david coulson

I am David Coulson, in 20 years I’ve travelled the entire Africa and took 100 000 images of ancient rock art. AMA!

Hi everyone!

My name is David Coulson, I am an international photographer and author, whose passion is the ancient African rock art. Originally from the UK, I’ve lived in Africa for more than 40 years. I am one of those crazy guys, for whom the Sahara is the most magical and mesmerising place on Earth. Up to now I’ve lead over 20 expeditions, and travelled 20,000 miles there.


The Sahara captured my imagination with the rock art paintings, which opened windows onto vanished worlds, some of which existed long before the Egyptian pyramids!

BTW, We are fundraising for our next Saharan expedition to document the endangered rock art of the Sahara!Please contribute: http://igg.me/at/Saharan-Rock-Art YOU can support us by donating and sharing! One week left –July 1 is the last day!

A desert is not as boring as it might seem. On the contrary, it’s full of excitement and surprises with danger usually only just round the corner. It’s all about 10,000 ft mountain ranges, immense vistas of sand dunes, unique wildlife, indigenous nomadic tribes (often armed and scary!), close shaves with snakes and scorpions, sleeping under the stars with ice in the hair, and being stuck in the sand occasionally.

As a result of my passion and inspiration from the legendary palaeontologist Mary Leakey, Trust for African Rock Art (TARA) was set up in Nairobi, Kenya. It all started twenty years back just with myself, my assistant and my driver. Now, we are a large team, with partners worldwide, sending expeditions all across Africa and possessing the largest rock art image archive (which is available to everyone, by the way). Here is a rock art gallery on our website.

Want to know more? Ask me anything!

What’s the most interesting mythology associated with Rock Art that you’ve come across?

In African rock art we recognise certain power animals, animals which were believed to have special powers, for example, the power to bring rain. Examples of these rain animals are hippo, giraffe, kudu, and eland. The kudu and the eland are animals found today in Southern Africa and the eland is the world’s largest antilope, which was revered by the San or Bushmen for thousands of years for its special powers. The stories of how and why the eland possessed these powers is told in their mythologies. The eland was painted on cave walls more than any other animal and more beautifully than any other animal, after which the Bushmen would often dance in front of the paintings to invoke the animals’ powers. Equally, when the Bushmen hunted eland they did not do so for the meat, they hunted it in order to harness its powers.

Are you able to post any photos of eland paintings?

Please take a look at TARA’s online photo gallery, the eland paintings are in South Africa http://africanrockart.org/tara-african-rock-art-photo-gallery/south-africa/

Do you believe that the cave paintings in South Africa should get more attention in the art world when compared to those in Lascaux, Chauvet, etc. From my experience, those are studied much more in art classes then those in South Africa. Is this because Europe brought forth fine art while Africa has mostly brought about almost exclusively tribal and pagan art such as masks, pots, and carvings?

Comparing rock art sites and images, especially when they are in different continents from different cultures is very difficult and not advisable. First of all, Lascaux is probably the most famous rock art site in the entire world. It has been rightly described as the Sistine Chapel of rock art, there are no other caves that are like that, so you cannot really make comparisons in that instance. But one thing is for sure, Africa has rock art which is every bit as important and fantastic as the best cave paintings in Europe and elsewhere. I have seen many paintings, carvings and engravings which could rightly take their place in any of the top museums in the world. It is just that very few people know about them. South African Bushman art falls into this category. South Africa has some of the finest rock art on the continent. I think that some of those magnificent eland paintings you can see in Drakensberg qualify as great rock art. Creating an awareness of the importance and endangered state of Africa’s rock art is at the core of TARA’s mission. Through our exhibitions and international publications we have already raised the profile of African rock art, although there is much still to be done. TARA’s archive of 25 000 images and data is now available online through the British Museums global online collections. So far, they have uploaded all of the North African images and are starting on the Southern African images. The thing is, of course that unless people understand how important, how beautiful and how ancient our images are they will not fully appreciate how important it is to protect it for our children’s children. At present TARA is focusing on creating awareness of the Sahara’s extraordinary rock art and the importance of documenting its sites, before they are damaged or lost, you can find more details here: http://igg.me/at/Saharan-Rock-Art

What is the “closest shave” you have ever had on an expedition? Any life threatening moments?

