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Prehistoric swimmers in the Sahara

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Abstract and Figures

The Neolithic Age underwent a long period when atmospheric conditions made life impossible in the desert. A less arid stage followed over several millennia when desert populations began to settle and civilizations developed. Then a period of renewed dryness set in and these populations were forced to emigrate to the south and also east toward the Nile Valley.
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48
Prehistoric
Swimmers
in
the
Sahara
The
Neolithic Age underwent a long period when atmospher
ic
conditions made life impossible
in
the desert. A
less
arid stage
followed over several millennia when desert populations began to
settle and civilizations developed. Then a period
of
renewed dryness
set
in
and these populations were forced
to
emigrate
to
the south
and also east toward the Nile Valley.
Recent,
twenty-first century discoveries have given
rise
to
a
series
of
new questions. Were these movements really
as
one-directional
as
previously believed? Could a return
to
the desert have been possible
in
spite
of
the extreme drought conditions that caused the initial
exodus? And,
what
overwhelming attraction could have driven these
people
to
re-confront
such
conditions?
Journey
to
a Mysterious destination
Eastern
Libya,
western Egypt, and northern Sudan contain
what
are
probably the most arid and mysterious massifs and dunes on the
planet: the
Eastern
Sahara.
Toward the end
of
the eighteenth century,
archaeologists led explorations
of
the Nile Valley and the shores
of
the
Mediterranean but ignored the desert zones .
This
mirrored the
partiality
of
the Egyptians
who
avoided the desert because they feared
it. However, much
has
changed since then.
The
search
for
hydrocarbons
in
the twentieth century have led
to
the exploration
of
reg
ions traditionally difficult
to
reach, including the Central
Sahara.
The
two
focal points
of
the Nile and the Central
Sahara,
each
situated
on either
side
of
the
Eastern
Sahara,
had attracted their
share
of
attention at the expense
of
the Libyan desert, which had sunk into
relative oblivion. Nevertheless, a handful
of
explorers ventured into
this part
of
the
Sahara
during the last century
in
an
effort to unravel
the mysteries
of
this
un
spoiled region. What could
be
hidden
in
these
steep
slopes,
these insurmountable dunes, these legendary places
evoked by Bedouin over a steaming pot
of
tea while huddled around
a fire at night?
The
lost and opulent
oasis
of
ZerzOra?
A secret
passage
to
faraway lands 7
Title
pages: Wadi S
ora,
the Cave o f Swimmers, disco
ve
red by
La
szlo
E.
Almasy in 1933.
Fig.
1.
Two
ca
ve
s of Wadi
So
r
a,
southw est
of
the m ountainous pl
at
eau
of
Gilf Ke
bi
r:
the
Cave
of Swimmers and, on
th
e right, the Cave
of
Arche
rs
.
Pauline
de
Flers.
Philippe
de
Flers,
and
Jean-loi'c
Le
Quellec
Fig. 2. Entrance to the
Cave
of
Animals.
The
left side
is
dotted
with negative hands, a
foot
(which
is
very rare
),
and enigmatic figure
s.
50
Kufra
Oasis
..
Inselberg
./'\.. Adorned
Shelters
o
Isolated
Massif
Plateau
Dunes
Trail
of
Abu
Baiias
1
L.Ll
u.q
I-
)-IQ..
00:>-
::::q
\..?
I
'UJ
1
1
1
1
1
1
1
1
1
1
1
·Siwa
Zonedu
verre /ibyque
M r
M
Ouadi e/·Obeiyd
../\.
Farafra
Regenfe/d
d
f'\..
Ojara
EGYPTE
a n
e
.....-:
I""'"!"l
.
"'
_____________________________________________________________
_
el· SOUDAN
Jebel Kisu
e
Cave
of
the Hands
Fig.
3.
Entrance to the
Cave
of
Animals, studded
with
paintings and engravings in the high
parT.
The
stretch
of
land that runs roughly parallel
to
the Nile
is
dotted at
regular intervals
with
oases.
One
of
these, Dakhla,
is
of
particular
importance. Excavations carried
out
there by the
French
Institute
of
Oriental Archaeology
(IFAO)
unearthed the city
of
Ain Asil, a
governorate
as
well
as
a commercial and military passageway that
Pauline
de
Flers,
Philippe
de
Fler.;.
and
Jean-lolc
le
Quellec
I
dates back to the sixth Pharaonic dynasty. A major Egyptian garrison
would probably
have
been posted there to maintain order and
monitor commercial exchange.
