According to an Associated Press poll taken in 2011, 77% of Americans believe in angels. While the majority of the believers identified themselves as active Christians, about 40% of those who said they believe in angels admitted they never attend religious services. The poll continues the findings of a 2006 poll which indicated that more than three out of four Americans believed in angels.

These statistics look even more shocking when you put them next to declining numbers of church goers. While Gallup polls put regular church attendance in the USA around 40%, studies by church leaders show the numbers are far lower. In 2004, actual counts of attendees in orthodox Christian churches (Catholic, mainline, and evangelical) indicate only 17.7% of church members attended services on any given weekend.

So angels seem to be thriving even though churches are not. While there are many reasons for the decline in church attendance, this post is more interested in why angels are doing so well.


The Many Breeds of Angels

If you lined up the various kinds of angels next to each other, you’d hardly recognize them as related. That’s probably because they were born of very different cultures and times.

The Christmas tree angel

The most common angel around Christmas is a slim, winged, feminine, masculine, or gender-neutral figure with a beautiful face and a long flowing robes.angel Carnegie_Museum creche

St. Francis of Assisi is credited with creating the first Nativity scene in 1223, using a cave near Greccio, Italy and real people to re-create the story of the birth of Jesus and the visitation of the Magi. The display proved so popular that other cities soon copied the idea, sometimes using statues instead of people. Within a hundred years, every church in Italy featured a nativity scene. Wealthy individuals set up their own Nativity scenes, using rich fabrics for the statues and increasing the number of figures until the scene became a mini-city witnessing the birth of a new king rather than the arrival of a poor child whose mother was forced to give birth in a stable.

Angel from Met crecheSince the artists did not have much of a physical description to go by in creating the angels, they used the same elaborate robes for the angels as they gave to the people in the scene. Italian aristocrats of the 1200s were fashion peacocks, combining the Greco-Roman flavor of the Renaissance with sumptuous fabrics, many layers, long trains, and gold thread. The angels were therefore dressed in very impressive robes. The only difference was the wings.


Today, Christmas angels are typically shown in the same flowing outfits they were given back in the 1200s. Since those now look more like dresses, the angels have gotten increasingly feminine-looking, often including swirling hair to go with their swirling robes.


The Guardian Angel

One of the most common and popular angel images is the guardian. While not featured prominently in the Bible, these are the angels most people believe in. According to a survey of 1700 people of various faiths by Baylor University Institute for Studies of Religion, more than 50% of all adults surveyed, including 20% who say they are not religious, believe they have been protected by a guardian angel. In some cases, these are loved ones who have died but make their presence known to the living through subtle signs and warnings. Messages from guardian angels might be seen in a comment from a passer-by, a song, the appearance of a particular animal, a strange coincidence, a particular smell, even a natural phenomenon like a strange cloud or a rainstorm while the sun is shining. A guardian angel can take many forms, including a winged figure similar to the Christmas angel, a being of pure light, or a human figure.

religion, angels, guardian angel, oil print, 19th century, protecting, child, children, kid, kids, girl, boy, playing at abyss,

Guardian spirits have a very long history in human culture. The being of pure light and the winged guardian figures appeared in  Genio_romano_de_Ponte_Puñide_ancient Sumer, Assyria, Egypt, Babylon, Phoenicia, Hittite Empire, Cyprus, and other early Mediterranean civilizations. One interesting predecessor of the guardian angel is the ancient Roman guardian of the household, a protective spirit who was enshrined in the kitchen, atrium, or garden. The photo shows a sculpture of a household protective spirit from ancient Rome, though it wouldn’t look out of place in a garden alcove today.

In the early 20th century, the guardian angel often looked more like a mother (or sometimes father) figure. Sentimental cards published in the early 1900s featuring angelic, usually female figures protecting their young charges from dangers like a steep cliff or rickety bridge or thunderstorm became so popular they were copied endlessly. They’re now part of our cultural dictionary of images. The image shown on the left is typical.

Newer versions might update the image, but the function remains the same: protection from harm, guidance along angel its-a-wonderful-lifethe right path. In the movie “It’s a Wonderful Life,” Clarence, the male angel (shown in the photo, right) who saves George Bailey from killing himself, hopes he’ll get his wings by helping George turn his life around. This reinforces the concept that humans can become angels. “Teacher says, ‘Whenever a bell rings, an angel gets its wings,’” George Bailey’s daughter says, so the audience knows the meaning of the bell ringing at the end of the movie.

Guardian angels may be male or female, according to the media. In “Angels in America,” Emma Thompson plays an angel ministering to AIDS victims. In “The Preacher’s Wife” (1996) Denzel Washington plays an angel without wings giving advice to both the preacher and his wife. Still a guardian, though.

In the long-running TV series “Touched by an Angel” (1994 – 2003) the main figure was the angel Monica, who, like Clarence, was trying to work her way up the angel hierarchy by helping people who face great challenges or difficult choices.

angels in the outfield screen-shotIn “Angels in the Outfield” (1994), a boy prays for a father and a winning season for the worst team in the league. An angel, played by Christopher Lloyd in a baseball cap (“Just call me Al”), grants his wish and converts a lot of unbelievers in the process. This is perhaps the most appealing version of the guardian angel: one who intervenes, using extraordinary power for the greater good. (Photo, left)

So guardian angels, no matter their form, are protectors, guides, helpers – powerful beings with people’s best interest at heart. Their popularity is not surprising.


The Valentine’s Day Angel

'Ready; aim...'The most common angel we see around Valentine’s Day is a pudgy baby boy with tiny wings: Cupid. He’s mischievous but cute, corpulent in a luxurious and vaguely sensuous way. He’s armed with a bow and arrow, ready to strike the heart of an unsuspecting person, making that person fall in love. Even the expression “fall in love” reflects Cupid’s work. Imagine the poor victim explaining the change: “It was an accident. I was just walking along, minding my own business when suddenly I stumbled and fell in love.” Sort of like falling in a hole. The idea of Cupid striking with his little bow is a way to explain the sometimes random quality of sexual attraction. The cartoon by Elmer Parolini is a perfect example.cherubs by Raphael

While Cupid is called a cherub, and thousands of his kind decorate walls and ceilings of castles, not to mention thousands of Valentine’s Day cards, in fact the cherubim, according to Christian church teachings, are terrifying enforcers. They were the ones wielding flaming swords and barring the gates of the Garden of Eden after Adam and Eve were thrown out. So how did they change? Once again, blame the Greeks and the Romans – and the Renaissance, when everything Greek and Roman came back into vogue in Europe. The Greek god Eros, from the Greek word for desire, was the son of Aphrodite (goddess of love, beauty, and sexuality). While Eros (Cupid to the Romans) was originally seen as a teenage boy, his image changed to a baby boy when he was transferred to Renaissance Europe.  Cherubs by Raphael, shown.

Other baby angels

angel with racoonCupid may be cute but he’s dangerous. Other baby angels are much more benign. Perhaps because of the widespread belief that a baby who dies very young becomes an angel, there are currently many examples of cute baby or toddler angels with little wings. Sometimes they hold a baby animal, like a deer or bunny or raccoon. Sweetness, youth, and innocence are the main qualities of these angels.



The angel of death

angel-City_Of_AngelsMany people believe an angel appears to take the spirit of the dying person to the next life. One example of this angel in modern media is Seth, the angel played by Nicholas Cage in the movie “City of Angels.” He and his cohorts, all wingless and wearing black trench coats, stand around Los Angeles, unseen by the humans passing by, waiting for the ones who are dying. At the moment of death, the angel becomes visible to the dying person, telling him or her not to be afraid, that the angel will be their guide to the afterlife. In this sense, he is a classic angel of death, Azrael in Islam, similar to the figure of the Grim Reaper in folklore. In ancient Greek myth, Charon ferried the dead across the river Styx to the Underworld. Angels of death act carry out their jobs as directed.

However, in City of Angels, Seth is impressed by the doctor’s efforts to save the dying man. When he sees how upset she is at losing the patient, he tries to comfort her, but she can’t see him, so he becomes visible. He subsequently falls in love with the doctor, played by Meg Ryan, so much so that he wants to give up being an angel and become human. Even though their time together is very short, he says after her death that the love he felt was worth giving up everything else. This of course brings up lots of very interesting but unanswered questions.


The Mismatched Twin Angels

You know them: the caricature good and bad angels that sit on opposite shoulders, whispering opposite advice on how to handle a difficult decision. The winged angels  good and bad angel and the horned devil, right there, one trying to convince you to do the right thing and the other persuading you that the wrong thing would be a lot more fun. The little devil later takes the blame for mistakes. “The devil made me do it,” or “I didn’t really mean to do that.”

Some early Christian books, like the Shepherd of Hermas (140 AD) show angels competing for the heart of a man. Christopher Marlowe made the idea popular in his play Doctor Faustus (1592), when a good angel and a bad angel offer the main character opposite advice.

Now they make an easy graphic to show a person struggling with an ethical dilemma.


The Fallen Angelangel Lucifer by Nagy Rebecca

One of the most powerful stories, at least as told by John Milton in his epic poem Paradise Lost, is the battle of the powerful angel Lucifer against God. He and his minions challenge God for ultimate power. When God crushes Lucifer and sends him to the lake of burning sulfur forever, Lucifer replies: “Better to reign in Hell than to serve in Heaven.” Another of his famous lines is: “The mind is its own place, and in itself can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven.” What makes Lucifer, or Satan, so attractive is his ferocious belief in himself. Milton’s image of the beautiful but damned figure ruling from his throne in Hell became very popular. Even today, images of the Fallen Angel retain a sense of glory twisted by jealousy and lust for power. He is the Prince of Darkness.

In the drawing by Nagy Rebeka, Lucifer is shown after the fall. The script on his clothing is a quote from “Paradise Lost”: “So farewell hope, and with hope farewell fear, /Farewell remorse; all good to me is lost. / Evil be thou my good/….Better to reign in hell than to serve in heaven.”


The Sword of Righteous Power

angel MichaelLucifer’s nemesis is the warrior archangel, usually Michael, clothed like a Roman centurion and wielding a sword of flame. He is the spiritual warrior, leader of the Army of God, angel of righteous battle.  In the sculpture shown on the left, Michael battles and apparently vanquishes Lucifer, shown as a dragon.

The Messenger

By far the most common function of angels in the Bible is relaying messages. Two famous examples are the angel appearing to Abraham, telling him not to kill Isaac, and the angel appearing to Mary, telling her she is to give birth to a son to be called Jesus, as appears in the Fra Angelico painting shown.angel appearing to Mary


Why angels?

So we have a strange mix of images – cute, cuddly kids, fleshy baby boys, elegantly coiffed and robed women, stern, powerful men armed with formidable weapons. And the angels’ functions are just as varied – messenger, warrior, protector, transporter of the dead, advisor. Some are good, some bad, some male, some female, some non-gender specific.

Some, like Cupid, are clearly secular, not religious.

Some are not included in any religious dogma. A friend of mine said she went to a bingo game one night and was surprised to see two elderly ladies put out a series of old photos on the table in front of their seats. “I always bring them,” one answered when my friend asked. “They’re my angels. Plus I bring my good-luck charms.”

Why are angels important?  Why is their popularity growing?  Here are my thoughts:

They represent a spirit power in a secular world, a spiritual presence granted to all who want it, inside or outside the bounds of traditional religious faith. They connect people to a wider, unseen, more beautiful and more  powerful world.

People want a guardian who will protect them from the dangers that threaten them.

They want the strength of a righteous army to fight the evil they know lives in the world.

They also want a way to understand that evil, to give it a form and a reason for being.

On a personal level, they want a metaphor for their own ethical struggles and failures.

They want something sweet, kind, and innocent when all they see is pain.

They need Cupid to understand the mystery of sexual attraction.

Angels answer all of these needs.

Angels are the antidote to a sad, lonely, spiritually-undernourished world.

No wonder they’re so popular.



