Clapping Games

When I was young, I liked to play clapping games like “A Sailor Went to Sea, Sea, Sea” and “I Am a Pretty Little Dutch Girl.”  Here’s a simple version:

A sailor went to sea, sea, sea

To see what he could see, see, see

But all that he could see, see, see

Was the bottom of the deep blue sea, sea, sea.

Clapping games girlsAt the time, I didn’t stop to think it was a song about a sailor drowning.  I knew it was a play on the words see and sea, but mostly it was something to sing while we clapped.




We used the same “Sailor” tune for “I Am a Pretty Little Dutch Girl”:

I am a pretty little Dutch girl

As pretty as I can be

And all the boys in the neighborhood

Are crazy over me.


My boyfriend’s name is Mello

He comes from the land of Jello

With pickles for his toes and a cherry for his nose

And that’s the way my story goes.


Another version of the second verse went

I have a boyfriend Patty

He comes from Cincinnati

With 48 toes and a pickle on his nose…


In another, it’s a pimple instead of a pickle.

It was popular all over the USA and England.  An Australian version uses “Bush girl” instead of Dutch girl.  In others, he’s French.  In Israel, the boyfriend’s name is Chaim, which is made to rhyme with Jerusalem.  In some versions, the boyfriend is seen kissing another girl, and the narrator ends the story with kicking the boyfriend down the stairs.

In some versions, it’s conflated with “Miss Lucy,” (or Suzy, or other variant), to the same sing-song tune:

Miss Lucy had a baby

His name was Tiny Tim

She put him in the bathtub

To see if he could swim.

He drank up all the water

He ate up all the soap,

He tried to eat the bathtub

But it wouldn’t go down his throat.


Many also include near off-color jokes like this alternate version of “Miss Suzy” (one of many):

Miss Suzy had a speed boat
The speed boat had a bell
Miss Suzy went to heaven
The speed boat went to
Hello Operator
Give me number nine
If you disconnect me
I’ll kick you in the
Behind the refrigerator
There was a piece of glass
Miss Suzy sat upon it
And broke her little
Ask me no more questions….and so on.


And that’s a pretty mild version!


Down, Down Baby

Sesame Street had a nice segment on teaching another child how to do the motions to “Down Down Baby,” another standard.

In this video, you can see more complex clapping pattern.

Mary Mack

Another famous clapping game is “Mary Mack.”   The most common version goes:

hand-clapping pairs

Miss Mary Mack, Mack, Mack

All dressed in black, black, black

With silver buttons, buttons, buttons

All down her back, back, back


She asked her mother, mother, mother

For fifty cents, cents, cents

To watch the elephants, elephants, elephants

Jump over the fence, fence, fence


They jumped so high, high, high

They reached the sky, sky, sky

And didn’t come back, back, back

‘Til the Fourth of July, ly, ly.


Origins of this song are obscure, and many explanations are hard to believe.  One says Mary Mack was a passenger who went down with the Titanic.  Another claims the name is a shortened version of the Merrimack, the ship the Confederates made into the iron-clad Virginia that faced off against the Monitor.  Despite seeing this explanation repeated in more than one source, I can find no factual support for it.

Another origin story makes the story a slave song, with encoded references to freedom, perhaps wanting money to escape slavery. Yet another says the elephant is a reference to the Republican Party.  And a different one says “Mack” was slang for flirting or prostitution.

Some recent versions have a very different last verse:

She was so high, high, high

She touched the sky, sky, sky,

And she didn’t come down, down, down

‘til she almost died, died, died.


The song is often described as a favorite of African American girls, particularly in low-income areas, in the 1970’s.



When I asked friends if they’d grown up with these clapping songs, most said they knew the same songs I mentioned.  One grew up in Louisiana, one in Colorado, one in Texas, one in Illinois, one in New York, one in Michigan, one in California.  So how did these songs become so popular they crossed continents and oceans – decades before the advent of the internet and YouTube videos?  And where did they come from in the first place?

Those questions are actually more complicated than they seem, as are the answers.  We’re asking about several histories here: the rhymes, the melodies, and the clapping patterns.  And once you pull on a historical thread, you often find it connected to many others.  In this case, the story involves immigrants to the US, a Pope with military ambitions, the West African slave trade, minstrel shows, vaudeville, population shifts in the US, and a lot of kids sharing and adapting clapping songs they liked.

Nursery Rhymes

Pat-a Cake

Nursery rhymes have a long, well-documented history in Europe.  “Pat-a cake” first appeared in a British play called The Campaigners, in 1698, though it probably existed in oral tradition long before that. In the play, a nurse makes reference to the cake and the Baker’s man while entertaining the baby.  In Mother Goose’s Melody (1765), the full verse appears:

clapping patty cake

Patty Cake, Patty Cake

Baker’s Man.

That I will, Master,

As fast as I can.

Pat it and prick it,

And mark it with a T,

And there will be enough for Tommy and me.


(Marking baked goods was a way for the seller and buyer to identify the loaf ordered.)

You may know a more recent version, like this one:

Pat-a-cake, Pat-a cake,

Baker’s man,

Bake me a cake

As fast as you can.

Roll it, and pull it, and mark it with a B,

And put it in the oven for baby and me.


Some of the rhymes in these games came from England, and were brought to the US by immigrants.  Some are combinations of songs from multiple sources.  Like all folk songs, they morphed with their singers and the situation.  In some of the videos in the source list, you can watch girls – and sometimes boys  ̶  from India, Africa, the Caribbean, and Japan doing clapping games.  Many insert brand names, like Disneyland, Dr. Pepper, or Coca-Cola, and jokes like “What color was his fart?”


There was no published music to accompany the Pat-a Cake verse until 1796, almost a hundred years after it first appeared.  Personally, I’ve never heard it sung.  It’s mostly recited, in a sing-song tone, with simple clapping and gestures that go along with ”roll it” and “pull it” and “mark it with a B.”  Often the mother or caregiver will hold the baby’s hands and help form the clapping gesture.

Many of the other clapping games share similar simple melodies, more like chants.  “My Boyfriend Gave Me an Apple,”  “I Went to a Chinese Restaurant,” and “My Mummy” have the same basic melody as “A Sailor Went to Sea.”


Here’s where the story gets more interesting and a lot heavier. There seems to be a clear link between clapping games and Africanisms brought to the Americas and the West Indies with the slave trade.

While slavery of vanquished people was not uncommon in Europe and Africa, the West Africa slave trade the Portuguese began in the 1400’s increased dramatically in the 1600’s as demand grew for laborers to work on plantations in the Americas and the Caribbean islands.

Historical note: In 1452, Pope Nicholas V called on the Portuguese monarchy for help fighting the Saracens in Constantinople.  As a reward for their help, he issued a papal bull, Dum Diversas, which reduced non-Catholics to the equivalent of the Saracens, who were Muslims.  Thus non-Catholics became enemies deserving of a life of perpetual servitude.  Two years later, the Pope rewarded the Portuguese with a monopoly in the slave trade with West Africa.  While other countries soon ignored this decree, it served as a religious stamp of approval for trade in captive humans.

However, as Dawn L. Wright points out in her Master’s thesis, “An Examination of English speaking rhythmic games and plays of African American children,” many Africanisms survived, even in the face of enslavement and acculturation.  Two of her examples are call and response patterns of participation, and body percussion.  Both, she says, continue African music and movement styles while taking on parts of European customs as well.

Call and Response

Some clapping games involve call and response, but the pattern is more commonly found in work songs, sea shanties, and military marching songs.

This video, filmed at Kenya Connect Schools, features a call and response, a pair clapping game, and a circle elimination game.  The last clapping game featured in the video is especially impressive in its speed and complexity:


Body Percussion

Because masters feared that slaves might use drums as a secret communication system, slaves were forbidden to use them, so body percussion filled in with complex combinations of stomping, clapping, finger snapping, and patting thighs or cheeks.clapping Master_Juba

Hambone (Juba Dance) is a perfect example, brought from the Congo to South Carolina by slaves and later spread through slave communities in the Caribbean islands, Brazil, and the southern US.  Hambone body percussionists were usually male.  And the lines “Hambone, hambone, where you been?  Round the world and back again,” are one of many examples of double entendre in these songs.  One explanation is that a hambone that went from one pot to another in slave quarters, flavoring the soup, but it often had a more sexual interpretation as well.

Here’s a contemporary hambone performance by Derique McGhee at Lincoln Center

Minstrel Shows

Minstrel shows, variety shows featuring song and dance acts that exaggerated and ridiculed African American music and dance, became popular in the 1800’s. Drawing on a much older custom of holding up “others” as curiosities, minstrel shows incorporated “slave ditties,” purported to be from African slaves but sung by white musicians in black face.


Often the shows also included the Juba Dance, featuring a performer doing an elaborate dance involving stomping and body percussion.  The two parts later split into tap dancing, which merged with European step dancing to become American tap dancing, and hambone (body percussion), which is now more commonly performed by white artists.

Here’s a contemporary video of body percussion by the Hambone Brothers:

But it was a weird business all around.  By 1900, minstrel shows had morphed into Vaudeville acts. While most minstrel-style groups were white men in black face,  there were also black minstrel groups who performed with or without black face, including Bert Williams, an African-American who was part of the Ziegfeld Follies beginning in 1910 and the highest paid African-American in show business at the time.  Mostly, though, these shows sold a demeaning caricature of African-Americans.  Thomas D. Rice, a white man who performed in black-face under the stage name “Daddy Jim Crow,” introduced the song “Jump Jim Crow,” accompanied by a dance.  It gave its name to the institutionalization of segregation and discrimination that lasted until the Civil Rights movement.  Its legacy still lingers today.

However, one of the many peculiar parts of this history is that the use of African-American songs, dances, and rhythms, even in the context of minstrel shows, served to perpetuate them.  It also created a strange hybrid wherein northern white songwriters like Stephen Foster wrote songs about slave life in the antebellum south, like “My Old Kentucky Home,” and “Oh, Susanna!” and “Camptown Races,” incorporating African-American rhythms and styles, which were then performed in minstrel shows by singers in blackface, often using African-origin percussion and instruments.Clapping Al_Jolson_Jazz_Singer

Here’s Al Jolson singing “Mammy” in black face in  The Jazz Singer (pictured) and singing “Camptown Races” in the video:

While it’s sort of awful to see today, it shows the strange cultural mixing that went on in these shows.

The Children

Popular entertainment kept the clapping songs and dances alive in the public mind, but children must have passed them on simply because they were fun, right from the start.  Many slave girls were assigned white children to care for.  According to first-hand accounts, friendships between slave children and white children were fairly common.  It’s not hard to imagine a couple of kids passing the time with a clapping game, which would then spread.


This spread happened on a far wider scale with the Great Migration.  Before 1910, 90% of the US African-American population lived in the rural South.  But between 1916 and 1970, over 6 million African-Americans moved to urban centers in the Northeast, Midwest, and Far West, seeking better jobs and treatment.  And they brought their songs with them, which then fueled the spread of gospel, blues, jazz, and rock and roll.

And some became the clapping games that gleefully skipped across social borders everywhere.  And morphed with each setting and group.

The earliest examples of clapping games were recorded in the American South in the 1850’s.  By 1950, “Miss Mary Mack” was the most popular clapping song in the English-speaking world.

The Clapping Song

In 1965, Shirley Ellis recorded “The Clapping Song,” written by Lincoln Chase, whose parents were from the West Indies.  It attempts to teach the clapping pattern while singing the song.  It wound up being very popular, reaching #8 on the pop charts, a good follow-up to her earlier hit, “The Name Game,” also written by Lincoln Chase.  It borrows from a 1930’s song “Little Rubber Dolly.”  Here’s the Shirley Ellis version:

And the lyrics:

Three six nine, the goose drank wine.
The monkey chew tobacco on the street car line.
The line broke, the monkey got choked
And they all went to heaven in a little rowboat.

Clap pat, clap pat, clap pat clap slap!
Clap pat clap your hand, pat it on your partner’s hand
Right hand.
Clap pat clap pat clap your hand. Cross it with your left arm.
Pat you partner’s left palm.
Clap pat, clap your hand, pat your partner’s right palm
With your right palm again.
Clap slap, clap your hand, slap your thighs and sing a little song.


My mother told me, if I was goody.
That she would buy me a rubber dolly.
My aunty told her I kissed a soldier,
Now she won’t buy me a rubber dolly.

Three six nine, the goose drank wine.
The monkey chew tobacco on the street car line.
The line broke, the monkey got choked
And they all went to heaven in a little rowboat….



Clapping games are currently enjoying a revival, especially among pre-teen girls who delight in learning and performing the really complicated versions with many different movements.  Most of the YouTube videos you’ll see in the Sources feature girls who, at 8 or 10 years old, are making their own videos of the games, slowing down the explanation sometimes for us older, slower folks.

My neighbor who teaches in a local elementary school told me that in an attempt to get the kids off their phones and interact with each other at recess, teachers have started including  clapping games. They teach hand-eye coordination, rhythm, and cooperation, and they exercise the brain and the body at the same time.  Besides, they’re fun.


Sources and interesting listening:

“ABC, 123, and Peter Pan clapping games,” video

“Tic Tac Toe and other games,” video,

Bishop, Julia, “Clapping Games,” British Library, 26 October 2016

“Blackface,” Wikipedia,

“Body percussion,” Wikipedia,

Cabrera, Gertrudis, “A Day in the Life of an Enslaved Child,” lesson plan and materials, Franklin Elementary School, Houston

“Call and response (music) Wikipedia

“Clapping Game,” Wikipedia,

“Doctor Pepper,” video,

“Don’t Break the Window” clapping game, video also includes Lemonade, Bingo, and Double,double,

“Down, Down Baby,” video clip from Sesame Street,   Cute group

“Down, down, baby! A hand-clapping history, SAHMurai, 17 April, 2016,

Ellis, Shirley, “The Clapping Song,”

Gaunt, Kyra D.  The Games Black Girls Play: Learning the Ropes from Double-Dutch to Hip-Hop.  New York: New York University Press, 1998.

Hambone Brothers, video,

“Iona and Peter Opie,”

Jenkins, Ella, “A Sailor went to sea,” Smithsonian Folkways recording, with clapping.  Jenkins identifies “a sailor” as African-American.

“Juba Dance,” Wikipedia,

“Juba Dance,” WikiVisually,

“Liberian clapping games,” video from Africa Heartwood Project,

“Mary Mack”

McGhee, Derique, Hambone demonstration at Lincoln Center, New York, August 12, 2010

Mintz, Steven, “Childhood and Transatlantic Slavery,” Children & Youth in History, Columbia University,

“Miss Mary Mack,” Pop Culture, by

“My Mummy” British Library video clip and explanation

“Nigerian clapping game” video  clapping pair, elimination game, boys and girls

“Nursery Rhymes, childhood folklore and play: The archive of Iona and Peter Opie,” Archives and Manuscripts at the Bodleian Library, a Bodleian Libraries blog, 7 March 2017,

Opie, Iona and Peter.  The Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes.  Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1997

“Pat-a-cake, pat-a-cake, baker’s man”  Wikipedia

Photo of children playing clapping games by Jarek Tuszynski, 2011

“Pretty Little Dutch Girl,” Wikipedia,

Rosen, Michael, “An introduction to clapping games,” British Library,   A very good source

“A Sailor Went to Sea, Sea, Sea”  video clip,

Wiggins, David K. “The Play of Slave Children in the Plantation Communities of the Old South, 1820 – 1860,” Journal of Sport History, Vol 7, No.2 (Summer, 1980)  21 – 39.

