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The Giraffes of Dabous

In northern Niger, about half-way between the towns of Agadez and Arlit, and a few miles west of the tar road connecting these two places lies a stony outcrop at the top of which is an exceptionally detailed petroglyph of two life-sized giraffes. This region, known as Dabous, is home to a large number of prehistoric carvings depicting cattle and wild animals, hinting to a period of time when Africa was much wetter than it is today with lush vegetation, trees and lakes, that allowed these animals to survive. The two giraffes are the most famous because of the size of the carvings, the realism and techniques used to depict them.

Dabous Giraffes

Dabous Giraffes in Dabous, Niger. Photo credit: Mike Hettwer/National Geographic

The giraffes were carved on an almost flat but slanting slab of rock situated at a height of eight meters, making them invisible from the ground. One of the giraffes is male, and the smaller one is female. The male is exactly 6.35 meters tall, measured from the tip of its ears to the extremity of its hind leg. Both were made by combining several techniques, such as scraping and smoothing of certain areas, deep engraving of the outlines, and low-relief carving—about two to three centimeters deep— of the patterns on the body.

Each giraffe has an incised line emanating from its mouth or nose, and winding down to a small human figure. This motif is not unusual in Saharan rock art, but its meaning remains a mystery. It has been suggested that the line indicates that giraffe were hunted or even domesticated, or it may reflect a religious, mythical or cultural association. It’s also possible that the lines and human figures were added later.

Dabous Giraffes

Dabous Giraffes in Dabous, Niger. Photo credit: trevor kittelty/Shutterstock.com

The carvings were made some 6,000 to 8,000 years ago, towards the end of the African humid period, which began about 14,000 years ago and lasted until 5,000 years ago. In this period, the Sahara was a vast savannah and various tribes of people lived in the region as hunter-gatherers, fishermen and farmers. Wild animals such as bovids, giraffes, ostriches, antelopes, lions, rhinos and camels must have been plenty, as evidenced from more than 800 rock arts in this region. It is easy to imagine people in the past sitting on the rocky outcrops of the Air Mountains watching these animals graze and immortalizing them in stone.

The carvings have survived thousands of years of harsh climate, including the desertification of an immense region, yet they are still vulnerable to human abuse. The petroglyphs were already damaged to some extent by trampling, and even degraded by grafitti and fragments were being stolen. In 1999, a mould was made of the engraving for its preservation. One of the casts, made in aluminum, stands at the airport of Agadez.

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