Sources and interesting reading:

“Angel,” Wikipedia,

“Angel on vaulted sacristy of St. Mark” painted by Melosso da Flori (1438-1494)

“Angel with raccoon and bunny,” Antiques Navigator,

“Archangel Michael slaying Satan as a dragon,” (photo)

“Bronze genius depicted as pater familias (1st century CE), photo,

“Cupid,” Wikipedia, (a very good article)

“Exhibition objects,” Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York,

Foster, Jill and Sadie Nicholas, “Meet the women who talk to angels: Even felt that someone’s watching over you? A survey reveal 41 percent of us believe in heavenly guardians,” The Daily Mail (UK) 23 December 2012,

“Genius (mythology),” Wikipedia, (a very interesting article)

Harris, Dan, “Most American Believe in Guardian Angels,” ABC News, 18 September 2008,

“History of Angels,” Angels &Ghosts,

Holy Bible, New International Version, 1973

“Inanna, the Burney Relief, Old Babylonian, c 1800 BCE,” Wikipedia,

Kau, Stephen. “Does an Angel of Death Exist?” Christianity Malaysia, 22f March 2013,

Joyner, James, “More Americans Believe in Angels than Global Warming,” Outside the Beltway, 8 December 2009,

Martin, Therese, “The Development of Winged Angels in Early Christian Art,” SerieVII, Historia del Arte, 2001

“Poll: Nearly 8 in 10 Americans believe in angels,” CBS News, 23 December 2011,

Metropolitan Museum of Art, angel from the Christmas crèche display (photo)

Nagy Rebeka, drawing of Lucifer after the fall, “I Sung of Chaos and Eternal Night,” The Midnite Lounge,

“Nativity Scene” Wikipedia,

“Neapolitan presepio at the Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburg, Pennsylvania (photo)

Parolini, Elmer (cartoon) “Ready; aim…”’s-arrow-cupid-209000273/

“Shoulder angel,” Wikipedia,

Stinekey, “Oh, My Pop Culture Supernatural Beings: Angels in Pop Culture,” 20 October 2013, Lady Geek Girl,

“Touched by an Angel” Wikipedia,

“The Truth about angelic beings: What does the Bible really teach about angels?” Christian Answers,

Teotihuacan Discoveries


Teotihaucan maskBig news in the archaeology world: In 2003, torrential rains exposed the mouth of a previously unknown tunnel near the Temple of the Feathered Serpent at Teotihuacan, in central Mexico.  Feathered Serpent excavation

Now, more than a decade later, researchers have reached the end of the 340’ (103m) tunnel (illustration) that runs about 60’ below the Temple. Finds from the tunnel (including the figure shown in the photo, left) include engraved conch shells, amber fragments, mirrors, greenstone statues, earspools, seeds, worked stone, beads, bones of animals and humans, mysterious clay spheres coated with a yellow mineral – over 50,000 pieces in all.  The photo (below) shows the outside of the structure.   A section added around 400 AD obscures the original façade (photo) featuring the feathered serpents that gave the structure its name.  Archaeologists debate the significance of the figures.  One set seems to be a realistic serpent while the other is a more blocky stylized creature sometimes identified at Tlaloc, the storm god.  However, Karl Taube, Mary Ellen Miller, and Michael Coe have said it is more likely a “war serpent” or “fire serpent.”  At one time, the circles were filled with obsidian pieces that would have caught the sunlight.

Teo feathered serpent  Teotihuacan Facade_of_the_Temple_of_the_Feathered_Serpent

Many people label the new finds in the tunnel under the temple extravagant, gruesome, mysterious.  Yet, when viewed next to earlier finds from Teotihuacan and those of other cities in the area, the new discoveries seem very consistent.  It’s their purpose that remains a mystery.


What is Teotihuacan?

Teotihuacan, Maya, Olmec, Mixtec

Teotihuacan is a world-famous archaeological site north of Mexico City, known for its massive pyramids, its precise layout, and the mystery surrounding its birth, its death, and a lot of what happened in between. We don’t know exactly who started this city around 150 BC, why these people embarked on an almost constant monumental building effort from 150 BC to around 250 AD, or what led to the sacking and burning of the city around 550 AD.

Teotihuacan View_from_Pyramide_de_la_luna


Adding to the mystery is the lack of any written records. Either the people who burned the city also burned any written materials, or there simply weren’t any. It’s hard to imagine people designing and building such precise, massive structures without a written record, but none have appeared so far in the excavations.


At its height, the city center covered 19 square miles (32 square kilometers) and served a population of 25,000 to 150,000, depending on what source you read, making it the largest city in the Western Hemisphere at the time. Its military power and cultural influence spread throughout central Mexico, out into the Yucatan Peninsula and down into Guatemala.

On the other hand, Teotihuacan also borrowed from earlier and contemporary cultures in Mexico, especially the Olmec, Maya, and Mixtec. The very deliberate, celestially aligned design of earlier Olmec cities like La Venta and Tres Zapotes, with clusters of mounds and central plazas, found its greatest expression in Teotihuacan.

Olmec mask

Olmec masks like the one in the photo (left) provided inspiration for the artisans of Teotihuacan.  The one shown in the photo (right) came from the newly excavated tunnel under the Temple of the Feathered Serpent. Teotihuacan mask  Olmec greenstone masks and figures were a few of many cultural features absorbed into the Teotihuacan culture.

Maya and Mixtec cosmology from contemporary cities also found its way into Teotihuacan culture, as did the value placed on items like fine ceramics and greenstone.



But whatever earlier cities contributed to Teotihuacan, the Teotihuacanos exaggerated. Pyramids became gigantic. The Pyramid of the Sun, (photo, below) the most massive building on the site, stands 233.6’ (71.2 m) tall, and 733.2’ (223.5 m) long and wide, a huge, commanding construction even today. With its decorative plaster coating and top-most temple long gone, it now has the severe look of a multi-national corporate headquarters, a symbol of complete, collective, threatening, and unemotional power.

Pyramid of the Sun

The whole site was so impressive to the Aztecs who moved into the area 600 years after Teotihuacan was abandoned that they considered it a holy place, a place where gods walked. Even the Spanish conquistadors didn’t destroy it. Its major damage has come from looters, both private and institutional, and from the ravages of time.


Spiritual Beliefs

Murals painted in upper class Teotihuacan living areas have provided important clues about the people’s spiritual beliefs, especially veneration of a figure often called the Great Goddess, who is associated with the sacred mountain visible from the site, called Cerro Gordo (Fat Mountain), as well as water flowing from the mountain, rivers and rain, fertility and new growth.


In the mural shown, the central figure (and the only one shown in the frontal view reserved for deities) has a bird face/mask with a strange mouth that might represent an owl or a spider. Out of the green feather headdress a twisting plant grows – perhaps a hallucinogenic morning glory vine. Circles (sometimes interpreted as mirrors), spiders and butterflies decorate the vine. Flowers sprout from its tips. Birds appear, some with sound scrolls, which probably indicate songs. From the figure’s outstretched hands, drops of water fall. Her torso splits into curling rolls filled with flowers and plants. From the bottom, under an arch of stars, seeds fall toward the border, which is a series of waves carrying stars and underwater creatures.

The figures shown in profile on the right and left of the Great Goddess carry what look like medicine bundles/offerings in one hand. From their other hand water emerges, as well as a cascade of seeds and circles. The entire background is a deep blood red.  Karl Taube has related the circles to mirrors that appear in the creation story in which the sun shoots an arrow into the house of mirrors.  The serpent, then released, fertilizes the earth.  Thus, he argues, the serpent appears on the façade of the Temple of the Feathered Serpent surrounded by a headdress of mirrors.

Teotihuacan Tepantitla_Mountain_Stream_mura

The panel below the picture of the Great Goddess shows bands of water emerging from a mountain around which red, blue, and yellow human figures swim, interact (sing? dance?) and float among butterflies while plants sprout along a snake-like band of water. Interestingly, for a city known for its militarism and bloody sacrifices, the scene looks idyllic.

Some experts suggest that the Great Goddess figure was borrowed from the earlier Olmec figure recorded in a petroglyph at Chalcatzingo that shows a woman seated in a cave from which water flows. Outside the cave, maize plants sprout as male rain falls. (Photo, left; illustration, right)

Chalcatzingo petroglyph   Chalcatzingo_Monument drawing









Others point to the Maya water deity Ixchel, the goddess of the moon, rain, surface waters, weaving and childbirth, sometimes called the Midwife of Creation. (shown as a young woman in the illustration).

Maya Ixchel MaidenIn her role as Mother Goddess and weaver, she set the universe in motion through the movement of her drop spindle. She was also called the Spider’s Web because she caught the morning dew in her web and made the drops into stars. However, she had two sides: the young woman and the old crone. She was both healer and destroyer, bringing about the destruction of the third creation through a terrible flood and then helping to birth the new age.

Of course, all of these interpretations have their detractors.  Karl Taube interprets the entire site as an exaltation of sacred war. He says the circles found in the caches are related to the mirrors worn by warriors as well as to the house of mirrors  from which the creator serpent originated in the creation story. The bodies found in the offertory caches might be captive warriors. His theory,  however, doesn’t explain the significance of the murals.

Aztec water goddess ChalciuhtlicueInterestingly, the later Aztec water goddess Chalchiuhtilicue, who presides over running water and aids in childbirth, shares many features with the figure in the Teotihuacan murals painted hundreds of years earlier.  (The figure in the photo is from the Codex Borbonicus.)


New Finds

So back to the amazing new discoveries –

The excavated section of the newly excavated tunnel under the Temple of the Feathered Serpent has 18 walls scattered throughout the length of the tunnel in a zigzag pattern, which archaeologists believe were used to seal off the tunnel on previous occasions. So this same route had been used many times before for some purpose, yet this was the last time. After this offering was placed, the tunnel was purposely filled and sealed.

Teotihuacan tunnel

Gomez feels going down the tunnel and leaving offerings probably had a ritual purpose. The original city was built over a four-chambered lava tube cave. In Mesoamerican cultures, caves were considered portals to the Underworld and the places of emergence at the time of creation. Perhaps, Gomez said, the trip into the tunnel provided the ritual power needed for a new leader. (Photo shows recent discovers in the tunnel, including greenstone figures in the foreground, dozens of conch shells, and plain pottery.  Lower left is a close-up of the two figures in the background; lower right is a close-up of the shells and pots.)

Greenstone figurinesConch shells and pots

Or the trip into the tunnel could have been a pilgrimage, a way to make contact with powerful spirit forces. Following the pattern evident in so many religious rituals around the world, the supplicant may have offered sacrifices in order to recognize the gods’ power and to seek their help.


A Survey of Discoveries

Back in 1982 and 1989, mass graves were found under and near the same Temple of the Feathered Serpent. The sites, dated to the period the temple was constructed, about 150 AD, included 137 people who’d been sacrificed with their hands tied behind their backs. They were accompanied by cut and engraved shells from the Gulf Coast (150 miles away), obsidian blades, slate disks, mirrors, ear spools, and a greenstone figurine with pyrite eyes. A hundred years later, people left very similar offerings in the tunnel.

In 1999, a burial site was discovered within the Pyramid of the Moon. That site yielded 150 burial offerings, including obsidian blades and points, greenstone figures, pyrite mirrors, conch and other shells, and the remains of eight birds of prey and two jaguars. Again, these are very similar offerings.

The male buried in the tomb under the Pyramid of the Moon was bound and executed, which seems to make it a sacrifice rather than a memorial. All of the human bodies found so far have been sacrificed. Some were decapitated, some had their hearts removed, others were bludgeoned to death. Some wore necklaces of human teeth. Sacred animals were also sacrificed: jaguars, eagles, falcons, owls, even snakes.

The 2014 discoveries, like the others, have been extravagant and gruesome. Some of the precious objects discovered in the tunnel include arrowheads, obsidian, amber, four large greenstone statues, pottery, dozens of conch shells, a wooden box of shells, animal bones and hair, skin, dozens of plain pottery jars, 15,000 seeds, 4,000 wooden objects, rubber balls, pyrite mirrors, crystal spheres, jaguar remains, even clay balls covered in yellow pigment (shown in photo).  And some came quite a distance – conch shells from the Gulf of Mexico, jade from Guatemala, rubber balls from Olmec or Maya sites.

Teotihuacan yellow orbs

While this team, like the earlier ones, hopes to find a royal burial, as of this moment, they haven’t. So far, this too seems to be an offertory cache. The difference is that this moment doesn’t mark the building of a new pyramid; it marks the effective end of construction. Some event required this extravagant offering. While some think this cache might be the remains of a huge feast marking a great funerary and sacrificial ceremony, a tunnel 60’ underground seems an odd place for a celebration.

