Running from the Red Sea to the Atlantic Ocean, the Sahara is by far the world’s largest hot desert. It covers over 3,500,000 square miles (9,000,000 sq. km), a tenth of the whole African Continent. Yet we know it was not always so. Archaeological and geological research has shown that the Sahara has undergone major climatic changes since the end of the last Ice Age (c. 10,000 BC). During this period, rain was far more abundant, and vast areas of the current desert were a savannah. By around 4,200 BC, changes in the rainfall and seasonal patterns led to a gradual desertification of the Sahara into an arid expanse. The analysis of archaeological sites, animal bones and preserved vegetal remains tell us of a greener world, where some of the earliest attempts at domestication of animals and rudimentary farming took place.
General view of Wadi Mathendous course, Messak Settafet, Libya.
Little is known about the people who lived in the Sahara thousands of years ago; however, through rock art, we can discern who they may have been and what images were important to them. Throughout the desert, rock art engravings and paintings depict an earlier story of the Sahara: the wild animals that lived there; the cattle herds that provided food and labour; their daily activities and beliefs are all displayed in caves and cliffs, valleys or plateaus.
The Messak Settafet is one of these places. Situated in the Sahara, it is a large plateau running southwest to northeast through the Libyan province of Fezzan, near the borders of Algeria and Niger. Both plateaus are crossed by numerous wadis (dry riverbeds) that run to the east, flanked by cliffs filled with tens of thousands of rock art depictions, including some of the oldest engravings in the Sahara. Rich with depictions of the savannah, the rock art shows buffaloes, crocodiles, ostriches or hippopotami, all of which tells us of a wetter Sahara thousands of years ago.
It is difficult to determine the motives of the people that created these images. There are many theories about why these people created rock art, what exactly is depicted and what the images meant to that group. One area of particular research interest is the depiction of mythical beings, therianthropic figures (part human part animal) and anthropomorphic animals (the personification of animals in human forms). Were these religious images? Cultural folklore? Or simply images pleasing to a group or culture?
Frontal view of the Fighting Cats. Wadi Mathendous, Messak Settafet, Libya
Deep in the Messak Settafet is a site that has intrigued researchers for decades: the image known as ‘Fighting Cats’. This iconic engraving shows two confronted, long-tailed figures standing on their hindquarters, with legs and arms partially outstretched against each other, as if fighting. The engravings are placed on an outcrop, as if they were looking down across the rest of the wadi, with several other engravings acting as milestones leading up to them. They are in an imposing position overlooking the valley.
Sandstone cliffs, with the Fighting Cats faintly visible at the top. Wadi Mathendous, Messak Settafet
The technical quality of the engravings is exceptional, with deeply outlined and carefully polished bodies and carved cupules within their heads to depict eyes. Claws were also marked, maybe to reinforce the idea of fighting. The specific type of animal depicted is subject to debate among scholars. Some have described them as monkeys or mythological blends of monkeys and men. Their pointed ears could also identify them as cat-like figures, although most probably they were the representation of mythical beings, considering their prominence above all other figures in this area. A polished line comes out from the waist of both figures to join four small ostriches, depicted between them, which often accompany rock art in this region.
General view of the Fighting Cats showing nearby engravings. Wadi Mathendous, Messak Settafet, Libya.
Several other engravings are found throughout the wadi. In its lower part to the right, another cat-like or monkey figure has been depicted, although in this case it has only been outlined. A small, unidentified quadruped has been represented to the left of its head. At the right side of the boulder, a fourth figure has been depicted, almost identical to those of the main scene, but with part of its arms unpolished, as if left unfinished.
Detail of engraved woman inside cat to the right. Wadi Mathendous, Messak Settafet, Libya.
Besides its impressive position in the landscape, their expressivity and complex interpretation, the Fighting Cats keep a secret within. On the polished body of the figure to the left a small, delicate figure of a woman was shallowly engraved. Hair, fingers and breasts were carefully depicted, as well as an unidentified symbol placed at the bottom of the figure, which could have a fertility-related meaning. The difference in style and technique may point to the woman as a later addition to the panel, taking advantage of the polished surface, but respecting the main scene.