Tassili n'Ajjer (UNESCO/NHK)

Tassili n'Ajjer (UNESCO/NHK)

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Located in a strange lunar landscape of great geological interest, Tassili n'Ajjer, in Algeria, has one of the most important groupings of prehistoric cave art in the world. More than 15,000 drawings and engravings record the climatic changes, the animal migrations and the evolution of human life on the edge of the Sahara from 6000 BC to the first centuries of the present era.

Source: UNESCO TV / © NHK Nippon Hoso Kyokai
URL: http://whc.unesco.org/en/list/179/

Tassili n'Ajjer National Park

Tassili n&rsquoAjjer National Park is located in southeastern Algeria near the border of Libya. It is part of the larger Sahara Desert. The national park encompasses an area of 28,000 square miles (72,519 sq km).

This UNESCO World Heritage Site is naturally, historically, and culturally significant. The park protects aspects of the Sahara Desert while also preserving one of the most significant prehistoric cave art discoveries in the world.

This archaeological site features parietal works of rock art and cave art dating back as much as 12,000 years. Antelope, cattle, crocodile, and other large wild animals account for the majority of the 15,000 cave art drawings.

Some of the other pieces of art reflect human interaction with dancing, hunting, and friendship. With the approximately 15,000 drawings and engravings, the density makes this an incredibly special cultural and historical treat.

The park is located on a large plateau with a height of 7,080 feet (2,158 m). The landscape displays rock formations, sandstone erosion, and related geological features that lead people to imagine the surface of the moon or some other celestial location.

Almost the entire park is comprised of sandstone. Rock formations and arches have been created because of erosion creating amazing landscapes. There are approximately 300 naturally occurring rock arches as well as other astounding rock formations. It is amazing to witness the power of nature working upon itself as the wind serves as the sculptor of these inspiring sandstone and mountainous landscapes.

Canyons, arches, rock forests, and other geological rock formations can only truly be appreciated with multi-day excursions into the wilderness of the park.


The archaeological site has been designated a national park, a Biosphere Reserve (cypresses) and was induced into the UNESCO World Heritage Site list as Tassili n'Ajjer National Park. [5]

The plateau is of great geological and aesthetic interest. Its panorama of geological formations of rock forests, composed of eroded sandstone, resembles a lunar landscape and hosts a range of rock art styles. [6] [7]

The range is composed largely of sandstone. [8] The sandstone is stained by a thin outer layer of deposited metallic oxides that color the rock formations variously from near-black to dull red. [8] Erosion in the area has resulted in nearly 300 natural rock arches being formed in the south east, along with deep gorges and permanent water pools in the north.

Because of the altitude and the water-holding properties of the sandstone, the vegetation here is somewhat richer than in the surrounding desert. It includes a very scattered woodland of the endangered endemic species of Saharan cypress and Saharan myrtle in the higher eastern half of the range. [8] The Tassili Cypress is one of the oldest trees in the world after the Barbed Pine in the USA. [3]

The ecology of the Tassili n'Ajjer is more fully described in the article West Saharan montane xeric woodlands, the ecoregion to which this area belongs. The literal English translation of Tassili n'Ajjer is 'plateau of rivers'. [9]

Relict populations of the West African crocodile persisted in the Tassili n'Ajjer until the twentieth century. [10] Various other fauna still reside on the plateau, including Barbary sheep, the only surviving type of the larger mammals depicted in the rock paintings of the area. [8]

Background Edit

Algerian rock art had been subject to European study since 1863, with surveys conducted by "A. Pomel (1893-1898), Stéphane Gsell (1901-1927), G. B. M. Flamand (1892-1921), Leo Frobenius and Hugo Obermaier (1925), Henri Breuil (1931-1957), L. Joleaud (1918-1938), and Raymond Vaufrey (1935-1955)." [11]

Tassili was already well known by the early 20th century, but Western eyes were fully introduced due to a series of sketches made by French legionnaires, specifically Lieutenant Brenans during the 1930s. [11] He brought with him French archaeologist, Henri Lhote, who would later return during 1956 - 1957, 1959, 1962, and 1970. [12] His expeditions have been heavily critiqued, with his team being accused of faking images, as well as damaging painting the make them brighter for tracing and photography. This resulted in serious damage that reduced the original colors beyond repair. [13] [14]

Current Archaeological Interpretation Edit

The site of Tassili was primarily occupied during the Neolithic period by transhumant pastoralist groups whose lifestyle benefitted both humans and livestock. The local geography, elevation, and natural resources were optimal conditions for dry-season camping of small groups. The wadis within the mountain range functioned as corridors between the rocky highlands and the sandy lowlands. The highlands have archaeological evidence of occupation dating from 5500 to 1500 BCE, while the lowlands have stone tumuli and hearths dating between 6000 to 4000 BCE. The lowland locations appear to have been used as living sites, specifically during the rainy season. [15] There are numerous rock shelters within the sandstone forests, strewn with Neolithic artifacts including ceramic pots and potsherds, lithic arrowheads, bowls and grinders, beads, and jewelry. [3]