The timing suggests the event was more than the death of an old ruler or the ascension of a new ruler who needed the spiritual trappings of leadership. It looks as if the city faced a crisis – perhaps weather changes, disease, internal strife, or some other threat. At this critical point, they might have turned to the Great Goddess, the one responsible for life and death and new life, to help revive the old strength that defined Teotihuacan. Indeed, the murals featuring the Great Goddess as the provider of joyful, abundant life were painted about the same time.

According to Mary Ellen Miller’s book The Art of Mesoamerica, “Constant rain and water crises at Teotihuacan exacerbated the difficulty of building and maintaining the city. The preparation of lime for mortar and stucco requires vast amounts of firewood to burn limestone or seashells, and the more Teotihuacan grew, the more the surrounding forests were depleted. With deforestation came soil erosion, drought, and crop failure. In response, Teotihuacan may have erected ever more temples and finished more paintings thus perpetuating the cycle.”

Whether this environmental degradation from both drought and flood was the crisis that precipitated the offering or only part of it, we don’t know. However, if crops failed, the power structure would soon fail as well.

A Similar Case

In 1200 AD, a terrible drought in what is now Arkansas (USA) drove people to bring their precious stone pipes, engraved shell cups, stone maces, projectile points, and colorful woven tapestries to the site of a new mound to be constructed. They chanted and sang and danced and said prayers after they built high walls and a domed roof around the offering chamber. “They gathered at Spiro,” George Sabo, director of the Arkansas Archaeological Survey said, “brought sacred materials, and arranged them in a very specific way in order to perform a ritual intended to reboot the world.”

Perhaps that’s also what the Teotihuacanos tried to do.


Sources and interesting reading:

“Archaeologists Make Incredible Discoveries in Tunnel Sealed 2000 Years Ago,” Huffington Post, 30 October 2014,

Castillo, Edward. “Mexico Archaeologists Explore Teotihuacan Tunnel.” Sci-Tech Today, 3 November 2014,

Dvorsky, George. “Incredible New Artifact Found in 2,000 Year-Old Mexican Tunnel,”

“Façade of the Temple of the Feathered Serpent (Teotihuacan),”

“Great Goddess of Teotihuacan,” Wikipedia,

Hearn, Kelly, “Who Built the Great City of Teotihuacan?” National Geographic, 1996-2014,

“Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, “Mexico, 1 – 500 AD” and “Teotihuacan: Mural Painting,” 2000 – 2014,

“In Pictures: Relics discovered in Mexico’s Teotihuacan,” BBC News: Latin American and Caribbean, 28 October 2014

“Ixchel” Wikipedia,

John Cabot University, Rome, “The Art of Teotihuacan,” AH 142 class materials,

Lunday, Elizabeth, “Rethinking Spiro Mounds,” American Archaeology, Fall 2014, 26-32.

Lorenzi, Loretta. “Robot Finds Mysterious Spheres in Ancient Temple,” Discovery News,

Meyer, Karl E. Teotihuacan. New York: Newsweek Book Division, 1973.

Miller, Mary. The Art of Mesoamerica, from Olmec to Aztec. New York: Thames and Hudson, 1983.

Mexico’s National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH) Proyecto Tlalocan, photos.

Noel, Andrea. “Thousands of Precious Objects Unearthed in Ancient Mexican City of Teotihuacan,”

“Olmec,” Wikipedia, (an excellent article!)

“Pre-Hispanic City of Teotihuacan,” United Nations Education, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), World Heritage Convention,

“Pyramid of the Sun,” Wikipedia,

“Robot Uncovers Ancient Burial Chamber beneath Teotihuacan Temple,” Huffington Post, 28 April 2013,

Schuster, Angela M. H. “New Tomb at Teotihuacan, Archaeology, 4 December 1998,

Taube, Karl A. “The Temple of Quetzalcoatl and the Cult of Sacred War,”

“Teotihuacan,” Wikipedia,

“Teotihuacan Great Goddess,” (photo) Wikipedia,

Tepantitla Murals, including the Great Goddess panel and the Mountain Stream panel, from Wikipedia Commons,

Vance, Eric. “New Artifact-Filled Chambers Revealed under Teotihuacan,” Scientific American, October 2014,

“Wagner Murals,” Wikipedia,






Guest post by Kaye George

One of the best part of the internet in general and the Prehistoric Fiction Writers group in particular is getting to meet other writers and enjoy their views.  Here’s Kaye George, author of Death in the Time of Ice as well as other books, including the mystery Fat Cat at Large.  Welcome, Kaye!

My own misfits and heroes

Kaye George photo

The fact that Kathleen Rollins has two groups of strangers meet in her A MEETING OF CLANS is so exciting. What must it have been like to venture to another continent with only the most primitive technology (although, to them, it was the latest and greatest)! And to think you are alone on a continent, then discover you’re not. Great stuff.

I’m also fascinated with what life was life long ago. A group I’ve always loved to study is the Neanderthals. The first images of them so maligned the whole people that I like to try to help overcome that. When I decided to write about Neanderthal characters, the complete mapping of their genome, plus much more research that is being announced almost weekly, fell right into my lap, and totally in step with my project. It seemed like I had to do it!

I love knowing that, at one time, there were different kinds of people on this planet. Homo neanderthalensis, Homo sapiens, and Denisovans, all at once. [1] Until scientists decided they didn’t really exist, we had the Hobbit people, too. There are also the Cro-Magnon (I know, the term is out of favor, but they weren’t actually just like us).

It would be the most exciting thing ever to meet up with a Neanderthal or a Denisovan. Since that’s not possible, I turn to fiction. Kaye George book

Neanderthals are my main characters. Being primarily a mystery writer, “my” Neanderthals have to be involved in a mysterious murder. It’s been such fun to do research for this writing. Another love of mine is the megafauna that existed in North America before 10,000 BCE. What could I do? I brought the Neanderthals over to North America before the last Ice Age and wrote what I call alternate history. (Although just because Neanderthal artifacts and remains haven’t been discovered here doesn’t mean they weren’t here, right?)

The best thing about writing about Neanderthals is that there are conflicting theories about many of their characteristics and abilities. I figure I can pick and choose whatever suits me best.

However, I do try to stick with generally accepted theories. (Except for putting them in N. America.) Take speech [2]. More and more it’s thought that they could talk, although there are holdouts against fluent speech similar to ours. My solution was to give them speech, but to reserve it for special occasions, “pronouncements” by the leader, mostly.

Was I telepathic, having the women be hunters? Some support that idea [3], some don’t [4].

Okay, I know no one says they were telepathic, except William Shatner [5]. But that was my way of getting around the speech controversy, which was more controversial when I began writing Death in the Time of Ice. It’s also my way of filling up their brains, which were larger than ours. (I read this while writing the book, but it’s apparently no longer true. Still, there’s room for telepathy in the Aborigine brain.)

There are a few misfits in this Neanderthal tribe. Twin girls, abandoned by a starving tribe (most likely) were taken in as small children. One of them, Enga Dancing Flower, turns out to be a hero (or heroine if you prefer). Another misfit is a Cro-Magnon (or modern human) that the tribe also takes in. He is an adult who has been cast from his tribe, but no one knows much about him, because there’s a severe language/telepathy barrier. I won’t reveal whether he turns out to be a hero or not. That would ruin the mystery!





[5] (search for Shatner)



Kaye George, national bestselling and multiple-award-winning mystery writer, writes several series: Imogene Duckworthy, Cressa Carraway (Barking Rain Press), People of the Wind (Untreed Reads), and, as Janet Cantrell, Fat Cat (Berkley Prime Crime cozies). Her short stories appear in anthologies and magazines as well as her own collection, A Patchwork of Stories. Her reviews run in Suspense Magazine. She lives in Knoxville, TN.

Links to the books:

Guest Post by Mary S. Black

 Mary S. Black is the author of Peyote Fire, a novel set 4,000 years ago in the canyonlands of southwest Texas. Mary S. BlackLearn more about her at, or find her on Facebook. She also participants in the Prehistoric Writers and Readers Campfire on Facebook and Goodreads. Her book is now available on Amazon.

PF cover

Tell us a little bit about your new book.  What’s it about?

Peyote Fire is the story of people who created incredible rock art in southwest Texas over 4,000 years ago. This area is known as the Lower Pecos region today, and is located right on the Rio Grande, about 50 miles west of Del Rio,Texas. Archaeologists have identified over 300 rock art sites in four different styles in this area. My protagonist, Deer Cloud, is painting just such a mural when his powerful grandfather dies, and his life changes.   Deer Cloud is called to walk the shaman path and finally, to bring the buffalo through his visionary power.

To reach his goal, Deer Cloud must visit five mythical wolves who make him fear for his life and his sanity in order to become a shaman. Of course he must ingest powerful hallucinogenic herbs to see the wolves, and that frightens him even more. He must learn to overcome his fears and find his true life.

The female shaman, Jumping Rabbit, takes an interest in him, and introduces him to a little cactus, peyote. Peyote naturally grows in the Lower Pecos and has been used for thousands of years as a powerful medicine. However, this new drug threatens another shaman, Stone Face, who wants to hold on to his own power. When scouts spy a herd of buffalo several days away, Stone Face challenges Deer Cloud to call the beasts using his new spirit helper.

Of course Stone Face uses his own songs and hallucinogenic drugs to call the buffalo. The herd comes and are stampeded over a cliffwhiteshaman rock art panel in a horrific scene. But whose magic really called them? Stone Face or Deer Cloud? The one with the most powerful magic will lead the people from now on.

What inspired you to write about these people?

 I’ve made many trips to the Lower Pecos over the past 25 years to see rock art and other archaeological sites. Every time I’ve seen these rock art panels, I always wondered who made it. I’ve always wondered what the artist thought about as he or she painted the stories in the rockshelters. The paintings are complex, and up to now, little has been known about their meaning. Today, researchers are making great strides in interpreting these stories from the past, so it’s very exciting. (Photo, right: White Shaman rock art panel, the same image that appears on the cover of Peyote Fire.)

The remains of a huge buffalo jump in one of the smaller canyons have been known by archaeologists since the 1930s or before. It’s estimated over 800 animals died in one amazing episode, and many bones are still there today. So part of the story is based on this as well.

Spring, Lower Pecos canyonlands

I wanted to make these ancient people walk and talk in my novel, using everything archaeologists and others have learned about their culture to bring them to life.  (Photo left: spring in the Lower Pecos Canyonlands)

 What differences between their era and ours do you find most striking?

Well, certainly the people had a completely different world-view than we do today. Yet they had explanations for the phenomena of the world. Generally their explanations centered on the behavior of certain gods, such as Father Sun or Mother Rain, but often included the behavior of animals as well. For example, in my book, the people’s explanation for fire is that Possum discovered Fire already in the wood, and brought it to the people. I actually took this story from Huichol mythology. The people’s observations of the world around them were acute—they had to be in order to live. Fire was considered the Great Transformer, because nothing that enters fire comes out the same ever again. Of course this is a world-view that I constructed based on ethnographic research, and certainly cannot be “proven” to be “correct.” It’s fiction, after all. We’ll never know exactly what they thought, of course.


How did you get the background information you needed about these people and their lifestyle?

Fate Bell Shelter, Seminole Canyon, Texas I did years of research. I didn’t start actually writing until I thought I knew enough to begin. Even then I would have to stop every other paragraph to look something up. I wanted to be as accurate as possible, based on what archaeologists and others have discovered. Sometimes translating those scientific papers, etc., into language for the general public is not easy! But I wanted to share what is known about these people with a wider audience. I also visited the Lower Pecos many times and was lucky enough to tag along with a few archaeologists so I got to see and experience many places inaccessible to the public. I was fortunate enough also to study for a short time with one of the most important researchers of that particular rock art. (Photo: Rock art panel in Fate Bell Shelter, Seminole Canyon State Park, Texas)

What do you want readers today to know about ancient peoples?

I want people to know that these ancient people were fully human, with complex thinking, planning, and organizing skills. I find many Americans today know little about the ancient past and therefore fail to celebrate the ingenuity of all human beings.

What are you working on next?

I’m writing a brief travel guide to the Lower Pecos. It will be divided into three sections: Environment, Rock Art, and Towns and Ghost towns. After that I’ll start the second novel, about the female shaman who seduces Deer Cloud in book number one.

You can find Mary S. Black’s book Peyote Fire on  She says the Kindle version should be out soon.

