Egyptian Palaeolithic Rock Art Found At Qurta, Kom Ombo

Nice story from Al-Ahram Weekly, on the recent discovery of a stunning array of engraved rock art at Qurta in Upper Egypt, which may be 15,000 years old, making it contemporary with the Magdalenian era of north western Europe, whose most well known sites from this era are Lascaux and Altamira, amongst a host of others; moreover there is an apparent stylistic similarity with its northern neighbours.

However, this rock art isn’t situated deep within caves, instead being engraved onto large rocks at an open air site; the engraved figures are described as being in pristine condition – it’s worth bearing in mind that although Egypt has been viewed as an essentially sun-drenched realm since the golden days of its dynastic civilisation, there is evidence of significant rainfall and flooding there between about 10,000 bp and 5,000 bp, and again between about 4,000 bp and 3,000 bp., so the preservation of outdoor sites as ancient as this, is all the more remarkable.

Here’s a description of the find made by the team of Belgian archaeologists from the Royal Museum of Art and History, funded out of Yale University, who have announced the news of this find…

“The story of the discovery began two months ago when a Belgian archaeological mission from the Royal Museum of Art and History, financed by Yale University, resumed its intensive archaeological survey on the Nubian-sandstone cliffs at Qurta. While carrying out their routine survey, excavators stumbled upon three rock art sites spreading over a distance of about two kilometres on the eastern side of Qurta. Entitled Qurta I, II and III, each site contains several prehistoric rocks bearing a rich collection of Palaeolithic illustrations featuring a large number of bovids, hippopotami, birds and human figures.”

Bovids are the most common animals depicted in the illustrations, with at least 111 representations in different positions. Of other animals there are seven examples of birds, three hippopotami, three gazelles and two fish. There are also 10 highly stylised human figures shown with pronounced buttocks, but with no other distinct bodily features.

All the rock art images are very darkly coloured and seem to be covered by a substantially developed varnish. Most of the images also have traces of intensive weathering through Aeolian abrasion and water run-off.

Very interesting to note that as is the case with European rock art, the human figure is more an abstract motif than a naturalistic portrayal, and it’s tempting to ask whether there was any kind of direct or indirect contact between Magdalenian Europeans and Palaeolithic North African people, and whether one group influenced the other. I don’t have a good enough knowledge of rock art from the rest of the world dating to this era to make a comparison, although Australian rock art seems to have developed in a degree of isolation, as it is so markedly different from its occidental equivalent.

At the risk of sounding Eurocentric, I wonder if some Magdalenians might have decided to head out of Ice Age Europe for the more temperate climes of an Egypt less chilly – I don’t know of any contextual lithic, artefactual or organic evidence that would confirm or refute this. Alternatively, it’s also possible that people from what is now Egypt may have travelled up into Europe and seen some of the parietal work there, returned to Egypt and constructed the panels, which appear to represent a single and isolated phase of rock art.

Magdalenian rock art and its associated culture seems to have been very well entrenched in north western Europe over many millennia, and although it would have been physically possible for people to travel between there and North Africa, maybe it’s just as likely that goods or artefacts could have made longer journeys than the humans who passed them along what could have been longer lines of economic or cultural communication than otherwise supposed.

Obviously, I wouldn’t wish to deny Egypt any part of its Palaeolithic heritage, so for the time being, and with nothing substantial to back up a putative ‘cultural exchange event’, I’m going with the assumption that Qurta was a local phenomenon, created by people indigenous to the region at that point in time.

Here’s some more detail…

“None of the painted animals shows any evidence of domestication, and there is little doubt that the bovid should be identified as bos primigenius or aurochs (wild cattle),” (Belgian archaeologist Dirk) Huyge said. “Although these bovids are rather short-horned, there is archaeozoological evidence to support this suggestion.” He said that, moreover, the Late Pleistocene faunal representations on the Kom Ombo plain highlighted that the Egyptian species of bos primigenius had relatively smaller horns than the European, but was otherwise of about the same body size.

Huyge pointed out that animals drawn on rocks were individual images rather than collective except for a very few, such as the art featuring two bovids standing opposite one another and a fresco of three flying birds.