The transition to pastoralism following the African Humid period during the early Holocene is reflected in Tassili n'Ajjer's archaeological material record, rock art, and zooarchaeology. Further, the occupation of Tassili is part of a larger movement and climate shift within the Central Sahara. Paleoclimatic and paleoenvironment studies started in the Central Sahara around 14,000 BP, and then proceeded by an arid period that resulted in narrow ecological niches. [16] However, the climate was not consistent and the Sahara was split between the arid lowlands and the humid highlands. Archaeological excavations confirm that human occupation, in the form of hunter-gather groups, occurred between 10,000 and 7,500 BP following 7,500 BP, humans began to organize into pastoral groups in response to the increasingly unpredictable climate. [17] There was a dry period from 7900 and 7200 BP in Tassili [18] that preceded the appearance of the first pastoral groups, which is consistent with other parts of the Saharan-Sahelian belt. [19] The pre-Pastoral pottery excavated from Tassili dates around 9,000 - 8,500 BP, while the Pastoral pottery is from 7,100 - 6000 BP. [20]

The rock art at Tassili is used in conjunction with other sites, including Dhar Tichitt in Mauritania, [21] to study the development of animal husbandry and trans-Saharan travel in North Africa. Cattle were herded across vast areas as early as 3000 - 2000 BCE, reflecting the origins and spread of Pastoralism in the area. This was followed by horses (before 1000 BCE) and then the camel in the next millennium. [22] The arrival of camels reflects the increased development of trans-Saharan trade, as camels were primarily used as transport in trade caravans.

The rock formation is an archaeological site, noted for its numerous prehistoric parietal works of rock art, first reported in 1910, [4] that date to the early Neolithic era at the end of the last glacial period during which the Sahara was a habitable savanna rather than the current desert. Although sources vary considerably, the earliest pieces of art are presumed to be 12,000 years old. [23] The vast majority date to the ninth and tenth millennia BP or younger, according to OSL dating of associated sediments. [24] The art was dated by gathering small fragments of the painted panels that had dried out and flaked off before being buried. [25] Among the 15,000 engravings so far identified, the subjects depicted are large wild animals including antelopes and crocodiles, cattle herds, and humans who engage in activities such as hunting and dancing. [8] These paintings are some of the earliest Central Saharan paintings, and occur in the largest concentration at Tassili. [16] Although Algeria is relatively close to the Iberian Peninsula, the rock art of Tassili n'Ajjer evolved separately from that of the European tradition. [26] According to UNESCO, "The exceptional density of paintings and engravings. have made Tassili world famous." [27]

Similar to other Saharan sites with rock art, Tassili can be separated into five distinct traditions: Archaic (10,000 to 7,500 BCE), Round Head (7550 to 5050 BCE), Bovidian or Pastoral (4,500 to 4,000 BCE), Horse (from 2,000 BCE and 50 CE), and Camel (1000 BCE and onward).

The Archaic period consists primarily of wild animals that lived in the Sahara during the Early Holocene. These works are attributed to hunter-gather peoples, consisting of only etchings. Images are primarily of larger animals, depicted in a naturalistic manner, with the occasional geometric pattern and human figure. Usually the humans and animals are depicted within the context of a hunting scene.

The Round Head Period is associated with specific stylistic choices depicting humanoid forms, and are well separated from the Archaic tradition even though hunter-gatherers were the artists for both. [28] The art consists mainly of paintings, with some of the oldest and largest exposed rock paintings in Africa one human figure stands over five meters and another at three and a half meters. The unique depiction of floating figures with round, featureless heads and formless bodies appear to be floating on the rock surface, hence the "Round Head" label. The occurrence of these paintings and motifs are concentrated in specific locations on the plateau, implying that these sites were the center for ritual, rites, and ceremonies. [11] Most animals shown are mouflon and antelope, usually in static positions that do not appear to be part of a hunting scene.

The Bovidian/Pastoral period correlates with the arrival of domesticated cattle into the Sahara, and the gradual shift to mobile pastoralism. There is a notable and visual difference between the Pastoral period and the earlier two periods, coinciding with the aridification of the Sahara. There is increased stylistic variation, implying the movement of different cultural groups within the area. Domesticated animals such as cattle, sheep, goat, and dogs are depicted, paralleling the zooarchaeological record of the area. The scenes reference diversified communities of herders, hunters with bows, as well as women and children, and imply a growing stratification of society based on property.

The following Horse traditions corresponds with the complete desertification of the Sahara and requirement of new travel methods. The arrival of horses, horse-drawn chariots, and riders are depicted, often in mid-gallop, and is associated more with hunting than warfare. [11] Inscriptions of Libyan-Berber script, used by ancestral Berber peoples, appear next to the images, however the text is completely indecipherable.

The last period is defined by the appearance of camels, which replaced donkeys and cattle as the main mode of transportation across the Sahara. [29] The arrival of camels coincides with the development of long distance trade routes used by caravans to transport salt, goods, and enslaved people across the Sahara. Men, both mounted and unmounted, with shields, spears, and swords are present. Animals including cows and goats are included, but wild animals were crudely rendered.

