What does early African art look like?
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Early African Art

Blombos Cave ocher
Geometric lines engraved on red ocher stone
(Blombos Cave, South Africa, about 80,000 BC)

People were producing art in South Africa even before the first people left Africa for other parts of the world. The earliest art we know about comes from Blombos Cave in South Africa, where there are carvings and bead jewelry from about 80,000 BC. After that, however, there's a big gap. By about 27,000 BC, San people, also in South Africa, may have been painting pictures of people and animals on rock walls (It's hard to date rock walls.).

Cats rock carving
Wadi Methkandoush cats
Sahara Desert, ca. 10,000 BC (modern Libya)

African art picks up steam when we begin to find art made in northern Africa. First there are rock carvings of animals in the Sahara Desert, possibly as early as 10,000 BC or so. These rock carvings are found all the way across the Sahara Desert, from Egypt to Niger. Some of the carvings show people, while others show cats or giraffes or other animals. In Nubia (modern Sudan), there are rock carvings from about 4000 BC. These Saharan carvings are the ancestors of later Egyptian carvings. The figures are carved in profile (seen from the side), and they stand one picture on top of another in registers (like comic strips).

Niger giraffe rock carving
Rock carving of giraffes. Tenere Desert (modern Niger), 10,000-7000 BC

By 3000 BC, Egyptian artists were doing very similar carving, but thanks to farming Egypt was richer and could afford better trained artists and more time spent on each carving. The tomb carvings in the Pyramids and other tombs from Old Kingdom Egypt are also carved in stone, in profile, and in registers, but they are carved on built stone walls, instead of into natural rock.

Kerma head
Head from Kerma (modern Sudan),
about 1600 BC.

By about 2500 BC, the artists of Kerma (along the Nile River in northern Sudan) were producing art in styles related to the Egyptian art to their north.

Like the Egyptians, the artists of Kerma made blue faience statuettes. But the Kerma statuettes clearly show African hair and features.

Learn by Doing - African art project
More about Iron Age African Art

Bibliography and further reading about African art:

Or check out this article on African art in the Encyclopedia Britannica (unfortunately there's not much on early African art though).

More about Iron Age African Art
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Karen Carr is Associate Professor Emerita, Department of History, Portland State University. She holds a doctorate in Classical Art and Archaeology from the University of Michigan. Follow her on Instagram or Twitter, or buy her book, Vandals to Visigoths.
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