Monte Verde Mysteries

Monte Verde is an archaeological site in southern Chile, currently situated some 35 miles (45 kilometers) east of the Pacific coast on Chinchihuapi Creek. It doesn’t look extraordinary, but discoveries made on both sides of this little creek are shaking up the archaeological world. After twenty years of challenges from doubting archaeologists, especially those supporting the Clovis First theory, the evidence from Monte Verde still supports the thesis that this site was occupied by humans at least 14,800 years ago, which makes it the oldest widely accepted site of human habitation in the Americas.

Monte Verde siteMonte Verde map

The site, incredibly well-preserved by a bog, challenges many – make that almost all – of our preconceptions about ancient explorers in the Americas. And it raises many questions without easy answers.




Question 1

Is the site 14 ,800 years old – or more than twice that old?

The oldest human habitation date that archaeologist and anthropologist Tom Dillehay suggested – and subsequently defended against loud criticism from fellow American archaeologists – was 14,800 years ago, the date he and his colleague, geologist Mario Pino, connected with the bottom layer of the first excavation. In this area, they found stone artifacts including points, bola stones, and a drill, the remains of wood frame structures apparently covered in hides and floored with rough planks, ropes and knots, two large fire pits, animal bones and fur, remains of tubers, seeds, nuts, berries, mushrooms, seaweed, algae, and leaves. The finds included 15 species of aquatic plants and 45 other plant species. It was an extraordinary discovery.

But it was complicated by an even more extraordinary find just the other side of the creek, where Dillehay and Pino found stone tools and evidence of hearths that were over 30,000 years old. Dillehay knew that 14,800 year old date would be extremely controversial, so he chose to effectively ignore the earlier finds.

Pino and Dillehay(Pino, left, and Dillehay, right, in photo)

“I don’t yet see any reason to believe people were in the Americas and that far south 30,000 years ago,” Dillehay remarked. In his report, he acknowledged the presence of the stone tools and carbon scatters consistent with hearths but refused to make the much earlier claim.

Mario Pino, on the other hand, did make the claim. So how old is Monte Verde? “There’s no doubt about the age – it’s 33,000 years old,” Pino said in a New York Times article in which he noted the age of the sediment layers bearing the apparent artifacts.

Now that most of the archaeological powers that be have reviewed the evidence of the first site and grudgingly accepted it, opinions are softening somewhat toward the older site. “We’ll open up that level and see what’s there,” Dillehay said in a more recent interview.

So Monte Verde is 33,000 years old – maybe, or 14,800 years old – probably – at least.


Question 2

What does the variety of food and medicine found at Monte Verde say about the people?

MV close-up map

Mastodon bones sticking out of a washed out riverbank first drew attention to the Monte Verde site. Experts estimate the animal that went with the tusk fragment weighed two tons. Finds also included a chunk of mastodon meat, remains of llama, shellfish, fish, small mammals, edible seeds, mushrooms, tubers, berries, stalks, and wild potatoes. In all, remains of 45 different plant species were found on site, over 20% of them originating over 150 miles away. Some of the plants came from the coast – 56 miles (90 km) to the west back then; others from marshes, forests, and arid grasslands. So either the people gathered food from very distant sources and brought it back to their village or they engaged in trade with other people in other locations. In either case, these people understood seasonal availability and enjoyed a varied diet.

And about all that seaweed …

At least nine different species of seaweed, both edible and medicinal, were originally found at the site. Later exploration of the site provided evidence of many more. Dillehay’s 2008 Nature paper indicates they found 19 seaweed species, five of which came from the coast. The following list includes some of the seaweed species discovered at the site, all of which are still used as a good source of minerals and protein, fertilizer, wound dressing, and medicine:


Durvillaea – a large kelp (“bull kelp”) found between Chile and Antarctica that is able to float because of air held within its honeycomb blades. It forms large rafts that can cross the open sea. It provides essential minerals and acts as an antioxidant. Currently, it’s used to promote heart and kidney health and to slow cellular degeneration associated with aging.

Porphyra – red/black algae from the south and west, edible. Called nori in Japan, it’s commonly used to wrap sushi. In Asian medicine, it’s combined with other seaweed species to treat goiter, cysts, tumors, lymph node swelling, liver and spleen enlargement. It’s currently the most valuable marine crop in Asia, worth over $1billion dollars.

Mazzaella – edible red, iridescent seaweed from the coast, currently used as a thickening agent and a commercial fertilizer

Sarcothalia (Luga negra) – currently harvested off the coast of Chile. David Horgen of Hawaii Pacific University is studying the ability of waixenicin A, a compound in Sarcothalia, to fight cancer.

The four species listed above are from west and south of Monte Verde.


Garcilaria – seaweed found in near shore tide pools and reef flats, believed have come from the Philippines and Hawaii, a sea vegetable with anti-viral qualities, currently used to fight herpes and HIV

Gigartina – near shore seaweed used as a sea vegetable. In medicine, it’s used as an anti-viral and immune booster, helpful in controlling skin lesions, herpes, and other infections.

The two species listed above come from the coast.

Currently, Gracilaria, Sarcothalia, Gigartina, and Porphyra are considered four of the most important seaweed species Chile harvests and sells. They’re used in the production of food and medicine, as well as fertilizers and filters.

MV giant kelp

Macrocystis – giant kelp, (photo left), an incredibly fast growing plant of cooler waters along the coast of North and South America, South Africa, New Zealand, and Australia. The plant’s long stalk, up to 160’ tall, is held up by a gas bladder. Large stands form kelp forests that support a wide range of wildlife. Rich in iodine and potassium, it’s long been used as a food source and wound dressing.

This seaweed grows offshore.

Sargassum – a seaweed originating in Japan, capable of surviving in a variety of habitats, including open water. Sargassum forms large floating mats at sea, which may explain how the species has successfully invaded shore areas around the world. Medicinally, it’s useful for treating goiter, tumor, pain, and swelling.


Sargassum is most commonly found in open water, not by the shore. Interestingly, most of these seaweeds come from the south and west of Monte Verde. Both Sargassum and Durvillaea form large floating mats that can cross open water. (photo, below)


Trentepohlia – a green alga (often appearing orange) that grows on tree trunks, buildings, and shore rocks. Recent research has shown it to be a powerful anti-microbial agent against five species of bacteria and five species of fungi, including agents of human, animal, and plant diseases, mycotoxin producers, and food spoilage agents.

What an interesting combination of plants! It seems we’re just now catching up with our relatives from long-ago in understanding their value.

The “cuds”

While it’s impossible to infer their uses for all of these, we can be fairly sure they used some as medicine because of the “cuds” found at the site – partially chewed mixtures of plants still bearing the mark of the chewer’s upper palate.

These “cuds” suggest the people of Monte Verde were familiar with properties of different seaweed species.   In addition, they went great distances and faced considerable difficulties of harvesting coastal and open water species. “This is suggestive of a fairly sophisticated knowledge of coastal ecosystems,” Dillehay remarked.

Or perhaps they traded with others who lived on the coast. Presence of material not found locally, such as quartz and tar, support the idea of a trade network. In 2007, the discovery of another site nearby, Pilauco Bajo, led to the theory that the two sites were associated. If Monte Verde was part of a trade network, it must have been the southern terminus. During the Ice Age, glaciers covered the southern tip of South America.


Question 3 – Where did the residents of Monte Verde come from?

This question brings up lots of other questions and even more arguments.

The Land Bridge Route

 paleomigration map

The most common theory of migration into the Americas involves the Land Bridge from Asia known as Beringia. According to this theory, the first people in the Americas walked across from Siberia to Alaska, following big game. From there, they found their way south and east through an ice-free corridor that opened up between mile-high ice sheets around 13,000 years ago. (Red line in map)

But see there’s a problem now, if a site in southern Chile is older than the ice-free corridor. Actually, the Beringia theory is so widely accepted that some archaeologists declared the Monte Verde dates to be impossible because they came before the Beringia dates.


The Coastal Route (pink line on map)

Then another theory surfaced – the coastal route. Harvard archaeologist Carol Mandryk said the ice-free corridor idea through Canada wouldn’t work because even after the ice sheets began to melt 13,000 years ago, vegetation would have been too scarce to support big game. Instead, she said, people came down the coast in small boats. In this case, people came from Asia but rather than walking, they took the sea route, hugging the edge of the coast and ice, until they reached what’s now Oregon, which was ice-free. From there, people populated the rest of the Americas.

But at 14,800 years old, Monte Verde predates the known sites in Oregon. Well, some argued, rising sea levels had covered all evidence of earlier passage. Or the bands of people were so small, they left no trace. They were “archaeologically invisible.”


The Kelp Highway

Proponents of the Kelp Highway hypothesis say that early explorers traveled by boat from Asia to South America following the kelp beds. This would explain the knowledge of different seaweed species, especially giant kelp, found at the Monte Verde site. However, giant kelp, Macrocystis, is typically found in open water rather than shallow coastal waters. “It was blown ashore in storms,” proponents explain.

MV Solutrean

The Solutrean Solution

Dr. Dennis Stanford, head of Archaeology of the National Museum of Natural History, the Smithsonian, a former Clovis Firster, changed his mind and came up with what’s been called the Solutrean Solution, claiming that people from northern Spain/southern France brought advanced technologies like weaving, sewing, painting, atlatls, and stone work across the North Atlantic by taking boats north from Europe toward Greenland and then south, hugging the shore/ice until they reached modern-day southeastern USA. This Solutrean stonework then turned into the famous Clovis points that spread east to west across the continent with trade. (Solutrean path is marked in red on map)

An interesting theory – with many critics. However, in order for those people to reach Monte Verde, they would have had to go the length of the Americas and around the tip of South America to the west side, during the Ice Age, when the Patagonian ice sheet covered the whole area.

MV mysterious Pedra Furada art

The West from Africa Route – The Pedra Furada Dilemma

Pedra Furada is actually a large cluster of sites in the Serra de Capivara Park near the northeast coast of Brazil. Its presence, and the tenacity of its principal investigator, Niede Guidon, have become a serious problem for the Clovis/Beringia theorists. Pedra Furada sites have consistently returned dates of 32,000 to 48,000 years ago. Since these did not fit with the Beringia theory, archaeologists from the US, in a terrible example of academic blindness and resentment, refused to consider it.

Pedra Furada

One look at Pedra Furada on a globe will show the closest land mass is – West Africa, not Asia. But this migration route would involve open water travel, which archaeologists seem reluctant to believe despite the evidence that people traveled over open water to Australia in an even earlier time period. Ocean currents and prevailing winds would take a boat traveler from West Africa directly to South America. Now a few maps include a west from Africa route, but not many.

But even the West Africa Route would not explain Monte Verde. The Andes stand in the way.


The South Pacific Route

If Monte Verde is indeed 33,000 years old, and the oldest date in North America is 20,000 younger, it seems to indicate some other migration route: across the South Pacific. This would explain the knowledge of open ocean seaweeds. Ocean currents would take people from the Pacific Islands south and then swing north as they neared South America. (Southernmost route marked on map)

Multiple routes map


Actually, a shocking discovery points exactly there.

According to a paper published in the journal Nature, April 2013, Polynesian DNA has been found in ancient Native American bones.

Molecular geneticist Sergio Pena analyzed DNA from teeth in skulls of Botocudo, indigenous people who lived in southeastern Brazil until they were eradicated by the Portuguese in the 1800s in an attempt to quell dissent.


Botocudo man, South American natives of eastern Brazil, historical portrait, 1875

(The drawing included here is a portrait of a Botocudo man made in 1875.)  Fourteen Botocudo skulls were kept in a museum in Rio de Janeiro.  To the scientists’ surprise, in two of the skulls, they found DNA indicating Polynesian ancestry.  A second lab confirmed the findings.  Pena remarked, “The most exciting potential explanation of the DNA findings is that ancestors of the Botocudo once interbred with those of Polynesians before the peopling of the Americas 15,000 – 20,000 years ago.  Prior studies of skull shapes hinted that two distinct groups entered the Americas – one more Asian type seen now in the vast majority of extant Native Americas, and an earlier type seen in skeletons in Brazil and elsewhere that resembled some African groups, Australians, Melanesians, and Polynesians such as Easter Islanders.”

Loud debate erupted as soon as the news was released.  Yet one of the most interesting parts of the discovery went unnoticed.  DNA studies, on which we currently base our models of human colonization of the Americas, were – up until this study – based almost exclusively on living people.  Thus any race that went extinct, such as the Botocudo and many others, would never be represented and their part of the story never told.