Although these periods are successive the timeframes are flexible and are consistently being reconstructed by archaeologists as technology and interpretation develop. The art had been dated by archaeologists who gathered fallen fragments and debris from the rock face. [30]

A notable piece common in academic writing is the "Running Horned Woman," also known as the "Horned Goddess," from the round head period. [31] The image depicts a female figure with horns in midstride dots adorn her torso and limbs, and she is dressed in fringed armbands, a skirt, leg bands, and anklets. According to Arisika Razak, Tassili's Horned Goddess is an early example of the "African Sacred Feminine." [31] Her femininity, fertility, and connection to nature are emphasized while the Neolithic artist superimposes the figure onto smaller, older figures. The use of bull horns is a common theme in later round head paintings, which reflects the steady integration of domesticated cattle into Saharan daily life. Cattle imagery, specifically that of bulls, [32] became a central theme in not only at Tassili, but at other nearby sites in Libya. [33]

In 1989, the psychedelics researcher Giorgio Samorini proposed the theory that the fungoid-like paintings in the caves of Tassili are proof of the relationship between humans and psychedelics in the ancient populations of the Sahara, when it was still a verdant land: [34]

One of the most important scenes is to be found in the Tin-Tazarift rock art site, at Tassili, in which we find a series of masked figures in line and hieratically dressed or dressed as dancers surrounded by long and lively festoons of geometrical designs of different kinds. Each dancer holds a mushroom-like object in the right hand and, even more surprising, two parallel lines come out of this object to reach the central part of the head of the dancer, the area of the roots of the two horns. This double line could signify an indirect association or non-material fluid passing from the object held in the right hand and the mind. This interpretation would coincide with the mushroom interpretation if we bear in mind the universal mental value induced by hallucinogenic mushrooms and vegetals, which is often of a mystical and spiritual nature (Dobkin de Rios, 1984:194). It would seem that these lines – in themselves an ideogram which represents something non-material in ancient art – represent the effect that the mushroom has on the human mind. In a shelter in Tin – Abouteka, in Tassili, there is a motif appearing at least twice which associates mushrooms and fish a unique association of symbols among ethno-mycological cultures. Two mushrooms are depicted opposite each other, in a perpendicular position with regard to the fish motif and near the tail. Not far from here, above, we find other fish which are similar to the aforementioned, but without the side-mushrooms.

This theory was reused by Terence McKenna in his 1992 book Food of the Gods, hypothesizing that the Neolithic culture that inhabited the site used psilocybin mushrooms as part of its religious ritual life, citing rock paintings showing persons holding mushroom-like objects in their hands, as well as mushrooms growing from their bodies. [35] For Henri Lohte, who discovered the Tassili caves in the late 1950s, these were obviously secret sanctuaries. [34]

The painting that best supports the mushroom hypothesis is the Tassili mushroom figure Matalem-Amazar where the body of the represented shaman is covered with mushrooms. According to Earl Lee in his book From the Bodies of the Gods: Psychoactive Plants and the Cults of the Dead (2012), this imagery refers to an ancient episode where a "mushroom shaman" was buried while fully-clothed and when unearthed some time later, tiny mushrooms would be growing on the clothes. Earl Lee considered the mushroom paintings at Tassili fairly realistic. [36]

According to Brian Akers, writer for the Mushroom journal, the fungoid rock art in Tassili does not resemble the representations of the Psilocybe hispanica in the Selva Pascuala caves (2015), and he doesn't consider it realistic. [37]

Running Horned Woman, Tassili n’Ajjer, Algeria

In an ancient North African “rock city,” modern explorers wetted a wall with water—revealing this graceful image.

Running Horned Woman, 6,000-4,000 B.C.E., pigment on rock, Tassili n’Ajjer, Algeria


Between 1933 and 1940, camel ­corps officer Lieutenant Brenans of the French Foreign Legion completed a series of small sketches and hand­ written notes detailing his discovery of dozens of rock art sites deep within the canyons of the Tassili n’Ajjer. Tassili n’Ajjer is a difficult to access plateau in the Algerian section of the Sahara Desert near the borders of Libya and Niger in northern Africa (see map below). Brenans donated hundreds of his sketches to the Bardo Museum in Algiers, alerting the scientific community to one of the richest rock art concentrations on Earth and prompting site visits that included fellow Frenchman and archaeologist Henri Lhote.

Lhote recognized the importance of the region and returned again and again, most notably in 1956 with a team of copyists for a 16­ month expedition to map and study the rock art of the Tassili. Two years later Lhote published A la découverte des fresques du Tassili. The book became an instant best­-seller, and today is one of the most popular texts on archaeological discovery.

