Prehistoric Yemen: Shamanism and Art during the Stone Age in Yemen | Part Three

This post is also available in: العربية (Arabic)

 Part of the grand paintings scattered in the Naveh cliff, al-Thale’a. Image Courtesy of Fr. Braemer Part of the grand paintings scattered in the Naveh cliff, al-Thale’a. Image Courtesy of Fr. Braemer

At the end of the Paleolithic period, humans went through a long period of stagnation. Then a cultural explosion occurred, with the appearance of art for the first time, through rock paintings, ornaments, pottery, and artifacts made of bones.[1] The Middle Stone Age was a period of unprecedented cultural change, a transformation resulting from a long cognitive accumulation in which humans evolved in their way of living.[2]

The first cultural explosion

According to the European archaeological record, a profound cultural shift took place between 30,000–60,000 BC.[3] However, the African record indicates that this shift took place earlier.[4] When scientists discovered the explosion of human creativity at that time, they considered it the beginning of a new era between the two Stone Ages (Paleolithic and Neolithic). Indeed, during this era, humans ceased to hunt randomly and began to hunt strategically. They also began to use maps, which they drew in the soil with wooden sticks. This era also witnessed the appearance of burial sites accompanied by complex rituals, such as placing animal remains (horns and bones) on tombs.

However, what interests us in this article is the great artistic explosion that occurred then, with the emergence of rock paintings that subsequently spread throughout Yemen in the form of pictures of humans, animals and other shapes. It should be noted that rock art, which first appeared during this period, did not appear in Yemen until the beginning of the Neolithic period, due to the lack of population in the Middle Stone Age.

To reiterate, the first cultural revolution appeared in the Middle Stone Age in Europe, and at a slightly earlier time in Africa. However, there are many indications of a cultural explosion in Yemen during the Neolithic period, based on developed stone remains found in the Khawlan region that are different from those in other parts of Yemen. This discrepancy led to the assumption that a cultural development took place in the highlands during the Neolithic period, which was not restricted to stone-related techniques but also included the efficient use of agricultural land and the making of terracotta sculptures. This was evidenced by the discovery of a piece of terracotta sculpture going back to the 7th century BC in the Khawlan region.[5] A successful period in the highlands of Yemen, it represented perhaps the culmination of an unusual cultural explosion.

The emergence of the rock paintings at this time in Yemen would appear belated if we compared them with other countries, such as France, where magnificent paintings were found in more than a dozen sites dating from 40,000–10,000 BC. Moreover, the oldest dated human drawing, a colorful handprint dating back to the year 40,000 BC, is located in Indonesia. Although there is no decisive consensus on a time for the emergence of rock art in Yemen, researchers agree that it does not go beyond 12,000 BC.

 Imaginary image of drawing on aL Makhrwq Mountain walls. image courtesy of Abeer al-Baredah Imaginary image of drawing on aL Makhrwq Mountain walls. image courtesy of Abeer al-Baredah

Rock paintings in Yemen have dealt with four main areas. First, animal forms are widely present in the paintings and show wounded prey. However, there are very few predators in the paintings, which also contain a large number of donkeys that have been deemed sacred since ancient times. There are also many paintings of bovines, either alone or in herds, such as buffalo, wild bulls and domestic bulls. However, there are no birds in the rock paintings in Yemen and small mammals are rare, with only a few foxes and wolves depicted.[6] Second, human forms, often engraved through a schematic painting method, suggest imaginary beings as they have masked faces.[7] Third, plants, which appear in abundance but are difficult to analyze. Fourth, the incomprehensible geometric symbols that may have been drawn according to Shamanic belief (Shamanism is an ancient spiritual practice, with rituals based on those beliefs).

Where and how were these works of art executed?

The beginning of rock art in Yemen appeared with the drawings of extinct animals, often made up of light engravings created with a solid object – perhaps a hammer dedicated for the purpose. It is difficult to identify the tools used in the rock paintings based on the small number of paintings discovered so far.[8] This is how engravings of large extinct species, such as buffaloes and long-horned bulls, were carried out. Colored drawings were made by carefully grinding various types of rocks and mixing them with water or urine, then using these dyes to paint on rocks. Another way of painting was through peeling the rock’s outer layer so that a contrast appears between the painted ‘peeled’ layer and the original layer.

Many of the paintings were made by blowing paint through a plant cane. Colors were collected and mixed in rectangular, horizontally polished cavities in rocks, many of which were found underneath the paintings. There are also hand drawings or sets of points drawn with a feather or similar tool.[9] Red and black were the most common colors, along with various shades of brown. Natural colors were also used, such as coal, but they have greatly faded. The only colored handprint in Yemen was found in Musalhaqat, Saada. In general, colored paintings were characterized by drawings of herds of cattle, sometimes followed by their young ones and accompanied by magic symbols.[10]

The artists chose for their paintings rock shelters made of sandstone, which can easily be fractured. In the highlands, seven main sites were found in Saada governorate, which is home to isolated shelters, the oldest of which dates back to 8,000 BC. In Wadi Dahr, many of the rock paintings are mixed with drawings dating back to the Bronze Age. In Dhale governorate, two rock sites were discovered in 2011, one of which contains large paintings on which there are successive colorful and engraved works of art. Remarkable because of their size, these paintings contain groups of similar animals, such as herds of goats and cows, plants and scenes with large-scale human forms, in addition to several other human-animal hybrid forms and others that are unclear, as well as geometric symbols that may have magical connotations.