Easter Islanders have Polynesian DNA. Apparently Polynesian navigators found a small island about 2618 miles (4229 KM) from Tahiti. If ancient navigators could take on open ocean voyages to Easter Island, they could probably find a continent.


And yet, here’s the official response: “No scholars seriously consider the possibility that the early Americans landed first in South America. All linguistic, genetic and other evidence points to the Bering Strait as the most likely point of entry” (John Nobel Wilford). “No archaeologists seriously consider the possibility that the first Americans came by sea and landed first in South America.” (Charlie Hatchett).

Well, perhaps they should. And while they’re at it, perhaps they should consider the antiquity of sites in Pennsylvania, Texas, and South Carolina which predate sites on the west coast. Perhaps they should abandon their strange allegiance to a theory that has proven desperately incomplete on so many fronts.


What if the answer is many answers?

Evidence from Pedra Furada, Monte Verde, Topper Hill, Paisley Caves, Cactus Hill, and other sites points to multiple points of entry into the Americas, at different times.  If so, the diagram would look something like the one above.  Actually, it might have a lot more arrows on it.

Monte Verde gives us a new and very different view of early visitors to the Americas. Perhaps further research will answer some of the thorny questions Monte Verde has posed.


Sources and interesting reading:

Avila, Marcela, and others, “Economic feasibility of Sarcothalia cultivation” Hydrobiologia 16th International Seaweed Symposium, 1999.

Buschmann, Alejandro H. and others, “Seaweed cultivation, product development and integrated aquaculture studies in Chile,” World Aquaculture, (36) September 2005

Curry, Andrew. “Ancient migration”: Coming to America, Nature news feature, 2 May 2012,

Dillehay, Tom D. and others, “Monte Verde: Seaweed, Food, Medicine, and the Peopling of South America,” Science, 9 May 2008 (320) 764-786, Or

“Durvillaea Antarctica,” Seaweed Industry Association,

“Durvillaea Antarctica,” Wikipedia,

“Edible seaweed,” Wikipedia,

“Evaluation of In Vitro Antioxidant and Antimicrobial Activities of Green Microalgae Trentepohlia umbrina,”

“Gracilaria,” Invasive Algae Database,

Hames, Raymond. “Chilean Field Yields New Clues to Peopling of Americas, New York Times, 25 August 1998,

Hatchett, Charlie, “Monte Verde Excavation: or Clovis Police Beat a Retreat,” Archaeology,

Hirst, Kris, “Monte Verde Photo Essay: Seaweed Exploitation at Monte Verde II” Archaeology,

Hirst, Kris. “Pacific Coast Migration Model” Archaeology,

Hirst, Kris. “Kelp Highway Hypothesis: A variation on the Pacific coast migration model of colonizing America,” Archaeology

Lovgren, Stefan, Earliest Known American Settlers Harvested Seaweed,” National Geographic News,

“Macrocystis,” Natural History Museum,

“Monte Verde Archaeological Site, UNESCO World Heritage Center,

“Medicinal Uses,” The Seaweed Site: information on marine algae, uses.php

“Monte Verde Archaeological Site,” UNESCO World Heritage Centre,

“Monte Verde,” Wikipedia,

Oppenheimer, Stephen. “Archaeological Evidence in South America that humans crossed into the Americas before the Ice Age,” The Bradshaw Foundation,

“Pedra Furada sites,” Wikipedia

Rose, Mark. “The Importance of Monte Verde,” Archaeology, 18 October 1999

“Sargassum muticum, Wireweed,” The Seaweed Site: information on marine algae, maintained by M.D. Guiry, 2000 – 2014.

“Sargassum,” Wilipedia

“Science dean continues research at National Cancer Institute-designated facility,” Hawaii Pacific University News, March 2013

“Seaweed confirms Monte Verde dates, but also migration patterns?” Geotimes, July 2008,

Swaminathan, Nikhil, “America, in the Beginning,” Archaeology, Secptember/October 2014, 22-29



The Shaman and The Spirit Master

Wow – What is it?

Bizarre, vaguely human figures in rock art have long puzzled viewers. They look a little like people yet clearly they’re something else. Why do they have weird heads, often without facial features? Why do they often have fewer than five fingers on each hand (or occasionally more)? Why do they have long torsos and missing limbs?

Anasazi pictograph

Animal Master PBA


Learning to see through others’ eyes

In the 19th century, anthropologist Edward B. Tyler introduced the concept of animism to describe the widespread ancient belief that all entities, including humans, animals, and natural features such as mountains, rivers, and trees, have souls, or spirits. All of these entities are interconnected, sharing a magical power. The person is identified not just by a physical body but by all of the connections made to the rest of the spirit world. Tyler found this belief to be the oldest and most common spiritual belief in the world. (It’s also the basis of “The Force” in the Star Wars films.)

rock art in Arkansas

In the 1980s, David Lewis-Williams argued that many odd figures in rock art, including the spirals, dots, and therianthropes (figures that combine human and animal characteristics) were images typical of a visionary trance brought on by chanting, drumming, fasting, and taking hallucinogenic drugs. He pointed out that many of these images are typical of visual distortions associated with trance experiences. They have been replicated many times in experiments involving LSD. Lewis-Williams argued that the rock art figures like the one in the photo (left) represented the shaman in the process of transformation into something supra-human, able to change physical form and slip between worlds.


Game Pass Shelter pictographHe described the famous fresco on the wall of the Game Pass Shelter in the Drakensberg region of South Africa as a shaman in a dream state connecting with the dream beast, the eland. The shaman is bleeding from the nose, as is the eland; their legs are crossed in exactly the same position. The eland is dying in order to bring rain to the people. The shaman has entered a pseudo-death in order to make the connection with the dream beast. For Lewis-Williams, the therianthrope – the figure combining human and animal characteristics – represents the shaman in his or her transformed state. (Photo left, drawing below)

Game Pass Shelter drawing


In 1976, Patricia Vinnicombe published the results of her work with the Drakensberg (South Africa) rock art paintings, in a book titled People of the Eland. In it, she reviewed stories told by San (Bushmen/Khoi San) people and recorded since the 19th century. Some told of a shaman catching a “rain beast” – usually a female ox, eland, elephant or other large herbivore. This was done through a trance, with the help of the group chanting, drumming, and dancing. Then the beast was sacrificed, and rain would fall where the beast was killed.

Interestingly, two San men that Patricia Vinnicombe interviewed saw the therianthropes in this image as mythical people of an earlier race, the First Bushmen, not images of transformed shamans.

These seem to be two very different explanations, but they may in fact be complementary. The shaman in a trance state may be the means of contacting spirit entities, including animal spirits, nature spirits, and spirits of the dead.

South central California rock art

New research on rock art in southeast California may suggest a slightly different way of seeing the famous panel in South Africa – and perhaps another mysterious figure found in the deepest part of Chauvet Cave in southern France.

The Patterned Body Anthromorphs Patterned body anthromorphs, Coso Range, CA

While studying thousands of rock art images in what is now the China Lake Air Force Base, Dr. Alan Garfinkle and his associates noted over 700 strange figures they called Patterned Body Anthromorphs, images notable for a long torso marked with various patterns, a head devoid of normal facial features, and truncated or missing legs, often with three toes. Sometimes a twisted snake accompanied the figure. In many cases, there was no gender evident, but in others, the figure had male, female, or both male and female characteristics. Almost all carried a staff or atlatl (dart thrower). Some carried a bag of seeds, which trailed out in lines behind the figure.


The Kawaiisu and other American Indian groups that lived in the area where the paintings appeared shared similar beliefs, which Dr. Garfinkel felt could provide a frame of reference for the rock art figures. Caves were seen as important places, imbued with sacred power. A spirit named Yahwera lived in a cave where the spirits of all the animals resided, even animals that had been killed.


In the spring, Yahwera opened the portal and allowed the regenerated animals to fill the land. Yahwera also provided healing medicines (“magic songs”) and successful hunts. Occasionally, a human, through accidental discovery or shamanistic transformation, could enter the world of Yahwera through a portal in a rock surface or a cave. There, below ground, the visitor would see all the animals, including those waiting to be reborn. Guarded by a large snake, the androgynous Yahwera was the keeper of the animals, wisdom, and power.


Images of Yahwera were inscribed on the sites of the portals. A known portal to the home of Yahwera was located near a spring and marked with an image of the Animal Master: a humanoid figure with red circles for the face, a feathered headdress and clawed feet. Next to the figure was a snake almost as tall as the main figure.Animal Master, Coso

The two drawings included (left) are representations of the patterned body anthromorphs in the Coso rock art collection (on the left) and the known representation of Yahwera, the guardian of the animal spirits (on the right).

The Yokuts, another tribe in the area, refer to rock art sites as “shaman’s caches,” vaults of magic power. When a shaman spoke to the rock, the portal opened, and the Spirit Master gave the shaman magic songs and wisdom.

The shaman as intermediary

The shaman talks to the rock, but the Spirit Master opens it. In this sense, the shaman is the intermediary. Because he can break the confines of this world, he is able to intercede for the people, asking the Spirit Master to release the game the people need to live. (I’m referring to the shaman as male though San people indicate that any male or female could accept the dangerous role of dream healer if desired.) The shaman delivers the request, not only for game but also for rain, wisdom, or cures for sickness. In this way, the shaman is acting in the same role as a modern priest, delivering the faithful’s requests to their Spirit Master.

One Kawaiisu narrative tells of a man who took jimsonweed (or raw tobacco in other versions) and found Yahwera’s cave. Inside he saw many animals, including deer and bear, who spoke the same language as the people. Yahwera explained that the animals weren’t really dead; they were only waiting to be reborn. At the end of the experience, the man was cured of his illness and left the cave through water at the end of a tunnel. When he came out, he found himself far from his starting point. He’d been gone so long, his people thought he had died.

In the Coso rock art, the strange figures on the rock surface are probably not shamans in a transformative state. According to tribal beliefs recorded in the 19th and 20th century, the figures represented the Spirit Master, the keeper of the animals, the source of magical power. The shaman was the one who is sensitive enough to find the portal to the Spirit Master’s realm and powerful enough to traverse the dangerous realms beyond this one.

Rock art images like the one included here from Utah seem to indicate a hierarchy of spirits because one figure is so much larger and dominates the image.  While all things living and dead may share in spirit energy, some are apparently far more powerful than others. Horseshoe Canyon, Utah, HolyGhost


An interesting side note:

The Memegwashio Indians of Quebec explain the red handprints on the rock over a sacred place as the mark of the spirits where they close the portal.

And another:

Cheyenne traditional beliefs held that the realm of deep earth could be accessed through sacred caves. In certain caverns animal spirits gathered, from which the animals might be released in physical form or refused rebirth.



And now to ancient cave art in Europe

Please forgive the jump from North American cave art to Europe 35,000 years ago. I don’t pretend to know the cultural references that would explain the beautiful ancient cave art of southern France and northern Spain, but others more knowledgeable than I have seen some commonality that bears examination. And the similarities are hard to ignore.

The oldest cave painting in Europe, possibly the work of our Neanderthal cousins, is a series of handprints on the wall of El Castillo Cave in Spain dated to 40,800 years ago. The cave shows no evidence of use as a living space, so it was apparently visited for other purposes. If the artists were Neanderthals, they were painting at the end of their reign. Not many years later, modern humans took over. Still, the idea that they may have marked the cave as special and that modern humans continued the association is intriguing. We now know that Neanderthals and modern humans interbred. Perhaps their ideology was passed along as well.

As Enrico Comba points out in his paper, “Amerindian Cosmologies and European Prehistoric Cave Art: Reasons for and Usefulness of a Comparison,” rock art of Paleolithic Europe is an art of caves, mostly in remote areas hard to access. The figures are mostly animals. The few human figures are hybrids – human/animal crosses. The cave functions as a womb and a refuge for the animals, much the way that Yahwera’s cave held the animals in the California rock art references.

The second-oldest known cave art in Europe is in Chauvet Cave, at least 32,000 years old. The animals painted are realistic yet dreamlike, incomplete, presented in moving groups without any ground line.lascauxpanorama

In the back of the cave, in the last and deepest chamber, is a curious image known by some as “Venus and the Sorcerer.” It is a combination of a bull head and a pubic triangle surrounded by female legs that blend into the front leg of the bull and the leg of a lioness.

Venus and Sorcerer

It’s not much of a stretch to see this image as the Spirit Master, the keeper of the animal spirits in the cave, similar to the androgynous spirit that the shaman called upon in California art to release the animals held in the cave so they could be reborn in the spring.