In the late 1990s I was working in the Ennedi Mountains in North Eastern Chad (Sahara), a 17,000 square mile wilderness of plateaux and canyons, and was recording 6000 year old paintings in a series of caves. I entered one of the caves with my eyes on the cave roof where all these beautiful paintings were, when I heard my friend say: “Don’t move! Look down!” And I then saw a 5 foot horned viper curled up about half an inch from my open sandal. I came so close to treading on him. Given the fact that I was a thousand miles from any hospital or medical help, I could not possibly have survived if I had been bitten.

Can you link your favorite piece or photo? Some back story would be nice too.

http://igg.me/at/Saharan-Rock-Art Please take a look at the picture with the life size giraffe with two people.

The most magical experience of my job was probably when we first found two enormous, life size carvings of giraffes on a rock outcrop in Niger (Sahara desert), which I later published in the National Geographic Magazine in 1999. These giraffes were made over 6000 years ago and were described as one of the greatest discoveries of pre-historic art ever made.

How difficult is travel now, with Libya and Egypt not being very western friendly? Do you have any fear if not being able to continue your work in the Sahara?

Libya, where we have done a lot of work in the past, is difficult to work in now, but most of Egypt, so long as you listen to the right advice, is easy to travel through. Meanwhile there are countries like Chad, Niger, Morocco and Mauritania, which also pretty safe.

Have you visited the rock art in somaliland?

Yes, I have twice visited Somaliland to record rock art sites. Somaliland’s most famous rock art site is Las Geel which is certainly one of Africa’s most extraordinary sites. Most of the paintings are of the cows and bulls with human figures associated. The painting are polychrome and are stylised with the cattle having huge decorated horns, but only tiny heads. They are believed to be at least 3,000 years old. Please take a look at TARA online gallery: http://africanrockart.org/tara-african-rock-art-photo-gallery/somaliland/

Aren’t there drawings in the south of Egypt (middle of desert) that show people swimming? Have you seen these? Can you point me to more info? Or tell me about the people that did them? I used to live in Cairo and heard tell of these drawings but never went to see them as they are 2 days by jeep I was told.

The paintings you are talking about are in Egypt’s Western Desert on the west side of the Gilf Kebir (Great Plateau) and the best known site is known as the Wadi Sura or the Cave of Swimmers, which was featured in the book and subsequent film, “The English Patient”. In the year 2000 not long after the movie came out I crossed the Great Sand Sea in order to get to the Gilf Kebir. The site is so named on account of the many images of small swimming figures, or apparently swimming. These paintings are believed to be as much as 8,000 years old, dating to a time when the climate was radically different and may have been made by hunter-gatherers. Recently, an even bigger site has been found in this region with the same type of paintings from the same period. There is a book on the newly discovered site by Rudolph Kuper “Wadi Sura – the Cave of Beasts” published by Heinrich-Barth-Institut e.V. in Cologne.

Here is my photo of it: http://africanrockart.org/wp-content/gallery/egypt-rock-art-gallery/egywsu0010005.jpg

What cultures in Africa left these piece of rock art? I imagine the Egyptians were prominent with their hieroglyphs, but any other obsucre cultures I wouldn’t know about?

A lot of the most interesting and important rock art in Africa was made by hunter-gatherer peoples, such as the Bushmen-San of Southern Africa, who were prolific artists and who painted for at least 30 thousand years. In addition, there is a huge amount of art in places like the Sahara desert, which was not always a desert, that was made by pastoral societies/cultures between 4000-8000 years ago. The Ancient Egyptians produced beautiful art in addition to their hieroglyphs, but this is not normally considered as rock art.

What did you major in and how did you get so interested by this, by all means, rather obscure profession?

When I first got interested in rock art I was an author/photographer working in different remote areas of Africa. In the course of my travels for this work I came across a lot of this art which sparked my interest in the subject. Subsequently I was encouraged by the famous paleontologist, Dr. Mary Leakey, to start a foundation in order to promote and protect the rock art.

What was the most magical experience of your job?

The most magical experience of my job was probably when we first found two enormous, life size carvings of giraffes on a rock outcrop in Niger (Sahara desert), which I later published in the National Geographic Magazine in 1999. These giraffes were made over 6000 years ago and were described as one of the greatest discoveries of pre-historic art ever made.

What was the climate of the region like at the time those giraffes were carved?