Sand and rocks, Tassili n’Ajjer, Algeria (photo: Akli Salah, CC BY-SA 4.0)

Lhote made African rock art famous by bringing some of the estimated 15,000 human figure and animal paintings and engravings found on the rock walls of the Tassili’s many gorges and shelters to the wider public. Yet contrary to the impression left by the title of his book, neither Lhote nor his team could lay claim to having discovered Central Saharan rock art: long before Lhote, and even before Brenans, in the late nineteenth century a number of travelers from Germany, Switzerland, and France had noted the existence of “strange” and “important” rock sculptures in Ghat, Tadrart Acacus, and Upper Tassili. But it was the Tuareg—the indigenous peoples of the region, many of whom served as guides to these early European explorers—who long knew of the paintings and engravings covering the rock faces of the Tassili.

Tassili n’Ajjer is a Tamahaq name meaning “plateau” of the Ajjer people (the Kel Ajjer is group of tribes whose traditional territory was here). Much of the 1,500-­2,100 meter ­high plateau is protected by an 80,000 square kilometer National Park.

The “Horned Goddess”

Lhote published not only reproductions of the paintings and engravings he found on the rock walls of the Tassili, but also his observations. In one excerpt he reported that with a can of water and a sponge in hand he set out to investigate a “curious figure” spotted by a member of his team in an isolated rock shelter located within a compact group of mountains known as the Aouanrhet massif, the highest of all the “rock cities” on the Tassili. Lhote swabbed the wall with water to reveal a figure he called the “Horned Goddess”:

On the damp rock ­surface stood out the gracious silhouette of a woman running. One of her legs, slightly flexed, just touched the ground, while the other was raised in the air as high as it would normally go. From the knees, the belt and the widely outstretched arms fell fine fringes. From either side of the head and above two horns that spread out horizontally was an extensive dotted area resembling a cloud of grain falling from a wheat field. Although the whole assemblage was skillfully and carefully composed there was something free and easy about it…

Visible in this reproduction of the original rock painting are two groupings in red ochre of small human figures superimposed onto the horned goddess

The Running Horned Woman, the title by which the painting is commonly known today, was found in a massif so secluded and so difficult to access that Lhote’s team concluded that the collection of shelters was likely a sanctuary and the female figure—“the most beautiful, the most finished and the most original”—a goddess:

Perhaps we have here the figure of a priestess of some agricultural religion or the picture of a goddess of such a cult who foreshadow—or is derived from—the goddess Isis, to whom, in Egypt, was attributed the discovery of agriculture.

Lhote’s suggestion that the painting’s source was Egyptian was influenced by a recently published hypothesis by his mentor, the French anthropologist Henri Breuil, the then undisputed authority on prehistoric rock art who was renowned for his work on Paleolithic cave art in Europe. In an essay titled, “The White Lady of Brandberg, South-West Africa, Her Companions and Her Guards,” Breuil famously claimed that a painting discovered in a small rock shelter in Namibia showed influences of Classical antiquity and was not African in origin, but possibly the work of Phoenician travellers from the Mediterranean. Lhote, equally convinced of outside influence, linked the Tassili painting’s provenance with Breuil’s ideas and revised the title to the ‘White Lady’ of Aouanrhet:

In other paintings found a few days later in the same massif we were able to discern, from some characteristic features, an indication of Egyptian influence. Some features are, no doubt, not very marked in our ‘White Lady’; still, all the same, some details as the curve of the breasts, led us to think that the picture may have been executed at a time when Egyptian traditions were beginning to be felt in the Tassili.

Foreign influence?

Time and scholarship would reveal that the assignment of Egyptian influence on the Running Horned Woman was erroneous, and Lhote the victim of a hoax: French members of his team made “copies” of Egyptionized figures, passing them off as faithful reproductions of authentic Tassili rock wall paintings. These fakes were accepted by Lhote (if indeed he knew nothing of the forgeries), and falsely sustained his belief in the possibility of foreign influence on Central Saharan rock art. Breuil’s theories were likewise discredited: the myth of the “White Lady” was rejected by every archaeologist of repute, and his promotion of foreign influence viewed as racist.

Tassili National Park (photo: magharebia, CC BY 2.0)

Yet Breuil and Lhote were not alone in finding it hard to believe that ancient Africans discovered how to make art on their own, or to have developed artistic sensibilities. Until quite recently many Europeans maintained that art “spread” or was “taken” into Africa, and, aiming to prove this thesis, anointed many works with Classical­ sounding names and sought out similarities with early rock art in Europe. Although such vestiges of colonial thinking are today facing a reckoning, cases such as the “White Lady” (both of Namibia and of Tassili) remind us of the perils of imposing cultural values from the outside.


While we have yet to learn how, and in what places, the practice of rock art began, no firm evidence has been found to show that African rock art—some ten million images across the continent—was anything other than a spontaneous initiative by early Africans. Scholars have estimated the earliest art to date to 12,000 or more years ago, yet despite the use of both direct and indirect dating techniques very few firm dates exist (“direct dating” uses measurable physical and chemical analysis, such as radiocarbon dating, while “indirect dating” primarily uses associations from the archaeological context). In the north, where rock art tends to be quite diverse, research has focused on providing detailed descriptions of the art and placing works in chronological sequence based on style and content. This ordering approach results in useful classification and dating systems, dividing the Tassili paintings and engravings into periods of concurrent and overlapping traditions (the Running Horned Woman is estimated to date to approximately 6,000 to 4,000 B.C.E.—placing it within the “Round Head Period”), but offers little in the way of interpretation of the painting itself.

