One of the greatest contributions Africa has made to the cultural heritage of mankind is sculpture. African sculpture is a highly developed art form with thousands of years of history behind it. Traditional art has mostly social purposes.
Early humans created painting and engravings on rock walls. Some Saharan rock engravings represent animals now extinct in the area, such as elephants, rhinoceroses, hippopotamuses, and buffaloes. Pictures of domestic cattle and of animals still found in the Sahara today, such as the camel, the horse, and the moufflon (a large-horn sheep), have also been discovered.
The earliest sculptures outside of Egypt are found in Nigeria. A great variety of masks from different materials was worn with elaborate costumes and mimicked the human or activities of nature and forces in the different seasons. Some of the masks were used in cults. On occasions where masks are worn in some communities, others paint their bodies. Some wear no masks but their faces are hidden in their costumes, which are designed to allow free movement in dances. Masks, though similar in appearances, are used in different ways. Often masks are worn at the initiation rites to symbolize cult heroes, royalty, the political structure and arts and crafts.
A relationship exists between ancient Egypt and its influence on the rest of Africa. In the history of African art, there are strong influences of Islam and Christianity.