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9 October 2005
African rock art under threat

At Kakapel (Kenia) there are two markedly different manmade etchings on a rock face: one, dating back thousands of years and featuring the outline of an elephant, is a sign that this hilltop in western Kenya was a special gathering place for early Africans. The other, no more than a few years old, featuring the names "DENNIS" and "PATRICK," is a sign that Africa's rock art is under threat.
     Whoever carved those names seems to have disregarded the site's status as a cultural treasure. Authorities responded to the defacement by erecting warning signs and metal fencing around the rock face and declaring it a monument. But that has not stopped numerous copycats from slipping under the bars and scrawling their names into posterity.
     In Africa, there is a lack of oversight at many of the rock art sites, leading experts to offer a grim prognosis for their future. "It's very endangered," said David Coulson, the founder and chairman of the Trust for African Rock Art, a preservation group that sponsored a conference on the problem in Nairobi last fall. "Populations are rising so fast, and sites that were in wild, uninhabited areas have development growing around them. So you have graffiti, the single biggest threat."
     Experts have long traced or photographed rock art images so they will at least be remembered once they are gone. The rock art trust has built a digital photographic archive of many of the fast-fading images, said Mr. Coulson, a photographer who has documented rock art in more than 20 African nations. Efforts are also under way to educate people who live among the ancient art about the value of the sites.
     The rock art sites across Africa may number in the hundreds of thousands, experts say; their paintings and engravings, some 10,000 years old and perhaps much older, are spread over vast areas, often in inhospitable terrain. The most striking sites in the Sahara and in southern Africa, once known only to locals, are now being discovered by outsiders.
     Unlike the rock art buried deep in caves in southern Europe, African art was painted and etched on rock faces far more exposed to the elements - and the public. Looting of the treasures also seems more commonplace. Early explorers of Africa chipped away the rock paintings and carted them off to museums. Such looting still occurs, carried out by private collectors and their middlemen. Niger has dispatched guards on camels to patrol its farflung desert sites, but the area is so vast that they cannot possibly keep a close eye on the art. Morocco is another nation where vandalism has been fierce.
     The African rock sites often still play a role in local communities. Experts have found food offerings outside painted sites in Zimbabwe and learned of church services and traditional circumcision ceremonies at sites in Kenya and Tanzania. In the Air Mountains of Niger, thousand-year-old life-size engravings have been retouched by locals in recent years, something that experts tend not to regard as typical defacement. One theory is that the engravings, on a still-used caravan route, were recolored to reactivate the power of the original images and protect modern-day caravans.

Source: New York Times (8 October 2005)

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