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Ancient Rock Art Reveals That the Sahara Desert Was a Green Paradise 4000 Years Ago

Rock art found in Atbai desert as part of an archaeological survey reveals the presence of a green paradise in the past
PUBLISHED MAY 13, 2024
Cover Image Source: Sage Pub- Painted rock art at site AS19.100.
Cover Image Source: Sage Pub- Painted rock art at site AS19.100.

Rock art has opened up a window into a past that sheds light on the origin of humanity and civilization. But it can also raise questions on things that people have believed in for a long time. This is what happened with the prehistoric rock art found in the Atbai Desert in Eastern Sudan, as published in Sage Journals. They were analyzed as a part of the Atbai Survey Project conducted in the region of the flat deserts between Gebel Rafit and Wadi Halfa, especially around the massif of Gebel Nahoganet and Nasb Enat between 2018 and 2019. But the arid desert has been depicted as fertile land in the paintings, and this means that the land was once filled with water, pastures, and animal life. The artwork dates back to 4000 years, which isn't such a long time in the context of Earth's history. The discovery sheds light on how things could change drastically over a period of time, especially when climate change and desertification is affecting several regions across the globe. 

Image Source: Sage Pub-New sites discovered in the Atbai Survey Project (red dots) with sites surveyed by previous missions in yellow dots. The purple line is the route of the 2018 season and the blue line the route of the 2019 season.
Image Source: Sage Pub- New sites discovered in the Atbai Survey Project (red dots) with sites surveyed by previous missions in yellow dots. The purple line is the route of the 2018 season and the blue line the route of the 2019 season.

The study has been conducted by archaeologists at Macquarie University and is important as the expanse of the area had made it hard for archaeologists to analyze the region. They have studied 16 rock art sites in the deserts around Wadi Halfa, a city in northern Sudan near the border with Egypt. The art featured illustrations of humans, antelopes, elephants, and giraffes. This implies a lot of hustle and bustle in the surroundings, which are now inhabited mostly by nomadic tribes. There is also a recurrent appearance of cattle in the art, which indicates that farming was an occupation of the people in those parts. At present, the region receives almost no rainfall, as reported by IFL, and this makes the prospect of cattle pastoralism an impossible dream for people inhabiting the place. “It was puzzling to find cattle carved on desert rock walls as they require plenty of water and acres of pasture, and would not survive in the dry and arid environment of the Sahara today,” Dr Julien Cooper, a researcher who led a team of archaeologists in 2018 and 2019 on the Atbai Survey Project, said in a statement.

Image Source: SagePub- The ‘tunnel’ at AS19.26
Image Source: Sage Pub- The ‘tunnel’ at AS19.26

In Cooper's opinion, the paintings show that somewhere along the line of these 4000 years, it was a "Green Sahara." Prior archaeological and climatic fieldwork have talked about the ‘African humid period.’ This period began approximately 15,000 years ago and ended roughly 5,000 years ago. During this time, the Sahara region received increased rainfall because of periodic variations in the Earth's orbit around the Sun. The region as per the studies enjoyed green pastures covered in freshwater lakes. The artworks corroborate these findings. 

Image Source: Sage Pub- Painted rock art at site AS19.100.
Image Source:Sage Pub- Painted rock art at site AS19.100.

Once, the period ended the lakes and rivers dried up, and sand took hold of dead pastures, causing the human population to leave the Sahara for refuge closer to the Nile. “The Atbai Desert around Wadi Halfa, where the new rock art was discovered, became almost completely depopulated. For those who remained, cattle were abandoned for sheep and goats,” explained Dr Cooper. “This would have had major ramifications on all aspects of human life – from diet and limited milk supplies, migratory patterns of herding families, and the identity and livelihood of those who depended on their cattle.”

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