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Around here, people often celebrate a child’s birthday with a cake, lighted candles, and a song. A parent or friend brings the cake to the table, candles already lit, while all the guests sing the “Happy Birthday” song. The birthday girl or boy is told to make a secret wish then blow out the candles. It’s great fun but sort of an odd tradition. We put this flaming cake in front of a child, hope she doesn’t burn herself or set the house on fire, then cheer when she blows them out. Why?
Like so many of our holiday customs, our birthday rituals come from very old beliefs that have been absorbed into the present but stripped of most of their original meaning.
The birthday cake
The history of the birthday cake is surprisingly vague. If you look up its origins, you’ll find the same two points repeated in almost every source. One refers to round loaves presented (sacrificed) at the temple of the Greek goddess Artemis (Diana to the Romans), who was associated with hunting and the moon. Some sources say candles adorned these loaves so they would glow like the moon. (Artemis/Diana, pictured with her hunting bow, on the left)
Also, you’ll read about German bakers in the Middle Ages who baked cakes for aristocrats and much later expanded the practice to ordinary people.
Then there’s often a short and obscure reference to older “pagan customs.” That’s where it gets interesting.
Paganism vs. Christianity
The early Roman Catholic Church tried to erase all traces of earlier beliefs, which were (and still are) often lumped together as “Paganism.” According to Dictionary.com, “pagan” refers to a person holding religious beliefs other than those of the main world religions. Synonyms include heathen, infidel, idolater, a non- Christian, and (currently) an adherent of neo-Paganism.
Most popular beliefs before the rise of the Abrahamic religions revolved around the natural world, especially the movement of the sun, moon, and stars. People marked the rising of important stars and planets, and the passage of the sun along the horizon that brought the change of seasons. Solstices and equinoxes were celebrated with elaborate rituals. Many groups felt they had to participate in these changes in order to keep the universe turning.
One example of a pre-Christian faith is the Cult of Mithras, which originated in Persia at least 6000 years ago and spread throughout the Roman Empire with the Roman legions. It included worship of the sun as Sol Invictus (the Unconquered Sun), a god whose birthday was generally celebrated just after the winter solstice, December 25. (Image, left)
Emperor Constantine had a coin struck, picturing himself and Sol Invictus side by side, so in a stroke of genius he equated himself with the Unconquered Sun, and December 25 became a Roman holiday: Saturnalia. As a side note, the image of Sol Invictus looks a lot like the head of the Statue of Liberty. (Coin, lower right, Sol Invictus, lower left)
However, early Christian Church officials were so set against pre-Christian practices that they outlawed all celebrations marking celestial events. Birthday celebrations were also forbidden because they made an individual connection with the alignment of the sun, moon, and stars, and thus were used in astrology and divination.
Church teaching said humans were “born in sin,” so clearly, the faithful shouldn’t be celebrating the moment of their birth.
This reflects the beliefs of conservative Jews and Muslims as well. Some sources go so far as to say that birthday celebrations are a form of Satanism in which believers create a god in their own image and celebrate that person’s birth as the highest holy day.
In order to give people an alternative, the Church recommended that the faithful celebrate their “name day” instead of their birthday. Since each Catholic child was named after a saint, the name day was usually that saint’s feast day. Some conservative European Catholics still follow this practice.
For example, all the people named Stephen could have a celebration on St. Stephen’s Day.(Icon of St. Stephen, left) Actually, St. Stephen’s Day is a very important celebration even now, with participants in various European countries marking it with costumed parades, horseback rides, feasting, drinking, playing music and dancing. (photo, right)
While St. Stephen is known as the first martyr to the Christian faith, his feast day seems more like a party than a religious ceremony. Plus, the feast day falls on December 26 or 27, so while it’s dressed up as a feast day, it’s essentially still Saturnalia or the triumph of Sol Invictus.
Actually, the ban on seasonal festivities started to lift as far back as the 4th century. By the time Emperor Constantine (sculpture, left) ended the persecution of Christians and Emperor Theodosius decreed Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire, or what was left of it, traditional beliefs had already started blending with Catholic practices.
Saturnalia (the festival after the winter solstice) became Christmas, celebrating the birth of Jesus. The Vernal Equinox became part of Easter, which is still celebrated on the first Sunday after the first full moon after the Vernal Equinox.
And birthday celebrations, while still frowned upon in conservative circles, became popular once again. Their significance in terms of divination and horoscopes, however, was officially forgotten. This silence allowed old customs and beliefs to grow once again, adding a sense of danger to the celebration.
According to some, any bad event on your birthday warned of a whole bad year ahead. You shouldn’t celebrate before your actual birthday or you’ll have bad luck.
In order to balance the good wishes of a birthday, some people spank the birthday celebrants or pull their ears. In Kentucky Superstitions, Daniel and Lindsey Thomas note, “On a child’s birthday, he should receive a blow with a switch or other instrument of pain for each year of his life. Each blow should be accompanied by the pronouncing of one line of the following or a similar incantation, adapted to fit the age of the child:
One to live on,
One to grow on,
One to eat on,
One to be happy on,
One to get married on.”
