Centuries have passed since Neolithic artists swirled red and white colour on the cliffs of northern Somalia, painting antelopes, cattle, giraffes and hunters carrying bows and arrows.
Today, the paintings at Laas Geel in the self-declared state of Somaliland retain their fresh brilliance, providing vivid depictions of a pastoralist history dating back some 5,000 years or more.
“These paintings are unique. This style cannot be found anywhere in Africa,” said Abdisalam Shabelleh, the site manager from Somaliland’s Ministry of Tourism.
Primitive rock paintings adorn the caves in the rocky hills of this arid wilderness in northern Somalia, Laas Geel, home to Africa’s earliest known and most pristine rock art ©Tony Karumba (AFP)
Then he points to a corner, where the paint fades and peels off the rocks. “If nothing is done now, in 20 years it could all have disappeared,” he added.
The site is in dire need of protection. “We don’t have the knowledge, the experience or the financial resources. We need support,” Shabelleh said.
The paintings, some 50 kilometres (30 miles) from Hargeisa, capital of Somaliland, are considered among the oldest and best preserved rock art sites in Africa but are protected only by a few guards who ask visitors not to touch the paintings.
Applications for assistance by Somaliland’s government have gone unheeded. A former British protectorate, Somaliland declared independence from the rest of Somalia when war erupted following the overthrow of president Mohamed Siad Barre in 1991, but it is not recognised by the international community.
The “lack of recognition” of the country blocks the cave’s protection, said Xavier Gutherz, the former head of the French archaeology team that discovered the site in 2002.
Amazed by the remarkable condition of the paintings as well as their previously unknown style, the archaeologist asked for the cave’s listing as a UNESCO world heritage site.
But that request was refused because Somaliland is not recognised as a separate nation. “Only state parties to the World Heritage Convention can nominate sites for World Heritage status,” said a UNESCO spokeswoman.
Requests for funding from donor countries face the same legal and diplomatic headache.
Centuries of isolation and local beliefs that the site was haunted and the art the work of evil spirits may have contributed to Laas Geel’s protection.
But since their discovery, the cave paintings have become one of the main attractions for visitors to Somaliland.
Around a thousand visitors each year endure long stretches of rugged terrain and travel with armed escorts to reach Laas Geel, and numbers are growing.
“The concerns of Somaliland are legitimate,” said Gutherz, who has identified key areas to tackle to help protect the site.
“We have to secure the site, arrange access paths, strengthen the rocks that could collapse, divert rainwater runoff and improve the training of guards,” he said.
With a major development planned for Somaliland’s main port at Berbera, the number of visitors is expected to increase.
Ahmed Ibrahim Awale, who heads local environmental group Candlelight, said that dust is adding to the damage at the caves.
“The increased human activity in the area, trampling on the bare gravelly soil, does not allow the natural regeneration of plants,” Awale said. “The resulting dust particles may contribute to the fading of the paintings.”
Archaeologists say that Laas Geel may only be one of many treasures awaiting discovery in the vast rocky plains stretching towards the tip of the Horn of Africa.
Musa Abdi Jama, one of the guardians of the site, sees in the ancient site of Laas Geel the hope of a new nation to be, flying the flag for the cultural identity and uniqueness of Somaliland.
“Here, it was once known as the home of djinn (spirits) by the local nomadic people, who used to slaughter domestic animals for sacrifice in order to live there in peace,” Jama said.
“Now it is part of our blood. Tomorrow, God willing, it will be the first place in Somaliland to be internationally recognised.”
A Somali archaeologist shows a primitive rock painting, one of a galaxy of colourful animal and human sketches to adorn the caves in the rocky hills of this arid wilderness near Hargeisa, home to Africa’s earliest known and most pristine rock art ©Mohamed Abdiwahab (AFP)
A soldier guards the entrance to the caves in the rocky hills of northern Somalia near Hargeisa that contain primitive rock paintings, home to Africa’s earliest known and most pristine rock art