Wright, Dawn L. “An examination of English speaking rhythmic games and plays of African American children,” Master’s thesis, Clark Atlanta University, 1 July 1996, available through Atlanta University Center’s Digital Commons @Robert W. Woodruff Library, Atlanta University Center, open access.




Heroes, Adventurers, and Crackpots

Alfred Lord Tennyson’s poem “Ulysses” (published in 1842) portrays Ulysses (Odysseus to the Romans) as an old man who is back home after his years fighting in the Trojan War, recounted in The Iliad, and his wanderings at sea, detailed in The Odyssey.


The familiar tales in those books include the Trojan Horse, The Cyclops (shown above), the twin dangers of Scylla, the six-headed monster, and Charybdis, the violent whirlpool, as well as the alluring Circe who turns men into pigs, and the Sirens who comb back their long hair as they sing men to their doom (pictured).

Ulysses_and_the_Sirens_by_H.J._Draper (1)

Through bravery, deceit, and considerable help from the gods, especially Athena, Ulysses survives all his adventures.  As the poem begins, he’s been reunited with his wife, Penelope, and once again sits on the throne of Ithaca.

Ulysses head Yet he’s restless, unsatisfied.  He misses the camaraderie of battle, the thrill of life at sea.  It’s more than nostalgia that he feels, it’s hunger for the life he used to know.  So he decides to leave the kingdom in his son’s hands and set off with his trusted companions once again.

His complaint is universal in its appeal:


“… How dull it is to pause, to make an end

To rust unburnished, not to shine in use!

As though to breathe were life…


Death closes all, but something ere the end,

Some work of noble note, may yet be done,

Not unbecoming men that strove with gods…


‘Tis not too late to seek a newer world…

To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths

Of all the western stars, until I die…

Though much is taken, much abides, and though

We are not now that strength which in old days

Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are;

One equal temper of heroic hearts,

Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will

To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.


It’s a rallying cry to those who don’t want to slow down, to become less with age.  It’s been read at dozens of retirement parties, the battle hymn of the old adventurer. It’s always been one of my favorites, even though, on re-reading The Odyssey, I find Ulysses considerably less heroic than I remembered.  If it weren’t for the intervention of Athena and other gods, he would have failed in his quest – early on.  Still, the poem speaks to the old hero’s undiminished search for adventure, for noble battle, perhaps for redemption.

Captain America

Ulysses is the archetype of the adventurer/hero.  His stories combine wild battles with superhuman enemies, beautiful/deadly women, natural hazards, magical tokens, and intervention by the gods.  It’s a winning combination, even today.  The powerful defender/avenger (!) figure appears in almost all Marvel super-heroes,  Star Wars heroes, and most of the fantasy warriors in on-line games.  Like Captain America (shown), the warrior hero lives for the noble fight.  He (or she) has little or no life outside of battle.  Super-heroes don’t usually chaperone class trips or take the kids to soccer practice.

But we forgive all that because, after all, they’re heroes.  Ulysses deserves to do great things, even in his old age, and we cheer for him even as he leaves poor, long-suffering Penelope at home once again and heads off into the great unknown with his band of old buddies.


A Different Story

In 2018, a Polish retiree named Aleksander Doba, at 71, completed his third trans-Atlantic solo crossing, in a 21′ kayak he designed.


His first crossing was in 2011, from Senegal, West Africa, to Brazil, a 99-day journey.  (See map on left).  When he arrived at his destination, he was greeted by one journalist.




Days after returning home, he started planning the second trip, which he completed in 2013, going from Portugal to Florida, a 6,000-mile journey.  (See map on right).  He had saltwater blisters and eye infections. His toe nails fell off.

When he tried to exercise by swimming in the ocean, he found he attracted sharks.  When his clothes became unwearable, he went naked.  On the trip, he suffered multiple equipment failures, including his satellite radio, GPS unit, and electric desalinator.  Most he fixed by himself or managed without.  But when his rudder broke during a storm near Bermuda, he was forced to head in to land for repairs.  As soon as it was fixed, he returned to his route.  (Notice the circular blip on the map of his journey.)  It’s believed to be the longest open-water kayak crossing in history.

Then he wanted to go again, this time from west to east, from New York to France.  Despite everyone’s attempts to dissuade him, he went.  His wife of 45 years, Gabriela, said when she couldn’t dissuade him, she gave up and accepted his decision.  But the third passage proved to be the hardest.


Shortly after he got into open water off the New York coast, he ran into terrible storms with 65 mph winds and huge seas that required him to tie himself down in the narrow sleeping area he had inside the kayak. (See photo.)  But in the middle of the storm, he realized the waves were so high, the kayak would be buried in the troughs and destroyed unless he slowed it down by deploying a sea anchor, essentially a parachute opened in the water behind the kayak to slow its descent down the backs of the waves into the troughs.  It worked for a while, but then one of the ropes failed and the kayak began to roll in the waves so violently he thought it would break apart.  He had to rope himself to the kayak, go out in the sea into the teeth of the storm, and deploy the spare sea anchor. He admitted later that when he returned to his tiny cabin on the kayak, he was surprised he was still alive.

On each trip Aleksander Doba paddled and drifted over 6,000 miles, all alone in a kayak he designed, with a sleeping area about the size of a coffin set sideways.  He described the tedium of paddling as a form of dementia.  Though he’s partly deaf, he left his hearing aids behind so he wouldn’t lose them in the sea.  But he grew so disoriented, he started shouting at himself.  He spoke to sea turtles he passed and yelled at flying fish that struck him.

Late on the third trip, he lost all contact with family and friends.  “I came very close to the line of my possibility and human possibility,” he admitted later.  But he saw the crisis as an opportunity for triumph.  He wanted to move toward the suffering, not avoid it, so he would be a hero, not a victim.

Doba from Daily Mail

“If you aren’t willing to suffer,” Doba told a reporter from The New York Times, “you can do nothing.  You can sit and die.”  In the pictures of Doba on his arrival, he radiates a kind of fierce strength.  Ulysses would understand.


And yet, few people know of him and even fewer would call him a hero.  Why is Ulysses considered a classic hero and Doba is not?

Maybe we’re just used to the image of Ulysses as the hero and cling to the idea even after realizing he only survived his adventures with extensive help from Athena and Hermes.  Or that he had sex with (or killed) almost every female he met on the journey then declared he would kill his wife, Penelope, if he found out she’d been unfaithful in the twenty years he’d been gone.  Or that he couldn’t shut down his killing instinct even when he got home.  He killed all one hundred of Penelope’s suitors, leaving the great hall awash in blood.  When the families of the slain men showed up, looking for revenge, it was Athena who stepped in and shut down the cycle of killing.  Still, Ulysses had really good marketing.  Homer told his story so well that people have been reading it for 1200 years.

Doba, on the other hand, is a hero with almost no fanfare.  Many, including his own family, dismiss him as a crackpot.  But he has, perhaps, a far more important lesson to teach us than Ulysses does.

We need Doba.  We need all the adventurers.  They feed us, even if we’re not out on a kayak with them or climbing mountains or heading into space.  Doba said, “You can be made small by life or you can rage against it.”  When asked what he meant, he added, “I do not want to be a little gray man.”

That’s his gift to us.  We don’t have to be Ulysses/Odysseus, legendary king of Ithaca and beloved of the goddess Athena.  We can be regular folks, even old ones, and still strive for something extraordinary.



Sources and interesting reading:

Doba photo by Iwona Photography,

Gordon, James. “Kayaker paddles Atlantic,” The Daily 23 April 2014,

Homer. The Iliad, translated by W. H. D. Rouse.  New York: New American Library, 1938.

Homer. The Odyssey, translated by Samuel Butler, Publishing, 2016

“Odysseus,” Britannica Online Encyclopedia,

“Odysseus: Myth, Significance, Trojan War, and Odyssey,”,

“Odysseus,” Wikipedia,

Squires, Nick.  “Greeks discover Odysseus’ palace in Ithaca, proving Homer’s hero was real,” The Telegraph, 24 August 2010,

Tennyson, Alfred, Lord, “Ulysses,” from Beginning with Poems: An Anthology, edited by Reuben A. Brower, Anne D. Ferry, and David Kalstone. New York: Norton, 1966.

Ulysses and Cyclops painting by Arnold Böcklin – Sotheby’s London, 11 June 2012, lot 8  Public Domain,

“Ulysses and Sirens” painted by H. J. Draper, 1909, Wikipedia Commons,

Ulysses, sculpted head, by Jastrow, from the Iliade exhibition at the Colosseum, September 2006–February 2007, Public Domain,

Well, Elizabeth (author) and Joakim Eskildsen (photographer), “Alone at Sea: Why he kayaked across the Atlantic at 70 (for the third time),” The New York Times magazine, 22 March 2018,



The Opera House at Manaus, Brazil

The Opera House was supposed to be a center of culture in the middle of the Upper Amazon Basin, a jewel of the arts to rival the great theaters of Europe.  And, in spite of its strange history, it is.  The day I visited, local school children were touring the building.  The Amazonas Philharmonic was scheduled to perform later in the week.  The gift shop was doing a brisk business.

Manaus opera exterior

Construction began on The Opera House in 1884.  Its first performance was held in 1897.  But by 1921, it stood empty and abandoned, a victim of the sudden end of the Rubber Boom that ran from the late 1800’s to about 1910.

The Rubber Boom

2018-02-03 Manaus old house 019Natural rubber comes from the Pará tree, native to South America.  When the harvester makes “V” cuts in the tree, the sap drips down and forms lumps which are refined into latex.

Ancient peoples at least as far back as the Olmec in Mexico (3500 years ago) used rubber to make waterproof textiles, boat patches, containers, and the ball they used in ceremonial games.  Because untreated rubber tends to lose its shape, they added sulfur to harden it.

However, the Portuguese who took the natives’ land starting in the 1500’s never asked for their advice about handling rubber, so it remained a mystery until Charles Marie de La Condamine explained the benefits of rubber to the Academie Royal des Sciences in France, in 1751.  He showed it could stretch and return to its former shape and could withstand being immersed in water without being affected.  In 1770, Joseph Priestley added that it was good for erasing pencil marks on paper.  Then Francois Fresneau discovered turpentine was a rubber solvent. But it wasn’t until 1839 that Charles Goodyear discovered “vulcanization” by accident.  He left a ball of rubber and some sulfur on the stove and found, in the morning, that the rubber was both charred and hardened.

With the coming of the Industrial Revolution, and more particularly the birth of the auto industry in the 1890’s, demand for rubber soared, especially for belting, gaskets, matting, gloves, adhesives, elastic in garments, and car tires.  South America was its main source, particularly Brazil.  As the money flowed in, the landowners’ greed, competition, and brutality grew.  Natives did the work and saw no profit.  When they rebelled, suppression was quick and deadly.  Since wild rubber trees are widely dispersed, Portuguese land owners acquired huge swaths of land, mostly by using private armies to terrorize the inhabitants into working for them. Their tactics included cutting off dissidents’ hands and displaying them.

Thinking plantations of rubber trees would make more money than individual trees in the jungle, the owners cleared land and planted hundreds.  But their trees died from a leaf blight that was fed by close proximity.  So the “rubber barons,” as they were called, went back to wild rubber trees.  The sap was tapped from the trees, collected, refined, and shipped down the Amazon to the Atlantic Ocean, and from there, to the world.  And they could charge whatever they wanted since they controlled most of the available rubber supply.

It’s hard to appreciate how much money these men amassed in a short time. Because the Rio Negro’s tannin-rich water turned their white shirts tan in the wash, they sent their laundry to France or Portugal to be washed, ironed, and perfumed, then returned by ship, a round-tip that might take months.  In the middle of the hot, humid rainforest, they still wore starched European style clothes and made their homes showplaces of European wealth, with fine paintings, sculpture, inlaid woods, marble, decorative tile-work, and enormous mirrors.  Both men and women wore jewels and fine fabrics that rivaled those sported by royalty. They were the highest per-capita buyers of diamonds in the world.  When they found the clip-clop of horses on the cobblestones distracting, they2015-08-08 Brazil hotel 016

ordered bricks made with rubber that would muffle the sound.  They are still visible near the Opera House.

Rubber-boom Manaus boasted electric lights, 16 miles of streetcar tracks, and a telephone system.

Buoyed by a belief in Social Darwinism that declared some men were more successful because they were innately superior, the barons indulged in contests of wealth.  If one had a fine yacht built, another ordered two.  One kept a tame lion in his villa.  Another claimed he watered his horse with French champagne.  In addition to a wife, a baron might take dozens of natives as sexual companions.

2018-01-30 Brazil opera 004

So what would be a fitting place for these incredibly rich people to go, to see and be seen?  The theater, of course.  In 1884, construction began on an audacious project – a palatial opera house.  To complete it, they had to hire architects, artists, designers, and painters, get various exotic woods from the Amazon basin, and import roofing, art, and furniture from France, as well as marble from Italy and steel from the British Isles.

Light came from 198 chandeliers.  The reception room (pictured below) featured elaborate inlaid woods and large mirrors placed on opposite walls that provided the viewers with endless repetitions of their image.

Manaus opera interior

The dome required 36,000 decorated tiles and special supports.  The painted ceiling portrayed the spirits of music, dance, and drama.  The grand curtain depicted the Meeting of the Waters, where the dark water of the Rio Negro meets the lighter water of the Upper Amazon

In 1897, the opera house opened with a performance by Enrico Caruso in La Gioconda.    The barons had lured the brightest star in the opera world to the middle of the jungle to sing for them in their beautiful theater.  Clearly, they were meant to be where they were and to do everything they had done.


A Warning

2018-02-03 Manaus old house 002Down the Rio Negro a bit from Manaus are the ruins of a town that was started but never finished.  Apparently, some powerful people grew unhappy with the status quo in Manaus and decided to form their own community.  They imported marble, granite, and ceramic tile, then started construction on several ornate homes and a chapel. But the settlement failed before the houses were completed. Today, the jungle is reclaiming the space, moving in over the decorative tile and marble steps.  The reason for the settlement’s collapse is unknown, but a small, family cemetery near the buildings hints at disease, perhaps Yellow Fever, which was common in the area.

 The Fall

Back in Manaus, the party lasted until their grip on the market failed.  An Englishman did what the rubber barons thought was impossible: he smuggled rubber tree seeds out of Brazil.  In 1876, when the barons were just beginning their meteoric rise, Henry Wickham shipped 70,000 seeds to British colonies in Malaysia and India, a number so high it suggests he had help from some locals.  The exact arrangement has never been explained, and the “rubber theft” is still something of a touchy subject in Manaus.

After some initial difficulties, the English efforts in India and Malaysian paid off.  By 1909, Brazilian rubber production dropped to only 50% of the world total.  In 1918, only 20 percent.

Manaus’s fortunes fell even more abruptly than they’d risen. The lights that once illuminated its buildings and streets went dark.  The tram stopped. The telephone lines went quiet.

