Today’s post will be dedicated to this strangely moving depiction of what looks like a man walking his pet giraffe. It was engraved on a rock surface at the South-Eastern Lybian site of Karkur Talh (Jebel Uweinat), along with countless other engravings and paintings of animals and humans interacting in various ways, including images of both giraffes and ostriches tied to short posts. It is more or less impossible, given current technologies, to date rock art: however, based on stylistic features, and the fact that many of the animals depicted could not survive in the region today due to the fact that it is a desert, it is likely that this engraving was produced several thousand years ago, when the area was a lush savannah, with giraffes and ostriches and oryx and addax and barbary sheep and gazelle all running around and grazing on grass and chewing on leaves. Specifically, Phillipson (2005) suggests a “mid-Holocene” date, that is, about 6,000 years ago.
This is, objectively, a really cool bit of rock art. But what makes it even cooler is the insight it gives us into the passage from hunting animals, to domesticating them. Agriculture was such a massive game-changer, that it is sometimes difficult to remember that it emerged through tiny decisions and choices and experiments made at the individual level, most of which were misguided and/or probably backfired. This man, for example, may have thought it was a good idea to domesticate giraffes: maybe because he’d seen or heard about domesticated sheep, goats or cattle (which appeared in Northern Africa around the same time as the Karkur Talh rock art, if Phillipson’s estimate is correct), or maybe he just had the independent thought that, instead of having to go out and hunt giraffes, it would be more convenient to have them close and within easy access. Perhaps he didn’t want to create a herd, but, judging from the fact that he put a lead around a giraffe’s neck, it does appear as though he’s trying to control or claim ownership over the animal–something that is probably very close to how the domestication of most animals started.
Giraffe meat is perfectly edible; their tail can be used to make flyswatters, bracelets, necklaces and thread; their skin can be used to make shields, sandals, and drums, and, when burned, the subsequent smoke is used in some parts of Africa to treat nosebleeds; their tendons can be used to make strings for musical instruments (Dagg 1971, Kingdon 1997). But giraffes are also highly dangerous animals, that could probably strike your head clean off your neck with a single kick of their long, muscly legs. In other words, you don’t want to deal with a whole herd of deadly giraffe-legs on a daily basis. Not that that would be possible anyway–like most other large mammals, giraffes are fundamentally impossible to domesticate, and very difficult to tame. Your best chance is to raise one from when it was a calf.
This man’s experiment, then, was a dead end. So, doubtless, were many others–there is evidence of a failed attempt at domesticating Barbary sheep at Uan Afuda Cave, also in Lybia, in the IX millennium BC (Phillipson 2005). But a few attempts did succeed–with cattle, with horses, with pigs, with llamas, and so on–and they were enough to forever change the course of history. Also, though our giraffe-walker failed, I think it is poignant that he was immortalised anyway–perhaps as an eccentric whose adventures and crazy ideas became beloved stories and legends.
Dagg, A. I. 1971. Giraffa camelopardalis. Mammalian Species 5(5): 1-8.
Kingdon, J. 1997. The Kingdon Field Guide to African Mammals. London: Academic Press.
Phillipson, D. 2005. African Archaeology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.