Running Horned Woman (detail) (photo: FJ Expeditions)

Advancing an interpretation of the Running Horned Woman

Who was the Running Horned Woman? Was she indeed a goddess, and her rock shelter some sort of sanctuary? What does the image mean? And why did the artist make it? For so long the search for meaning in rock art was considered inappropriate and unachievable—only recently have scholars endeavored to move beyond the mere description of images and styles, and, using a variety of interdisciplinary methods, make serious attempts to interpret the rock art of the Central Sahara.

Lhote recounted that the Running Horned Woman was found on an isolated rock whose base was hollowed out into a number of small shelters that could not have been used as dwellings. This remote location, coupled with an image of marked pictorial quality—depicting a female with two horns on her head, dots on her body probably representing scarification, and wearing such attributes of the dance as armlets and garters—suggested to him that the site, and the subject of the painting, fell outside of the everyday. More recent scholarship has supported Lhote’s belief in the painting’s symbolic, rather than literal, representation. As Jitka Soukopova has noted, “Hunter- gatherers were unlikely to wear horns (or other accessories on the head) and to make paintings on their whole bodies in their ordinary life.”[1] Rather, this female horned figure, her body adorned and decorated, found in one of the highest massifs in the Tassili—a region is believed to hold special status due to its elevation and unique topology—suggests ritual, rite, or ceremony. Rather, this female horned figure, her body adorned and decorated, found in one of the highest massifs in the Tassili—a region is believed to hold special status due to its elevation and unique topology—suggests ritual, rite, or ceremony.

Archers, Tassili n’Ajjer (photo: Patrick Gruban, CC BY-SA 2.0)

But there is further work to be done to advance an interpretation of the Running Horned Woman. Increasingly scholars have studied rock shelter sites as a whole, rather than isolating individual depictions, and the shelter’s location relative to the overall landscape and nearby water courses, in order to learn the significance of various “rock cities” in both image ­making and image ­viewing.

Archaeological data from decorated pottery, which is a dated artistic tradition, is key in suggesting that the concept of art was firmly established in the Central Sahara at the time of Tassili rock art production. Comparative studies with other rock art complexes, specifically the search for similarities in fundamental concepts in African religious beliefs, might yield the most fruitful approaches to interpretation. In other words, just as southern African rock studies have benefitted from tracing the beliefs and practices of the San people, so too may a study of Tuareg ethnography shed light on the ancient rock art sites of the Tassili.

Afterword: the threatened rock art of the Central Sahara

Tassili’s rock walls were commonly sponged with water in order to enhance the reproduction of its images, either in trace, sketch, or photograph. This washing of the rock face has had a devastating effect on the art, upsetting the physical, chemical, and biological balance of the images and their rock supports. Many of the region’s subsequent visitors—tourists, collectors, photographers, and the next generation of researchers—all captivated by Lhote’s “discovery”—have continued the practice of moistening the paintings in order to reveal them. Today scholars report paintings that are severely faded while some have simply disappeared. In addition, others have suffered from irreversible damage caused by outright vandalism: art looted or stolen as souvenirs. In order to protect this valuable center of African rock art heritage, Tassili N’Ajjer was declared a National Park in 1972. It was classified as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1982 and a Biosphere Reserve in 1986.

[1] Jitka Soukopova, “The Earliest Rock Paintings of the Central Sahara: Approaching Interpretation,” Time and Mind: The Journal of Archaeology, Consciousness and Culture 4, no. 2 (2011), p. 199.

Additional resources

David Coulson and Alec Campbell, African Rock Art: Paintings and Engravings on Stone (New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 2001).

David Coulson and Alec Campbell, “Rock Art of the Tassili n Ajjer, Algeria.” Adoranten, no. 1 (2010), p. 1­15.

Jeremy H. Keenan, “The Lesser Gods of the Sahara.” Public Archaeology 2, no. 3 (2002), pp. 131-50.

Jean ­Dominque Lajoux, The Rock Paintings of Tassili, translated by G. D. Liversage (London: Thames and Hudson, 1963).

Henri Lhote, The Search for the Tassili Frescoes, translated by Alan H. Brodrick (London: Hutchinson & Co., 1959).

Evidence of Ancient Astronauts in the Cave Paintings of Tassili n’Ajjer

Tassili n’Ajjer (Arabic: plateau of the rivers) seems like an endless stretch of unforgiving desert to the modern traveler. It’s a dry and visually harsh looking area, located in south-east Algeria at the borders of Libya, Niger and Mali. However, that initial analysis is somewhat deceiving. Covering more than 28,000 square miles of the Sahara desert and mainly composed of sandstone, Tassili n’Ajjer holds many secrets which have enamored both the scientific community and alien enthusiasts alike. For hidden in the many caves and crevices in the crumbling rock, is a treasure trove of ancient cave paintings and rock art.