The rich fled with what money they had left.  The theater was forgotten.  By 1921, visitors said it housed only bats, bugs, and vermin.  Aside from a brief appearance in a Werner Herzog film, it lay abandoned and decaying for over seventy years.

The Revival

In the 1970’s, the Brazilian government decided to put money into reviving some remote settlements, including Manaus.  It’s still in the middle of the Amazonian rainforest, with no overland road access due to seasonal flooding.  Visitors arrive by boat or plane.  But after the establishment of a Free Zone with its appealing tax incentives, businesses moved in.  National and international investment followed.  It’s now the sixth largest economy in Brazil, fueled not by rubber, but by shipbuilding and fishing, as well as trade in wild fruits like acai, guarana, and cupuacu, plus Brazil nuts, beer, soap, and petroleum products. Manaus mercado-municipal-manaus

As the city’s fortunes improved, successful businessmen wanted to reclaim the best of the city’s past. A coalition of investors joined government agencies in funding the rehabilitation of some Gilded Age buildings, including a number of historic homes, the library, and the central market, the Mercado Adolpho Lisboa (pictured), built in 1882, which still does a booming business in fruits, vegetables, spices, and fish.

Brazil fish monger

But the star of the revival was the Opera House, which has become a symbol of the powerful present more than the colonial past.  In 2001, the provincial government allocated funds to lure top musicians to play in the Amazonas Philharmonic. Today, the completely restored Opera House hosts orchestras from around the world, as well as jazz bands, rock bands, and dance troupes. Jack White, of the White Stripes, was a featured performer in 2004.

Regular people who would never have been allowed inside the theater when it was built now look on it with pride.  The brutal oppression that allowed the rubber barons to amass their wealth is seldom mentioned.  Instead, the locals claim this striking building as their own.  They’re proud of it.  They support its concerts and relax in its gardens.  It represents their city’s endurance and quality, and therefore theirs.


Tours of the Opera House (about $8.00 per person) include a visit to the grand theater hall and the reception area, as well as a costume display.  Book ahead for an English-speaking guide.  If this is the start of your Upper Amazon tour, you’ll find it adds an interesting perspective on the area’s history.


Sources and interesting reading:


“A Brief History of Rubber,” Mongabay,

Cunningham, Eleanor, “The Manaus Opera House: The Theatre of the Amazonian Jungle,” The Culture Trip, 10 November 2017  https://theculturetrip.som/wouth-america/brazil/articles/the-manaus-opera-house-the-theatre-of-the-amazonian-jungle/

“Manaus,” Wikipedia,

Morton, Ella, “Teatro Amazonas,”  Atlas Obscura on Slate, 14 January 2014, manaus_brazil.html

Ramm, Benjamin, “The beautiful theatre in the heart of the Amazon rainforest,”  16 March 2017,



Other information courtesy of the tour guides at the Manaus Opera House and background provided by our Road Scholar group leaders

Photo of the Mercado Adolpho Lisboa from Wikipedia.  All other photos by the author.



Championing New Views of the First Americans

Pedra Niede portrait

In 1963, when Niede Guidon was a young archaeologist working at the Museu Palista in Sao Paulo, Brazil, a friend showed her some photographs of ancient paintings on rock walls.  Something about those photos made a profound impression on her.  The site was called Pedra Furada, Pierced Rock, after a famous rock formation with a hole in it.

Pedra Furada pierced rock

The remote area of northeastern Brazil where the photos were taken, stripped of its forests in colonial times, had suffered terrible erosion, silting of rivers, and subsequent desertification by the time Guidon visited in 1973.  But its isolation had helped to preserve the paintings.  As soon as she began studying the area, she realized it was something extraordinary.

Pedra rock art Wikipedia, by Diego Rego Monteiro

Where most rock art sites in Europe are a single cave or a series of caves in a single mountain, Pedra Furada is a collection of over 900 sites with over 1150 images painted on the walls and ceilings, mostly with red ochre or other clays, and some burned bone charcoal.  The oldest images date from 12,000 years old, the newest about 5,000 years old, showing a change in style over time from fingerwork to paintings created with cactus spines and brushes made of fibers or fur.  They show people hunting with atlatls (dart throwers), dancing, mating, giving birth, and fighting.  Many animal are represented, including caimans, llamas, pumas, deer, capybaras, turtles, fish, and iguanas.

Pedra painting with red deer and humans

Often the red deer are large, surrounded by small images of people, as in the panel shown. Other sections feature rows of marks and unidentified figures, and what seem to be narrative sequences.

Pedra patterned body




Some large rectangular humanoid figures with patterned bodies are surrounded by smaller human forms with raised arms.


The treasure underfoot

What lay deep in the ground near the painted walls was even more surprising than the paintings.  Guidon and her team spent years carefully excavating the areas, finding evidence of hearth fires and stone tools in layers ranging from 5,000 years old to 32,000 years old, with lower levels dating to 48,000 years old.  Repeated analysis by independent labs, mostly in France, supported those dates.  Guidon herself, never one to shy away from an argument, maintained in a 1985 article in Nature that the site showed clear evidence of human occupation 60,000 years ago!

Clovis First”

Her findings enraged American archaeologists because they challenged the common belief that people arrived in the Americas by walking across the land bridge from Asia, called Beringia, to Alaska during the Ice Age, about 13,000 years ago.  From there, they supposedly dispersed all through the Americas.

Clovis points

This theory began in the 1930’s with the discovery of a finely-made spear point lodged in a mastodon bone near Clovis, New Mexico.  When other points/arrowheads with this same design were found in neighboring states, and then across the country, archaeologists decided that these points were made by East Asian big game hunters who followed their prey across Beringia and down an ice-free corridor between glaciers into what is now the western United States.  The presence of the Clovis points became the basis for a belief in a Clovis people and a Clovis culture that was so effective it spread from north to south throughout the Americas. The Clovis First theory was repeated endlessly in school textbooks throughout the 20th century.  (The Clovis point in the photo shows the characteristic fine work on both sides (bi-face).


There were a few glitches in the theory, but they were largely ignored.  For instance, the greatest concentration of Clovis-style points has been found in the southeastern US, not in Alaska or northern Canada, so we can assume they moved from the east to the west, not the other way around.  (See diagram of Clovis point distribution)

Plus, there was never any proof that the Clovis-style points indicated either a people or a culture.  Today, iPhones are found all over the world, but they represent neither a people nor a culture.  They’re simply a very useful bit of technology.  Probably Clovis points were too.  A valuable trade item, endlessly copied – spreading across the continent.

But all of these problems with “Clovis First” were dismissed by the established powerhouses in American archaeology, especially at Harvard and Yale.

Dennis Stanford, now with the Smithsonian Museum of History, admitted that when he was excavating a site in Florida and came across signs of human habitation far older than Clovis dates, he told his team to fill the pit back in and tell no one about it since their findings would never be accepted.

Who’s she?  

Then along came this brash Brazilian woman with her French education and her crazy theories about early man in Brazil.  The US archaeological community tore her findings apart, claiming the tools were made by monkeys, or they were “geofacts,” natural objects altered by weather or falling to the ground.  In a heated response to a question about them from a reporter from The Guardian,  Guidon said, “US archaeologists believe that the artifacts are geofacts created naturally because the North Americans CANNOT BELIEVE they do not have the oldest site!”  When critics said the carbon hearth samples were the result of natural fires, she pointed out the sites lay well inside caves or rock overhangs, inside circles of stones.  No carbon was found in sample pits dug outside the shelters. “The carbon is not from a natural fire.  It is only found inside the sites.  You don’t get natural fires inside the shelters,” she retorted.  “Americans criticize WITHOUT KNOWING.  The problem is not mine!  The problem is theirs!  Americans should excavate more and write less!”

Guidon challenged American archaeologists to come to the site, draw their own samples, and do their own tests.  They refused.

When they couldn’t make her back down, US archeologists discredited, belittled, then ignored Guidon, her research, and her site. It simply never appeared in surveys of ancient settlements in the Americas.  “Everybody has pretty much deep-sixed Guidon,” one noted American archaeologist commented.

But time, it seems, is on her side.


New finds in Chile and South Carolina

Tom Dillehay, an American archaeologist working at sites in southern and central Chile, found extensive evidence of human habitation there 18,000 years ago, 5,000 years before the supposed appearance of the “Clovis people.”  Settlers on the Chilean coast built lodges, ate a variety of seafood, and used different kinds of seaweed for medicines.  Presence of quartz and tar from other areas indicated either a trade network or a wide area of exploration. Even though Dillehay had painstakingly recorded every discovery and each step of the dating process, and used independent labs for verification, the established archaeological community initially refused to consider his conclusions.  He had to spend ten years defending his findings, but thanks to his persistence, there’s now at least a bit of doubt concerning Clovis First.

Albert Goodyear, who has been working at the Topper Hill chert mine site in South Carolina since the 1980’s, ran into similar problems when he found a rich deposit of Clovis style points and then, much farther down, ran into a completely different set of hearths and tools.  The deepest layers dated to 50,000 years old.  Again, the archaeological community raged against the findings, making life so miserable for Goodyear that he considered leaving the field completely.

For scholars with a vested interest in preserving Clovis First, it simply wasn’t possible that there were settlements before Clovis.  If so, all their work would be meaningless.

Fig 7

Santa Elina rock shelter and more

Then more news came from Brazil, including discoveries at Santa Elina rock shelter in central Brazil, where pierced bone ornaments made from giant sloths (photo) were dated over 23,000 years old.  Like Pedra Furada, it too had rock art and evidence of occasional, seasonal use over thousands of years.  A site in Uruguay yielded evidence of humans hunting giant sloths 32,000 years ago.  Now, these finds are being lumped together with Guidon’s research, indicating a record of human habitation in the area at least 30,000 years old.  Some suggest over 50,000 years old.

Other revelations have followed.  But the most dramatic challenge has come from Steven and Kathleen Holen, who have long held the belief that people were in the Americas before 40,000 years ago.  In a paper in Nature, they argue that break marks on 130,000 year old mastodon bones found in Southern California suggest hominins (ancestors of modern humans) did the butchering using stone tools, perhaps to get at the marrow or use the bones for tools.  To illustrate their point, the Holens used rocks they found at the site to break open elephant bones.

The dust still hasn’t settled from the fracas over their claims.

Even more radical theories

As Niede Guidon said years ago, “I think it’s wrong that everyone came running across Bering chasing mammoths – that’s infantile.  I think they also came along the seas.”  Now in her 80’s and mostly retired, she hasn’t softened her tone at all.  She currently maintains that people first arrived in South America from West Africa, perhaps as far back as 100,000 years ago.


She says they could have floated or paddled across the sea with the current and the wind in their favor.  Both journeys have been replicated in modern times.  (The diagram at the left shows the route a 70-year-old Polish kayaker took in his solo journey across the Atlantic in 2017.)  If you look at the globe, an African origin certainly makes more sense for settlements in northeastern Brazil than having people go through Alaska, down the coast of North America and Central America, then across the Andes and the Amazon Basin to get to Pedra Furada.Pedra map

But Guidon isn’t stopping there.  She suggests that the group from Africa may have merged with groups from the South Pacific that came by sea, settled on the Pacific coast and later crossed lower South America.

Evidence for the South Pacific theory    Botocudo man, South American natives of eastern Brazil, historical portrait, 1875

Several native populations in South America were completely eradicated by the Spanish and Portuguese conquerors.  One group, the Botocudo, were murdered by the Portuguese because they wouldn’t submit to enslavement.  Oddly, the Portuguese kept several of the skulls, which later wound up in a museum.  When modern scientists drilled into the teeth and tested the DNA, they found markers typical of Polynesians and Australians. (Drawings of a Botocudo man, above).  See earlier post on “Chickens, Sweet Potatoes, and Polynesians in Brazil.”

The Long Chronology

Increasingly, it looks as if there is no one simple answer to the origin or timeline of the peopling of the Americas.  A new theory, called the Long Chronology, posits multiple waves of immigrants from different places arriving over a long period of time, probably with only a few successful, surviving settlements.  This pattern seems more promising than Clovis First – and certainly more defensible given new discoveries.  This does not rule out migration from Siberia or along the west coast of North America.  It simply takes away its claim of exclusivity.

Serra da Capivara

Pedra Serra da Capivara entrance

Meanwhile, Niede Guidon is busy trying to get funding to keep the 320,000 acre national park she fought for, now called Serra da Capivara, open. (Entrance shown in photo.)  Her research helped establish it as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1991, but government support is undependable.  Few American archaeologists have ever visited.  Only the hardiest tourists make the trip.  But Guidon’s work is finally getting some attention from the press and the academic world.  Robson Bonnichsen, from the University of Maine’s Center for the Study of the First Americans, feels her work needs more attention.  “We’re trying to get some eminent American scholars down there to study the methods and results,” he said.  He plans to lead the first American excavation team there.

This should be interesting to watch.  Perhaps if an American man gets the same results, the data will get more respect.  If so, Guidon will probably wonder what took the rest of the world so long to catch up with her.


Sources and interesting reading:

Bellos, Alex, “Archaeologists feud over oldest Americans, The Guardian, 10 February 2000,

Bower, Bruce, “People may have lived in razil more than 20,000 years ago,” Science News, 5 September 2017,

Bower, Bruce, “Texas toolmakers add to the debate over who the first Americans were,” Science News, 11 July 2018,

Brooke, James, “Ancient Find, But How Ancient?” 17 April 1990, The New York Times,

Fenton, Bruce, “Brazilian rock shelter proves inhabited Americas 23,000 years ago” The Vintage News, 29 January 2018,

Guidon, Niede, “Nature and the age of the depostis in Pedra Furada, Brazil: Reply to Meltzer, Adovasio and others, Antiquity, vol.68, 1994.…

“Interview with Niede Guidon,” Crosscultural Maria-Brazil,

Jansen, Roberta, “The archaeologist who fights to preserve the vestiges of the first men of the Americas,” BBC News, 12 March 2016,

“Niede Guidon,” Wikipedia,

“Niede Guidon,” WikiVividly,

“Pedra Furada,” Britannica Online Encyclopedia,

“Pedra Furada,” Wikipedia,

“Pedra Furada, Brazil: Paleoindians, Paintings, and Paradoxes, an interview with Niede Guidon and others, Athena Review, vol. 3, no.2: Peopling of the Americas,

Peron, Roberto, “Pedra Furada the Pierce Rock Site,” Peron Rants (blog) 28 April 2017,

Powledge, Tabitha, “News about ancient humanity: Humans in California 130,000 years ago?” PLOS Blogs, 5 May 2017, blogs/2017/05/05/news-about-ancient-humanity-humans-in-California-130000-years ago…

“The Rock Art of Pedra Furada,” The Bradshaw Foundation,

Rock Art panel, photo by Diego Rego Monteiro – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

Romero, Simon, “Discoveries Challenge Beliefs on Humans’ Arrival in the Americas,” The New York Times, 27 March 2015,

“Serra da Capivara National Park,” Wikipedia,

Wade, Lizzie, “Traces of some of South America’s earliest people found under ancient dirt pyramid,” Science, 24 May 2017,

Wilford, John Noble, “Doubts Cast on Report of Earliest Americans,” The New York Times, 14 February 1995,




Rabbit’s Foot Mojo

Around the world, people believe certain activities bring good luck and others bring bad luck. In Russia, you shouldn’t whistle indoors because it will bring down financial ruin on the house. (My mother told me it made the Blessed Mother cry!)  In Hawaii, you shouldn’t whistle at night because it angers Pele, the god of fire.  In France, people tack horseshoes on the barn door with the opening facing down.  I was taught that made the good luck run out.

