The 'Great bubalus' in ancient African rock art

While chasing up sivathere stuff, I got distracted. Sorry.


Among the most spectacular of extinct bovids is the Plio-Pleistocene African form Pelorovis, famous for its gigantic curved horns. These can span 3 m in fossil skulls, and were certainly even longer in the living animal. Pelorovis was built rather like a gigantic, long-horned version of the living Cape buffalo Syncerus caffer, but differed from it in horn shape, in lacking the massive boss that Syncerus exhibits on its virtually conjoined horn bases, and in having a longer, lower, more antelope-like face.

The type species for the genus, P. oldowayensis, was first described from Olduvai Gorge by Hans Reck in 1928. However, fossils ascribed to Pelorovis later proved widespread: they're known from Algeria and Libya in the north to South Africa in the south, and there are also Early Pleistocene records from the Middle east. P. oldowayensis seems unique to east Africa, but remains known from across the continent belong to what was regarded as a second species, P. antiquus. P. oldowayensis has been regarded by some as ancestral to P. antiquus (Gentry & Gentry 1978a). [Skull of P. oldowayensis shown below; by Haplochromis, from wikipedia].


Some of those animals you call Pelorovis are not Pelorovis any more


P. antiquus is far more like Syncerus than is P. oldowayensis. The horn bases in P. antiquus aren't located so far posteriorly as those of P. oldowayensis, and it horns sweep outwards and upwards rather than forwards. Compare the P. antiquus skulls here with the P. oldowayensis one shown in the photo above. For these reasons (and others) most workers now argue that P. antiquus should be regarded as a species of Syncerus, and not as part of Pelorovis sensu stricto. The latter actually seems particularly close to Bos (the aurochs-domestic cattle lineage). A minor debate has emerged over the species-level status of S. antiquus, with some authors arguing that it's simply a long-horned morph of S. caffer and others arguing that it's clearly distinct: see Peters et al. (1994) and Klein (1994).

Incidentally, other supposed species of Pelorovis have been named, including P. turkanensis Harris, 1991 from Kenya, P. kaisensis Geraads & Thomas, 1994 from Uganda and P. howelli Hadjouis & Sahnouni, 2006 from Algeria. P. turkanensis at least seems to be close to P. oldowayensis; in other words to be a 'true' member of Pelorovis (MartÃnez-Navarro et al . 2007).

Ok, all of that was preamble - I'll actually talk a bit more about P. oldowayensis - i.e., 'Pelorovis proper' - in a later article. From hereon, S. antiquus is the species I'm particularly interested in.

The 'Great bubalus', and did S. antiquus persist well into the Holocene?

Fossil evidence indicates that S. antiquus was a Pleistocene animal that failed to survive into the Holocene: some texts state that its youngest fossils are from southern South Africa and date to about 11,000 BP, meaning that it persisted until late in the Late Pleistocene (Klein 1972, Gentry & Gentry 1978b), and there are specific references to its extinction at about this time (e.g., Vrba 1987). However, there is supposed to be evidence from archaeological specimens and rock art indicating that it survived much later: well into the Holocene, and perhaps to as recently as 4000 years ago.

I find the rock art particularly interesting. Various depictions of large, long-horned cattle found across Africa have often been identified as representations of S. antiquus. During the early decades of the 20th century, these illustrations were thought to characterise an ancient stage in African cultural development termed the 'Bubaline period'. 'Bubaline' is a reference to Bubalus, the name for Asian water buffaloes, and S. antiquus was sometimes known as the 'Great bubalus' in the early 20th century. However, the later discovery of apparent S. antiquus remains (as in: bones) in Algerian and Libyan deposits 5000 or 4000 years old - in what came to be known as the 'Bovidian period' - showed that 'bubaline' artwork couldn't be linked to a specific ancient cultural period (Le Quellec 2006). [The figure below - from Le Quellec (2006) - shows how cultural change across the Sahara was linked to Holocene climatic cycles. The livestock drawings at the top show the decline of cattle farming following the Post-Neolithic Arid Period, its replacement by ovicaprid farming, and the eventual introduction of camels. Note the 'Great bubalus' drawing shown at 4000 BP].


I admit to being somewhat confused about the osteological records concerned, and wonder if they're actually based on misidentifications of Aurochs or domestic cattle. Indeed Gautier (2001) argued that at least some of the specimens involved do indeed belong to these two species. Furthermore, many of the north African rock carvings of 'bubalines' are just generic long-horned bovids (Wolff 2001) - they could be representations of S. antiquus, but they could just as well be domestic cattle, aurochs or even just vague, bovine-inspired doodlings.