Since it’s first discovery in 1910, and later exploration in the 1930’s, scientific teams have been searching the area in earnest. What they discovered on the cave walls, was both amazing and surprising some say the pictures are factual evidence that earth has been visited by alien astronauts. Regardless of which side of the alien debate the researchers took, they agreed that the site was unlike any other. The sheer volume of artwork discovered so far has given the area the distinction as one of the most important sites in the world of its type. The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) concurred. They added Tassili n’Ajjer to the list of World Heritage Sites in 1982, where it currently remains.

The Early Day’s of Discovery

A French soldier named Charles Brennans is credited with some of the initial discoveries in the early 1930’s. While on an exploratory mission in a remote area of the desert, Brennans discovered paintings and rock engravings of elephants, giraffes, rhinoceroses, and strange human figures. He later returned to the area in 1956, accompanied by Henri Lhote, a French explorer and ethnographer, with financial support. Over the next 16 months, Lhote and his team discovered and documented almost 800 paintings.

Lhote later published a book detailing his findings and introduced the hypothesis that the humanoid drawings at Tassili represented ancient alien beings. He named one of the works, Jabbaren and described the drawing as one of the great Martian Gods. But, like any other explorer offering either new or controversial viewpoints, Lhote’s theories were summarily ignored by most mainstream scientists. They instead took the easy and safe route, stating that the pictures were actually humans wearing ritual or ceremonial garb and not extraterrestrial in origin.

Many years later, upon reviewing the drawings he returned from Tassili n’Ajjer with, many modern researchers deemed them misleading. Some even claimed they were fabricated and that Lhote had done damage to the site for personal gain.

The Big Picture Analysis

Ancient cave drawings give modern humans a peek into how our ancestors lived. Most are renditions of everyday life thousands of years ago and include a mixture of animals, plant life, structures, and depictions of routine activities such as hunting or community life. The exhibits at Tassili show all that, plus a little more. It’s undisputable that some of the paintings depict things which are unknown in origin, but certainly not from this planet.

Some of the common depictions initially led to confusion as they included things usually found in areas with more water than the modern desert. However, additional reseach and corroborating evidence has shown the world that the Sahara region wasn’t always a desert. Between 12,000 BC and 4000 BC it was completely different. Where the endless desert lies today, was once a thriving plateau complete with vegetation, ample water sources, and teeming with living things of all shape and sizes.

Archaeologic Analysis

To date, more than 15,000 cave paintings have been catalogued and every different category of researcher agrees that many more existed in the past. Erosion has been the biggest culprit and has taken a huge toll on the ancient collections. Today only 1 in 5 are clearly.

The cave paintings are between 10-15,000 years old. They are very concentrated in a single area and have a unique distinction as compared to other drawings similar in age. Most cave drawings from this era were singular in color usually reddish or black. Some of the ones in Tassili are multi-colored and more artistic looking as can be seen in the picture below.

What Can Be Seen

Many non-living things are pictured, including vegetation, rivers, and jungle plants. Also, drawings of giraffes, ostrich, elephants, oxen, alligators, hippos, humans in various activities and the strange beasts and alien astronauts. The latter category is what has drawn a lot of attention because the mysterious humanoid-like figures are wearing what appear to be gloves and helmets and suits which are reminiscent of the suits worn by modern astronauts. Another picture found is quite controversial, as the drawing shows what appears to be several human women being escorted into a mysterious non-earthly craft. And they are being led by what appears to be a figure wearing a globe-like helmet.

Next to some of the drawings, researchers have also identified a set of unique symbols. Some experts have speculated that these were part of a crude writing system existed in the area 5000 years ago. Mainstream archaeology has been less than accommodating in accepting theses symbols as actual language since it would force changes to the accepted belief that Mesopotamia was the cradle of civilization and writing.

Even though ample drawings exist, the lack of burial artifacts or any other items, such as pottery or other objects of everyday life, have left a gap in the total understanding of the people who created them and what time period they were actually associated with.

The Five Periods In Brief

The art discovered so far has been classified into five distinct periods. The oldest is the “wild fauna” period which depicts fauna of the savannah from 15,000 years ago along with large animals of the period. The “archaic” period, also known as the round head period, is connected to much of the controversy. Archeologists have tried to classify the drawings which are clearly alien in nature as humans dressed in large masks or other items which they claim are religious or ceremonial in nature. Yet many of these beings are seen floating and featureless, which seems to go against the theories presented by the scientific community.

The “pastoral” period is in the middle of the grouping and is where most of the drawings are associated. The dominant feature in this period are herdsmen and pictures of daily life in villages. The equidian or horse period shows a distinct change, especially with the introduction of the horse and fewer large animals being drawn. Shortly afterward came the camel period, which coincides to the domestication of the camel.

The actual dates and order of the five periods are still an issue of debate among researchers as noted previously.