Early studies on the rock art illustrations revealed that, unlike those of the pre-dynastic period, especially those of the fourth millennium BC, they do not have imaginary ground lines. On the contrary they were drawn in all possible directions. Quite often the heads are represented either upwards or downwards as if they were in movement.”

Another interesting similarity with rock art in Europe is the way in which natural features in the rock were exploited…

“The prehistoric artist or artists at Qurta made use of natural fissures, cracks, curves, arches and brows of the rocks, and integrated them into the art images. A perfect example of this is a rock panel found at Qurta II, where a natural vertical crack was used to render the back part of a bovid. Huyge points out that bovid drawings were deliberately left incomplete. Some had missing legs, tail or horns, while others had numerous scratches over their heads and necks.

Some of Qurta’s bovid images are combined with highly schematised human figures similar to those known from the Magdalenian cultural phase of Palaeolithic Europe.”

It would be interesting to know that if there wasn’t any connection between these North African images and those of the Magdalenian artists, why there was such a similarity in method and execution – i.e. was this particular expression of parietal art the function of humans at a certain stage of their artistic development that manifested itself in the same way across two regions on two continents – offhand I can’t think how such an idea could be proved or not.

I came across this comment from Dr. Jean Clottes, on the Bradshaw Foundation website, who makes the following observations regarding the Palaeolithic rock art of Europe…

Contrary to a well-spread idea, Paleolithic rock art is not merely a ‘cave art’. In fact, a recent study showed that if the art of 88 sites was to be found in the complete dark, in 65 other cases it was in the daylight (Clottes 1997). Three main cases can be distinguished : – the deep caves, for which an artificial light was necessary; – the shelters which were more or less lit up by natural light ; – the open air sites. The latter are essentially known in Spain and Portugal. Only one case has been discovered in France (the engraved rock at Campome in the Pyrenees-Orientales). The art in the light and the art in the dark: those two tendencies have coexisted for all the duration of the Paleolithic. The art in the dark was preferred in certain areas (the Pyrenees) and at certain periods (Middle and Late Magdalenian). The low-relief sculptures are only to be found in shelters. On the other hand, the paintings which used to exist in shelters have for the most part eroded away and only very faint traces remain, contrary to engravings which could in many cases be preserved in them.”

Whoever made these images in Upper Egypt demonstrated a very high level of workmanship, and dedication to produce such a large body of work, which according to Dr. Zahi Hawass…

“The Qurta rock art is quite unlike any rock art known elsewhere in Egypt,” Zahi Hawass, secretary-general of the Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA), says. He adds that it is substantially different from the ubiquitous “classical” pre-dynastic rock art of the fourth millennium BC, known from hundreds of sites throughout the Nile Valley and the adjacent Eastern and Western deserts. The only true parallel thus far known is the rock art previously discovered in 2004 at Abu Tanqura Bahari at Al-Hosh, about 10 kilometres to the north and on the opposite bank of the river.”

Another notable aspect of this recent discovery is that this site has been alluded to in the past, specifically by the Canadian Prehistoric Expedition; as we see…

“In an article in Scientific American in 1976, P E L Smith, director of the Canadian mission, wrote: “interesting scenes of wild animals, including cattle and hippopotamus, are engraved on the cliffs near our Gabal Silsila sites, but no one can prove they were the work of a late Palaeolithic group.” And still later, in 1985, he assumed: “… that the Gabal Silsila art… is of Holocene age like most or all of the art known to date in northern Africa.”. “In our opinion,” Huyge continued in his report, “because of the various particularities outlined above, the rock art of Qurta reflects a true Palaeolithic mentality, quite closely comparable to what governs European Palaeolithic art.”

I’m tempted to add here that if these images had been spotted in Europe in the 1960s and 1970s, they would have been greeted with similar acclaim to other recent finds there, such as at Chauvet Cave in the mid-1990s, but because these Qurta images were off the beaten track of the Eurasian Palaeolithic, not as much importance was ascribed to them – but maybe that’s a tad cynical of me. The important point for now is that these images have finally been recognised for what they are – a superb example of parietal art from an unexpected location, bringing us vivid reminders of a glittering facet of the past that has long since vanished. (TJ)

see also: Antiquity – ‘Lascaux Along The Nile: Late Pleistocene Rock Art In Egypt

7 thoughts on “Egyptian Palaeolithic Rock Art Found At Qurta, Kom Ombo

  1. I find this “discovery” or at least its publication quite fascinating on several accounts.
    – The dates, if confirmed shed a new light on the development of Palaeolithic art in the world,

    – The location is quite interesting too, in particular with regard to the fact that it is on one of the most probable pathways of migrations out of Africa to Europe and Asia.