'Bubalines' at Fezan (or Fezzan, or Fezzân)


Among the best possible S. antiquus depictions (both from Fezan in Libya, also known as Fezzan or Fezzân) are those shown here. The one above is from Epstein (1971) and the one below is from Bogoliubskii (1959)*. Despite their similarity in appearance and pose, these two drawings are (so far as I can tell) completely independent of one another. The Epstein image shows the animal surrounded by a rhino and a large flightless bird (presumably an ostrich), and what appears to be the horn of a second 'bubaline' is poking into shot at far left. The Bogoliubskii image doesn't show any of this: the object to the right of the main image might be another 'bubaline', but it's difficult to be sure.

* I haven't seen either of those texts and took the illustrations and the information from Nikolai Spassov's 1991 article on possible depictions of the musk ox in Asian artwork (Spassov 1991).



Some other images from elsewhere in northern African are strangely similar. Look at this image, from Algeria [it's from The Algerian Paleolithic]. It seems uncanny that the animal's tail posture is identical to the Epstein and Bogoliubskii drawings and - look - another ostrich.

Anyway, if these pieces of art really do depict S. antiquus then, as usual with depictions of extinct animals, they provide us with invaluable information on this animal's appearance in life. The horns of S. antiquus - as preserved on fossil skulls - are huge, but they are but the horncores, not the horns proper. In quite a few bovids, the keratinous horns (aka horn sheaths) are a rather different shape from the underlying horncores. The 'Great bubalus' art shows horns that curve upwards and outwards in the manner you might expect given the underlying horncore form.


The horns are also shown exhibiting regularly spaced, vertical stripes - presumably ridges or ribbing - along much of their length: intriguingly, not at the tips. These are most obvious in the Epstein image, but also seem to be present in the Bogoliubskii drawing and the Algerian image too. If this is a genuine feature, it's very surprising, as nothing like this is present in S. caffer [shown here; by Haplochromis, from wikipedia]. In other respects, the rock art shows what we might expect for S. antiquus. It's shown as a big, thickset animal with a short, thick neck, humped shoulders, large hooves and no obvious indication of patterning. The Epstein picture seems to show shaggy hair around the sides of the face. This could be consistent with the long hair that typically projects from the lower surfaces of the ears in S. caffer, but it also doesn't look quite right...

Water buffaloes (you know, Asian water buffaloes) in north Africa?


Those apparent vertical ribs got me thinking... does the Libyan and Algerian rock art really depict S. antiquus? In general form - and in its vertically-ribbed horns - the pictures superficially resemble living Water buffalo Bubalus arnee (the domestic form is generally known as Bubalus bubalis) more than they do Cape buffalo, and this would better explain that facial shagginess I mentioned above [Water buffalo shown here; by Djambalawa, from wikipedia]. In view of this idea I was interested to find that some authors have indeed suggested a Water buffalo identity for the giant bovids depicted in north African rock art. While Bubalus is very much Asian today, the suggestion has been made that a now extinct north African form existed in the past (Wyrwoll, cited in Gautier 2003).

This proposal is very much controversial. I gather that some artwork has been used to support it, but I'm left wondering what artwork this is - the ambiguous generic long-horned bovid pictures I referred to above? Or the 'Great bubalus' depictions? Intriguingly, water buffalo bones are known from Djebel Ichkeul in Tunisia, but rather than representing a native form they are "most likely descendants of domestic water buffaloes introduced in the Maghreb during the Phoenician or Roman period [i.e., within the last 2000 years]; in the feral state they re-acquired 'wild' traits" (Gautier 2003, p. 627). While (according to Gautier) those African water buffalo may well not be native, the fact remains that they were there, apparently.

Ergo, the possibility seems to exist that rock art like that at Fezan/Fezzan/Fezzân could depict Bubalus, not Syncerus. This might create a contradiction in timing as it seems unlikely that feral water buffaloes were present in Africa as long ago as 4000 BP. Then again, water buffaloes are now thought to have been domesticated as long ago as 7000 BP (albeit in China). If 4000 BP is too old to allow for the possibility of these water buffalo being feral, perhaps they provide support for a native population. Or perhaps the rock art is substantially younger than 4000 BP (I never understand how people date rock art anyway. Across modern north Africa you see drawings of motorbikes and land rovers next to ancient cattle and cryptic symbols). The idea that Asian water buffaloes are depicted in African rock art seems odd - but, you've seen the images too... what do you think?