At the times the giraffes were carved the climate would have been much wetter with savanna grasslands and patches of forest in the hills. Giraffes would probably have been quiet common then. The giraffes belong to a style and period of art known as the Large Wild Fauna period of Saharan art, although these carvings were probably made at a time when cattle were already coming into the area in the early Pastoral period of art.

I’m intrigued by ancient civilizations, especially those dating back before Egypt. Where can I find out more about the vanished worlds you have been allowed to peer back onto?

The important thing to remember is that for at least 5 thousand years the Sahara desert was not a desert and it was during that more fertile period that these ancient cultures and civilizations flourished. In fact, experts believe that some of these cultures had a profound impact on the original development of the Ancient Egyptian civilization. In other words, long before Ancient Egypt began these ancient cultures were already dominant. I would say, for more information on these cultures I suggest you try to access a copy of our book (Coulson and Campbell) published by Abrahams New York 2001, but otherwise I suggest you look for the writings of Dr. Savino di Lernia of the University of Rome, Sapienza.

Have you been to Ethiopia? Considering how rich it is with its ancient history and relics of an ancient kingdom, have you had a chance to explore it? Also, why do you think such a rich history is hidden from the rest of the world?

I have been luck y enough to explore large areas of Ethiopia and to record the rock art of southern and eastern Ethiopia. I have also visited the famous rock churches in the North at places such as Lalibela and taken part in the annual Timket Festival. As you say, Ethiopia is incredibly rich, but that fact is very well known internationally and not hidden from the rest of the world.

Have you ever come across any animal art of which you could not identify, possibly extinct?

It is quiet common for us to find images of animals in the rock art which either no longer live in that part of Africa or perhaps became extinct a long time ago. For example, Southern Morocco is full of rock engravings depicting White Rhinos, the big square-lipped rhino which have not existed there for thousands of years, as far as we know. Meanwhile in the Sahara desert, especially in Algeria and Libya we find many images of the prehistoric buffalo (bubalus antiqus) and we also find images of aurochs, we have also recorded a painting of a bear in the Algerian desert.

What can you tell me about the rock art in the Tassili n’Ajjer range in Algeria? I’m interested in this piece and would love to know more about it and also about the other art in the area.

The Tassili n’Ajjer in Southern Algeria is a 50,000 square mile wilderness of mountains and canyons. An area completely devoid of vegetation or water. This is the home of one of the greatest prehistoric art galleries on Earth, one of the most incredible places I have ever visited. There are several different styles and eras of art here. The oldest art was made by hunter gatherers and consists of carvings and engravings, incredibly beautifully made and often huge. For example, we have seen what is certainly the biggest single rock art image in Africa and perhaps the biggest in the world. This is a 27 foot tall running giraffe. But perhaps some of the most remarkable here is a style of art known as the Round Head style, which dates roughly between 10,000 years ago and 8,000 years ago. Most of this art consists of paintings which depict fantastic otherworldly scenes with often huge human figures floating across the rocks or as in the case of the image you are interested in, huge God Figures, which dominate the shelters. This art is probably the work of hunter-gatherers and was probably inspired by shamanistic rituals and ceremonies. There is really nothing like this art anywhere in the world. In addition, there are also some remarkable paintings from the pastoral period. This region is the UNESCO World Heritage site and is linked with another World Heritage site to the East in Libya.

The Drakensberg mountain in South Africa are known for their exceptional San/Bushmen paintings, which typically depict antelope, usually eland as well as human figures, it is common to find strange human figures which have animal features. Most of these paintings are polychrome, and some have been dated between 2000 and 3000 years ago. The Bushmen paintings are also found in the Klein Drakensberg, in the Lebombo Mountains.

What future expeditions are you planning on doing?

Mine and TARA’s mission for 2015-2016 is to survey and document the endangered rock art sites in the Sahara. We plan to go to at least some of the six Saharan countries: Mauritania, Mali, Niger, Chad, Sudan and Egypt. Please take a look on our campaign page, where you can find detailed information on our future expedition and also support us: http://igg.me/at/Saharan-Rock-Art

What would you recommend seeing in East Africa?