Analyzing The Evidence To Support The Theory

Is it possible, as ancient astronaut theorists suggest, that the natives of the Tassili Caves depicted the ancient astronaut that visited them in the past 10,000 years ago? According to many researchers, it is a possibility.

To support the theory, one must look at ancient artwork found across the world as a basis for comparison. Even the most primitive cultures are known for drawing things they see in their lives there is very little evidence of imaginative artwork. People simply rendered what they saw. Why would people depict fauna, animals, rivers, and people from their area, but then add something they couldn’t see. The ancient people of Tassili were no different and they certainly would not invent humanoid figures with antannea, helmets, or gloves unless they seen them with their own eyes.

We must conclude that extraterrestrial beings must have therefore regularly visited Earth in the distant past and that extraterrestrial beings had regular contact with the ancient inhabitants of the region. There is no evidence of any conflict between these alien beings and the indigenous peoples, so we must assume the relationship was friendly.

In addition as further supporting evidence, The mysterious beings with gloves, boots, and helmets are also seen in the Azyefú, Ti-n-Tazari, and Sefar region. Round headed drawings are found in the Nazca lines in Peru as well.


Many believe that the cave paintings of Tassili are evidence of humanoid-like beings who visited earth in the not so distant past. These beings who came to earth thousands of years ago left their mark in history and our ancestors left us with the proof of their existence it’s up to each one of us to decide whether to believe the evidence or ignore it. I choose to believe.

The Prehistoric Rock Art of Tassili N'Ajjer, Algeria

Tassili n'Ajjer is a vast desert plateau in southern Algeria, stretching from the borders with Niger and Libya to the east, to as far as Amguid in the west, covering an area of 72,000 sq. km. Thousands of years of changing Saharan climate and erosion have created stunning geological features with towering sandstone pillars, deep canyons and more than 300 natural arches.

Tassili n'Ajjer shot into worldwide fame in the 1930s, not for its landscape but for the precious collection of ancient rock art in the area. Since their discovery, more than 15,000 petroglyphs and paintings have been identified representing 10,000 years of human history and environmental change. One of the most striking feature of these petroglyphs is the way they evolved with the change in climate.

Petroglyph depicting a possibly sleeping antelope, located at Tassili n’Ajjer in southern Algeria. Photo credit: Linus Wolf/Wikimedia

The oldest art belongs to the so-called “Large Wild Fauna Period” (10,000-6,000 BC) characterized almost entirely by engravings of animals such as hippopotamus, crocodiles, elephants, giraffes, buffaloes and rhinos, depicting the abundant wildlife at a time when the Sahara was green and fertile. Humans appear as tiny figures dwarfed by the immensity of these animals and are often shown holding boomerangs or throwing sticks, clubs, axes or bows.

Overlapping with this era is the Round Head Period (8,000-6,000 BC) where human figures with elaborate attires took dominance. These figures ranged from a few centimeters to several meters tall. The majority of Round Head paintings portray people with round featureless heads and formless bodies. Some of the pieces seem to suggest shamanism with bodies flying through space or bowing before huge male figures that tower above them.

About 7,000 years ago, domesticated animals began to appear in the art. This period is known as the Pastoral Period. Rock art from this period reflects a changing attitude towards nature and property. Human figures became more prominent, and man was no longer shown as part of nature but portrayed as being above nature, yet able to derive sustenance from it. Wild animals gave way to cattle and stock. Later drawings (3500 years ago) depicts horses and horse-drawn chariots. It’s unlikely that chariots were ever driven across the rocky Sahara, so researchers believe the figures of chariots and armed men are symbolic, representing ownership of land, or control of its inhabitants. As the climate became progressively drier, horses were replaced by camels as evident from the rock art from the most recent period about 2000 years ago.

Tassili N'Ajjer lies about 500 meters above the level of the desert. The plateau can only be reached by climbing on foot, with camping materials and supplies drawn by donkeys and camels. Large diurnal temperature variations and the absence of basic amenities make the trip extremely challenging, so only the young and the hardy attempt to reach it. Recent violence and insecurity in the country have further isolated Tassili N'Ajjer from the routes of most tourists.

Detail of a petroglyph depicting a bubalus anticus. Photo credit: Linus Wolf/Wikimedia

Map of Tassili n'Ajjer

In the crossroads of modern-day Algeria, Libya and Niger, is the vast, the beautiful Tassili n'Ajjer National Park. I booked a two-hour flight from Algiers to Djanet - a 2200km+ journey that would have taken two full days (with rest and sleep stops) by land.

Mr. Hassani (Tinariwen Tours) welcomed me with a gift - a blue scarf - and instantly got me acquainted with how their group is most popularly described, Tuareg or the blue people. That cool February day, Mr. Hassani's indigo robe shone in the gold sand and brown rock forests.

"In the desert," he said, "the wind is the artist," and showed me curious geologic formations and contoured sand dunes. I went to Djanet in search of prehistoric rock art (see photo), and returned with remembrance of solitude and moments of temporary yet much-needed detachment from the material world.