Incidentally, even if the north African 'Great bubalus' images do depict Bubalus, this doesn't entirely negate the possibility that Neolithic people saw and illustrated S. antiquus. Giant, long-horned bovins illustrated elsewhere in Africa lack the Bubalus-like features discussed here, and are known from sites as far south as South Africa [here's one, from Nelspoort, Central Karoo. From here]. I'm not saying that they're convincing, only that they might be S. antiquus.

I confess I started this whole article because I thought it neat that we know something about the life appearance of Pelorovis thanks to ancient rock art. But complications mean that: (1) the animal depicted in said rock art can't be identified as Pelorovis in the strict sense, but rather as the Cape buffalo relative Syncerus antiquus and; (2) even this identification isn't secure and could well be wrong. Sigh, nothing's ever simple. In fact, because (on re-reading) I find this article a bit of a mess, here are my conclusions stated more simply...

  1. The name Pelorovis is now restricted to P. oldowayensis, a long-skulled bovin bovid with horns that are positioned well posterior on the skull, and curve backwards and outwards before extending forwards. Another species often included in Pelorovis and called P. antiquus is very different and seems closer to Syncerus caffer. Its horns curve outwards and upwards and are not as posteriorly placed. It's now called Syncerus antiquus.
  2. S. antiquus is sometimes said by palaeontologists to have died out at the end of the Pleistocene (about 12,000 BP) but archaeological specimens and rock art suggests survival to c. 4000 BP.
  3. The archaeological specimens supposed to support late survival of S. antiquus might not be from S. antiquus, but actually from Common cattle (= Domestic cattle) and Aurochs. If there is any convincing osteological evidence for the Holocene survival of S. antiquus, I'd be interested in hearing about it.
  4. Rock art supposed to support late survival of S. antiquus is often ambiguous: some of the pictures are just vague horned bovins or bovids. They could depict Common cattle, Aurochs or other species.
  5. Some north African rock art suggested to depict S. antiquus is detailed, but exhibits features more typical of Asian water buffalo. Ergo, these detailed depictions might not depict S. antiquus at all. If the rock art really is c. 4000 years old, we have a problem, since feral water buffalo probably didn't exist in north Africa this early - could the art therefore support suggestions that water buffalo were native to north Africa in the Holocene?

For other Tet Zoo articles on the possible or alleged late survival of Pleistocene megafauna, see...

And for more on other artiodactyls, see...

Refs - -

Bogoliubskii, S. N. 1959. Proiskhozdenie i Preobrasovanie Domashnikh Zivotnikh. Sovietskaya Nauka, Moscow.

Epstein, J. 1971. The Origin of Domestic Animals of Africa. Dog, Cattle, Buffalo. Africana Publishing Corporation, New York.

Gautier, A. 2003. The Early to Late Neolithic archeofaunas from Nabta and Bir Kiseiba. In Wendolf, F. & Schild, R. (eds). Holocene Settlement of the Egyptian Sahara, Volume 1: the Archaeology of Nabta Playa. Plenum Publishers, pp. 609-635.

Gentry, A. W. 1967. Pelorovis oldowayensis Reck, an extinct bovid from East Africa. Bulletin of the British Museum (Natural History), Geology 14, 245-299.

- . & Gentry, A. 1978a. Fossil Bovidae (Mammalia) of Olduvai Gorge, Tanzania. Part I. Bulletin of the British Museum (Natural History), Geology series 29, 289-446.

- . & Gentry, A. 1978b. Fossil Bovidae (Mammalia) of Olduvai Gorge, Tanzania. Part II. Bulletin of the British Museum (Natural History), Geology series 30, 1-83.

Klein, R. 1994. The long-horned African buffalo (Pelorovis antiquus) is an extinct species. Journal of Archaeological Science 21, 725-733.

Klein, R. G. 1972. The late Quaternary mammalian fauna of Nelson Bay Cave (Cape Province, South Africa): its implications for megafaunal extinction and environmental and cultural change. Quaternary Research 2, 135-142.

Le Quellec, J.-L. 2006. Rock art and cultural responses to climatic changes in the central Sahara during the Holocene. In Reddy, P. C. (ed). Exploring the Mind of Ancient Man (Festschrift to Robert Bednarik). Research India Press, New Delhi, pp. 173-188.

MartÃnez-Navarro, B., Pérez-Claros, J. A., Palombo, M. R., Rook, L., & Palmqvist, P. (2007). The Olduvai buffalo Pelorovis and the origin of Bos. Quaternary Research, 68, 220-226

Peters, J., Gautier, A., Brink, J. S. & Haenen, W. 1994. Late Quaternary extinction of ungulates in sub-Saharan Africa: a reductionist's approach. Journal of Archaeological Science 21, 17-28.