The most interesting and diverse rock art in East Africa can be seen in the Kondoa World Heritage site in Central Tanzania. Perhaps the most beautifully executed and intriguing paintings here are the Fine Lion red paintings believed to have been made by ancestral Sandawe whose descendance still lived to the west of the area today Genetic tests have shown that Sandawe are directly related to the ancient Bushmen of South Africa. These red paintings are not unlike Bushmen paintings and include many exceptional images of animals and people. Meanwhile in Kenya the most interesting art is found either in the North near Lake Turkana (engravings) and in Western Kenya on Mfangano Island, Lake Victoria.

I have always been interested in ancient rock art and a question that always came to me was, why would these cultures use their time and resources to make these rock paintings? Do you think the creation of art is an inherent human need and have you encountered any art created by animals?

First, I agree with a comment that humans are animals and remember an old Bushman hunter-gatherer in the Kalahari Desert telling me about the old days when humans and animals could still talk to each other. As you say, humans have for many thousands of years felt the need to express themselves in the creation of art and in my own feeling is that the primary motivation was usually spiritual.

If given the chance, would you live in Africa forever?

Yes I would stay in Africa forever. It’s my home.

How have you been able to fund your lifestyle over the years? Have there been any challenges with funding?

As a matter of fact before I came to Africa on a permanent basis and began my travels, I had a previous career as a management consultant living in cities, and I think it was that that motivated me to adopt the lifestyle of my choice. I was able to do this when I sold my first book to a publisher, Macmillan. The title of that book was “Mountain Odyssey”, the story of a 30,000 mile solo journey I made through seven different African countries. The book was illustrated with 200 of my photographs. All of the books which I’ve produced in the 1980s in early 1990s were pre-commissioned and in addition I had clients as a professional photographer working for people such as British Airways, banks and Mitsubishi. Since getting into rock art and founding TARA I’ve been luck enough with the help of my team to raise millions of dollars, but this is now becoming incredibly hard and we have very few people supporting our mission. At the moment we are focusing on preserving and documenting the ancient rock art in the Sahara desert, for which we have a crowdfunding campaign till July 1, please check it out: http://igg.me/at/Saharan-Rock-Art

Have you seen any rock art that depicts aliens or ufos or anything of that sort?

When we look at rock art for the first time, it often looks otherworldly and hard to interpret because it is completely any term of reference with which we are familiar. We are therefore very easily influenced by writers who suggest that the images depict aliens from out of space. Because we have knowledge of the ancient cultures, which created this art, we understand the possible reasons and explanations for the way the people look in the art, for example some of the most exciting rock art in Africa was probably inspired by trans experience. This gave rise to images of humans with animal heads and other features. It also gave rise to strange looking headdresses which can be mistaken for actual heads. An example of this was seen in a book years ago “Chariots of the Gods”, a book which suggested an important extraterrestrial component in rock art. I remember a photo in the book of the painting I know well in Zimbabwe, which shows what I believe is an important shaman reclining on his back and he has an antelope’s head and an erect penis. But the captions under the photo read “Spaceman in chain mail, waiting for supplies”.

I’ve seen photos of some such drawings apparently depicting flying craft, often likened today with modern helicopters etc. Have you seen anything like this and what would be your explanation?

In our cultures today we tend to look at art from a representational view point, yet in the past whether in Africa or in the rest of the world, there is much more symbolism involved in art. A good example of this is the large number of geometric and abstract images found across Africa and these are also found on other continents. Sadly, it is usually impossible for us to know today exactly what these images signified, yet in certain instances we have insights to the probable meanings. In South Africa for example, a priceless ethnography was recorded in 1800s by two German anthropologists who interviewed Bushman hunter-gatherers in the Cape recording what they had to say about Bushmen paintings including the reason why they made them. The reason for saying this is that geometrics which many visitors mistake for objects such as spaceships or flying saucers are in reality symbols of belonging to vanished cultures and mythologies. As time passes and more art is documented along with local oral legends, there is increasing hope that we will begin to understand more about these ancient symbols. It is for this reason it is vital that we document as much ancient art as possible before it is lost in the face of population expansion and other threats. See the link: http://igg.me/at/Saharan-Rock-Art

Does a man of your experience still chuckle a bit when you see a rock which is slightly phallic?

I guess you just get used to it.

Have you been back lately? Has the unrest in Africa ever affected you?