We think of ourselves as rational people, yet tradition and custom whisper that specific practices can and do influence the course of events.  Even those who claim they are not superstitious may cling to certain rituals before a big event, like playing a favorite song, repeating a certain phrase, carrying a photo of a loved one, wearing a “lucky” piece of clothing, getting dressed all left side first, or carrying an object infused with personal or religious meaning.

rabbits foot etsy

Certain objects became easily recognizable good luck charms, including a four-leaf clover, a horseshoe, and a rabbit’s foot. The rabbit’s foot, usually the left hind foot, was attached to a metal collar and fitted with a chain.  Later versions were often dyed bright colors.  Today, carrying around part of a dead animal is considered more creepy than lucky, so the charm is less popular.  But the rabbit’s foot has a fascinating history.


Historians debate the origin of the rabbit’s foot charm.  Some claim it’s related to the rabbit/hare myths from Europe, China, and Latin America.  It’s true that rabbits were very important in these cultures’ stories.  (I’m using rabbit and hare as equivalents in this post although I understand they are different species in the same family.  For purposes of myth, they’re very similar.)

In antiquity, the rabbit was widely seen as a symbol of fertility and abundance because rabbits breed, well, like rabbits.  A female rabbit can have forty babies a year.

rabbit The_SpringThe Germanic/Celtic goddess Ostara or Eostre (pictured) represented spring and dawn.  Her feast was celebrated at the Vernal Equinox, the first light of spring.  Her symbols were the rabbit and the egg, as well as various flowers. Today we have the Easter Bunny, who leaves brightly colored eggs and candies, clearly a combination of ancient symbols: the egg and the rabbit, representing new and abundant life.  All of these have now been subsumed into our Easter celebration, held on the first Sunday after the first full moon following the Vernal Equinox.

In ancient Greek and Roman art, the rabbit was associated with Aphrodite/Venus and considered the gift of lovers.

The rabbit in the moon

rabbit in moonAround the world, many people see the form of a rabbit in the surface of the moon, rather than the face of The Man in the Moon.  Shown in

rabbit and moon goddess

the picture is the Japanese moon rabbit stirring the elixir of immortality.

For the ancient Maya and Chinese, the rabbit was the companion of the moon goddess, known as Ixchel (shown with her large rabbit companion) and Chang’e (shown sitting on the crescent

moon) respectively, associated with fertility and beauty.rabbit Chang'e Chinese Moon Goddess

In Celtic myths, the hare, the sacred animal of the Earth Mother, could be a shapeshifter. According to one story, a hunter wounded a hare in the leg, forcing it to hide in a clump of bushes.  When the hunter followed, he found a door in the ground leading to a large subterranean hall, where he found a beautiful young woman bleeding from a wound in her leg.

With the advent of Christianity, many of the old spirits were dismissed or demoted to demons.  However, the rabbit was spared that fate when the black cat was substituted as the familiar of witches, a belief that continues, unfortunately, to this day.  The rabbit was re-branded as a Christian symbol.

Durer_Holy_Family_3Hares A woodcut by Albrecht Durer, published in 1497, shows the Holy Family with three hares. Titian’s painting “Mary and Infant Jesus with a rabbit,” shows Mary stroking a white rabbit with one hand and holding the baby Jesus in the other. Later, the three hares symbol, probably originating in the Middle East, became very popular in European Catholic churches, especially the three running hares with connected ears forming a triangle symbolizing the Holy Trinity.three hares symbol

Clearly, the rabbit was an important symbol of fertility, abundance, rebirth, vitality, and spirit power.  However, all of these involve the whole rabbit, not just the foot.

The Foot

Folklorist Bill Ellis claims the first mention of the rabbit’s foot charm in America was in the 1800’s, when it was described as a fetish popular with African slaves in the south, especially around New Orleans.

The rabbit’s foot charm is actually an anti-charm, a protective talisman typical of West African folk magic known as hoodoo.

evil eye charmIt’s like the evil eye charm (pictured) so prevalent in the Mediterranean region, a blue eye charm pinned to a baby’s clothes or blanket to ward off the evil eye – bad thoughts/wishes from others.  It takes the form of the evil it wishes to dispel.  The rabbit’s foot is, traditionally, the left hind foot of a cross-eyed rabbit killed in a cemetery under a new moon.  The use of the left foot (sinister) and the grave dirt combine to protect the wearer from ill fortune because it embodies ill fortune.

The Mojo

Lucky mojo hand.jpg

The rabbit’s foot often became part of a “hand,” “toby,” or “mojo,” a bag of powerful charms, often with a hand pictured on the outside.  You can still find them for sale on line (including the one pictured).  Some include a rabbit’s foot, a bone, a lodestone, lavender or other herbs, John the Conqueror root, or other powerful items, plus oil the user needs to  rub on them to “activate” them.  These “hands” can be configured to suit many different purposes, including love, reconciliation, revenge, vision, safe travel, uncrossing of evil conditions or hexes, luck in gambling, wisdom, and sexual attraction.  Each purpose would require a separate “hand” or “mojo.”

muddy waters

This is the “mojo” referenced in the blues songs like “I’ve Got My Mojo Working,” made famous by Muddy Waters (pictured). Two nice YouTube videos of it are listed in the sources.  In the song, the speaker says

“I’m goin’ down to Louisiana, get me a mojo hand

I’m gonna have all you women under my command.”


But the chorus indicates the magic isn’t working on the woman he wants.

“I got my mojo working

But it just won’t work on you.”

Unfortunately, “mojo” was sometimes misinterpreted as male sexual performance (as in Jim Morrison’s “L.A. Woman/Mojo Risin’”), but mojo was a term used by both male and female blues singers, referring to a collection of powerful charms.  Interestingly, “I Got My Mojo Working’” was recorded by Ann Cole in 1957, before Muddy Waters claimed it as one of his signature songs. A recording of her version is also included in the sources.

So a rabbit’s foot was a form of mojo, a protective charm against bad luck, brought to America with the slave trade and later combined with both American Indian and European influences.

The Appeal of Magic

Oddly, though, in the 1950’s and early 1960’s, the rabbit’s foot charm was appropriated by the white community.  It was part of a general fascination with magic/voodoo/spells, potions, fetishes, and charms that showed up in popular culture.  In 1951, the English Witchcraft Act of 1735 was revised, making witchcraft legal as long as it was considered entertainment.  That seemed to reflect the thinking in the U.S. as well.

SinatraAlthough Cole Porter recorded “You Do Something to Me” in 1929, with the famous line “the voodoo that you do so well,” the song wasn’t widely popular until the 1950’s when it was recorded by Bing Crosby for his radio show (1955), then Doris Day (1957) and Frank Sinatra, Judy Garland, and Dean Martin (1962) as well as many others. Other popular songs of the time included “Witchcraft,” also popularized by Sinatra (1957), “Casting My Spell on You” sung by Johnny Otis ((1958), and “The Witch Doctor” (1958), which invokes witchcraft but also mocks it (Ooo-eee, ooo-ah ah, Ting Tang, walla walla bing bang).

Elvis_Good_Luck_CharmIn 1961, Elvis Presley recorded “Good Luck Charm,” in which he compares his love to a four-leaf clover, a horse shoe, a silver dollar, a rabbit’s foot on a string, and a lucky penny, and concludes she’s worth more – as a lucky charm on his arm.

“Don’t want a silver dollar

Rabbit’s foot on a string

The happiness in your warm caress

No rabbit’s foot could bring”


“Love Potion Number 9,” which tells of a man seeking help from a “gypsy with a gold-capped tooth” and her magic potion to improve his love life, was recorded by The Clovers in 1959, then by the The Searchers, a white group, in 1964, when it reached number 3 on the Billboard Top 100 chart.

Witchcraft was clearly fascinating, though most appealing when filtered through a white lens, just as ten years later, Black American R&B would become wildly successful when delivered by The Rolling Stones.

So the rabbit’s foot was caught in the middle of all this history.  It was a charm made up of bad luck elements that combine to defend the wearer from bad luck.  It also referenced the Trickster Rabbit of West African and American Indian folklore, the one who is smaller and less powerful than his enemies but winds up out-smarting them through his skill and courage – and dumb luck. Yet it became most popular in the white community during the segregated post-WWII era, divorced from its African past except in a sort of mocking nod to witchcraft, which seemed to be fascinating mostly because it was alien.  So, like jazz and the blues, it entered mainstream white culture through the back door, as something different and edgy. The rabbit’s foot that dangled from the keychain, though stripped of its cultural underpinnings, retained some of its powers, at least as a statement of 1950’s cool.



Sources and interesting reading:

“5 Famous Lucky Charms That Get More Baffling With Research,” Cracked,

Backer, William H. and Cecelia Sinclair.  West African Folk Tales. Loyal

“Chang’e,” Wikipedia,

Cole, Ann, recording of “Got My Mojo Working” from 1957 YouTube

D’Costa, Krystal, “What Makes a Rabbit’s Foot Lucky?” Anthropology in Practice blog, Scientific American Blog Network, 26 October 2011, rabbits-foot-lucky/

Dembicki, Matt (ed.).  Trickster: Native American Tales. Golden, Colorado: Fulcrum Books, 2010.

Devi, Debra, “Language of the Blues: MOJO” American Blues Scene, 8 July 2015,

Durer, Albrecht, “The Holy Family with Three Hares” from the Metropolitan Museum of Art collection,

“Good Luck Charm,” written by Clarence Satchell, Ralph Middlebrooks, James L. Williams, and others, sung by Elvis Presley,

“L.A. Woman” lyrics, The Doors Lyrics, AZ Lyrics,

Locke, Tony. “Superstitions and Folklore of the Rabbit and Hare,” Irish Abroad blog, 29 March 2013,

“Love Potion No. 9 (song),” Wikipedia,

“Lucky Rabbit Foot Shadowbox,” available on Etsy,

Mama Zogbe Chief-Hounon Amergansie, “Hoodoo – a New World Name of an Ancient African Magical Tradition,”

“Mojo Hand, Mojo Bag, Toby, Conjure Bag, Wanga, Gris-Gris, What it is,” Lucky Mojo,

“The Moon Rabbit in Legend and Culture,” Owlcation, 11 January 2018,

“Ostara, herald of springtime,” http.//

“Maya whistle in the form of the moon goddess and her rabbit consort,”(photo) Princeton University Art Museum.

“Mojo,” definition by Merriam Webster diction,

“Mojo (African-American culture)” Wikipedia,

Muddy Waters singing “Got My Mojo Workin’” YouTube videos from 1956 and 1966

Nosowitz, Dan, “Why Is The Rabbit’s Foot Considered A Good Luck Charm?” Modern Farmer, 20 March 2017,

Panati, Charles. Extraordinary Origins of Everyday Things. New York: Harper Collins, 1987.

“Rabbits and Hares in Art,” Wikipedia,

“Rabbit’s Foot,” RationalWiki,

“Rabbit’s Foot,” New World Encyclopedia,

“Rabbit’s Foot,” Wikipedia,

Sifferlin, Alexandra, “What’s the Origin of the Easter Bunny?” Time magazine, 1 April 2015,

“Three Hares,” Wikipedia,

Windling, Terri, “Into the Woods” series, 43: The Folklore of Rabbits and Hares, 18 December 2014,

“You Do Something to Me,” song written by Cole Porter, Wikipedia,

Yronwode, Catherine, “Rabbit Foot in Hoodoo Folk Magic, Spell-Craft, and Occultism,” Herb Magic,

“Fat Boys,” Magnetism, and Magic

The “fat boys” are sculptures usually associated with Olmec/Maya/Izapan sites in southern Mexico and Guatemala, especially near the Pacific coast.  They look very different from the sophisticated sculptures we usually associate with the ancient cities of that area.  They’re stumpy stone figures of very fat humans, with a big ball for the bottom and a smaller, flattened ball for the top.  The arms can barely stretch across the wide belly. fat boys Takalik

I first saw one of these sculptures at Takalik Abaj (See photo), an Olmec/early Maya major trade site near Chocola, where I was part of an Earthwatch team helping with a dig.  The basalt figure stood about 4’ tall, with a flattened head and an enormous belly. Kaminaljuyu, just down the way from Takalik Abaj and now mostly absorbed by Guatemala City, had the greatest number of “fat boy” sculptures discovered at a single site.

Some of the fat boy sculptures are so worn, they look like blobs, with no indication of features.  Tourists often pass them by without a second glance.

Olmec map

Yet hundreds of large and small versions of the “fat boys,” as the sculptures became known after their discovery, have been found across the Isthmus of Tehuantepec in southern Mexico, through modern Guatemala, and down into Honduras, Belize, and El Salvador.  Why were they so popular over such a wide area?

Some of the sculptures, also called “potbellies,” featured a collar around the figure’s neck, possibly a sign of wealth.  Many were situated on pedestals.  Some had a prominent navel.  None had specific genitals that would identify it as male or female, though a few had a bulge at the bottom.

fat boy sculpture



Dating stonework is always difficult, but researchers found the task even more difficult when they realized that many of these sculptures had been moved from their original location and reused or perhaps traded. The ones near La Democracia, Guatemala, (See photo with a fat boy, a fat boy-style head, and local traffic) had been moved and buried.  They were discovered when workers were digging up a sugarcane field.  Official guesses about their age have varied from 1500 BC to 500 BC.

 View-of-fat boy Monte-Alto-Monuments-in-the-town-square-of-La-Democracia-Guatemala


The stone itself may have come from the Pacific Piedmont area near the border of Guatemala and Mexico, or from the Tuxtla Mountains on the Gulf Coast side.


Interpretations are varied and conflicting.  Some experts said the sculptures represented dead people with bloated bodies.  Or burial markers, although only three examples were found associated with burials.  Or rulers whose corpulence showed their wealth.  Or ancestors.


Although it’s hard to date these figures, it seems the earliest versions were numerous, quite small, and found in individual households, not public spaces.  The one found in Tikal (MS 81), which Michael Coe described as “an incomplete, minor pot belly sculpture,” is an example.  What purpose could this sculpture have had that made it important to have in regular households?

fatboy goddess

A new find provides a clue

In 1996, a previously unreported pot belly sculpture was found near Teopan, on an island in the caldera of volcanic Lake Cotepeque in western El Salvador.  What made this sculpture so important was its excellent condition that made it possible to see that the figure was clearly a very pregnant woman, probably engaged in giving birth. (See photo)  In a letter dated 1576, Spanish official Diego Garcia de Palacio described a “large stone idol in the form of a woman” on an island in the same lake.

Archaeologists are slow to change their minds, but the evidence seems to be piling up that the “fat boys” were neither fat nor boys, at least in some cases.  They were females embodying the concept of fecundity.  Perhaps they functioned as charms for safe and successful childbirth, or as an Earth Mother figures.  Certainly, figurines of pregnant women giving birth are quite common in ancient Mesoamerica and South America.  The Santarem pottery piece featured in the photos below shows a pregnant woman giving birth.  woman pregnant, Santarem pottery

But there’s also a whole different side to the potbellied figures.