    – And last but not least it looks a lot like the art in Foz Coa (Portugal) or Font de Gaume (France) or Romito in Italy.

    Indeed one cannot rule out the possibility of traveling artists, be it in one direction of in the other.

    In a research that I have started in 2000, I have another hypothesis to offer.

    There are examples nowadays of artists whose production have very similar subjects and representations styles and yet who had no means of knowing each other’s work. These ar known as “Autistic Savants”. My own son is one of them and a few years ago someone showed to my wife a drawing made by another young autistic man and her first reaction was “How comes you have a drawing of my son?” At closer look though she could spot small differences.

    Some of these autistic artists have indeed exceptional gifts with reproducing extremely realistic pictures of various subjects. And that without having ever learned to draw. Nadia, for example could draw a galloping horse at age 4…

    My hypothesis is that it could very well have been the case that autistic savants already existed, since these ancestors of ours were anatomically modern man, with the same brain functioning as we do.

    Similarities in drawing styles could then be explained quite easily. Remains to know what brain processes are behind this mode of perception of reality and the capabilities to transfer images seen in 3 D onto a 2 D surface…

    More on this hypothesis on my website.

    Yours sincerely

    Paul TREHIN

  2. Hi Paul, thanks very much for your very interesting comment and link to your site, which I’ll check out more fully later on today.

  3. The Sahara has the largest collection of Rock
    Art & Paintings in the World ! It’s always assumed some prehistoric population from Europe had to have migrated into Africa and brought domestication of cattle,cave painting (Qurta) etc. into the Continent why not the reverse since Africa has more cave paintings than any other place on Earth maybe Africans migrated into Paleolithic Europe which is no coincedence when you see the Venus figurines with steatypogia
    a trait unique only to certain Africoid women like the San Khoisan from South Africa as well as some Pygmy tribes and Negrito pop. and in South Africa you have large collections of Cave paintings to note considering Bushmen were still practicing the art until relatively modern times as well as the various Paleolithic remains like the Grimaldi skeletons with Negroid like affinities and the reconstruction of the first European Man from Romania which looked like an African man and if anything European cave art shows more affinity to African cave art .
    The Qurta rock drawings 15,000 year old in Egypt are probably not unique considering they were misdated to begin with there many more hundreds of rock drawings across Algeria (Tassili),Libya(Acacus)
    Niger(Tenere) etc. with similar features they could be just as old probably the oldest in the World but they have been misdated and little research is done on them it’s assumed there only less than 10,000 -5,000 years old which is absolutely ridiculous considering the various periodical Wet phases in the Sahara over 100,000 years and the occupation of modern humans in that vast region in that long span of time.It’s probable that Black African people similar to the artist in Tassili or Niger were the types of people that carved the Rock drawings in Egypt more than 15,000 years ago and South Africoid like people could very well have painted the caves of Lascaux and Altimira in Spain & France in Paleolithic times in association with the steatypogian Venus figures and the fact that Bushmen are the oldest race of people on earth and still practiced cave painting until recently.

  4. M.T.C – thanks for your comments – I’d agree that some of the European Venus figurines certainly do bring to mind an African aspect, although I suppose others might argue for some sort of stylistic or artistic license being used in their creation – I’m not aware of similar figurines being found in Africa at those dates, but maybe someone will correct me.

    I think to some extent people have been so dazzled by cave art in Europe, (it was the focus of so much attention at the dawn of Palaeolithic studies in the late 19th century) and especially given the stunningly surreal settings in which it is found, that its importance has to some extent been over-stated, although of course that shouldn’t detract from the accomplishments of those who created them.

    I’ll check out the other locations you mention in your comment, so thanks too for those – I’m intending to address the African Middle Stone Age in more detail over coming weeks, and to some extent the LSA as well, so we’ll see what comes to light as a result.

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