It
also appears that missions were sent
out
beyond the
oasis
.
In
spite
of
their fears, they traveled unexpected
distances through the desert and into the territory
of
the god
Seth.
52
I
Prehistoric
Swimmers
in
the
Sahara
Milestones
in
the
Long
Journey West
A German doctor, Carlo Bergmann , embarked
on
a long journey
by
camel that began
in
the 1990s.
In
search
of
the smallest clues to this
past,
he
came upon ancient routes that
st
retched over great distances
in
rectilinear patterns that could only
have
derived from ancient and
recurrent donkey tracks, different from the winding and more recent
camel routes. Dromedaries were introduced
to
Egypt only
in
the first
millennium before the common
era,
replacing donkeys
as
the beast
of
choice
for
more lengthy journeys.
Th
e remains found along these
still-visible ancient routes deserve the attention
of
archaeologists.
Mery's
Ro
ck,
the fir
st
milestone, forms
an
arch and
is
about fifty
kilometers southwest
of
Dakhla .
On
it, hieroglyphic inscriptions
discovered by Wally
Lama
in 1990 provide evidence that such
an
Egyptian incursion took place under the Ancient Kingdom : "In the
year
23
of
the Kingdom: the steward Mery,
he
goes up to meet the
oasis-dwellers.
"1
On
the Khufu (Cheops
in
Greek) site, still about one hundred
kilometers southwest of Dakhla, is a natural stone terrace protected
by a ridge that was discovered
by
Dr.
Bergmann
in
the year 2000 and
studied by Rudolphe Kuper
of
the Barth Institute
of
Cologne.
The
hieroglyphic inscriptions inform
us
that
an
inspector by the name
of
Bebi
led
two
expeditions here
in
search
of
"mefat"
(a
mineral
pigment or powder) that was probably
used
to produce paint for
tombs
in
the Nile
Valley.
This
passage
dates from the year 25 or 26
of
the reign
of
the pha raoh
who
built the Great Pyramid, Khufu,
depicted here in
red.
He
wears the crown
of
Upper Egypt and
is
accompanied by the cartouche
of
his
son
and
successor,
Redjedef. A
su
pply
of
grilled grasshoppers dated by radiocarbon 14
to
2610 B.e.
confirms the period
of
this incursion .
Fig.
4.
Site
of
the most recent discovery
by
an Italian-Egyptian
2002
expedition led by
Massimo Foggin
i,
the
Cave
of
Animals, situated above the remains
of
a Paleofithic lake site.
Pauline
de
Flers. Philippe
de
Flers.
and
Jean-Lolc
le
QueJleJ
Fig. 5. Delightful images
of
adult hands with
ch
ildren 's hands shown within them.
54
I
Prehistoric
Swimmers
in
the
Sahara
The
next stage
is
Abu
Ballas,
which was discovered
by
John
Ball
in
1918. It
is
located over
two
hundred kilometers from Dakhla, at the
foot
of
a hill known
as
"The Father
of
Pots" where lie hundreds
of
earthenware jars from the sixth dynasty.
In
193
3,
the Hungarian
explorer
La
sz
lo
E.
Almasy suggested
that
Abu
Ballas
may have served
as
a depot, ideally located about a third
of
the distance between the
oases
of
Dakhla
in
Egypt and Kufra
in
Libya. The amphorae,
too
heavy
to
be transported when full,
would
have been initially supplied by one
caravan and then refilled and used by another before continuing the
Fig.
6.
View
of
the main scene
of
the
cave,
showing swimmers moving
toward
an animal.
Journey.
Dr.
Bergmann continues
to
discover remnants
of
ancient
sites-around
thirty
so
far-which
comprise
what
is
now
called the
"Abu
Ballas
Trail."
Some
of
the broken Egyptian amphorae
are
engraved, one endearingly illustrated with a donkey.
The
possible
existence
of
ochre mines, situated some fifty kilometers
away,
could
perhaps explain the nature
of
the"
mefat" sought
by
the
Bebi
at the
request
of
Kh
ufu.
Pauline
de
Flers,
Phillppe
de Flers.
and
Jean-LoIc
Le
QUelleJ
Finally,
the furthest stage known today
is
the mountainous plateau
of
Gilf Kebir or "The Great Barrier," situated south
of
the Great
Sand
Sea.