Spassov, N. 1991. The musk ox in Eurasia: extinct at the Pleistocene-Holocene
boundry or survivor to historical times? Cryptozoology 10, 4-15.

Vrba, E. S. 1987. A revision of the Bovini (Bovidae) and a preliminary revised checklist of Bovidae from Makapansgat. Palaeontologia Africana 26, 33-46.

Wolff, R. 2001. Engraved corniformes of southern Morocco. Mediterranean Prehistory Anthropology 10-11, 167-182.


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and - look - another ostrich

Or a bustard, perhaps?

The idea that Asian water buffaloes are depicted in African rock art seems odd - but, you've seen the images too... what do you think?

Those illustrations definitely suggest 'Bubalus' rather than 'Syncerus' to me. (IMO, the presence of those 'ridges' on the horns quite conclusively rule out the latter.)

Sigh, nothing's ever simple.

And there is another confounding factor with regards to rock art: we are not sure of its purpose.

Most of the analysis done on it from a zoological perspective simply assumes they are supposed to be depictions - i.e., an attempt by an artist to reflect reality to the best of their knowledge and ability. While this assumption might work, cum grano salis, for things like Ancient Egyptian murals, rock art is a quite different case. If Anthropologists are correct in assuming ritual/magic/religious functions for such rock art, it might go way beyond an attempt at depiction - features might be modified, exaggerated, abstracted or standardized in ways and for reasons we have scant ideas of.

At this point, I think comparing rock art to zoological data is more useful for learning about rock art than about extinct animals.

By Phillip IV (not verified) on 28 Apr 2011 #permalink

...and, of course, saying that the illustrations look more like Bubalus than Syncerus does not rule out the possibility that they could indeed actually represent Pelorovis (I don't think we can tell whether its horn sheaths had ribs/ridges or not).

It would be nice if that was a Pelorovis, though we can't be sure. That illustration with the ostrich looks a lot like a gigantalope from After Man.

Wikipedia (I know, I know but still...) states that Pelorovis could be the first form of the genus Bos. That would be quite revolutionary because (at least)I thought Bos had an Eurasian origin.
How more you learn how more kaleidoscopic it gets.

By Wilbert Friesen (not verified) on 28 Apr 2011 #permalink

Having seen Ankole cattle at Marwell, I have to say the rock art images are very reminiscent of them. Some Ankole appear to have pigmented rings on their horns, and they were traditionally a high-status breed, so it seems likely to me they would be depicted, even if in exaggerated form. African cattle breeds have an input of genes from Indian zebu, which reached Africa perhaps 4,000 years ago, so there would be plenty of time for an Ankole-type breed to be produced by North African pastoralists.


Water buffalos appeared in North Africa much after Ancient Egyptian times.

However, African buffalo can show ridges on horns naturally or through wear. So ridged horns could be present in Syncerus (caffer) antiquus.

Also, quick Google showed how incredibly variable can be horns of African buffalos.

(the next post contains links, but is likely to be delayed by a spam filter).

Sure, I'll throw in my random guesses too.

Your "large, flightless bird" sure looks like some sort of crane to me. It's even pigmented rather like many cranes. Talking Grus here, not Anthropoides or Balearica.

And your bovid sure looks a lot to me like a wildebeest with exaggerated horn size. Perhaps some artist was compensating for something?

By John Harshman (not verified) on 28 Apr 2011 #permalink

could the bird be a cattle egret? it's not very accurate, but this could explain why this bird was associated with buffaloes


Having seen Ankole cattle at Marwell, I have to say the rock art images are very reminiscent of them.

Ankole cattle don't have 'shaggy' ears, though.


African buffalo can show ridges on horns naturally or through wear. See eg:

Unless there's something very wrong either with my eyes or with the resolution of my computer screen, none of the Cape buffaloes in the photos in those links - except maybe the one with the odd, drooping horns - have horns with an obvious, vertical, 'Bubalus-like' rib pattern. And, while I grant that there is some variation, the basic shape of the horns of the extant Syncerus caffer is still quite different from those arching, scythe-like horns of those North African rock art buffaloes. (As for the 'produced by wear' suggestion: what kind of natural wear process could/would result in the kind of vertical rib-like pattern that we're talking about here?)


I'll throw in my random guesses too.

Come on now. At least when it comes to any bird-related matter, we Tet Zoo readers will expect educated - not random - guesses from you. ;)

Your "large, flightless bird" sure looks like some sort of crane to me

I'm curious; what is it about that illustration that makes you prefer to identify it as a crane rather than an ostrich?

