The EU intends to preserve the Laas Geel caves “The Altamira of Somaliland”, discovered in 2002, the best and oldest cave art in Africa
By Xavier Aldekoa, Laas Geel (Somaliland)
Fear of demons saved them. Elderly Moussa Abdi Jama, 77, squints to protect himself from the sun and looks up at the rocks he once feared. “We all thought it was a cursed place, the home of the djin, the evil spirits, we didn’t know it was something valuable.” Moussa was 19 years old when that fear overcame: it was a day of lightning and thunder. He was a goat herder and his flock had taken refuge from the storm in the caves of a rocky and steep elevation in the middle of an arid plain, so he had no choice but to go look for his animals. Then he saw them. On the stone walls of some twenty caves and rock shelters, there were hundreds of brightly colored cave paintings depicting human figures, cows, dogs, and wild animals such as giraffes, antelopes, hyenas, monkeys, or jackals.
Moussa Abdi Jama: “We all thought it was a cursed place, we did not know it was something valuable”
“It was the first time that I saw those paintings. I was scared, but I was surprised. I liked them. People said that these figures were the work of the devil and were made with human blood, but I spent the night there with my goats and nothing happened.” On that rainy day, Moussa unwittingly witnessed one of the greatest cave gems in Africa: the paintings by Laas Geel. Also one of the last treasures that has arrived practically intact to this day.
Located at an elevation of 950 meters in the middle of a stone desert and dry bushes, halfway between the port of Berbera and Hargeisa, the capital of Somaliland, the place remained hidden from the international community until November 2002, when a team French archaeologists visited the area and reported a find from yesteryear: the caves contained the oldest known cave paintings in Africa. In total, 350 figures of humans, wild and domestic animals, and enigmatic geometric symbols between 5,000 and 11,000 years old, which are considered the best example of rock art on the African continent due to their variety and their almost miraculous state of preservation.
“People said that these figures were the work of the devil, made with human blood,” says Moussa.
Most of the pieces, very stylized and with light lines, retain an excellent chromatic richness. Old Moussa brushes his graying hair and smiles at the question of whether he knows what the explanation is. It happened, he says, thanks to the devil: that fear of Jinn transmitted for generations kept the inhabitants of the area away from the caves and kept that prehistoric diamond unscathed throughout the centuries.
Climbing the steep hill leading to the first caves, Somalilander Ahmed Ibrahim Awale, founder of the environmental organization Candlelight and one of the greatest experts in Laas Geel, escapes a gesture of pure satisfaction. For Awale, it is a place of undeniable importance, the Somali version of the Lascaux caves in France or Altamira in Spain, as it is the oldest Neolithic art site in the entire Horn of Africa.
Awale is a tall man and must slightly hunch as he enters one of the openings in the rock, the ceiling of which is filled with red and white figures, colored with pigments drawn from root sap, sand, or dust from crushed rocks. Above his head, a human figure dressed in a white robe raises his arms in front of a multicolored cow with exaggerated horns. “This was a place reserved for some kind of spiritual ceremony. A magical place. These cave drawings show us how those people lived in those ancient times and another important thing: how climate change has transformed the ecosystem and the way of life in this area”.
The treasure is made up of 350 figures of humans, animals and geometric symbols between 5,000 and 11,000 years old.
The current aridity, with temperatures that touch 40 degrees, was not always the norm and from the height of the caves one can guess two sandy tongues that converge just at the foot of the mountain. “Here before there were two rivers and permanent fresh water,” explains Awale, “it was a green place, full of vegetation, so in the paintings we find wild animals that no longer exist here in our days such as giraffes, antelopes or hyenas, but also domestic ones, like cows or dogs. And yet no camel appears, because its introduction from Arabia was later. “
And it’s not just Laas Geel. In the surroundings there are several more rocks with cave paintings, although not of the same importance or so well preserved, as well as tombs and prehistoric funerary monuments. All of them are vestiges of the nomadic shepherd caravans that sailed the region for millennia and dotted rock art various points of the geography of Northeast Africa such as the basalt engravings in Djibouti, the paintings of Harar in Ethiopia or the rock sculptures of Eritrea. But while that cultural heritage in neighboring countries was studied for decades, the political instability in Somalia relegated the gems of the past within its territory to oblivion.
Awale has visited Laas Geel dozens of times, whose name means camel pit, but he especially remembers the first time. “I came shortly after the French archaeological mission and when I saw them it was truly amazing. I have seen hundreds of archaeological sites but nothing like this, it is wonderful to be able to study such a well-preserved place”. Between the works, there are interactions difficult to observe in cave paintings such as one in which a woman gives her dog a drink. “These are unusual everyday scenes that give us extremely valuable information about what life was like before the arrival of Islam.”
The 12-month, 200,000-euro EU plan will be implemented by the Red Sea Cultural Center
Awale speaks passionately about caves but also with some relief. For two decades, he called out with the Somali scientific community for efforts to preserve an endangered heritage. He feels that their voices have finally been heard.
Eighteen years after its discovery by the West, an international plan seeks to reactivate a heritage that had also been neglected for political reasons. Although Somaliland, which declared itself independent from Somalia in 1991, is a de facto country, with its own constitution, government or even currency, it is not an internationally recognized state and depends on the Mogadishu executive in the south, most concerned with stabilizing a territory engulfed in chaos and violence for two decades.
Now a multinational effort aims to safeguard Laas Geel. Earlier this month, the European Union announced a 12-month plan, endowed with 200,000 euros, to be implemented by the Red Sea Cultural Center, based in the Somali capital. The project, supported by a report carried out by specialists and archaeologists from the University of Granada, aims to protect the site with the installation of fences – currently anyone can touch the paintings with their hands -, underline its importance at international conferences and improve the access to the caves to turn Laas Geel into a tourist attraction.
Ahmed Ibrahim Awale: “It teaches us how it was lived then and how climate change has transformed the ecosystem”
For the European Union ambassador to Somaliland/Somalia, the Spanish Nicolás Berlanga, the paintings are not only important for the African country, they are a world heritage. “The origin of humanity comes from this area of the Horn of Africa and therefore these vestiges are part of our own history. When we help build roads or a water system, it is for the benefit of local people, but in cultural matters, borders are transcended. The benefit of its conservation is for everyone”.
Culture can also be an element of diplomacy. In the plan promoted by the European community includes the proposal for Laas Geel to be declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO and for this, understanding between the governments of Somalia and Somaliland has been essential, since only the first, which refuses to recognize Northern self-determination has legal authority to formally present the report. For Berlanga, “it is difficult to agree Somalia and Somaliland on political or security issues, but culture can be a vehicle to build bridges between the two.”
The director of the Red Sea Cultural Center and author of several books on the history of Somaliland, Dr. Jama Muse Jama, also advocates that the caves be an intergenerational bridge. In addition to taking care of the conservation and conditioning works, your organization will organize events throughout the country to explain the importance of the archaeological site. “It is an awareness project in which we want to involve young people so that they learn about the history and heritage of their country and appreciate the preservation of this world heritage site.”
If the efforts pay off, it will never again be necessary for the fear of Jinn to keep Laas Geel’s treasure safe.
This article was transtlated from Spanish to English by Googletranslater, you can read here for orginal language
The Cave of Altamira is a cave complex, located near the historic town of Santillana del Mar in Cantabria, Spain. It is renowned for prehistoric parietal cave art featuring charcoal drawings and polychrome paintings of contemporary local fauna and human hands. The earliest paintings were applied during the Upper Paleolithic, around 36,000 years ago. The site was discovered in 1868 by Modesto Cubillas.