 Leader of primitive groups is in center, characterized by placing animal remains on his head and tattooing his body with colors. image courtesy of Abeer al-Baredah Leader of primitive groups is in center, characterized by placing animal remains on his head and tattooing his body with colors. image courtesy of Abeer al-Baredah

In the eastern depressions, large volcanic rocks are scattered in the Beihan Valley, in which successive works of art are carved, the oldest of which are scenes with human forms, while the more modern ones include animals, such as camels. On the ritualistically aligned tombstones in the Hadramout desert and the edges of Ramlah el Sabtein, we find crudely executed drawings of human and animal forms. During the period that preceded the development of writing, perhaps the artists wanted to commemorate the dead through these drawings on graves.

Who was behind these works?

Stone Age humans believed that if they represented an animal, they would acquire the power to catch it. In Yemen, a number of paintings containing sporadic and incomprehensible symbols were found. The creators of these works may be those so-called Shamans who had nothing to do with art. Current scientific theories not only provide a Shamanic interpretation of these symbols but they also extend this to interpreting animal and human forms; that is, it is thought that all the works of art at the time were for the purpose of controlling nature. So does this mean that primitive art had a useful purpose?

For more than a century since the discovery of the Altamira Cave in Spain, rock art has been subject to art historians’ interpretations, and has been treated as art according to the modern Western concept of art. However, the world’s rock painters, who lived tens of thousands of years ago, did not produce their work as art.[11] Today, many scholars believe that rock paintings do not fall within the modern concept of art for two reasons: first, because their purpose was not artistic, but rather a kind of ritualistic obligation related to burial, hunting and war, as humans at the time believed in supernatural powers;[12] and second, rock art was usually carried out by illiterate practitioners of Shamanism with magic-oriented interpretations of nature.[13] At the beginning of the third millennium, a prominent group of scholars came to the conclusion that it was time for a Shamanic interpretation to dominate the field of ancient art interpretation. However, there are scholars who still believe that Shamanism was not the only cause of the emergence and development of ancient rock art, and that there are many other ways to interpret these works.[14]

Based on the remains of animal bones found near the shelters containing the works of art, it seems that the actual creators of most of the paintings in Yemen were hunters. In addition, the vast majority of the rock drawings that have been discovered so far have been painted on the isolated rock shelters in the plains, which were frequented by travelers such as hunters. The caves, which were favored by the more stable ‘gatherers’, do not contain such drawings.

Does this mean that a scientific exploration of the buried caves of Yemen might unveil marvelous paintings by gatherers such as those found in France? Let us hope that this will be the case.


1. Mithen, S. J. (1996). The Prehistory of the Mind: A Search for the Origins of Art, Religion and Science. p 21.
2. Gabora, L. M. (2007). Mind. In Handbook of Theories and Methods in Archaeology (pp. 283-296). Altamira Press.
3. Mithen, S. J. (1996). Op. cit., p 21.
4. Klein, R. G. (2008). Out of Africa and the evolution of human behavior. Evolutionary Anthropology: Issues, News, and Reviews, 17(6), (267-281), p. 270
5. Barca, D., Lucarini, G., & Fedele, F. G. (2012). The Provenance of Obsidian Artefacts from the Wadi Ath-Thayyilah 3 Neolithic Site (Eastern Yemen Plateau). Archaeometry, 54(4), (PP. 603–622).
6. Rashad, M. (2009).The Art of Rock Paintings and the Settlement of Yemen in Prehistoric Times -Topics of Rock Painting Art.
7. Ibid. p.107-113
8. The Art of Rock Drawings and the Settlement of Yemen in Prehistoric Times – Part nine: Jarf Al-Abel and Al-Nabera are two rocky sites in the Dali area – Frank Bremer, Pierre Bodo, Remy Crassard, Mohammed Manqoush (2009) p 135.
9. Rashad, M. (2009). Op. cit., p 107-108.
10. Bremer,F., Bodo, p.,  Crassard, R. & Manqoush, M. (2009). The Art of Rock Drawings and Settlement of Yemen in Prehistoric Times – Part nine: Jarf Al-Abel and Al-Nabera Are Two Rocky Sites in the Dali Area, p 138.
11. Rashad, M. (2009). Op. cit., p 140.
12. Bednarik, R. G. (2013). Myths about Rock Art. Journal of Literature and Art Studies, 3(8), 482-500.
13. Mithen, S. J. (1996). Op. cit., p 23-22.
14. Bednarik, R. G. (2013). Op. cit.,p 483.




Show More

Related Articles

Back to top button