Once again, the cave would function as the home of the animals, many of them pregnant with new life. It’s certainly an interesting possibility – that the mysterious Sorcerer/Venus figure in the very back of Chauvet Cave serves the same function as the Spirit Master.


Sources and interesting reading:

“Ancient Rock Art of the World,” Rock Art Documentary, DVD, ILecture Films, Boilerplate Productions, made in conjunction with the Bradshaw Foundation

“Art of the Chauvet Cave,” Ice Age Paleolithic Cave Painting, Bradshaw Foundation

“Cave of Forgotten Dreams,” DVD, Chauvet Cave documentary film by Werner Herzog, IFC Films, 2010

“Cave Painting,” Wikipedia

“Cave Paintings (40,000 – 10,000 BC)”

Comba, Erico, “Amerindian Cosmologies and European Prehistoric Cave Art: Reason for and Usefulness of a Comparison,” Arts journal, 27 December 2013

Garfinkel, Alan, with Donald Austin, David Earle, and Harold Williams, “Myth, ritual and rock art: Coso decorated animal-humans and the Animal Master,” Petroglyphs.US, 19 May 2009 <;

Garfinkel, Alan and Steven J. Waller, “Sounds and Symbolism from the Netherworld: Acoustic Archaeology and the Animal Master’s Portal,” Pacific Coast Archaeological Society Quarterly Vol.46, 4

Howley, Andrew. “70th Anniversary of the Discovery of Lascaux” National Geographic Newswatch, 17 September 2010,

Lymer, Kenneth, “Shimmering Visions: Shamanistic Rock Art Images from the Republic of Kazakhstan,” Expedition (Journal of the Museum of Pennsylvania), vol. 46, no. 1

Solomon, Anne. The Essential Guide to San Rock Art. South Africa: ABC Press, 1998

“The Sorcerer (cave art)” Wikipedia

“Talking Stone: Rock Art of the Cosos,” DVD starring Dr. Alan Garfinkel, distributed by the Bradshaw Foundation

Than, Ker. “World’s Oldest Cave Art Found – Made by Neanderthals?” National Geographic News, 14 June 2012,

“Venus and the Sorcerer” image from

Witze, Alexandra, “Rock Art Revelations?” American Archaeology, Summer 2014, vol 18, no. 2, 33-37.





Eclipses in 2014: two lunar and two solar

Eclipse_lunar, stages

Given clear skies, people in North and South America will get to see a full eclipse of the moon (lunar eclipse) on the night of April 14-15, 2014, when the earth’s shadow covers the entire surface of the full moon, turning it red – a “blood” moon. (See composite photo.)  In addition, the red planet, Mars, will look like a fiery red star next to the red moon.

The diagram below shows what makes a lunar eclipse happen: the shadow of the earth covers the moon.

lunar eclipse diagram





The second eclipse of 2014 is an annular (ring) eclipse of the annular solar eclipse
sun (solar eclipse), visible on April 29 to people in Australia, southern Indonesia, and the southern Indian Ocean. In this case the view of the sun is partially obscured by the moon, leaving a ring of sunlight visible. (See photo)



The third eclipse of 2014 is a partial eclipse of the moon, in which the earth’s shadow darkens only part of the moon. It will be visible on October 8, 2014 from locations in the Pacific Ocean including New Zealand, part of Australia, Hawaii, Japan, and easternmost Asia. (See photo.)

The fourth eclipse of 2014, on October 23, is a partial solar eclipse, visible from North America and Canada.  Partial solar eclipses can vary from only a darkened slice as in the photo, to an almost full eclipse. partial solar eclipse


The Tetrad

In addition, the two total lunar eclipses of 2014 will be followed by two more total lunar eclipses in 2015 (April 4 and September 28) without any partial eclipses between, a succession known as a Tetrad.

Eclipses – wonders or warnings

Indian eclipse watchers

People who notice eclipses seem to find them a source of great wonder and delight or a fearsome warning of doom. Those who chase eclipses around the globe (A total solar eclipse happens somewhere on the earth every 18 months or so) describe the sensation of watching the sun or moon go dark as deeply emotional and thrilling. They find the experience so moving they seek it out over and over. One “shadow follower” said of his experience during the total eclipse: “You just felt different. Extraordinarily different.” E. C. Krupp, director of the Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles, California has seen thirteen total eclipses already. “They’re a chance to see the universe working,” Krupp says. “The solar system is doing its thing right before your eyes, and it’s a deep and personal pleasure.” The Griffith Observatory will be providing live streaming coverage for those who can’t catch the show in the sky. Look for it at, or follow the action at NASA’s site at

Others see the darkening of the sun or moon as a bad omen. Some current articles about the four Blood Moons warn they are a sign of the second coming of Jesus Christ and the end of the world.


“Two Eclipses”

The appearance of a lunar eclipse on November 8, 1044 and an annular solar eclipse on November 22, 1044 inspired Shmuel Hanagid, a Hebrew poet in Spain, to write the poem “Two Eclipses,” in which he describes the ring of light around the darkened sun as:

“its halo of light on the darkness,

like a crown on the head of a Libyan princess,

and the earth whose sun has set,

reddened – as though with tears.”

The experience led him to wonder about the nature of God: “This is the work of the Lord who toys with creation.”

Like many ancient people and many today, Hanagid saw the eclipses as a demonstration of the power of a terrifying God.


Dark Power

Others saw the darkening of the sun or moon as the work of dark forces in the universe that were always present. To lessen their fears, they made up stories to explain an eclipse.

According to Norse legend, a giant sky wolf named Skoll chased the moon; his brother, named Hati, chased the sun. If either caught its prey, an eclipse resulted.

In Chinese myth, a dragon was trying to eat the moon. The Chinese word for eclipse, “shih,” means “to eat.”  To frighten away the dragon, people shouted and beat drums.

In Vietnamese lore, a frog ate the moon during an eclipse. In Korean mythology, fire dogs constantly tried to steal the sun or the moon. When the fearsome dogs took a bite, an eclipse resulted.


The other common recourse was to turn to the wisest person in the village for an answer. Through incantations, herbs, sacrifice – whatever it took, this wise person would fight the forces of darkness. Then, when the eclipse passed and the sun or moon returned to its rightful place, the wise person’s prestige and power grew.


Predicting eclipses

That power increased when a person could predict this horror – and appear to fight it off. Thus, knowledge of the eclipse schedule became very valuable. If the viewer knows the date of one solar eclipse, it’s possible to predict others. An eclipse period lasts 6,583 days, a little over 18 years. After this period, a practically identical eclipse series will occur. Armed with this information, a person could appear to have the power to control the events playing out in the heavens – to conquer chaos itself.

Columbus and eclipse

Christopher Columbus used this information to his advantage when his ship ran aground off Jamaica. The local Taino people fed him and his crew for months while the Spaniards tried to repair the ship, but after a while the locals grew tired of the endless provisioning. Knowing that a lunar eclipse would occur on February 29, 1504 from reading his charts, Columbus threatened to take away the moon if the locals didn’t keep feeding his crew. When the eclipse occurred, the natives were astounded and, of course, fed the great man who could control the light of the moon.

On the flip side, in China, Emperor Zhong Kang is said to have beheaded two astronomers who failed to correctly predict an eclipse 4000 years ago.


Dangers of an eclipse

Though widespread beliefs about the dangers of exposure to an eclipse still linger, especially regarding pregnant women, the only real danger is looking at the sun during a solar eclipse – or any other time!

The other danger is the propaganda distributed by some groups that use the appearance of the eclipse as a way to foment hate toward a certain group. One Blood Moon site I visited posted a graph showing the eclipses, the death of Comet ISON (which it called a Jewish comet), and the meltdown of the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Plant in Japan, then noted that two of the eclipses fell on Jewish holidays in 2014 and two in 2015. It’s hard to tell what the reasoning behind this list might be, but it’s a shame that anyone would take something as truly awesome as an eclipse and make it a weapon of hate.

I agree with E. C. Krupp: viewing an eclipse is an amazing opportunity to see our universe display its awesome power.  Enjoy.



Sources and interesting reading:

Dickson, David, “Get ready for the April 15, 2014 total lunar eclipse: Our Complete Guide” Universe Today, 2 April, 2014

Espenak, Fred, “Eclipses During 2014,” NASA,

Espenak, Fred, “Lunar Eclipses for Beginners,”, 2007

Griffith Observatory on-line at

HaNagid, Shmuel, “Two Eclipses,” World Literature, Donna Rosenberg, ed.  New York: McGraw Hill/Glencoe, 2004

Lee, Jane. “Solar Eclipse Myths from around the World” National Geographic Daily News, 1 November 2013m

Mercer, Brandon, “Blood Moon Lunar Eclipse Visible April 14-15 Beginning Rare Series of Total Eclipses” CBS News 4 April 2014

Muller, Natalie, “Fear of eclipse widespread in Aboriginal culture,” Australian Geographic, 14 June 2011

Ruggles, Clive and Gary Urton (editors). Skywatcing in the Ancient World: New Perspectives in Cultural Astronomy, University Press of Colorado, 2007

“Solar eclipse” Wikipedia

Weise, Elizabeth, “Blood moon eclipse on April 15 is a special event,” USA Today, 3 April 2014



Partial solar eclipse:

Lunar eclipse stages: “Eclipse,” Wikipedia

Partial lunar eclipse:

Lunar eclipse diagram: University of Maryland Department of Astronomy: Intorductory Astronomy: Eclipses,

Eclipse watchers in India:

Christopher Columbus and the eclipse of February 29, 1504, from the book Romance of Spanish History by John S.C. Abbott



Solstice and Equinox

Up here in the Great Lakes region, spring arrives, at least according to the calendar, on March 20 this year.  More specifically, the vernal equinox arrives (autumnal to those of you in the Southern Hemisphere).  Few people today care about this celestial event, but ancient people cared very deeply, so deeply they traced the exact moment it happened by marking it in stone.

You can follow it too.  All you need to do is look at the rising run each day from a fixed point.  Note where the sun rises.  If there is a building in the way, note where the sun rises in relation to the building.  If it’s a hill or a tree, note that position.  As the days go by, you’ll see the spot where the sun rises change.  If you keep track, you’ll see the rising sun location follows a certain path along the eastern horizon.   Then one day you’ll see the rising sun stop its forward motion.  That moment when the sun seems to stop and change direction is a solstice (sol = sun, stice = stop), a sun-stop.

If you keep following the sunrises, you’ll see a progression back along the same path on the horizon until it once again seems to stop.  That’s the other solstice.


If you followed the sunsets each of these days, you’d find an equal swing from north to south and back again.  Burlington, Vermont erected an “Earth Clock,” a modern answer to the ancient circles of stones.  They’ve even provided blueprints for other communities that would like to build their own “henge.”  The University of Massachusetts created a “Sunwheel” that marks the solstices, equinoxes, and moon cycles (diagram).

University of Massachusetts sunwheel diagram

While the far points mark the solstices, the mid-points in these swings are the equinoxes (equi =same, nox = night), where the length of the day and night are the same.  In the northern hemisphere, we  will have the spring equinox around March 21, the summer solstice around June 21, the fall equinox around September 22, and the winter solstice around December 21.

Many ancient structurMound 72 woodhenge at Cahokiaes celebrate exactly this cycle.  Stonehenge and many other circles of standing stones or wooden posts, like the woodhenge at Cahokia Mounds in the photo, are aligned to mark the solstice points.


The Maya E-group, a common architectural feature in Lowland Maya sites, is believed to mark both the solstice points and the equinoxes  (See diagram).

solstice Sharer-E-Group

Unlike modern people, who see the celestial events as mechanical, predictable, and fairly unimportant, ancient people saw them as terribly important parts of their lives.  The changes in the heavens caused the changes on earth: the end of winter, the coming of spring, the rebirth of nature.  But without human help, the motion of the heavens could cease or change, causing ruin and death for all the beings on earth.   Important changes, such as the solstices and equinoxes, required recognition and participation, often in the form of rituals and sacrifice.

While we don’t usually sacrifice humans or animals to ensure the change of the season anymore, we often engage in ritual behavior associated with important holidays that fall on or near the solstices and equinox.

Vernal Equinox – in North America, March 20, 2014

During the vernal equinox, the sun shines directly on the Equator, and the day and night are equal length (12 hours each). It falls on the mid-point of the swing between the equinoxes.