Our approach to planning trips in Africa is usually opportunistic, if a particular area is for the time being considered calm and safe, we go there. We tend to pay more attention to local people in our networks than we do to travel advisers put out by Western nations. I remember my first trip to Niger in the Sahara in 1995 when many people had tried to stop me from going there because they said there was a Tuareg rebellion, but my sources in Niger told me that the rebellion was over and it was safe. When we arrived I was actually able to hire one of the ex-rebel leaders to organise my armed escort. The men were fresh from the rebellion and carried rocket launches and heavy machine guns, and they were all incredibly friendly with cool-looking dark glasses, and I have never felt safer in my life.

I’m guessing compared to the cave art at Lascaux and other european locations, some of the African art should predate it. Have you been able to make comparisons of European and African cave art from similar time periods and how they differ (besides animal subjects)?

Most of the rock paintings which are still visible on the African rocks are unlikely to be more than about 10,000 years old and most of them probably a lot less. The main reason why rock paintings have lasted much longer in Europe is because they occur in hermetically sealed caves, where they have been totally protected from the elements, whereas most of Africa’s rock paintings were made in relatively shallow caves and shelters, open to the elements. We do have rock paintings in Africa which are older than Lascaux. The oldest date for the paintings at Lascaux is about 17,000 years and we have paintings at a shelter in Namibia which were carbon dated around 30,000 years. In addition we have animal engravings, which date back to 18,000 years, in the Nile valley, and we have some abstract engravings on the pieces of ocher which were found in South Africa and dated to 77,000 years, the oldest rock art in the world. In terms of similarities between European art and African art, we have recorded very similar images in North Africa to those which you can find in Europe. For example, we have recorded stencil hand-prints which are almost identical to ones found in France and identical to ones recently found in Polynesia

Did this project make you more spiritual?

Many if not most rock art sites were, I believe, sacred places, where the cave shelter was deliberately chosen because of its spiritual significance and power. We are often very conscious of the spiritual atmosphere of some sites. Some people have even asserted rock art could be the origin of all religion and I can’t myself privileged to have been to spend time in some wonderful places.

What do you think of Zimbabwean Rock art?

In my opinion Zimbabwe has some of the most beautiful and complex rock paintings on the continent. There are also huge numbers of sites of which we have probably so far recorded at least 50. One of the interesting things about this art, much of which is very old (several thousand years) is that there is a lot of superimposition where the artist has perhaps deliberately painted images over Power images which could typically be elephants, giraffe or kudu antelope. The most beautiful giraffe painting I’ve ever seen is in the Matobo World Heritage site in South Western Zimbabwe.

Have you ever been to Zimbabwe and specifically Matopas national park?

Yes I have. The most beautiful giraffe painting I’ve ever seen is in the Matobo World Heritage site in South Western Zimbabwe.

How do you have time to explore Africa when you have to run a top-secret organization?

Wherever I am in Africa is my office. In the early days all I had was a notebook and pen, but later I was able to use satellite phones to keep in touch with our Nairobi office, where we have a well trained staff.

From an anthropological perspective, what has been learned from your photos? Do you have any favorite images?

Before I became involved in rock art, I had a career as a professional photographer/author and one of the reasons why archaeologists and anthropologists friends persuaded me to get involved in rock art, is that I knew how to photograph rock art in such a way that you can really see the colours and the details of the images as well as the context. The point here was that typically in the past rock art had been photographed by anthropologists and archaeologists who were not photographers, and tempted to concentrate only on the paintings in front of them rather than including the spectacular environment in which the paintings were located and their photographs often failed to show the wonderful details in the paintings, I believe it is in these ways that my pictures have contributed to the knowledge and understanding of the art.

How do you know if you’re looking at something with cultural significance or if its just the 10,000 BC equivalent of doodling? Should there even be a distinction made?

If you had seen the art which we have seen in Africa, I believe you would not ask question like this 🙂 These things have to do with people’s perceptions about rock art in general. Many people for example think of primitive stick figures when they think of rock art, which could possible be compared with graffiti, but how about carvings of life size crocodiles or a gigantic superbly crafted 27 foot tall giraffe, or other-worldly floating figures with streaming robes and crowns with heads that look like cyclops.

Are you a fan of The Alchemist?

Yes, I am a huge a fan of this book

Are you taking applications to be a part of the next expedition? I volunteer!

Please write through TARA’s website www.africanrockart.org