Some of the potbellies are lodestones!  A lodestone is a natural magnet, and like any magnet, is capable of attracting or repelling other ferrous metals as well as temporarily magnetizing other objects with iron content.

The lodestone “potbellies” are, like their non-lodestone cousins, carved out of magnetite, a kind of iron ore.  But only a small percentage of magnetite stones are lodestones.  Geologists do not completely understand how some stones become magnetized, but the most common theory is through a lightning strike. Perhaps a bolt of lightning is enough to align all the charges of the ions in the stone. (Interesting that the ancient Maya often pictured black stones at the bottom of lightning bolts.)

fatboy turtle head

In 1976, Vincent Malmstrom and his assistant, Paul Dunn, discovered that when a compass was held up to one of the “potbellies” at Monte Alto, the needle reacted.  It swung away from true north and pointed to the stone.  When they tested others potbellies and giant heads on site, they found the needle was sharply attracted when they held a compass to the navel of some statues and to the right temple in others.  The magnetic force of the stone was far stronger than the magnetic field of the earth.

Four of the five “potbellies” in La Democracia, Guatemala were found to have these magnetic arrangements, as well as four of the six giant heads. Though he searched, Malmstrom found no spot indicating material had been inserted into any of the sculptures he tested, so he concluded that the skilled carvers were aware of magnetism, could identify lodestones, were able to work them, and knew exactly where the poles were in the rock, so they carved the statues to take advantage of that arrangement.  He found other magnetic sculptures in the Soconusco region, including a turtle/frog head, a rearing jaguar, and two men seated on a bench. Malmstrom thought the sculptures were pre-Olmec in origin, dating them to 2000 BC.  That date has not held up well under scrutiny by archaeologists.


What has lasted is Michael Coe’s extraordinary 1968 find at the Olmec site of San Lorenzo, (photo by John B. Carlson) much closer to the Gulf of Mexico side of the Isthmus – a small, carefully-shaped, polished rectangular bar of hematite, dubbed M-160.  It was broken in ancient times and broken again in the course of study.  However, it showed remarkable refinement in its construction and, when floated in water or liquid mercury, it consistently aligned to the same point, west of magnetic north, the same orientation as the buildings in the Olmec sites of San Lorenzo, La Venta and others.

If M-160 indicates an Olmec understanding of magnetism as a direction finder, it predates the Greek discovery of magnetism (600 AD), perhaps by a thousand years.  Other groups claiming the first understanding of magnetism as a directional force include the Vikings, the Arabs, the Persians, and the Chinese.  If you read different sources, you’ll find widely different dates and accounts, and they all claim they’re the first.

The magic of magnetism

It’s interesting to guess how this knowledge might have been used.  In addition to direction finding, especially when combined with star lore, magnetism had to appear to be magic.  It still does.

Lodestone 2

For about ten dollars, you can get a set of small lodestones and do your own experiments.  You can magnetize pins and paper clips and make them move other pins without touching them.  Or make some move toward the lodestone and others scoot away.  (You can also ruin your electronics if you pass the lodestone over them!)  If you hold a paperclip on a string near a pole on the lodestone but not touching it, the paperclip will swing back and forth as if it’s frantic to reach the pole.  It doesn’t take much imagination to see all of this being used in a show of magic and power in ancient times.

In that sense, then, with the introduction of magnetism, the “potbellies” may well have morphed from a Mother Goddess/ birthing figure to a general power figure, one rulers would want to possess, display, and manipulate.  As Preclassic expert Julia Guernsey notes, “Importantly, rotund bellies were a frequent and long-standing attribute of Preclassic figurines, sometimes alluding to pregnancy and in other cases appearing to reference obesity.”

Unfortunately, we have very little data on how many of the figures were constructed to take advantage of magnetic poles and almost no information on their use.  It does seem that the cluster of finds near Soconusco/Monte Alto/ La Democracia suggests a large-scale production of the figures from lodestone magnetite found in the area, perhaps for trade.

Another theoryPTLI new cover

Some experts believe that the ability to find and use lodestones as well as how to use them came from Asia and the Pacific islands, carried across the sea by long-distance sailors who already knew about their uses as a navigational aid.  While the idea is often dismissed as far-fetched, it’s a possibility I pursue in Past the Last Island.



Sources and interesting reading:

Amarolli, Paul. “A Newly Discovered Potbelly Sculpture from El Salvador and a Reinterpretation of the Genre,”

Barreto, Christina, ed. “Figurine Traditions from the Amazon,” Oxford Handbook of Prehistoric Figurines, Oxford University Press, 2016,

“Aztec ‘Birthing Figure’” Aztecs, Mexicolore,

Carlson, J. B. “Lodestone Compass: Chinese or Olmec Primacy?” Science 189 (1975) p. 753.

Coe, Michael D. America’s First Civilization. New York: American Heritage/Smithsonian Library, 1968. New Word City e-book, 2017

Review of Coe, Michael D. America’s First Civilization. Science, 2 May 1969, 164:538-539.

Dill, J. Gregory, “Lodestone and needle: The rise of the magnetic compass,” Ocean Navigator, January/February 2003,

Guernsey, Julia, “Rulers, Gods, and Potbellies,” The Place of Stone Monuments: Context, Use and Meaning in Mesoamerica’s Preclassic Tradition. Dumbarton Oaks, 2010

Guernsey, Julia. Sculpture and Social Dynamics in Preclassic Mesoamerica. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012.

“Izapa,” Mundo Maya.

“Izapa,” Wikipedia,

“Enigma of the Ancient Magnetic ‘Fat Boys’ and Their Curious Magnetic Properties,”, 19 April 2014,

Jenkins, John Major, “Some Iconographic and Dosmological Observations of the Symbolism of the new Stela 48 from Takalik Abaj,” Alignment, 22 April 2008,

“Kaminaljuyu,” Wikipedia,

“Lodestone,” Wikipedia,

“Lodestone – 600 BC” Magnet Academy, History of Electricity, magnetism, National MagLab, the National High Magnetic Field Laboratory, 2014

“Lodestone – Physical Properties and Healing Properties,” Kidzrocks.

“Magnetite and Lodestone,”,

“Magnetism in the New World,” Second Look Magazine, 1979, p. 8.

Malmstrom, Vincent H. “Chapter 3, Strange Attraction: The Mystery of Magnetism,” from Izapa: Birthplace of Time.  Dartmouth College, 1997.

Mills, Allan A. “The Lodestone: History, Physics, and Formation,” Annals of Science, (61) 2004

“Olmec,” Encyclopedia Britannica online,

“Olmec,” Wikipedia, (an excellent source)

“Potbelly sculpture,” Wikipedia,

Selin, Helaine. “From Second to Third Age: Olmec Origin,” Encyclopedia of the History of Science, Technology, and Medicine in Non-Western Cultures. Boston: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 1997.

Stern, David P. “The Lodestone,” Earth mag,

Thompson, Lauri McInnis and Fred Valdez, ” Potbelly Sculpture: An Inventory and Analysis,” Ancient Mesoamerica, Spring 2008, 13 – 27.

Wilford, John Noble, “Oldest Pottery in Americas Is Found in Amazon Basin,” The New York Times, 13 December 1991,

Solstice and Santa

The Winter Solstice in the Northern Hemisphere is December 21 this year, the shortest day and longest night of the year. (For those in the Southern Hemisphere, it’s the Summer Solstice and the longest day of the year.)
What is a Solstice?
If you note the spot where the sun rises each day for a year, you’ll see it moves along the eastern horizon until it reaches its farthest point (the solstice or sun-stop) before it seems to turn around and move back toward the center (the equinox). For a more complete explanation, see the earlier post on Solstice and Equinox.

santa solstice
The Winter Solstice is an important event for those of us who hate the very brief daylight and early darkness of late fall days because we know all that will start to change after the Winter Solstice. The days will start to get longer, the nights shorter. We’ll be on the upswing, even if the day to day change is slight.

This moment of change is so important it’s often marked by rituals and lights. The Hindu festival of Diwali features lights, candles, fireworks, prayers, treats and sweets.santa tree of life menorah

The Jewish festival of Chanukah (Hanukkah) involves songs, prayers, special foods, good fellowship, and of course, the lighting of the candles on the menorah one by one over the course of eight days. The bronze menorah pictured features a Tree of Life design inspired by the African Acacia tree, an interesting combination of themes.

Perhaps the best-known post-Winter Solstice celebration is Christmas, but it is a complicated holiday and season. In some ways, it’s about the birth of Jesus. In others, it’s more a commercial and social event, one sewn together out of dozens of cultural patches from different times and regions.

Two main influences have shaped our thoughts about the Winter Solstice and Christmas: the Mediterranean and ancient Near East, especially the Roman Empire and the early Catholic Church, and the Nordic traditions of Yule.

In the Mediterranean world and the Ancient Near East
The greatest power in the Ancient Near East about 500 BC was the Persian Empire. It stretched from the Black Sea to the Red Sea to the Persian Gulf. After Alexander the Great, originally from Macedonia in Greece, defeated the Persian King Darius, Alexander became the new King and, by 323 BC, extended the empire’s reach from Greece to India, over two million square miles! Alexander sought to combine elements of Greek, Middle Eastern, and Persian culture.
Santa persian_empire map
After Alexander’s death, the empire fell apart, but his efforts to spread Greek culture ushered in the Hellenistic period, which lasted over two hundred years and had a lasting influence on Western civilization.  Alexander coin, below. Note his interesting headdress.

Santa AlexanderCoin
When the Roman Empire conquered Greece, about 146 BC, it incorporated many parts of Greek culture, as well as some elements of Persian culture that Alexander had introduced. When the Roman Empire conquered new lands (See map, below), their armies spread those cultural elements as well.

Santa map-roman-empire1

One interesting element of Persian culture spread by the Roman army was Mithraism, a mysterious men-only cult that involved worship of the sun as Mithra, complex initiations, a strict hierarchy of power, and absolute loyalty to the ruler.santa sol invictus

Even after the cult’s popularity faded, Emperor Diocletian dedicated an altar to Mithras (pictured above) as patron of the Roman Empire. In 80 AD, an altar to Sol Invictus (The Unconquered Sun) in Rome carried the inscription “The Unconquered Sun Mithra.” In a mosaic, Mithra-Sol appears in a chariot drawn across the sky by four horses, as he makes the sun rise and set. He is generally shown with a halo around his head, or a crown of rays, like the sun.

Santa, Sun, Mithra, Apollo

How does all of this about Mithra/Sol Invictus relate to those of us anxiously awaiting the Winter Solstice? The biggest day of the year for followers of Mithra was December 25, when it was clear that the sun was once again growing in strength. The priests of Mithra, called Magi, studied the stars for signs. (They show up in a later story.)
Today, the Iranian festival Shab-e Yalda (“The Night of Birth”) carries on the tradition of gathering together with friends and family to ward off the darkness of the longest night and then celebrate the triumph of Mithra, the Sun God, over darkness.

Santa ChristAsSol mosaic
Interestingly, Sol/Helios, with halo, is sometimes pictured in a golden chariot being pulled by four horses. A 3rd century AD mosaic of Sol Invictus still lies in a necropolis (place of the dead) underneath Saint Peter’s Basilica in Rome. Some now interpret it as the sun-god Helios/Sol Invictus/Jesus Christ. (Mosaic pictured, left)
The Romans later morphed the December 25 “dies soli invicti nati” (the birthday of the unconquered sun) into a week-long wild party called Saturnalia, dedicated to Saturn, the god of agriculture, liberation, and time. During the festival, which dates back at least as far as 217 BC, Romans decorated their houses with greenery and candles, gave gifts to children, and enjoyed good food, drink, sex, some gambling and fighting – all the regular party elements. With work suspended and lots to celebrate, it was the most popular of the Roman festivals. (Saturn in his chariot, below.  Yes, there is a similarity.)
Santa Saturn in chariot
Indeed, the festival remained popular long after Emperor Constantine ended the persecution of Christians, (312 AD), converted to Christianity, banned Saturnalia and other “pagan” festivals, and made Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire.
When Catholic Church officials realized they couldn’t eradicate Saturnalia, they co-opted it, making it the celebration of the birth of Jesus. No one knew the actual date of Jesus’s birth, so it was a perfect date for a celebration of new birth and the triumph of light over darkness.

Though the Roman Empire had a new official religion, it maintained many of the older customs, not just in terms of festivals. Important figures, formerly seen as gods and goddesses, were now presented as Jesus and His particularly notable followers. Through their pure faith and ability to inspire others, they became known as saints. In Christian artwork, they were often marked by a halo, a golden orb around the head very much like the sun orb around the head of Sol/Mithra and the orbs surrounding Hindu and Buddhist holy people.

Santa Kzanskaya Mother of God icon  Santa infant with halo  santa Madonna_benois_01

When Jesus appeared in a painting or sculpture with other holy people, his halo often had rays as well as the orb, in keeping with the Mithraic sense of rank.

The Benoit Madonna, or Madonna with Flowers, one of Leonardo da Vinci’s early paintings (on the far right), shows subtle floating halos around the heads of the Madonna and Child. However, the more modern stained glass image of Jesus shows a full rayed halo reminiscent of the older image in the mosaic (left) and the image of Alexander on the coin.
Santa Jesus halo   Santa StJohnsAshfield_StainedGlass_GoodShepherd_Face

Saint Nicholas
Saint Nicholas was a bishop in Myra (modern-day Turkey) in the 4th century AD, who was known for his strict defense of the Christian faith and his generous gift-giving. He was said to have given gifts to poor children and secretly provided the dowry money to keep three sisters out of a life of prostitution.Santa Saint Nicholas icon

The icon show his serious demeanor, as well as his halo. The painting by Gentile da Fabriano, made a thousand years after Saint Nicholas’s death, shows him sneaking up the side of a building so he can throw bundles of money inside.

Santa Saint Nicholas window

The Nordic Connection
Meanwhile, in Scandinavia, the Juul (Yule) celebration before, during, and after the Winter Solstice included feasting, fighting, drinking, and merrymaking, as well as lots of fire, heat, and light to encourage the return of the sun.
In Norse mythology, the wolf, a symbol of darkness and destruction, is always chasing the goddess of light. At the Winter Solstice, she is at her most vulnerable. Yet the epic Edda says after she is killed and eaten, she is reborn out of the belly of the wolf. Just as she will always be consumed by darkness, she will always return. So the Winter Solstice Yule is a celebration of the interplay of death and rebirth.

santa holly
Like holly, the evergreen tree was a Norse symbol of immortality because it didn’t lose its leaves and turn brown, even after all the other plants did. Therefore, it had special powers. Vikings used holly leaves and berries to make circular wreaths to decorate their houses. To some people, trees were  homes of the spirits, so they decorated evergreen trees in winter with charms and offerings.

The Yule log was burned in honor of the Norse god, Thor, the protector of Earth (Midgard). A piece of the giant log was kept for good luck and as kindling for the following year’s fire.santa yule_log martha vineyard gazette

The picture here shows a log in a hearth, but really a Yule log should be giant and the hearth that can hold it should also be giant, so that, for a moment at least, it can drive away all thoughts of the dark and the cold.