The Vernal Equinox marks the beginning of the New Year in many cultures.  Traditionally, spring is associated with rebirth and fertility, often symbolized by the egg and the rabbit.  Modern versions include the Easter Bunny, which (curiously) lays eggs and leaves candy for children.

The Maya pyramid called El Castillo at Chichen Itza (photo) is famous for the Snake of Sunlight that courses along the stairway on the Vernal Equinox.  Excellent videos of the event are available on YouTube. Scholars have debated why it was so important for the Maya and other ancient people to mark this moment – to celebrate it in their monuments. 
 Some say the people needed to know when to plant and harvest, but they would have known that from many signs, just as you would know the change of season froElCastillo, Chichen Itzam your immediate environment.  Around here, you could see skunk cabbage pushing up through the last snow, red-wing blackbirds returning, hear wood frogs singing.  Your dirt road would turn into a mass of ice and mud.  Your dog would shed.  You wouldn’t need a stone monument to tell you spring was happening.   But if you believed that you needed to help spring arrive, a large, impressive monument would be very important as a focal point for the ritual of bringing in the change.

Easter, the Christian feast celebrating the triumph of Jesus Christ over death, falls on a date determined by the Vernal Equinox, specifically the first Sunday after the first full moon after the Vernal Equinox.

The Summer Solstice in North America, June 21, 2014

The June Solstice is one of the two sun-stops in the path of the sunrises (and sunsets).  In the Northern Hemisphere, it marks the longest day of the year; in the Southern Hemisphere, the shortest.  Festivals in Scandinavia celebrate the day of endless light, the Midnight Sun.  Ancient Germanic, Celtic, and Slavic people celebrated with wild parties and bonfires. In ancient China, it was the festival of the Earth and female/yin forces.  For the ancient Greeks, it marked the first day of the year.

Medicine Wheel, Wyoming

The Medicine Wheel (photo), set high on a mountain in Wyoming, is designed to mark the Summer Solstice.  Built around 1200, it is still considered a sacred site by American Indians in the area.  The photo shows the sunset on the longest day of the year.  Many researchers feel this was one of several installations in the area, each of which marked one particular moment in the turning of the year.


Stonehenge, the great circle of standing stones in England, has become a popular gathering place for people celebrating the Summer Solstice, though the site may have had many purposes, including honoring the dead during the Winter Solstice.  Over sixty cremated remains were discovered inside the inner circle.  The giant stone trilithon frames the Midwinter solstice sunset.

However, the revelers are not wrong in choosing this spot to mark the June solstice.  Archaeologist Parker Pearson, who has been working at the site, pointed out the avenue, discovered in 2008, that leads out of Stonehenge, built over a natural rock ledge.  Next to this ledge, pits were dug 10,000 years ago to hold a line of posts.  This feature, at least 4,000 years older than the familiar circle of giant stones, points directly to the spot where the sun rises on the midsummer solstice.Stonehenge

Celebrations at Stonehenge may also have been musical affairs.  The bluestone used to construct the famous henge makes loud and varied sounds, like gongs, bells, and drums, when struck, an early rock concert, if you will.  Some researchers believe these sonic qualities were one of the reasons ancient people dragged the giant stones 200 miles from Wales to Stonehenge. Researchers say the sounds could have been heard half a mile away.

Autumnal Equinox in North America, September 22, 2014

The September Equinox falls at the same midpoint as the April Equinox – the halfway point in the sun’s path across the horizon at the moment it rises.  Like the Vernal (spring) Equinox, the day and night are the same length.sun dagger stone, Chaco

The famous Sun Dagger on Fajada Butte in Chaco Canyon, New Mexico, built at least 1000 years ago, provided a different way to mark the solstices and equinoxes.  In 1977, an artist recording rock art in the area noticed three rock slabs leaning against a cliff.  Whether they were placed exactly there or someone noticed them there is not known.  But researchers soon realized that the spirals carved on the cliff face were very carefully placed to take advantage of the shafts of light falling between the stones.  At the summer solstice, sunlight passing between the rock slabs would fall directly across the center of the larger spiral.  During the Equinoxes, the dagger would fall between the center of the spiral and the edge.  At the Winter Solstice, two daggers would appear, one on each edge of the large spiral.  Unfortunately, visitors to the site caused some damage and the site is now closed to the public.

Harvest festivals are common around the Equinox.

The Winter Solstice, December 21, 2014

By far the most dangerous of the events in the sun cycle was the shortest day of the year, a time when darkness far outweighed light.  Ancient people feared the light would not return.  To ensure it did, they kept careful vigil, especially on the night of the winter solstice and the following day.  The passage tomb at Newgrange, Ireland, built more than 5,000 years ago, features a special roofbox opening that allows light to shine along the inner passage at sunrise on morning of the Winter Solstice.  The light illuminates a stone basin below intricate carved spirals, eye shapes, and disks. The photo shows how the site looked in 1905.  It’s now a very popular tourist site.

Newgrange, 1905 photo

Maeshowe, on the Orkney Islands in the north of Scotland, has a roofbox that admits a shaft of light from the Winter Solstice setting sun.

The Great Zimbabwe complex in sub-Saharan Africa may have served a similar purpose.  Other sites in the Americas, Asia, Indonesia, and the Middle East may have also marked this important day.  In Iran, people observed Yalda by keeping vigil through the night and burning fires to help the sun battle the darkness.

We still want to light up the darkness, even if we’ve forgotten about the solstice.  We still celebrate the passing of the sun on its yearly course, but those celebrations are now submerged into our holidays: Easter, Christmas, Halloween, even Groundhog Day.  Because Groundhog Day falls halfway between the Winter Solstice and the Vernal Equinox, we’ll always have six more weeks of winter, but the groundhog gives us a reason to party.

Happy Vernal Equinox!

Sources and interesting reading:

“Chart of 2014 equinox, solstice and cross quarter dates and times,”,

“Chichen Itza Pyramid, the descent of the feathered serpent” (video) YouTube

“Customs and Holidays around the March Equinox”, tyyp://

“EarthClock measures hours, months, solstices and equinoxes,” Freethought Nation, July 29, 2011,;

“Fajada Butte,” Wikipedia,

Griffiths, Sarah, and Amanda Williams, “Stonehenge was a prehistoric centre for rock music: Stones sound like bells, drums, and gongs when played,” Mail Online, Daily Mail (UK),…

Hirst, K.Kris. “E-Group: Ancient Maya Building Complex,” Archaeology,

“Huge Settlement Unearthed at Stonehenge Complex,” Science Daily,

“June Solstice’s Influence Across Cultures and Ages,”, http://www.timeanddate/com/calendar/june-solstice-customs.html

“March Equinox: March 20, 2014,”, http://www.timeanddate.comcalendar/march-equinox.html

“Newgrange,” Wikipedia

Odenwalk, Dr. Sten, “Ancient Astronomical Alignments,” Sun-Earth Day 2010: Ancient Mysteries, Future Discoveries, NASA, Godard Space Flight Center,

“Rock Art and Ancient Solar Energy,” Stanford Solar Center,

“September Equinox Customs and Holidays,”,\

“Stonehenge Revealed: Why Stones Were a ‘Special Place’” National Geographic Daily News,

“Summer Solstice Traditions,, June 18, 2013,

“Winter Solstice – December 21,”

Young, Dr. Judith S., Department of Astronomy, University of Massachusetts, Amherst, “Moon teachings for the masses at the UMass Sunwheel and around the world: the major lunar standstills of 2006 and 2014-25,”

The Writing Process Blog Hop

Thank you, Jessica Knauss, editor, translator, and author of Seven Nobel Knights, Providence stories, and other works, for inviting me to participate in this blog hop about the writing process.

What are you working on?

I’m currently getting A Meeting of Clans, the third book in the Misfits and Heroes series, ready for publication. In this book, members of the two original settlements – one on the southern coast and one on the northern coast of what is now southern Mexico – meet for the first time.  The book, like the others in the series, is set about 14,000 years ago.

Editing and polishing are the little known step-children of the writing process, but they’re important.  With this book, I was lucky to have the help of a professional proofreader who not only spotted wording and spelling errors but also marked problems with consistency and pace with margin notes like “Wow, this action comes out of the blue,” or “You’ve been going over this argument for four pages now,” or “This character died fifty pages ago.  Did you mean her sister?”  Very helpful.

How does your work differ from others of its genre? 

Since the Misfits and Heroes stories are set 14,000 years ago, they fall into the Prehistoric Fiction category, but since nothing is really pre-history, I suppose they’re speculative historical fiction with elements of fantasy.  Jean Auel’s Clan of the Cave Bear, Valley of Horses, and other books are also set during the Ice Age, but they take place in Europe and tell very different stories.

Why do you write what you do?

I want to show early explorers in the Americas as complicated, flawed, yet ultimately heroic people.  While 12,000 BC seems like a long time ago, it’s really not, in terms of human history.  Archaeological finds in Blombos Cave, South Africa, show humans making pierced, dyed jewelry out of shells and mixing red ochre, fat, and ground limestone to make a red paste probably used for body decoration 80,000 years ago. Blombos Cave jewelry (See photo)

The fabulous cave paintings in northern Spain and southern France were created 32,000 – 40,000 years ago. (Photo)

Lascaux horse with dots

The first mathematical tally stick, the Lebombo bone, is at least 35,000 years old (South Africa/Swaziland). (Photo)

Lebombo bone

Open water navigators

It’s now clear that our distant relatives crossed open ocean into Australia at least 50,000 years ago, into Okinawa, Japan 32,000 years ago, and into Flores Island, Indonesia, at least 80,000 years ago.

Migration into the New World

In the Misfits and Heroes books, groups of explorers come from West Africa across the Atlantic and from what is now Indonesia across the Pacific.  They meet in the third book, A Meeting of Clans.  In the fourth book (not yet written), a small group from the north of Spain will join them.  All of these explorers cross the sea to reach the New World.

While I don’t doubt that some people walked across the Bering Land Bridge to the New World, the theory that everyone came to the Americas by that route doesn’t fit the evidence.  The earliest settlements in the Americas are in coastal South America (southern Chile and northeastern Brazil).  The oldest settlements in North America are on the east coast (South Carolina and Virginia).  If everyone came through Alaska, why aren’t the oldest sites lined up along that route?  The coastal settlements seem to indicate access by water, not land.

We sorely underestimate the abilities of ancient people, partly out of an ingrained sense of superiority.  One person asked me if people were even talking 14,000 years ago.  Well, they organized hunting parties and trade routes, built villages and boats, navigated rivers and open water, learned game patterns and plant characteristics, preserved food, even painted images on walls and carved series of notches into bones.  It’s hard to imagine any of these being possible without an accurate and sophisticated communication system.

Actually, the ancient peoples had far more abundant natural resources than we do.  All they had to do was learn to work together to harvest them.

Pedra Furada deer

Rock art deer from Pedra Furada in northeastern Brazil, first occupied over 40,000 years ago (photo)

How does your writing process work?

Like Jessica, I like a routine.  I work in the same place and listen to the same pieces of music all the way through the writing of a book.

I also talk to myself as I write (as long as no one else is around).  I just say what I want to write and my fingers type the words.  When I taught composition, I encouraged students to try this technique.  Interestingly, some tried it with their children who were struggling with writing.  They started by having the child talk about something while they wrote the words down, then moved to having the child talk into a tape recorder, play it back, and write down the words.  In the last stage, the children learned to slow down their speech and speed up their writing so they could write (or type) their words as they spoke them. The technique worked very well, even for children with learning difficulties.

It also helps with proofreading.  Try it. If people give you strange looks when they hear you mumbling over your papers, tell them it’s “speech-directed writing.”  That sounds more impressive than talking to yourself.

Look for Emma Right’s post in the blog hop on her blog, Books for Young Adults, on March 17, and check back with Jessica Knauss to read about her thoughts on the writing process at her blog at   And cheers to all the writers out there!

