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Ancient art in Somaliland in diplomatic limbo

Country’s unique status prohibits U.N. heritage protection for its caves

- - Wednesday, May 1, 2013

HARGEISA, Somaliland — The world's most famous prehistoric art is in caverns in Europe, but the most recently discovered ancient cave paintings are in a country no other nation recognizes in a region of Africa associated mostly with terrorism, pirates and famine.

The Laas Geel cave paintings in Somaliland in the Horn of Africa are not as old or famous as the art in France's Lascaux or Spain's Altamira caves, but the quality is just as good, archaeologists say.

Unlike the European caves, however, Laas Geel has no chance of international protection as a site on the UNESCO World Heritage List because of the region's complicated diplomatic situation.

Somaliland declared its independence more than 20 years ago and has been building a democracy ever since. But the world still recognizes the region as part of Somalia, which has spent the past two decades in chaos without a functioning government.

Somalia, which restored a government just last year, has not signed the UNESCO World Heritage treaty, so the caves in Somaliland cannot receive U.N. protection.

"We definitely need a heritage protection support," said Somaliland Foreign Minister Mohamed A. Omar.

"These are a very old and historically and scientifically very important asset which has a global significance. Any help in protecting this is much appreciated by the Somaliland government."

A French archaeological team discovered the isolated Laas Geel caves in 2002. Guided by villagers whose ancestors had known about the caverns for generations, they found the vibrant paintings in pristine condition.

The dry climate has helped preserve the ancient rock art, depicting nomadic life more than 5,000 years ago.

The Laas Geel caves are in 10 areas of a large granitic outcrop about 37 miles north of Somaliland's capital, Hargeisa, and can reached by the road to the port city of Berbera. The caves sit near a dry riverbed 3 miles off the main road. Traversing the unmarked rutty trail requires a four-wheel-drive vehicle.

The outcrops appear ordinary until a close examination of the shallow enclosed areas near the upper reaches.

French archaeologists say the Laas Geel cave paintings are at least 5,000 years old and possibly twice that age.

Some of the paintings show the indigenous nomadic people worshipping cows. Other scenes show giraffes, dogs, antelopes, camels and other animals. In the Somali language, Laas Geel means "where the camels once watered."

The cave art is reportedly among the oldest found in Africa. Many visitors say this incredible archaeological find deserves to be designated as a UNESCO World Heritage site, despite the diplomatic problems.

With good highway signs, better vehicular access and an improved visitor center, this precious repository of ancient rock art could become a major tourist attraction and economic boost to Somaliland.

The Neolithic Laas Geel cave paintings are similar to the Paleolithic Lascaux cave paintings near Montignac, France. Discovered in 1940, the French cave paintings are thought to be 17,000 years old.

The Somaliland cave art also resembles the Altamira cave paintings discovered in the Cantabria region of northern Spain in 1880. They have been referred to as the "Sistine Chapel of Paleolithic art," depicting life 18,000 years ago. Many of the scenes at Altamira are centered on bison, bulls and other animals prevalent in Europe at the time.

Somaliland is in one of the most strategic parts of Africa, on the Gulf of Aden. This northern region is part of an ancient world that archaeologists have barely begun to explore — where treasures may abound, in Somaliland and adjacent Puntland.

Somalia has become better known in recent years for its ethnic conflicts, al-Shabab terrorists, pirates, kidnappings and corruption. Drought and famine have added to the humanitarian disaster, which has sent thousands of Somalis fleeing to refugee camps in nearby Kenya.

Somalia's 2,000-mile coastline was a primary trading route at the time of the Egyptian pharaohs, with ships stopping regularly to trade goods and take on supplies. Somalia was on the spice route to the Far East and India — a key to the Arabian trade link with Africa.

Stories abound regarding the biblical three wise men who brought gifts to the infant Jesus, including frankincense and myrrh — the best in the world — from the hills of Somaliland, formerly known as the "Land of Punt."

Another archaeological team recently discovered the remains of a 4,500-year-old Egyptian harbor at Wadi el-Jarf, on the Red Sea coast. The port is being linked to ancient Egyptian mining operations that included copper, turquoise and other minerals brought from the south Sinai.

The port also has led to speculation that it was used for voyages to the mysterious Land of Punt in Somalia.

John Price is a former U.S. ambassador to Comoros, Mauritius and the Seychelles islands. He currently serves as a resident scholar at the University of Utah's Hinckley Institute of Politics. He is the author of "When the White House Calls," and regularly writes commentaries on Africa and the Arabian Peninsula.