Unlike the Thor of the Marvel comics and movies, Thor in Nordic legends traveled the skies in a magic chariot drawn by two goats. Sometimes he killed and ate the goats, but they would always be reborn the next day – a perfect symbol for the Winter Solstice sun dying one day and being reborn the next. The goat became a symbol of Thor. Today, the Yule Goat is the most common holiday decoration in Scandinavian countries.


goat with elf and light

In some holiday images, elves drive a sleigh pulled by one goat, or several, so they can deliver gifts to children.

Goat and elves-Nystrom_God-Jul_10

The Dark Side
Ancient Norse folk beliefs also included dark, scary figures: the Yule Riders of Norwegian folklore, dangerous creatures of the Underworld; Lussi, who would steal children away into her dark world, Icelandic trolls and the Yule Lads, who live in the mountains with their terrifying ogress mother Gryla and her cat, which eats children.


santa krampisparade
Norse and Germanic folklore also gave us Krampus, the Christmas devil who shows up on December 6, which is also the feast day of Saint Nicholas, but Krampus is not carrying gifts. He’s carrying a rod with which he can beat wicked children. He looks truly terrifying. Oddly enough, he’s enjoying a resurgence in popularity these days, especially in Austria and Germany. The photo included is from this year’s festival. Some parents  take their children to meet Krampus and be terrified. Maybe it’s supposed to scare them into better behavior. The main legacy of Krampus, though, seems to be the idea that someone is keeping tabs on your behavior, and you’ll be rewarded with gifts if you’ve been good, but be punished if you’ve been bad.


Santa Christmas-MistletoeThank the Celtic Druids for the mistletoe you hang in the parlor. Mistletoe, a semi-parasitic plant that grows on willow, apple and oak trees, was long considered a magical, medicinal, and sacred plant that should be gathered at the Summer or Winter Solstice. People often pinned a sprig of mistletoe over the door to ward off evil spirits and encourage goodwill. Interestingly, mistletoe was incorporated into many Saturnalia celebrations as a fertility symbol.
Old Man Winter/Father Christmas/Sinterklaas/Santa Claus
The Nordic Yule Goat at one time brought children gifts. Other pre-Santa Nordic figures include Old Man Winter and Father Christmas.santa_bluecoat

Father Christmas was pictured as an old man with a long beard, very often dressed in embroidered cloth or furs and carrying a cut evergreen tree or perhaps wearing a wreath of holly.  He might still carry a switch to punish bad children.  Sometimes he rode a goat.



The antique Christmas card pictured below shows Father Christmas carrying a cut evergreen tree, toys, and the baby Jesus, who has a rayed halo, an interesting mix of cultural images.

Santa carrying Jesus

Sinterklass was the Dutch version of Saint Nicholas/Father Christmas. A serious old man sporting a full beard and fine red robes, he kept a book in which he recorded whether each child had been good or bad. He would deliver gifts to good children and a broom made of willow branches to spank bad children.
The Trouble with Christmas
People from all over the globe came to the New World and brought their native customs about the Solstice and Christmas with them. However, these customs were not always welcomed. The Puritans and other conservative Christian sects hated Christmas, claiming it was little more than a pagan celebration with a Christian veneer.
Worse than that, by 1800, Winter Solstice/Christmas celebrations in the US had become wild, rowdy affairs noted for public drunkenness, aggressive begging, and destruction. The common practice of demanding food and drink from the rich (which later turned into the tamer “Wassailing”) sometimes ended in gangs threatening to destroy a house if not offered the finest food and ale.
Santa festive druid with elf
Stephen Nissenbaum describes the problem in his fine book, The Battle for Christmas. There were two camps in the eastern US in 1800: those who wanted the wild Solstice/Harvest party like the one pictured, and those who wanted something gentler, kinder, and more religious. In 1809, partially in response to these problems, Washing Irving published Knickerbocker’s History of New York, in which the narrator claims to remember the old customs associated with Christmas, particularly those of the early Dutch settlers in New York. He describes Saint Nicholas’s wagon, his pipe, and his gifts, and the great customs of visiting family and friends, sharing good food and drink, as well as games. It’s a fine, civilized picture.

In 1810, John Pitard paid for the publication of a pamphlet featuring a picture of Saint Nicholas bringing gifts like toys, oranges, and candy to good children.
In 1821, William Gilley published a poem called “Old Santeclaus with Much Delight,” which includes many of the features we’ve come to expect of Santa: the red outfit, the appearance on Christmas Eve, and the presents for good children. For naughty children, he leaves a birch rod so parents can beat the offending little ones. And the poem is the first to mention reindeer pulling the magic sleigh, rather than goats. Santa HarpersStNick001 1857

“A Visit from St. Nicholas”
This poem, published in 1823, also called by its first line, “’Twas the night before Christmas,” did the most to change the figure of Saint Nicholas into what we know as Santa Claus. Though the main character is called Saint Nicholas in the poem, he’s not the 4th century Turkish bishop, the stern authority figure of the early Church. He’s now good ol’ Saint Nick, dressed in fur that was covered in soot. “He look’d like a peddler just opening his pack.” His eyes twinkle. He has a broad face and a round belly. He’s “chubby and plump, a right jolly old elf.” He has lost his halo and his bishop’s robes. He no longer has dark hair, dark eyes, and a stern face. In the 1857 Harper’s version, he’s seen climbing down the chimney while his magic flying reindeer/deer wait for him.

Moore’s Santa is much kinder than Sinterklaas or Santeclaus. He’s a jolly old elf like those of Norse lore, even though he doesn’t look much like an elf. He doesn’t leave birch rods, only presents. He winks at the viewer/narrator before he heads back up the chimney, as if they’re both in on a wonderful joke. And he wishes a Happy Christmas to ALL. He’s Father Christmas without all the dark stuff.

santa thomas-nast
The Thomas Nast illustration  shown makes Santa really fat. He’s a figure of plenty. He brings gifts to children. He lives in the North Pole and has a workshop run by elves.  And he’s wildly popular. But he’s not overtly religious. He has a sprig of holly in his cap and a knowing twinkle in his eye. He now carries a long clay pipe, the type fancied by the wealthy. His cheeks look pretty flushed. He carries so many toys he can barely keep hold of them all.  He’s an odd relative of the severe saint he’s named after and the Father Christmas figures who preceded him. Mostly, he’s shown riding on his magical sleigh while he brings presents to children on Christmas Eve. Interestingly, in the card pictured below, he has an American flag on his pink sleigh.  Make that two.  Does this mean Santa only delivers in the USA?
Santa and deer
Through the early 1900s, the Nast version of Santa co-existed with the more gaunt or elfin figures of Father Christmas.Santa Coca-Cola-Christmas

Then, in 1931, Coca-Cola asked Haddon Sundblom to design an image of Santa for their ads. Sundblom’s painting clearly uses the Nast figure of Santa as a model. He’s not an olive-skinned Turk. He’s a blue-eyed, ruddy-cheeked, jolly fat man who sports the red outfit with fur trim on the cuffs. Sundblom’s Santa was so popular, the artist went on to paint Santa ads for Coke for the next 32 years!

So, out of the Solstice, Saturnalia, Mithra, Sol Invictus, Saint Nicholas, Old Man Winter, Father Christmas, Thor, elves, Yule, and good old American commercialism, we end up with something that has parts of all of them and yet turns into something a little less than the sum of those parts. Santa is pleasant and acceptable to many, but in the end, it’s quite a bland image, especially now that it’s been stripped of its ethnic, spiritual, and magical associations. Today he’s used to peddle cars and power drills and soft drinks. He works in malls and shows up at various events around town before Christmas. Children are encouraged to sit in his lap and make wishes/demands.

Santa Miracle on 34th Street
Who is this man with the fake beard and strange outfit? He’s meant to be the figure he never quite manages to be: the Santa in Miracle on 34th Street (1947), in which Edmund Gwenn, as Kris Kringle, convinces young Susan, played by Natalie Wood, and her doubting mother, played by Maureen O’Hara, that Santa Claus really does exist.
That Santa Claus is the personification of a fond memory, a wish for something magical.

Every year, I hear about people who are upset because they think holiday lights and candles and evergreens and mistletoe are “pagan” and therefore evil. But they’re just elements of the past that belongs to all of us. Time didn’t begin with the birth of Jesus. Indeed, He followed customs and rituals of His Jewish ancestors. When we decorate an evergreen tree with lights and hang mistletoe, we are simply giving a nod to our amazing – and complicated – collective past.
Happy Winter Solstice!  Happy Hanukkah!  Merry Christmas!

Sources and interesting reading:
Bagot, Neil, “Yule – A Merry Viking Christmas?” Viking Slots, 19 December 2014,

Basu, Tanya. “Who is Krampus? Explaining the Horrific Christmas Devil,” National Geographic News, 1 December 2017

“Coca-Cola didn’t invent Santa – but they did change Christmas as we know it,” The Aps Group,

Eldridge, Allison. “7 Winter Solstice Celebrations From Around the World,”,

Fox, Selena, “Celebrating Winter Solstice,” Circle Sanctuary, 2017.

Galloway, Laura, “How Santa Got His Reindeer,” CNN, 223 December 2012,

Harris, Kathleen, “How Joulupukki, the Finnish Santa, went from naughty to nice,” Ink Tank, 22 December 2015.

“Halo (Religious Iconography)” Wikipedia.

Handwerk, Brian, “Saint Nicholas to Santa: The Surprising Origins of Mr. Claus,” National Geographic News, 29 November 2017,

“Holidays and Traditions around the December solstice,” Time and Date AS, 1995 – 2017.

“Icelandic Folklore,” Iceland Travel.

“Julbock ornament – pewter” Scandinavian

“The Magical History of Yule, The Pagan Winter Solstice Celebration,” The Huffington Post, 2 December 2016,

Map of Persian Empire about 500 BC,

Map of Roman Empire at the end of Julius Caesar’s reign, 100 BC BBC Primary History/Romans/Rome

“Mithraism/Persian Religion,” Encyclopedia Britannica,

Miracle on 34th Street, Twentieth Century Fox, 1947.

“Mosaic of Sol Invictus in Mausoleum M in pre-4th-century necropolis beneath St Peter’s Basilica,” Halo, Wikipedia.

Nelles, Scott, Tree of Life menorah, cast bronze,

Nissenbaum, Stephen. The Battle for Christmas. New York: Vintage Books, a division of Random House, Inc, 1998.

Nystrom, Jenny, “Elf Gnome Delivering Presents on Goat Sled,” Christmas counted cross stich or counted needlepoint pattern, Orenco Originals, (//…)

“Old Norse Yule Celebration – Myth and Ritual,” Lady of the Labyrinth’s Old Norse Mythology,

“Old Santeclaus with Much Delight,” anonymous poem published in New York in 1821, Wikipedia.

Pruitt, Sarah, “8 Winter Solstice Celebrations around the World,” History Stories, A&E Television Networks, 20 December 2016,

“Saint Lucy,” BBC – Religions – Christianity: Saint Lucy.

“Saint Nicholas,” Wikipedia.

Saint Nicholas painting by Gentile da Fabriano (1370-1427), public domain, Wikipedia Commons,

“Santa Claus,”

“Santa Claus,” Wikipedia.

“Saturn,” Encyclopedia Britannica.

“Sinterklaas,” Wikipedia.

“Sol Invictus,” Wikipedia.

“Stained Glass Good Shepherd,” stained glass at St. John the Baptist’s Anglican Church, New South Wales. Wiki Common,

Thomas, Robert B. “Yule comes from the name of old feast in honor of Thor, Midwinter solar rituals included fires, which evolved into yule log,” Deseret News, 12 December 1999. Also Ask the Almanac, The Old Farmer’s Almanac, http://www.almanac.comYankeePublishing

“Thor,” Thor with goats, Wiki Commons. Gotter_des_Nordens.jpg

“The Tradition of Mistletoe at Christmas,” Why Christmas?

“A Visit from St. Nicholas,” poem by Clement Moore, Wikipedia,

“A Visit from St. Nicholas,” poem by Clement Moore, 1822, from Burton Egbert Stevenson, ed. The Home Book of Verse, Volume 1 (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1912), Project Gutenberg etext #2619,

Wade, Deena, “Winter Solstice Traditions: Rituals for a Simple Celebration,” Mother Earth Living, November-December 2004,

Weaver, Sue. “The Yule Goat (Yulbock)” Storey Publishing, http:www/

Whipp, Deborah, “The History of Santa’s Reindeer,” Altogether Christmas,

“Why is Christmas Day on the 25th December?” Ehy Christmas,

“Yule Goat,” Wikipedia,


Another book, Another controversy

MV migration_map


The Misfits and Heroes novels were born out of my belief that humans arrived in the Americas by many different routes at different times.  That went against the theory widely taught in school: that the first humans to reach the Americas walked across the land bridge from Russia to Alaska about 13,000 years ago. They followed big game and wandered down an ice-free corridor between mile-high ice sheets.  Eventually they populated all of the Americas.

I never doubted that some people arrived that way, but not many.  The land simply couldn’t support many.

Then I read about other finds – in Chile, Mexico, Brazil, Texas, South Carolina, Delaware, Florida.  They all seemed to predate that ice-free corridor in Alaska and the Yukon.  Further, some prominent geologists and paleo-anthropologists claimed the ice-free corridor, if it ever existed, wasn’t passable until 10-12,000 years ago, long after the first settlements in North America.  Consider Topper Hill, South Carolina (50,000 years old), Pedra Furada, Brazil (32,000 – 48,000 years old), Monte Verde II, Chile (at least 18,500 years old), Meadowcroft Rock Shelter, Pennsylvania (17,000 years old), and Huaca Prieta, Peru (15,000 years old).  Given the antiquity and sophistication of these sites, it seems absurd to hold onto the theory that development and culture moved solely from the north to the south, beginning 13,000 years ago.

But the belief persisted, mainly because it’d been repeated so many times people assumed it had been proven beyond any doubt.  At one point, I questioned the whole concept of the “Clovis People” and “Clovis Culture,” since Clovis points were a lithic style, a technological improvement that spread from the southeastern US across North America and down to Venezuela.  My argument was that iPhones have spread across the globe, but their presence does not indicate either a “people” or a “culture.”  It’s simply a very useful bit of technology.  However, my opinion struck a nerve among archaeologists, some of whom claimed they had a bookshelf full of volumes explaining the Clovis people and their culture.  So I let it go.  But in my heart, I think the Clovis points were a valuable trade item that was held in such high esteem it was included in grave goods.  (I’m not sure there’s an equivalent today since technology changes so rapidly. When I started working, really rich people had huge speakers for their component sound system.  Today, a system the size of a shoe-box delivers far better sound.)

Olmec head unearthed

When I visited the Olmec site at La Venta (at least 3500 years old), near Villahermosa, Mexico, I was struck by the amazing sculptures there.  Later, in an attempt to drum up interest in my new Latin American Literature class, I took pictures from La Venta into my composition classes at Mott College in Flint, Michigan.  Without telling the students anything more than dimensions, materials, and probable age of the pieces, I asked what they thought of them. Olmec mask 4

Every group had the same responses: “They’re African” or “They’re Asian.”  It was so consistent, it made me wonder.  What if African explorers came across the Atlantic to the Americas?  What if Asian explorers came across the Pacific?  What if they met somewhere – perhaps in the narrow Isthmus of Tehuantepec in southern Mexico, and the fusion of cultures created the fire that forged a brand new civilization?