It's even pigmented rather like many cranes. Talking Grus here

Which Grus species do you have in mind? The only one that occurs regularly in Northern Africa nowadays (mostly during winter) is the Eurasian crane Grus grus. And its plumage pattern doesn't much look like the one of the bird in the rock painting. The rock art bird has a light head and a dark body, while an adult* Eurasian crane has a bold, conspicuous black-white-red patterning on its head and neck and a light-grey body colouration (picture here).

* Sub-adult Eurasian cranes have non-patterned, light-brown heads, but - IMO anyway - that just tends to make them appear uniformly rather light-coloured (as opposed to appearing to show a clear contrast between a lighter head and a darker body).

your bovid sure looks a lot to me like a wildebeest with exaggerated horn size

I disagree. The horns do not look like those of a wildebeest Connochaetes at all.

I'm curious; what is it about that illustration that makes you prefer to identify it as a crane rather than an ostrich?
And its plumage pattern doesn't much look like the one of the bird in the rock painting.

Jizz, as the English call it. And I take the plumage to be pigmented vs. unpigmented rather than light vs. dark, given the limitations of rock art. But I wouldn't defend my notion strongly; there's no way to tell conclusively what sort of bird that's supposed to be.

By John Harshman (not verified) on 29 Apr 2011 #permalink

I sort of agree with John that the bird does have a crane-like 'jizz'. It reminds me of Stanley's crane, but for the shorter/absent wing feathers (not that I'm implying any relationship with this species). In keeping with other comments here, I don't think we can hope to be this precise though. Those bovids don't look particularly accurate in pose or profile: some of them are standing in really dumb-looking, unrealistic postures.

I'd like to write about extinct cranes at Tet Zoo some time. Some neat species, even without Grandicrocavis viasesamensis.


the bird does have a crane-like 'jizz'

Not in my opinion. That rock painting bird holds its body quite horisontally, but a crane that is standing still (as opposed to walking or foraging) typically holds its body in a very erect position. Like the bird in the picture I linked to in my previous comment, and like the two birds in the picture here. But you are, of course, quite right in saying that we can hardly hope to ID the bird with complete certainty.


'horizontally', sorry. Stupid keyboard layout...

I assume the paint is some kind of plant extract or so, and you can thus use C14 dating if you scrape away just a little bit.

These pictures aren't painted. They're carved.

By David MarjanoviÄ (not verified) on 01 May 2011 #permalink


These pictures aren't painted. They're carved.

There are both painted and carved animal images in North African rock art.

Descriptions of West African buffaloes (brachyceros or planiceros) talk about horns "sweeping outward, backward and slightly upward. Frontal bosses are absent or minimal."

It seems that horn form in Afican buffalo which Darren described as "typical" evolved only in Holocene in populations from East and South Africa.

Below smoe more examples of African buffalos with ridged horns.…

As there is no skeletal remains of Asian buffaloes from N Africa, I think these pictures are genuine Syncerus cafer antiquus. Interesting are furry ears, also characteristic of extant buffalo.

I wonder, given N/S pattern of colonization of Sahara of some animals (Nile crocs, for example) if of current subspecies, West African buffaloes are closest to antiquus?

Thanks, Jerzy. This variation in modern Syncerus is very interesting. I consider myself fairly familiar with the variation well known for Cape buffalo - I mean, I'm very much aware of the dwarf, mostly west African, reddish-furred, short-horned forms, and also with the fact that there are intermediates between these and the larger, darker forms of the southern and eastern grasslands. But I hadn't really appreciated the presence of vertical ridges or ribbing in some of the forms. Grubb's 1972 paper - the classic on 'subspecific' variation within these bovins - shows several vertical ribs on a particularly long-horned S. caffer caffer from Kenya. This hints at the possibility both that Syncerus has the potential to produce strongly 'ribbed' horns, and that an especially long-horned Syncerus might have particularly elaborate ribbing. In view of all of this, I'm thinking that the 'African water buffalo' hypothesis is looking weaker, and that those long-horned animals shown in the rock art are S. antiquus after all. So, S. antiquus probably did have ribbed horns after all. Others have already come to this conclusion - look out for the next article, just about finished...


I hadn't really appreciated the presence of vertical ridges or ribbing in some of the forms

Neither had I, I must admit. I would be interested in seeing some statistics on how common, exactly, the presence of such horns is in extant Syncerus.

In view of all of this, I'm thinking that the 'African water buffalo' hypothesis is looking weaker

I agree.