Finding Somaliland’s ancient cave art is hard. Protecting it could be harder.

Five-thousand-year-old rock art is tucked into an outcropping 40 miles northeast of Hargeisa, the capital of this breakaway region of Somalia. But its ambiguous political status has made protecting the site especially challenging.

Hidden in the Somali desert, beneath stunning, ancient rock cave paintings, the thin trail of a snake traces a winding line across the dust. A few strands of once-protective barbed wire are pushed to the side; goat tracks abound.

Somaliland’s most prized archaeological treasures – which locals fearfully called “the place of the devils” for centuries – could not be more remote.

Exposed to the elements, the colors have changed since caretaker Musa Abdi Jama first saw them at a distance in 1969. Back then, everyone in the local villages thought the place was haunted. No one visited.

Today, the aging pastoralist laughs at the memory of the myths he heard about the place as a child – passed on to him as they were from one generation to the next around dinnertime family campfires.

The uniformed Mr. Jama uses a cane to point out features of the Neolithic paintings: the hunters with bows and arrows; long-horned cattle, antelope, giraffes, and elephants; and women giving water to a dog – being “more kind” than the hunters, he says.

Striking in their red and dun colors and more than 5,000 years old, the cave paintings are tucked away in the overhangs of a nondescript rock outcropping. The cave lies at the end of a miles-long track across inhospitable desert, 40 miles northeast of Hargeisa, the capital of the remote Horn of Africa nation of Somaliland – a de facto state that declared independence from Somalia in 1991. The nation, whose territory was once a British colony, has remained largely peaceful, even as the rump Somalia state to the south has been torn by conflict for decades.

But Somaliland remains internationally unrecognized – and that ambiguous political status is a key difficulty preventing Laas Geel paintings and other Somali treasures from being listed as a United Nations World Heritage site, which would provide a major boost in protecting and promoting this historical heritage. 

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