Those questions (and one more) became the basis of the Misfits and Heroes novels.

West Africa


Misfits and Heroes: West from Africa

The first book in the series, Misfits and Heroes: West from Africa, tells a tale of people forced to learn quickly when their boat is swept out into the open sea.  They end up heroes not because they were born with special powers but because they rose to the challenge and made a new life in a new world.

The journey itself has been repeated many times.  Katie Spotz rowed a bow across the Atlantic – solo.  Axel Busch sailed across the Atlantic – solo – in 21 days.  You can watch his video on YouTube  In 1970, Thor Heyerdahl took Ra II, a reed boat modeled after Egyptian sailing vessels, from Morocco to Barbados, in the Caribbean.

In 2006, English adventurer Anthony Smith put an ad in The Daily Telegraph, reading “Fancy rafting cross the Atlantic?  Famous traveler requires three crew Must be OAP (Old Age Pensioners).  Serious adventurers only.”  Smith, with a bit of whimsy and a nod to Heyerdahl, named his raft the An-tiki.  In 2011, the group floated 2,763 miles across the Atlantic, surviving storms and a lost rudder, and ending up on St. Martin, in the Caribbean.  Smith did exactly what he wanted to do – replicate the journey of two British seamen who survived drifting for 70 days in a lifeboat after their ship was sunk by a German warship in 1940.

Clearly, all these people were able to cross the Atlantic from West Africa because the current and winds were in their favor. Why then wouldn’t it be possible for ancient people to make the same journey, carried by the same currents?  Long-standing prejudice held that ancient people couldn’t take boats across open water, but new evidence shows that our cousins, the Neanderthals, did exactly that, crossing the Mediterranean Sea as early as 175,000 years ago.

Misfits and Heroes: West from Africa – Click on the picture for the Amazon link.


The South Pacific

The second book in the series, Past the Last Island, takes an even bigger leap: it says that the great navigators of the South Pacific found their way across the Pacific Ocean to the Americas in ancient times – not by going all the way north and following the coast down North America, but by traversing open water.  The boat in the illustration is Polynesian.

map Polynesian boat


Clearly their ancestors learned to use boats early on.  Homo Floresiensis, or The Hobbit People as they’re known because of their short stature, occupied an island on the far eastern edge of what is now Indonesia between 50,000 and 190,000 years ago.  Getting there required crossing deep ocean water.

For island people, water was the road, the connection, the wide world.  They had to learn how to use it.

Polynesian star compass

The area encompassing Southeast Asia, Indonesia, Australia, New Guinea, Melanesia, and Polynesia would have been a melting pot of peoples and cultures, in which sea prowess would have played an important role in identifying leaders.  The person who could use the wind and waves to travel was admirable.  The voyager who could find a way back, even at night, was probably worth elevating to the status of leader.  Knowledge was power.  A Polynesian star compass is pictured.

Even after Europeans colonized the South Pacific islands and forced people to stay put, native knowledge of the winds, stars, and currents was passed on, sometimes in secret.  When a famous European sailor agreed to sail hundred of miles with native Polynesian navigators, the European was so worried he brought his sextants and charts with him and hid them, but he never needed to use them.  Despite the European characterization of the people as “primitives,” their knowledge of the sea astounded seasoned European sailors.

It’s now clear that South Pacific seafarers reached Hawaii (possibly following migrating flocks of golden plovers) and Rapa Nui (Easter Island) long before European sailors even knew the places existed.  Recent studies of sweet potato DNA suggest trade existed between Polynesia and South America long before the conquistadors arrived.

Botocudo man, South American natives of eastern Brazil, historical portrait, 1875Ancient Polynesian DNA retrieved from some Botocudo skulls in a Brazilian museum seems to indicate the presence of Polynesians in Brazil long before the 13,000 BP land bridge was supposed to have opened up in Alaska. (Drawings of Botocudo man shown)

In 2015, Harvard geneticist Pontus Skoglund discovered DNA links between Amazon Indians and the indigenous peoples of Australia and New Guinea.


The site at Monte Verde, in southern Chile, supports this claim.  Despite ferocious resistance from American archaeologists, the site is now recognized as being at least 18,500 years old.  Further, finds at the site suggest that the settlement was one of several that enjoyed a trade network.  So, how did people get to southern Chile?  Either they went all the way down the coast from Alaska, a very long journey, or they came across the southern Pacific.

As with the first book, I’m suggesting that some people would purposely seek out the unknown.  Perhaps they were outcasts, thrown out of their villages and left to survive if they could.  Many probably died, but some didn’t.  Or perhaps, just like modern people, some simply wanted to know what lay beyond the edge of the world.

Past the Last Island – Click on the picture for the Amazon link.


The Merger of Asian and African

The third book takes the biggest risk of all – suggesting a merger of the two groups.  But that seems to be what happens when different groups of people occupy the same area.  For many years, scientists claimed it wasn’t possible for Neanderthals and modern humans to mate, but most of us carry Neanderthal DNA, so clearly, they could and did mate.  And they probably learned a great deal from each other.

If a small group arrived in the Americas and started a settlement, they’d eventually fail unless they found new blood to add to the tribe.  I’m guessing that a group of 12 or 15 people couldn’t thrive.  In that case, a stranger would be both a threat and a promise.  A Meeting of Clans shows both responses.

Complicating this story is the presence of yet another group – outcasts who have become so violent they understand nothing else.

A Meeting of Clans



The Outsiders

MV Solutrean

The fourth book grew out of a strange theme in Mesoamerican and South American art – the bearded stranger who looks nothing like the others in the group.  Yet he (and it’s usually a male) is clearly in a position of authority.  So I combined this idea with part of the Solutrean Hypothesis put forth by Dennis Stanford of the Smithsonian Institution and Bruce Bradley of the University of Exeter.  Their theory suggests that humans from what is now northern Spain and southern France reached the Americas and brought several technological innovations with them, including the dart thrower (atlatl – illustrated below), eyed needles, and a thin, bi-faced point that supporters claim became the inspiration for the famous Clovis points that spread across North America.



As you would expect, detractors abound.  Many complain about Stanford’s proposed route, which went north from Europe, skirted the ice and ended up in northern North America.  Since most of the very promising sites on the eastern coast of North America are in the south, I agree that the ice route is unlikely.  However, the idea of people crossing from northern Spain to the Americas is still very possible.  For one thing, the vast majority of the Clovis-style points have been found in the southeastern US.


If the originators came from Asia, the majority should have been in the northwest.  For another, the travelers in my book would be following approximately the same route Columbus did, except a whole lot earlier!  It seems fitting somehow.

So the theory is a wild one, but it’s the basis of the newest book in the series.  And the hero is truly a misfit!

A Family of Strangers 


The Misfits and Heroes series

All the books are the children of controversy.  And that’s fine, at least with me.  They’re fiction.  They’re meant to open up new ideas for the reader’s consideration.  For too long we’ve repeated a story about everyone coming to the Americas across the Land Bridge from Asia about 13,000 years ago.  But with so much evidence to the contrary, we can no longer cling to that tale.  So the books present another possibility.

Much of what we thought we knew is changing.  New studies suggest modern humans may have arisen as far back as 300,000 years ago, perhaps in more than one place.  The story of human origins seems to have a great many subplots.

In the next ten or twenty years, the dates of very early settlements in the Americas will probably keep leaping backward as new finds surface.


If you haven’t already read the books, I hope you’ll check them out on Amazon or other on-line sellers or ask your local bookseller to get them.  Whether or not you subscribe to any of these theories, you can enjoy the books.  They’re just good stories, full of human drama and adventure. If you like them, tell others or leave a review – or both.  And thanks to those who have!


Sources and interesting reading:

Many of these topics are also covered in earlier posts on this blog, and sources are listed for each.

“Anthony Smith (explorer)” Wikipedia, htps://

Axel Busch sail across the Atlantic video, You Tube,

Botkin-Kowacki, Eva. “A final blow to myth of how people arrived in the Americas,” Christian Science Monitor, 10 August 2016,

Bower, Bruce.  “People may have lived in Brazil more than 20,000 years ago,” Science News, 5 September 2017,

Doucleff, Michaeleen.  “How the sweet potato crossed the Pacific way before the Europeans did,” NPR, Food, History, and Culture, 22 January 2013,

Gannon, Megan. “Study: The First Americans Didn’t Arrive by the Bering Land Bridge,” Mental Floss, 10 August 2016,

Hawks, John. “Did humans approach the southern tip of South America more than 18,000 years ago?” John Hawks blog,

“Homo Floresiensis”  Wikipedia.

Hilleary, Cecily.  “Native Americans Call for Rethink of Bering Strait Theory,” VOA news, 19 June 2017,

“New Evidence Puts Man in North America 50,000 Years Ago,” Science Daily, 18 November 2004,

Perkins, Sid. “DNA study links indigenous Brazilians to Polynesians: Sequences shared by far-away populations stir up a Palaeoamerican mystery,” Nature, 01 April 2013. http:///

Pringle, Heather. “Primitive Humans Conquered Sea, Surprising Finds Suggest: Prehistoric axes found on a Greek island suggest that seafaring existed in the Mediterranean more than a hundred thousand years earlier than thought,” National Geographic, 17 February 2010,

“Solutrean Hypothesis,” Wikipedia,

Vialou, Denis, Mohammed Benabdelbadi, James Feathers, Michel Fontugne, “Peopling South America’s center: the late Pleistocene site of Santa Elina, Antiquity, 08 August 2017,

Yirka, Bob. “Evidence suggests Neanderthals took to boats before modern humans,”   1 March 2012,

Wade, Lizzie.  “Traces of some of South America’s earliest people found under ancient dirt pyramid,” Science, 24 May 2017,

The Neanderthal Influence

After visiting eleven decorated caves in northern Spain, including two replicas, I came away with a tremendous sense of admiration and respect for the artists who worked on them.  My favorite, by far, was El Castillo, the largest of four caves on the beautiful mountain of the same name (pictured below).  For starters, it has yielded evidence of an incredibly long span of occupation – over 150,000 years.cave El Castillo

That means it was home to Neanderthals, who, most texts explain, first appeared in Europe about 300,000 years ago.  Homo sapiens (modern humans) started living in the El Castillo cave about 40,000 years ago.  Both groups apparently shared the area for about 5,000 years.  All those dates are subject to challenge.


El Castillo  (modern entrance shown in photo) is no dank, narrow cave.  Back in the Paleolithic era, it had a natural arch opening and a wide area lit by sunlight, making it a bright, airy spot for a campsite, a meeting area, or even a village shelter in bad weather.  It also has a fine view of the valley below. ( See photo.)

cave view from El Castillo

In the front section now under excavation, different levels seem clearly separated.  The ones with human occupation look much darker because they include carbon from fires.  The periods in which the cave was occupied only by animals are marked by pale yellow bands.  But how do researchers know that a certain level was Neanderthal rather than modern human?  It turns out it’s based on agreed-upon dates and tool styles.  Neanderthals succeeded Homo Heidelbergensis in Europe about 300,000 years ago and died out between 35,000 and 40,000 years ago for reasons unknown.  If the carbon dates for a layer come back between 40 and 300 thousand years old, it’s identified as Neanderthal.  Maybe.  Certain stone tools and objects made from antler and bone are also typical of this period.  The truth is the dates keep changing, and the whole field of study is in a state of flux.

El Castillo Frieze wall

So, did Neanderthals paint at least some of these dots on the walls of El Castillo, a couple of which, including one of the dots in the photo, have been dated to over 41,000 years old?  Another part of the same panel  was found to be 25,000 years old, and yet another to be 37,000 years old. (See labelled photo. The number of years is listed first, then the margin of error.)  That covers 16,000 years on a single panel of the cave!  If Neanderthals did paint some of that panel, it would be toward the end of their reign in Europe and the beginning of the ascendancy of modern humans.  According to a study published in Nature, pockets of Neanderthals survived in Europe until 39,260 years ago.  Even given that, it’s not clear which group painted the dots on the wall of El Castillo.

One problem we face in answering that question is the paucity of dated samples.  It’s very expensive to complete carbon dating or uranium-thorium dating on a piece of cave art, and the process right now requires taking a tiny sample of the paint off the wall.  Once dating techniques improve and the cost comes down, we’ll know a lot more about the dates and sequence in which different paintings were made.

March Neanderthal seals painting

Right now, archaeologists are reluctant to say more than it’s possible that some of the art in El Castillo might have been made by Neanderthals. They admit that Neanderthals may have painted a couple of seals on a stalactite in a cave near Malaga, Spain (photo), and they may have carved bird bones and deer teeth, and left crosshatch marks on a cave wall in Gibraltar.  But their underlying belief is that only modern humans had the sophistication to create art or think symbolically.  That assumption, though, is being challenged.

Three Interesting Sites

The Lozoya Child in Central Spain

In a cave north of Madrid, in what’s come to be called The Valley of the Neanderthals, researchers identified the ritual burial of a Neanderthal toddler they called the Lozoya Child.  Placed on fire sites nearby were horns and antlers from bison, aurochs (cattle), and red deer.  These are also animals commonly painted on Paleolithic cave walls in northern Spain.  The fires were dated between 38,000 and 42,000 years old.  Enrique Baquedano, director of the Regional Archaeological Museum of Madrid, thinks the cave might have been used by Neanderthals as a place to mourn and remember the dead

The Stalagmite Circle in France

Neanderthal circle

It’s also interesting to consider a 1990 find in Bruniquel Cave in southwestern France.  Alerted by 15-year-old Bruno Kowalsczewsi and his father, local cavers squeezed through a narrow opening into an open chamber containing animal bones.  Some 1100′ (336 meters) farther back in the cave, they found several stalagmites that had been purposely broken, then many more.  About 400 pieces had been laid in two rings.  Others had been propped up against them or stacked in piles, some marked with red or black lines (Photo from the National Geographic article listed with sources). There was also a mass of burned bones.  These were not natural formations.  Scientist and caver Sophie Verheyden took over the exploration of the cave after the original archaeologist died, and called on archaeologist Jacques Jaubert and stalagmite expert Dominique Genty for their help.  They tested the stalagmites in 2013 by drilling into them and pulling out test cores.  In studying the cores, they realized part was old minerals and part was new minerals that had been laid down after the fragments were broken off.  The date of the divide was clear but shocking: 176,500 years ago.  There were no known modern humans in the area at the time.  It had to be the work of Neanderthals.  Verheyden’s team’s study appeared in the journal Nature in 2016.

Also interesting was the depth of the placement in the cave, which would have had no natural light, so the makers had to work by torches or fires.  The structure leads to the idea of ritual behavior in the cave.  “A plausible explanation is that this was a meeting place for some type of ritual social behavior,” noted Paola Villa from the University of Colorado Museum.  More than 120 fragments have red and black streaks not found anywhere else in the cave. (Curiously, many of the decorated caves I saw included black marks on stalactites.)  “Some type of ritual behavior” is a pretty wide umbrella term, but the idea of honoring the dead, especially a child, has real resonance in the caves I visited in northern Spain, as do the red circles and black marks.

Verheyden is continuing her exploration of the cave, hoping to answer some of the many questions about the people who used it with such a clear purpose.