It contains engraved and painted
caves
and sheltered inlets
unique
in
the
Sahara.
Fig. 7. Figures
and
swimmers, with one
of
the distend
ed
bodies highli
ghted
.
-56
I
Prehistoric
Swimmers
in
the
Sahara
A
Mythical
Place:
Wadi
Sora
(fig.
1)
There
are
two
caves
(fig.
2) here
that
contain paintings
of
entirely
original themes: hands associated
with
small swimmers and strange
creatures.
The
same
hand motifs recur
in
other small inlets
in
the
vicinity, although additional swimmers
have
yet to
be
found.
Hands
in
the
Hundreds
The
hands
are
almost
all
negative images (fig.
5),
obtained
by
placing
the palm with fingers spread against a wall and blowing ochre paint
around them,
as
opposed to the
several
positive specimens made
by
daubing painted hands against a wall
(a
process
rarely
used
in
this
region).
The
hand theme
is
not original
in
itself
as
it appears
in
numerous prehistoric
sites
around the world; yet these images remain
enigmatic and lack a satisfactory interpretation to this
day.
Of the
two
caves,
the walls that the team
of
Massimo Foggini
discovered
in
2002, called the "cave
of
animals",
are
decorated with
several
hundred hands (figs 3, 4
and
5).
Isolated or
in
pairs,
horizontal or vertical, these hands sometimes
have
tucked or
additional fingers, some extend from a clearly indicated fore arm, and
others
are
placed near negative images
of
feet. There
are
even
so
me
delightfully tiny hands placed
in
the palm
of
larger ones, the
la
tter
belonging to children and even babies
(fig.
5).
Fig
.
8.
Scene set around a fissure. evoking a false reflection
or
possibly an imagined Image
of
the
world
of
the dead.
The Famous Swimmers
In
Wadi
Sora,
hands sometimes appear
as
a background for
subsequent paintings, notably those
of
the renowned swimmers that
Almasy discovered
in
1933 and romantically depicted
in
the film
The
English
Patient.
These
swimmers
are
noted for their horizontal
position and arms stretched
out
before them,
with
the exception
of
one
in
a vertical position, like a diver. Their bodies
are
abnormally
distended,
with
bloated stomachs and sometimes a yellow-colored
doubling. Together they move in a line toward a strange animal
(figs. 7 and 9).
What
can
swimmers floating
in
this desert world represent?
Is
this a fresco from
an
ancient time when water was abundant? Then
why only here, when numerous other
wadi,
in
far greater abundance,
flowed throughout the
Sahara
during this period!
Pauline
de
Flers.
Philippe
de
Flers.
and
Jean-t.oi"c
Le
QUelleJ
Are the swimmers shamans
in
a trance, whose flying or floating
bodies portray the transformation they experience
on
their ritual
voyage? Three arguments refute this popular hypothesis:
(1)
there
is
no proof
of
shaman-like traditions
in
the
Sahara
before the Middle
Ages;
(2)
no reliable evidence exists
of
prehistoric paintings that depict
a shamanic experience; and, finally,
(3)
if
this were
an
illustration
of
a
Fig. 9. A long line
of
swimmers with distended bodies move toward the right
of
the
cave
where, depicted a little lower, a strange
and
probably mythical creature awaits them.
58
I
Prehistoric
Swimmers
in
the
Sahara
trance provoked
by
the ingestion
of
hallucinogenic plants, none
of
the
plants required
for
this purpose grew
in
the region.
What then
dei
the swimmers signify? They appear only in large and
relatively deep
caves,
such
as
the
two
at Wadi
Sora,
which
are
exceptional
in
the
Sahara
and contrast
with
the smaller and more
common rocky inlets. Ancient Egyptian funerary texts draw particular
attention to the world
of
caves, described
as
a resting place for the
dead that
is
both aquatic and associated
with
the depths
of
the Earth.
The
Coffin
Texts
inform
us
that the dead resided
in
such
caves,
with
Anubis
as
gatekeeper.
The
Book
of
Caverns also highlights the
sacred
aspect
of
these locations
as
obligatory
passages
into the next world.
