara expanded into eastern and southern Africa. As this research developed, it became apparent that late Quaternary climate changes of the Wurm glaciation (70,000-12,000 B.P. - the recent Pleistocene period) and the following interglacial of the Holocene (12,000 B.P. to the present) had played an important role in determining where and how people lived (Mortelmans and Monteyne 1962; DC Ploey 1963).
This text presents the results of sixteen years of work on the paleoenvironment and prehistory of the middle valley of the Ogooue, and builds the first chronological framework of the history of people living in this region of central Gabon and discusses their cultural traditions and relations with the forest. Findings from central Gabon will then be compared to research elsewhere to discuss the implications of human settlement and use on the African forest zone in general.
From a map of central Africa it is apparent that areas of southern Cameroon-bordered by the Atlantic to the west and the great swamps of the Congo Basin to the east-represent a likely channel for human population movements south out of the Bantu homeland in southeastern Nigeria and western Cameroon. This is especially so because during periods in the past, much of the present forest cover of the region was replaced by a more open landscape.
The natural funnel of ridge lines running north-south from the north of Gabon is interrupted in the center of the country by the middle valley of the river Ogooue, which runs parallel to the equator in a series of rapids and falls. The region is delimited to the north by the equator and to the south by the first forested foothills of the Massif du Chaillu. It is an island of open savannas and gallery forests covering about 1,000 km.sq.
As it is thought that the rapid spread of Bantu peoples may have occurred during a dry climatic phase between 3,500 and 2,000 B.P when savanna vegetation was more extensive in central Africa (Maley 1992; Schwartz 1992), it seems likely that the middle valley of the Ogooue would have been a key staging area, because of its central location and the presence of a large river. The history presented here has taken many years to tease apart, and we continue to make new and exciting discoveries on a yearly, if not monthly basis. For prehistoric humans, the evergreen forest represented a challenging environment, the height and density of the canopy making orientation difficult. It was, however, an important source of food, and people probably traveled significant distances to gather fruits and nuts or to hunt and trap animals, as their closest relatives, gorillas and chimpanzees, do today (Tutin et al. 1991; Tutin and Oslisly 1995). It is extremely difficult to follow riverbanks because the vegetation is dense, but there are generally numerous elephant trails along the ridges between rivers, which even today are often adopted by humans. Following such trails, one catches occasional glimpses, through gaps in the trees, of distant peaks or valleys, which improve one’s perception of topography and distance. Elephant trails were thus likely key elements for early human migrations through the forest zone, particularly considering the general north-south orientation of the major ridge lines in Gabon. Today’s roads, be they national high-ways or foresters’ trails also tend to follow ridge lines, often revealing numerous remains of past human habitation. These ridge lines tend also to be rich in iron-bearing geological formations and could also have attracted Iron Age peoples for this reason.
(400,000-120,000 B.P.)
There are numerous Stone Age sites in the middle valley of the Ogooue, including the oldest known stone tools in central Africa, discovered in the upper terrace of the Ogooue at Elarmekora (Oslisly and Peyrot 1992a) and estimated to date to around 400,000 B.P., in correlation with the mid-Bruhnes climatic change (Jansen et al. 1986). Unfortunately, as is the case elsewhere in central Africa, most sites are in river terraces or other stone lines, and therefore their stratigraphy is typically highly disturbed. Because of the strongly acidic soils (with pH generally 4-5) there are no bones or other organic remains to enable radio-chronological dating. Only for sites dating from the past 5,000 years are detailed radio-chronological, archaeological, and paleoecological data available.
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