The Shanidar Skeletons of Iraq


Skeletons of eight Neanderthal adults and two infants, dated from 65,000 years ago to 35,000 years ago were found in Shanidar cave in northern Iraq.  One of the adult males was given a pile of stones including worked points made of chert.  And there was evidence of a large fire by the burial site.  (The possible scene pictured comes from the Smithsonian article listed with sources.) Pollen grains found on the adult male skeleton known as Shanidar 4 led some to say he had been buried with flowers known for their medicinal properties: yarrow, cornflower, bachelor’s button, ragwort, grape hyacinth, horsetail, and hollyhock.  Later, skeptics claimed the pollen might have been brought in by gerbils or bees.  I’m not sure why bees would bring pollen to a body in a cave, but that’s the complaint.  Some of the skeletons showed evidence of wounds that had been tended and healed.

The Red Lady

A modern human woman, dubbed “The Red Lady,” was buried about 19,000 years ago in a cave called El Miron, across the valley from El Castillo, and covered with red ochre and flowers.  No one has suggested these pollen grains were the work of gerbils or bees.


All this is to say that the Neanderthal influence in El Castillo and other caves should not be dismissed or minimalized.  It’s seems clear that Neanderthals used caves for more than shelter from the storm long before modern humans arrived on the scene.


The Creative Juncture

Even if modern humans living in El Castillo didn’t meet their Neanderthal predecessors, they would have noticed their work on the cave walls.  Perhaps the combination of cultures was enough to spur an artistic explosion.  Imagine the conversation: “Look, they put dots along this wall, and hand prints.  This place has important energy relating to death and life.  Let’s add something of our own to claim this space.”  Originally, I thought of it as a competition, just as a gang tags a wall in a disputed territory and another gang comes along and covers the marks with theirs.  A talented artist puts up a beautiful tag.  The opposite one is even better.  Competition spurs growth and invention.  But, in the case of the El Castillo artists, they seem to have incorporated many of the same symbols as their predecessors, which suggests a continuity of thought rather than a total replacement of one ideology with another.

An Even Greater Shock

Everything we think about the Neanderthals and modern humans is based on the timeline.  But what if that timeline is not quite the whole story?  A new possibility was suggested in a study described in Nature Communications.  After analyzing the DNA from a 100,000 year old Neanderthal skeleton discovered in Bruniquel Cave in southwestern Germany, researchers found the mitochondrial DNA resembled that of early modern humans.  In an attempt to explain how this could be, scientists suggested that about 220,000 years ago, a female member of the line that gave rise to Homo sapiens mated with a male Neanderthal.  Imagine the scene at the family dinner.

If this theory is proven to be true, it would make our family tree a good deal more complicated!

So it’s not hard to see the progression that played out in El Castillo and the explosion of creative energy that accompanied the co-existence of these two groups.

It will be interesting to see what we learn about our cousins in the next ten years or so.


Sources and interesting reading:

“Bruniquel Cave,” Wikipedia,

Calaway, Ewen. “Europe’s first humans: what scientists do and don’t know,” Nature, 22 June 2015,

Clottes, Jean.  Cave Art.  London: Phaidon Publishing, 2010.

“Divje Babe Flute” Wikipedia,

“Early Human Migrations,” Wikipedia,

Edwards, Owen. “The Skeletons of Shanidar Cave,” Smithsonian magazine, March 2010.

Garrido Pimentel, Daniel, and Marcos Garcia Diez.  Discover Prehistoric Cave Art in Cantabria: The Caves of Chufin, El Castillo, Las Mondedas, Hornos de la Pena, El Pendo, Covalanas, and Cullalvera, published by Sociedad Regional de Educacion, Cultura y Deporte, Gobierno de Cantabria, no date given.

Ghose, Tia. “Ancient Mourners May Have Left Flowers on ‘Red Lady Grave’” Live Science, 20 May 2015,

Gibbons, Ann. “Neanderthals and modern humans started mating early,” Science magazine, 4 July 2017, http:/

Gray, Richard. “Cave fires and rhino skull used in Neanderthal burial rituals,” This Week, New Scientist, 28 September 2016,

Jaubert, Jacques, Sophie Verheyden, Dominique Genty, and others.  “Early Neanderthal constructions deep in Bruniquel Cave in southwestern France,” Nature (534) 02 June 2016,

“Neanderthals, humans may have coexisted for thousands of years,” Associated Press, 22 August 2014, CBC,

Rincon, Paul.  “Neanderthal ‘artwork’ found in Gibraltar cave,” BBC News, 1 September 2014,

“Shanidar Cave,” Wikipedia, https?

Than, Ker. “Neanderthal Burials Confirmed as Ancient Ritual,” National Geographic, 16 Deccember 2013,

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

UNESCO World Heritage Center. “Cave of Altamira and Paleolithic Cave Art of Northern Spain,” UNESCO,

Von Petzinger, Genevieve.  The First Signs. New York: Atria Books, 2016.

Wong, Sam. “Neanderthal artist revealed in a finely carved raven bone,” New Scientist Daily News, 29 March 2017,

Yong, Ed.  “A Shocking Find in a Neanderthal Cave in France,” The Atlantic, May 2016.

New Thoughts on Olmec Art

The Olmec culture is generally defined as the “Mother Culture” or first great civilization in Mesoamerica, an area encompassing most of Mexico, all of Guatemala and Belize, and parts of Honduras, and Costa Rica.  Olmec cities flourished on the Gulf Coast of the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, the narrow neck of southern Mexico. Olmec Map 2

However, Olmec influence and trade routes spread over a much larger area.  New research shows extensive trade connections between Gulf Coast Olmec cities and Oaxaca, closer to the Pacific side, as well as the Basin of Mexico, particularly Teotihuacan, and into what is now Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras and parts of western South America.   Olmec map

The earliest Olmec sites presently known date to 4000 years ago ( about 2000 BC).  By 1400 BC, Olmec artisans were creating amazing earthworks, stonework, and ceramics that still captivate the viewer.  To their 19th century discoverers, Olmec cities seemed to have sprouted full-blown out of the earth, complete with sophisticated directional alignment, symbolic writing (which we still can’t decipher), a complex set of spiritual beliefs, and finely crafted stonework, much of which was imitated by the Maya and other peoples who came to prominence after the Olmec faded.

Because of this belief, alien theorists claimed Olmec art was the work of extra-terrestrials.  Some religious sects claimed the cities were founded by a lost tribe of Israel.  Today, if you read about Olmec cities, you’ll come across all kinds of bizarre theories.

The problem with Olmec research is that we know so little about these people, including where they came from, when they arrived and what made them organize their society the way they did.  Some sites lie buried off the coast, often in areas now populated by oil rigs.  Others were discovered in the 1800s, when there was little interest in carefully uncovering the layers.  People just wanted curiosities for their collections.  Indeed, many unprovenanced Olmec artifacts now live in museums around the world.  Looters still use crude methods, including digging trenches through possible sites, looking for portable pieces they can sell on the black market.  So much valuable information has been lost.

Olmec art

People often associate the Olmec culture with colossal basalt heads, strange greenstone figurines, and hollow ceramic babies.

Giant Heads  Olmec head unearthed

The first colossal head was discovered in 1862, when workers found what they thought was a giant cook-pot turned upside down and buried in the ground.  It turned out to the top of a stone head, about 4’ (1.47 meters) tall.  The local geologist thought it depicted a male of African descent.  This head turned out to be one of the smallest of the seventeen discovered so far.  The largest is over 11’ (3.4 meters) tall.  Interestingly, some of the heads appear to be purposely mutilated and buried, either by the people themselves or by those who followed.

Olmec giant head b

In 2009, three members of an evangelical church entered the Olmec archaeological site at La Venta, near Villahermosa, Mexico, and vandalized about thirty pieces, including four colossal heads.  Clearly the heads are still threatening to some people.

More curious to me is the refusal of the archaeological community to recognize the African features on these giant heads.  Though it’s entirely possible that people came to the Americas from West Africa, scholars have stuck to the idea that everyone came across the land bridge from Asia to Alaska.  Therefore, they reasoned, the heads couldn’t look like Africans because the people all came from Asia.  Circular thinking at its worst.

The only people talking about the African origins that resulted in these stunning basalt portraits are Afrocentric historians like Ivan van Sertima, who published They Came Before Columbus in 1978, in which he pointed to the Olmec heads as evidence of African presence in the Americas long before Europeans arrived.  Unfortunately, his theories have been largely ignored or dismissed by the academic community.

The same can be said for Pedra Furada, a collection of over 800 archaeological sites in northeastern Brazil, where Niede Guidon, a Belgian archaeologist, claimed she found evidence of human activity dating between 32,000 and 60,000 years old.  American scholars refused to accept her data, partly because they were convinced of the Alaska land bridge theory, so no one could possibly be in the Americas before 13,000 years ago.

If the Pedra Furada site findings are finally accepted, especially now with the 130,000 year old site near San Diego proposed, it would open the door to more possibilities.

Most Olmec scholars now see the cities as important trade centers, especially for jade, obsidian, malachite, rock crystal, basalt, schist, andesite, and serpentine.  Trade might have invited people from all over to the cities.  Some experts now suggest that ceramic production in the Olmec world was inspired by pottery from Ecuador (over 2,000 miles/ 3200 km away) as far back as 1900 BC.


The Figurines

Olmec Kunz axe

A remarkably consistent design drove the making of many Olmec figurines.  One of the first to have extensive publicity was a jade “axe” obtained by George Kunz in 1889, a wedge-shaped piece carved with a face featuring almond-shaped, lidless eyes, a flat nose, and a strange mouth that seemed to have a puffy upper lip and fangs.  In 1929, Marshall Seville of the American Museum of Natural History declared the figure to be “the conventionalized mask of the tiger” on the shoulders of a man.  By 1955, Mathew Stirling decided the figures showed the offspring of a female human-male jaguar sexual encounter.  Seriously.  Michael Coe, at one time the pre-eminent Mesoamerican scholar, agreed.  Given the popularity of were-wolves in European literature, Coe used the term “were-jaguar” to describe the figures.  When he curated an exhibit of Olmec art in New York in 1956, he called it “The Jaguar’s Children.”  The mysterious figures were identified as “were-jaguars.”  Now, unfortunately, the term won’t come unstuck. Tate book cover

However, Carolyn E. Tate has described a new possibility in her book, Reconsidering Olmec Visual Culture: The Unborn, Women, and Creation (University of Texas Press, 2012).  Her argument for a new interpretation of the figurines is compelling.  She describes them as embryo, fetus, and baby forms stylized for some important purpose.

To try out her theory, she showed pictures of Olmec figurines to a cardiologist friend.  He thought they looked like human fetuses but recommended she talk to specialists in human gestation.  Of the eleven experts who responded, all felt several images represented fetuses.  Some said they showed specific congenital abnormalities such as neural tube defects which would cause spontaneous abortion (miscarriage).  Several said the images were so naturalistic, they could identify the age of the fetus.

In the book, Tate develops that idea.  Specifically, she suggests that the abnormalities shown in these sculptures of embryos, fetuses, and babies show the effects of a diet of untreated maize.  It’s a compelling argument when you consider the evidence.

Two diagrams from her book shows developmental stages of the human embryo’s face.  The second shows an Olmec sculpture corresponding to the stage.

Olmec face images


Olmec embryo

The Olmec figure pictured below, often described as a dwarf, looks more like a 14-week old fetus.  Note the symbols on its head and back.

Olmec figure 2


And another:

Olmec figurine identified as dwarf









Tate blames untreated maize for a disastrous number of miscarriages among the Olmec that led to the creation of these statutes.  Olmec mother and fetusClearly the Olmec understood insemination and gestation.  However, they had to learn that unless maize (corn) is treated with ash or lime, it does not provide enough nutrients, especially niacin (Vitamin B3).  A diet heavy in untreated corn can cause birth defects and pellagra. Eventually, they learned how to solve the problem, but when the Spanish brought maize back to the Old World, widespread pellagra followed its introduction.

Olmec Las Limas (2) We don’t know why the Olmec found these images so important they repeated different versions of them in their masks and figurines, but perhaps, like so many people who suffer through the pain of a stillbirth or a miscarriage today, they felt those unborn children had become “angels” – powerful spirit beings capable of interceding on their behalf.  The Las Limas sculpture from La Venta shows an adult holding a baby (two views shown in photo).

Olmec head with mask


olmecs figure with seed

Several monuments in La Venta seem to show people wearing an “embryo” mask.  (See head with mask carving pictured above.)  The image is also conflated with sprouting seed, as in La Merced monument 1 (pictured).  At some point, the Olmec may have seen the death of the child as an offering that could bring life, just as the seed must be buried in order for the plant to rise.  It’s a common theme in later Maya art.

While many of these figurines are identified in art history sources as “dwarfs,” some seem to be, as Tate suggests, figures of the unborn.  However, it’s important to note that others are statues of dwarfs.  And some show jaguars.  But maybe we can back away from the “were-jaguar” description.


The Hollow Babies

Olmec_baby-face_figurine_(Bookgrrrl)   Olmec baby Hern back

Another strange feature of Olmec art is the ceramic hollow baby.  Examples have been found in the Olmec heartland and across the Isthmus to Oaxaca and Chiapas, down into Guatemala.  The baby can range from tiny to life-size.  It’s usually made of thin, light-colored clay that is highly burnished. The babies are usually seated with legs spread, so it’s clear that they have no genitals.  Some have a star/fontanel shape pierced into the back of the head.  Some have symbols on their back.  Michael Coe referred to them as “the jaguar’s children,” but there is nothing jaguar-like about them.  Other scholars have described them as a stand-in for human sacrifice, a way to fill a house with powerful spiritual force, or a ritual object that was carefully curated by a society, along the lines of holy statues that are carefully tended and dressed according to the liturgical season.

Tate refers to them as the “seed state” of humans.  They seem to be happy and healthy.  Perhaps that is their power.

Olmec-hollow baby 2

Tate’s book provides a new and interesting view of Olmec art.  It doesn’t answer all the big questions, but it gives us lots of new possibilities


Sources and other interesting reading:

“Aflatoxin,” Wikipedia,

“Afrocentrism,” Wikipedia,

“Basalt Olmec Mask,” The Barakat Collction, London, Beverly Hills, Abu Dhabi.

“Infant Jesus of Prague,” Wikipedia.

“La Venta, monument 44,” Smithsonian Olmec Legacy: Images Database,

“La Venta: Stone Sculpture,” The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Department of the Arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas, October 2001,

Minster, Christopher, “Olmec Art and Sculpture,” ThoughtCo.

“Nixtamalization,” Wikipedia,

“Olmec,” Wikipedia,

“Olmec Art,” Heilburnn Timeline of Art History, The Metropolitan Museum of Art,

“Olmec Civilization,” Ancient History Encyclopedia.

“Olmec Colossal Heads,” Wikipedia,

“Olmec Jade ‘Corn Cob’ Found in Veracruz, ”New Fire: The University of Texas at Austin’s Blog on Mesoamerica News and Research,” 23 March 2015,

“The Olmecs,” The Olmec Civilization.  (map)

“Pedra Furada,” Wikipedia,

“Pelagra,” World Health Organization, 2000,

Tate, Carolyn E.  Reconsidering Olmec Visual Culture: The Unborn, Women, and Creation.   Austin: University of Texas Press, 2012.