Is
it
possible that the swimmers belong
to
the world
of
the dead, also
known
as
the Nun, the name given
to
the primordial waters? Many
funerary texts evoke this Afterlife, this Nun, which
is
both chthonic
and aquatic; the dead
who
dwell here
are
called
nni.
w, a term
signifying deceased, drowned, drifting, floating, or swimming.
Oh
drowned ones, sunk into dark
in
Nun, whose arms
are
at the height
of
your
faces,
oh
you whose faces
are
overturned
in
the netherworld, whose dorsal vertebrae
are
in
the water, oh you,
who
float on Nun,
as
persons lying
on
their back
...
breath belongs to your souls
...
Swimming-
movement belong to your arms
...
You
are
these
who
are
in
Nun, the drowned ones 2
These
funerary traditions appear
to
evoke the swimmers
of
Wadi
Sora.
Indeed, this idea becomes more probable given the proxi
mit
y
of
figures depicted upside down, which could illustrate the
pass
age
in
to
the Afterlife,
as
death was commonly imagined
as
the inverse
of
life.
Among the commendations
in
the Book
of
the Dead, chapter
51
contains"
a formula for not going upside
down"
and
"for
not eating
excrement
in
the underworld." Of course, these Egyptian tex
ts
arrived
much later than our paintings, which
are
estimated
to
date from 4500
years
before our
era,
which, in turn,
poses
a number
of
questio
ns
in
terms
of
transmission. Could there
be
other
clues?
Fig.
10.
Illustration
of
an
exceptional feature discovered in the
Cave
of
Animals: the
simultaneous presence
of
negative hands, swimm
ers,
and a mythical creature constrained
by yellow nets.
These
three elements actually evoke images described in the ancient
Egyptian
world
of
the dead.
60
'
prehistoric
Swimmers
in
the
Sahara
)
Strange Creatures
What
is
the fate
of
our swimmers? Where are they headed?
In
both
caves,
in
an
orderly line and most frequently from left
to
right (figs. 7
and
9),
the swimmers move toward
an
animal whose hybrid features
render
it
unidentifiable, being both human and animal.
The
swimmers
appear tiny
in
comparison
to
this large-bodied monster:
it
has
unusual hollow
in
its rump, a tail that generally ends
with
a
tuft
like
that
of
a feline and, most noticeably, at the other end
of
this
appendix, there
is
no apparent head! Indeed, the swimmers move
precisely toward the place where the monster's mouth would normally
be,
and
several
of
them appearA6'have been voraciously swallowed.
Upon
discoyery6fthe
first creature
in
1933,
it
was believed that the
lack
of
head was due
to
part
of
the wall crumbling away, It was not
until 2002 that the indexing
of
around thirty creatures enabled
us
to
clarify its anatomy and note the systematic absence
of
a head and the
unrealistic hollow along the spine,
as
well
as
to
eventually grasp its
mythical properties,
From
as
early
as
the Ancient Kingdoms, Egyptian funerary texts such
as
the Coffin
Texts
and the Book
of
the Dead contain a judgment
scene
in the Afterlife that describes a composite monster, a human-
crocodile-lion-hippopotamus also known
as
"the
swallower." Chapter
163 specifies the hymn that the
deceaseD
must recite
"to
be
saved
from the devourer
of
souls": upon meeting this monster, the
deceased-swimmer drifting
in
the primordial ocean must
say
to
him,
"Your name
is
Devourer. , . . Do
not
eat
me!"
"
Malevolent Nets
If additional proof was needed
to
connect the iconography
of
Wadi
Sora
and
the <lncient funerary texts,
it
would be found
in
the fact that
at least eight
of
these monstrous creatures are caught up
in
a type
of
net
of
white and often yellow mesh (fig. 10), along
with
certain
swimmers
with
striped bodies. What
is
the purpose
of
these nets?
The
Book
of
the Dead gives
us
another key : in the ocean
of
Nun,
cynocephalous (dog-headed) divinities
use
these nets
to
fish
out
the
evil swimmer-spirits and thereby prevent them from reaching the
Afterlife. Hence Chapter 153
of
the Book
of
the Dead contains
formulae
to
be
recited
in
order
to
avoid capture by them: "You, the ,
fishers
of
nni.w, do not catch in this, your net, in which you take
up the fallen dead."
In
all, this leads
us
to
believe that the swimmers depicted
in
these .
paintings are drowned persons
who
dwell in the world
of
the dead,
that
is,
in
the Nun, the primordial ocean inhabited
by
a mythical
animal that devours the evil ones among them.