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Tassili-n-Ajjer, area in southern Algeria where prehistoric rock paintings (and many engravings) were discovered first in 1910 and subsequently in the 1930s and ’60s.

A plateau in the central Sahara, the area is characterized by high cliffs, some of which have decorated panels at their base. Scholars and archaeologists have estimated the age of the rock paintings through various indirect methods, including excavations, faunal studies, climatic studies, depiction of types of weapons and chariots, and inscriptions. The age of the earliest images is contested, but scholars generally agree that they date from approximately 7,000 years ago.

The rock paintings at Tassili fall into a series of major styles that form a chronological sequence. Some of the earliest, known as the Round Heads (thus describing their typical human forms), are followed by naturalistic “ Bovidian” paintings, which show numerous pastoral scenes with cattle and herdsmen with bows. The next phase is characterized by the more-schematic figures of the so-called Horse and Camel periods, made when the wheel first appeared about 3,000 years ago.

The engravings include those of an important early school of art, the “ Naturalistic Bubaline,” which was approximately contemporary with the Round Head paintings. These artists used a remarkably naturalistic style to depict domestic cattle and wild animals, including the now-extinct giant buffalo.


The fauna contains both Mediterranean and Saharan Palaearctic species, relicts of a more humid climate: fish, brine shrimp and once even a dwarf crocodile Crocodylus niloticus, far from the nearest population in Egypt: the last crocodile was killed in the Imirhou wadi in the 1940s (Kerzabi, 1986). Remarkably, four species of fish are found in the lower pools near Iherir: Tilapia zillii being the commonest, with Barbus biscarensis, B. ablabes and the air-breathing mudfish Clarias anguillaris. The herpetofauna includes monitor lizard, Varanus griseus, green toad Pseudepidalea viridis, and the frogs Ptychadina occipitalis and P.mascariensis (Hughes & Hughes, 1992 Fishpool et al., 2003). There is a dense but not species-rich invertebrate fauna, with relict Afrotropical and Palaearctic species including large numbers of spiders and insects dragonflies include Orthetrum ransonneti and O.sabina (Aguilar et al., 1986).

The 23 or so larger mammals are more typical of arid climates. These include the rare Saharan cheetah Acinonyx jubatus hecki (CR), striped hyaena Hyaena hyaena, Rueppel&rsquos fox Vulpes rueppelli, fennec fox Vulpes zerda, caracal Felis caracal, reed cat Felis chaus and sand cat F.margarita, slender-horned gazelle Gazella leptoceros (EN, IUCN 2010), dorcas gazelle Gazella dorcas (VU, Hughes & Hughes, 1992) and ruffled mouflon or Barbary sheep Ammotragus lervia (VU), once thought extinct in the area. Locally threatened species include Val&rsquos gundi mouse Ctenodactylus vali, Ahaggar hyrax Heterohyrax brucei antinae (EUJRC, 2010) and rock hyrax Procavia capensis (de Smet, 1984). Addax Addax nasomaculatus (CR) have disappeared from the region and the scimitar-horned oryx Oryx dammah (EX), present in the early 1980s, became extinct in the wild by 2000 (IUCN, 2006).

The entire region is important for resting migratory Palaearctic birds. Species recorded in the area include golden eagle Aquila chrysaetos, long-legged buzzard Buteo rufinus, bittern Botaurus stellaris, little bittern Ixobrychus minutus, night heron Nycticorax nycticorax, squacco heron Ardeola ralloides, purple heron A. purpurea, white stork Ciconia ciconia, glossy ibis Plegadis falcinellis, short-toed eagle Circaetus gallicus, lesser kestrel Falco naumanni (VU), hobby F. subbuteo, corncrake Crex crex, spotted crake Porzana porzana, pharaoh eagle-owl Bubo ascalaphus, stone curlew Burhinus oedicnemus, quail Coturnix coturnix, Lichtenstein&rsquos sandgrouse Pterocles lichtensteinii and fulvous babbler Turdoides fulvus (Ledant et al., 1985). Breeding bird species include Palaearctic marsh birds such as coot Fulica atra and moorhen Gallinula chloropus, as well as a relict sub-species of Barbary partridge Alectoris barbara duprezii (Ledant & Jacob, 1982 de Smet, 1989 Fishpool & Evans, 2001).

Because of the altitude and the water-holding properties of the sandstone, the vegetation here is somewhat richer than in the surrounding desert it includes a very scattered woodland of the endangered endemic species Saharan Cypress and Saharan Myrtle in the higher eastern half of the range.

The ecology of the Tassili n'Ajjer is more fully described in the article West Saharan montane xeric woodlands, the ecoregion to which this area belongs. The literal English translation of Tassili n'Ajjer is 'Plateau of the rivers' referring to a time when the climate was repeatedly far wetter than it is today (see Neolithic Subpluvial).

Relict populations of the West African crocodile persisted in the Tassili n'Ajjer until the 20th century. [4]

Watch the video: Rock-Art Sites of Tadrart Acacus UNESCONHK