In about 6000 b. c., what is now the Sahara Desert was a land of fertile green fields, lush valleys alive with all manner of plants and animals, and flowing rivers filled with fish. It was also the home to a series of highly advanced societies whose identity is unknown to historians. In fact, most of what modern people do know about these ancient Saharans comes from the artwork they painted and carved on stone surfaces throughout the desert.
These paintings provide evidence of extensive wildlife in the region, including giraffe, elephants, and cattle. Later scenes show camels. Other pieces illustrate the cultural and political life of the ancient Sahara, including dances, rituals, battles, and the workings of justice. One particularly complex piece portrays judges, police, jailers, and officials, with a man at the center who was apparently found guilty of a crime. Only a highly
Advanced civilization could have such a formal justice system.
Another painting, obviously from the Herder period, looks as if it were painted in the a. d.1800s—but it is more likely a product of the 1800s b. c. The women in the picture are clearly wealthy and relatively pampered, with complex hairdos. These details indicate that the people of the ancient Sahara had mastered their environment and were well past the point of merely surviving.
After 2000 b. c., the Sahara began to dry up, and the human population almost completely disappeared. If the paintings had been in a tropical rainforest environment, they might have been ruined; as it was, the dry desert air preserved them. Nor did they suffer the fate of Egyptian or chinese treasures stolen by graverobbers. The Saharan rock art was hard to get to, protected by nests of
Sea to the “Horn of Africa” and intermarried with the peoples living there. Thus even today, the peoples of the Horn, particularly in modern Ethiopia and Somalia (soh-MAHL-ee-uh), have physical features which distinguish them from the peoples living further south.
Regarding the name “Ethiopia,” it should be noted that as with Armenia and Macedonia, it refers both to a modern nation and to an ancient region, yet these are not exactly the same. The term Ethiopian is derived from a Greek expression meaning “burned skin”—suggesting a dark complexion.
Poisonous snakes and miles of forbidding sand dunes.
The world owes a great debt to French explorer Henri Lhote (ahn-REE LAWT), who in 1956 discovered a great collection of rock art at Tassili n'Ajjer (tah-SEEL-ee nah-ZHAYR) deep in the desert. Lhote and his team of artists made it possible for everyone to see the great treasures of the Sahara without going there. Photographing the artwork would not do, especially because many pieces were in dark caves and their colors had faded; therefore he and the others painstakingly copied some 800 works of art, restoring original colors. This was a particularly difficult task given the nature of the environment. Not only was it hard to get to Tassili and other sites, but, in copying the art, members of the team often had to stand on tiptoe or lie on their backs while they worked.
The treasures of the Sahara are more valuable than diamonds. During the late twentieth century, people more interested in money than history (the modern counterparts of the ancient grave robbers) began looting artwork from sites in Morocco. Using crowbars, they removed pictures to sell them in Europe. In response to these and other abuses, the Moroccan Ministry of Cultural Affairs and groups such as the Trust for African Rock Art began working to preserve the treasures of the Sahara.
David Coulson, cofounder of the Trust for African Rock Art, published an article called "Ancient Art of the Sahara," in the June 1999 National Geographic. The group also works to preserve prehistoric artwork in other parts of the continent, including South Africa, where the Bushmen left a rich legacy of rock art before they were displaced by the Bantu peoples.
In ancient times, the entire region south of Egypt was often described as "Ethiopia;" indeed, that name was often used to describe all of Africa below Egypt.
Later, the Greek historian Herodotus, describing the multinational force with which the Persians invaded Greek in 480 B. C., noted the presence of both straight-haired "eastern Ethiopians," and curly-haired "western Ethiopians"—the latter dressed in lion skins—among the Persian army. These terms must have referred to Aksumites and Kushites respectively: though neither nation had been conquered by the Persian
Empire, it is possible the Persians recruited “Ethiopian” warriors for their forces.