Here,
too, the
deceased-swimmers confront the treacherous nets
used
to
catch
wicked beings: both the "evil dead" and the voracious creatures,
Taken
together, these images provide a description
of
the fate
of
the
dead,
an
illustration
of
the path leading
to
the Afterlife, a
revealed
to
us
several millennia later
in
the Egyptian funerary texts ,
Was
Wadi
Sora
the final destination
of
desert pilgrims, the ultimate
stage
of
a path that
passed
through Abu
Ballas?
We consider ·the
great"
cave
of
animals," the jewel
of
this
wadi,
to
be
an
exceptional
site, decorated by many generations
of
Neolithic artists before
it
was
abandoned after the climatic deterioration that began around the
fifth millennium before our era. It remained,
in
the memory
of
the
ancient inhabitants
who
fled the increasingly barren climate, a Mecca
for pilgrims, a founding site that prompted their return despite the
dangers
it
entailed, until the day the aridity rendered
it
definitively
inaccessible.
Thus,
over time, the path from the Nile, toward the
faraway desert was
lost
The
myth, however, was
not
forgotten and
is
likely
to
have
permeated, Egyptian beliefs. 3
f'auline
de
Flers,
Philippe
de
Flers,
and
Jean-Lo"'c Le
Quellec
'--
................
BIOGRAPHIES
Pauline
de
Flers
received
a
Ph.
D.
in
psychology.
She
is
a photographer.
an
enthusiast
of
'-"
pictorial art and
human
portrayal, and a
lover
of
the
sea,
even
the
Great
Sand
Sea.
She
has
followed
the
tracks
of
a woman-swimmer
(revealed
by Henri
Lhote)
all
the
way
to
Wadi
Sora.
Philippe
de
Flers
received
a
Ph.D.
in
engineering and managelllent.
He
is
an
amateur
photographer who
has
been
captiva
ted
by
deserts
from
the
Sinai
to
the
Libyan
Desert
via
Wadi
Hammat.
He
is
fascinated by written
forms
and
was
co-laureate
of
the
1985
Nicephore
Niepce
Prize
.
Jean,Loic
Le
Quellec
is
a mythologist, a prehistorian, and a
specialist
in
Afrkan rock art.
He
is
head
of
research
at
CNRS
(Centre
Emile
Cartaifhac
,
UMR
5608) and president
of
the
Amis
de
rArt
Rupestre
Saharien
(AARS).
He
is
the
author
of
about twenty
bOoks
and over
two
hundred
articles
in
specialized
reviews.
NOTES
1.
Translation
by
GOnther
8urkard,
University
of
Munich,
see
hnp'llwwwcarlo-bergmann de!djsc2004lartikel hIm
..
"Meet"
can
mean
"greet-
or -to meet
in
battle, "
an
ambiguity that should
be
2.
Am Duat
X,
79
sqq.
3.
This
article
is
based
on
the
authors' recently
et gravures d 'avanl
les
pharaons. Collection:
Etudes
de
France,
No
. 7
(Paris:
Fayard-Soleb,
2005). On 12 May
2006,
the
Of
the
Institut
de
France
from
the
Academie
des
Inscriptions et s
elr8i!lt1!Tes
.
-
61
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نشر الدكتور حمدي عبد المنعم عباس في عام ٢٠٠٩ مقالاً في العدد الرابع من حولية أبجديات، يهدف إلى تعريف الفن الصخري والدور المهم الذي يؤديه هذا النوع من البقايا الأركيولوجية في دراسة جانب مهم من تاريخ الجنس البشري قبل ظهور الكتابة. ويأتي هذا المقال استجابة للدعوة التي أطلقها الدكتور حمدي عباس سلفًا؛ حيث يقدم المقال الذي بين أيدينا قائمة بالأعمال البحثية الخاصة بالفن الصخري في منطقة الصحراء في الفترة بين عام ٢٠١٠ وعام ٢٠١٤ ؛ أما الأعمال التي أجريت قبل تلك الفترة فيمكن الرجوع إليها من خلال الاطلاع على مؤلفات دكتور ألفريد موزوليني في الفترة بين عام ١٩٩٠ وعام ١٩٩٩ ، وكذلك الاطلاع على مؤلفاتي في الفترة بين عام ٢٠٠٠ وعام ٢٠٠٩.
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