Ancient African Paintings

The most common form of ancient African paintings is on rock. Ancient African societies were hunter-gatherers and roamed the vast continent looking for food.

Ancient African paintings were created in many different styles over time. Many of the ancient African paintings on rock were of animals, people, battle scenes, and some had figures shaped like human animals.
African art history
Traditional ancient African paintings were crafted mainly on wood that could not withstand the harsh climate over time. Although, some have been found and preserved.

Ancient African rock paintings

For more than 27,000 years ancient Africans painted or engraved on rocks. The paintings were crafted in many forms including pictographs and petroglyphs.

There are two specific areas where each is more prominent than the other. Ancient African paintings on rock or pictographs were created in areas where there are caves or rock outcrops of granite or sedimentary rocks like sandstone.

Ancient African paintings which were engraved on rocks are petroglyphs and appear in areas of the continent where igneous rock like dolerite exist.

There are more than 14,000 sites containing pictographs or petroglyphs that have been discovered by archeologists in Africa.

Ancient African painting materials

Ancient African painting materials were consistent with most ancient societies. Red ochre was the most common dye used for painting.

Other colors like maroon and yellow were developed by mixing egg, blood, plant juices, and fat together. Charcoal was used for black and ash was used for white colors.
South African Art Definition, Paintings
Next to rocks, wood was the most common material used as a canvas. Unfortunately wood does not last very long in extreme conditions that range from desert to mountains to rain forest.

Ancient African painting styles

The most common form of ancient African paintings is fine line painting. Fine line painting is the outline of a figure then filled in with the same color or a different color. Ancient African painters used their fingers, sticks, or a brush made of fur.

Themes of ancient African paintings varied but were mostly drawings of animals both wild and domesticated, people farming, and human/animal figures that were used by shamans.

Many times ancient African paintings contained a hand prints and finger dots. Ancient African painting also used geometric forms to create diamonds, circles, rectangles and squares that would intertwine with each other.

Ancient African painting themes varied from region to region. For instance, in South Africa a crocodile or lizard was more prevalent, whereas the kudu and giraffe were more apparent in ancient African paintings in areas like Namibia and Tanzania.

Important facts about ancient African paintings

  • Ancient African paintings were first crafted on rocks and are called pictographs.
  • Pictographs were mainly painted within caves and rock outcroppings made of granite or sandstone.
  • Petroglyphs are a form of ancient African art that was carved on rocks like limestone or dolerite.
  • Some pictographs are more than 20,000 years old.
  • Red ochre was the most common dye used in ancient African paintings.
  • The most common themes of ancient African painting is animals-both wild and domesticated, shepherds or farmers and animal/human figures depicting shaman gods.
  • Besides rock, wood was the most used material for canvases.
  • All types of ancient African painting are considered to be two dimensional.


  1. What is an ancient African rock painting called?


  1. What was the most common type of dye used to paint with in ancient Africa?

Red ochre

  1. Other than rock, what was the most used material for ancient African canvases?


  1. Animal/human figures were drawn to depict what in ancient Africa?

Shamans or gods