Sources and interesting reading:

“Ancient Humans Crossed Ocean Barrier?” Popular Archaeology Magazine,

Bednarik, R.G. “Replicating the first known sea travel by humans: the Lower Pleistocene crossing of Lombok Strait, Human Evolution (journal) 16, 229 – 242 (2001)

Bellwood, Peter.  “Special Report: Ancient Seafarers,” Archaeology Magazine March/April 1997,

Mayell, Hillary. “Early Humans May have Crossed Sea to Leave Africa” National Geographic News, 13, May, 2005

Pringle, Heather. “Did Humans Colonize the World by Boat?” Discover Magazine, June, 2008,

Than,Ker. “World’s Oldest Cave Art Found – Made by Neanderthals?” National Geographic News, June, 2012,

“Very ancient mariners: Early human ancestors were more advanced than first thought and sailed the high seas,” The Daily Mail (UK) 19 August 2011,

The Eagle and The Serpent, Reconsidered

eagle_snake_by_stoffe3337- on deviantart

Several readers of this blog have wondered about the meaning of the battling serpent and eagle, a very dynamic image, especially popular in tattoos.  It turns out there is no simple explanation.  In some cases, it represents a battle of good vs. evil.  In others, a battle of the present vs. the past, or one belief system vs. another.  In others, it is a dynamic combination of opposites that becomes the force that turns the universe.

The Eagle

The eagle is a logical choice for a group’s symbol.  It’s a large, powerful predator.  Like all raptors, it has amazing eyesight, a hooked beak designed to deliver a killing bite and rip flesh off bones, and sharp talons that can pierce and hold prey. An eagle’s wingspan is typically twice the length of its body, allowing it to soar easily.

The eagle stands for admirable, intimidating power, which is why it appears in connection with so many political entities, second only to the sun, moon, and stars in its appearance on official flags and seals.  It might be the black eagle, golden eagle, or bald eagle. It might have one head or two.  In some cases, the two headed eagle represents the combination of secular and religious power.

flag of Russia,_Federal_agency_for_government_communication_and_information,  Flag of Albania

The eagle is sometimes shown with a crown over its head, reinforcing its connection with royal power.  In the same way, the eagle might be holding a royal scepter or orb in its talons.  It often has a shield or emblem on its chest carrying the colors or symbols of the political

eagle -Flag_of_the_President_of_the_United_States_of_America_svgentity.  The United States versions, shown on everything from the official seal of the President of the United States to the dollar bill, feature the eagle carrying a bundle of arrows (a symbol of military might) in one foot, an olive branch (a symbol of peace) in the other.

The Mexican flag carries the image of the golden eagle atop a cactus, grasping a snake, the very image the people had been promised would direct them to the place they would make their new home, Tenochtitlan, now the site of Mexico City.

The eagle is also used as a team name and symbol (e.g. the Philadelphia Eagles), taking the impressive power of the animal and associating it with the sports team, in the same way as the Chicago Bears, Seattle Seahawks, Atlanta Falcons, Detroit Lions, Miami Dolphins, Chicago Bulls, Toronto Raptors, Minnesota Timberwolves, Atlanta Falcons, Memphis Grizzlies, Jacksonville Jaguars, Carolina Panthers, St. Louis Rams, and many more.

So the eagle symbol seems pretty clear.  It’s powerful, strong, and beautiful.  It demands respect.  It transfers the strength and glory of the eagle to the group, or at least to its leader(s).

The Serpent

Adam and EveThe serpent/snake/dragon is a far more complicated part of the equation.  Many people associate the serpent with evil because of the Bible story in which the snake offers Eve the fruit from the forbidden tree, “the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.” In the Genesis story of the Fall of Man, the serpent is described as “more crafty than any of the wild animals the Lord God had made.”   The serpent says to Eve: “Did God really say, ’You must not eat from any tree in the garden?’”  When she replies that God told them not to eat the fruit or even touch the tree in the center of the Garden for if they did, they would die, the serpent replies, “You will not surely die…for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”  That’s apparently the selling point, for then Eve, “desirous of gaining wisdom,” takes the fruit, eats it, and gives some to her husband.  (It’s very curious that this image and others portray the fruit as the Amanita muscaria mushroom!)

After that, all the problems of humankind were laid at the feet of the woman – and the snake.

Except that, even in the Bible, the snake is not necessarily evil.  But it is associated with scary power.  When Moses and his brother Aaron go before the Pharaoh to demand he let the Israelites go out of Egypt, Aaron throws down his staff and it becomes a snake, just as God had promised.  In reply, the Pharaoh’s sorcerers throw down their staffs and each one becomes a snake.  In a final show of power, Aaron’s staff/snake swallows up the other staffs/snakes.  Both sides used snakes as tools of power.

In the New Testament, Jesus tells his disciples to go forth and be “as wise as serpents and as harmless as doves” (Mathew 10:16).

Admittedly, there are lots more negative serpent images than positive ones in the Bible.  Take the deadly Leviathan in the sea, the Apocalyptic red dragon with seven heads bearing seven crowns that throws a third of the heavenly stars to the earth, and “the dragon, that old serpent, which is Satan and the Devil” from the Book of Revelations.

Still, even in the Bible, the snake is not always a symbol of evil.

Caius College, Cambridge UniversitySerpent Power

Curiously, even with the negative press the Bible gives the snake, its symbolic use is fairly common. It shows up on many flags, including one for Gaius College, Cambridge (illustration).

In 1754, during the French and Indian War, Benjamin Franklin published the famous “Join or Die” cartoon in the Pennsylvania Gazette.  It shows a snakeagle join or die flage cut into eight segments, each labeled with the initials of one of the American colonies. American colonists adopted the rattlesnake and the eagle as symbols of their new land.

The Gadsden American flag, first created in 1775, eagle Gadsden_flag_svgfeatures a coiled rattlesnake on a yellow background, and the words “Don’t tread on me.”  It effectively connected the power of the snake (and the fear it instills in others) with the fledgling American colonies that were facing the much stronger British forces.  It is currently being used by the Tea Party, a right-wing faction of the Republican Party.


World Serpents

Buddha_from_Cambodia,_Angkor_kingdom,_Bayon_style,_12th_century,_sandstone,_HAAIn the rest of the world, serpents have a long history as symbols of fertility and rebirth, as well as spiritual power.  The meditating Buddha was shielded by a multi-headed serpent deity, or naga, named Mucalinda (photo).  In Hindu mythology, Vishnu was said to sleep peacefully while floating on the cosmic waters, supported by the serpent Shesha.  In Dahomey mythology (West Africa) the serpent that supports everything is called Dan.  In Vodun of Benin and Haiti, Ayida Weddo, the Rainbow Serpent, is a symbol of fertility, rainbows and snakes, and a wife of Dan, the father of spirits.

In Mesoamerican and North American Indian groups, snakes often served as spirit guides, or Others, during shamanic trances, enabling the shaman to cross over into the spirit realm in order to restore balance between the two worlds. The figure on the right side of the rock art photo has snakes on the left and right side, generally interpreted to be the shaman’s spirit guides.eagle rock art with snakes

The vision serpent curls up from the dish holding a Maya blood offering, allowing the penitent to communicate with the ancestors. In the illustration, the head of the ancestor appears out of the vision serpent’s mouth.Yaxchilan Divine Serpent

In Australian Dreamtime stories, the Rainbow Serpent is the Mother of Life, creator of the waterways and the laws, the humans and the stones.

Then why are Western images of serpents so negative?

Pre-Christian Europeans were animists, believers in spirits that resided in natural elements such as trees, rivers, the sky, and various animals.  Snakes and birds were especially important because they were capable of crossing between worlds: the snake could go above ground or to the Underworld; the bird could be on the earth or part of the sky.  As such, they held special powers. Because they can shed their skins, snakes were associated with the cycle of life and death.   A very old Celtic snake goddess named Corchen was connected with the energy of the earth and rebirth. The Ouroboros, the snake biting its tail, was a symbol of eternity. The Celtic god named Cernunnos was usually portrayed as a man with stag antlers because he could shape-shift into a stag. Typically his legs were snakes, sometimes horned snakes.

Serpent devotion was common in Britain and the continent.  The Druids’ symbol was the snake.

When Christianity arrived in the British Isles, the Catholic Church felt it was important to transfer religious power from the Druids to the new religion.  Saint Patrick is said to have driven the snakes out of Ireland, but actually there weren’t any snakes in Ireland after the last Ice Age.  The driving out was symbolic, one of many such efforts.  The snakes belonged to the old religion. St. George impaled the dragon on his righteous spear.  St Margaret stabbed a dragon with a cross.

Saint_George_and_the_Dragon_by_Paolo_Uccello_(Paris)_01In the painting by Paulo Uccello (shown), the knight arrives on a white horse just in time to slay the dragon and save the maiden in distress.

Meanwhile, Cernunnos, the god with snake legs and stag horns, was made into a devil figure.

Serpent subdued by eagle Byzantine eagleSo the snake/serpent/dragon came to represent the old, pagan, lesser power now subdued by superior, Christian power, as shown in the mosaic floor from the Imperial Palace in Constantinople (photo).

A combination of Old and New

But the dragon refused to be conquered.  Long a favorite of the Celts, Anglo-Saxons, and Norsemen, the dragon continued, even after the advent of Christianity, to be the emblem of the chief.  King Arthur, whose father was Uther Pen-dragon, wore a dragon insignia on his helmet.  Later, the dragon became the symbol of the kings of England, especially those who needed to establish themselves as having a legitimate claim to power.  Henry VII took as his personal symbol the red dragon, which helped to link his family, the Tudors, to the ancient kings.  Later it was used by Henry VIII, Edward V, and Elizabeth I.  (Of course, the imperial dragon was the symbol of the Chinese Emperor, as well.)

Book of Kells snake

More often, the old ways simply merged with the new ones.  The Book of Kells, the beautiful illustrated manuscript made in Ireland (c. 800 AD) features many snakes and birds, as well as other animals, plants, and landscapes in the decorative chapter pages and initial letters of sections.  The snake, always a symbol of rebirth, becomes a symbol of Christ’s death and resurrection in the book.  So while it appears in a Christian book, it continues its original pagan association.

The Eagle and the Serpent as One Entity

Pliny the Elder (c.100 AD), in his work Natural History, refers to a certain large serpent that fights with eagles.  It tries to steal the eagle’s eggs.  In the struggle, the snake wraps itself around the eagle so tightly that the two look like one animal with two heads.  This is a very early reference to the eagle and snake involved in a match of equal, opposite powers.  It’s also a reference to what seems to be the combined animal – the winged serpent.

At this point, when the eagle and serpent are perfectly paired opposites, they represent not victory or defeat but dynamic cosmic completion, the union of spirit and matter, as shown in the Japanese emblem (illustration).

dragon and phoenix, from Vinnycomb book

This is the same combination as the American Indian winged rattlesnakes, the Mesoamerican feathered serpent, the Egyptian winged snake goddess Wadjet, and the paired winged, serpent-tailed creator beings in Chinese myth.  This is the force that drives the universe as the celestial bird and the serpent wheel forever, in perfect balance of opposite energies, around the portal of heaven.

Sources and Interesting Reading:

“Adam and Eve,” painted wood ceiling at  St. Michael’s church, Hildesheim, Germany, 1192 AD

Birrell, Anne. Chinese Mythology: An Introduction. The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993

“Celtic Gods and Goddesses,”

“Dragon,” The Medieval Bestiary

“Double-headed eagle,” Wikipedia

“Eagle” A-Z Animals.

“Eagle,” The Medieval Bestiary

“Eagle Snake” tattoo design by stoffe3337 on

“Gadsden flag,” Wikipedia

Hero, Hawk, and Open Hand: American Indian Art of the Ancient Midwest and South.  Richard Townsend (ed.) The Art Institute of Chicago in association with Yale University Press, 2004

Holy Bible, New International Version, 1984.

Oodgeroo Nunukul. Dreamtime: Aboriginal Stories. First published as Stadbroke Dreamtime.  Angus & Robertson, 1972

Power, Susan C.  Early Art of the Southeastern Indians: Feathered Serpents & Winged Beings. University of Georgia Press, 2004

“Rainbow Serpent, The” (a wonderful blog)

Rock Art images,

“Saint George and the Dragon,” painting by Paulo Uccello (c. 1458), Wikipedia Commons

Saint George and The Dragon, retold by Margaret Hodges, illustrated by Trina Schart Hyman, Little, Brown, 1984.

“Serpent,” New World Encyclopedia.

“Serpent and Saint Patrick,” I Am An Owl blog, (a very interesting blog)

Saunders, Nicholas. J. Animal Spirits. Little, Brown, 1995

“Serpent (symbolism)” Wikipedia

“Snake,” The Medieval Bestiary (1400 AD)

Taylor, Sea, and Fernando Vilela. The Great Snake: Stories from the Amazon.  Frances Lincoln, 2008