It’s hard to know why these customs began, but once they became part of the ritual, it would be bad luck to change them, I suppose.
For important birthdays of aristocrats, special charms were baked into the cake and used to tell the fortune of the receiver. In some cases, these were gems. I can only imagine the dental problems in the future of the unfortunate recipient!
And about those candles –
Candles were the outgrowth of torches built with pitch/resin to burn hotter and longer. Artists used torches like these to light their way in the caves of France and Spain while they painted their beautiful images 30,000 years ago. The Egyptians are usually credited with making the first beeswax candles, 5,000 years ago, but it took the Romans to develop the wick-burning tallow candle, about 100 BC. Because tallow (rendered beef fat) candles smelled worse than beeswax candles, rich people and religious leaders preferred beeswax. They still do.
In animist thought, the natural world is seen as the source of all power, good and bad. For example, water spirits bring life-giving rains and fill the rivers, but they can also send floods that kill. Same with fire. Or storms. The spirit force that is part of the living world is both good and bad. The Abrahamic religions changed that balance. In these faiths, God, not nature, was seen as the source of goodness, prosperity, power and light. Since pain and suffering were still very much part of their lives, people blamed them on the opposite of God: the dark spirits. The main player was Satan (Lucifer) and his minions from Hell, fallen beings of light who’d gone over to the Dark Side. “The Devil made me do it” worked as an all-purpose excuse for bad behavior.
But there were other dark forces as well, many of them carry-overs from earlier superstitions. These evil forces could take many forms, most of them frightening and ugly, and all brought misfortune. Some dangers were well-known, like the evil eye, the power another could have over you simply by giving you a “look of daggers.” (“If looks could kill, I’d be dead now.”) Children were particularly susceptible to the dangers of the evil eye, so mothers pinned eye charms on the child’s clothes as a protection (photo, left)
My grandparents thought it was bad luck to compliment a baby. They feared spirits would strike the baby with some illness out of jealousy. And where were these spirits? Everywhere.
The birthday boy or girl was especially susceptible to evil spirits, so it was important to have fire/light and lots of sound to scare them away. Lots of guests helped too, especially if they sang. A bright, happy atmosphere drove away dark spirits.
Even with the lights and singing, danger lurked, so people had to be extremely careful during a birthday. Everything had to be done correctly to avoid bad luck.
Light a candle, make a wish
The candles on the birthday cake contain the wish of the birthday boy or girl. Just like the banks of vigil candles found in Catholic churches (photo, left), if you light a candle, you can make a wish. The practice is so popular that even when churches moved the vigil candles to a distant part of the church, people sought them out. Currently, you can arrange for someone to light a candle at one of the famous churches for you, by paying on-line.
From its inception, the Catholic Church used candles for its rituals, just as the Jews, Romans, Hindus, Egyptians, Persians, and probably most others who came before them had. Fire was a symbol of life and a triumph over darkness. The Holy Spirit was pictured as a tongue of fire. In every active church, a candle, lit on Easter eve, burns all year long, indicating the presence of God in the building. During official ceremonies, multiple candles burn on the altar. At Baptism, a child is blessed with a beeswax candle. In the Last Rites before death, the person is blessed again with a beeswax candle. Russian Orthodox believers will often keep a candle burning before a holy icon in their home.
If lighting candles was common practice in the church, why ban them on a birthday cake? Because it was using sacred fire to mark a “pagan” tradition connecting the person to the stars and planets. When birthday celebrations became more tolerated, the sense of danger lingered. The birthday could be marked, but it had to be done so carefully.
Then why blow out the candles?
The candles are safe as long as the song goes on, but there’s always a sense of hurry once the song (and helpful cheering and clapping) is over. The celebrant must hurry and blow out the candles, even if she needs help to do it. Why? Here are some possibilities:
Perhaps the number of breaths it takes is important in determining the future. Less is more, here, definitely.
Perhaps the smoke carries the wish up to Heaven, just as a burned petition would, in which case the fire becomes an offering, and the cake becomes a sacrifice.
Perhaps the future can be read in the pattern of the smoke. This is a whole area of divination, with its own rules. For example, a tall straight flame means a stranger will arrive shortly. A dripping candle is bad luck for the person on that side of the cake.
Perhaps it’s important that the candle is blown out by a person rather than dying on its own, which could be a sign of evil spirits nearby.
When the early Christian Church attempted to kill birthday celebrations, it only drove them underground and permanently encased them in superstitions. When they were once again allowed, the celebrations lost a lot of their connection to divination but retained their sense of power and danger. In order to protect the celebrant, certain rituals had to be completed exactly. Interestingly, we still go through these steps with great care, even though few birthday party guests today would talk about evil spirits trying to steal the soul of the child unless they were scared away by light, song, and happy noise. Still, we all cheer when the child completes all the steps. Then we can serve the cake and hope the birthday child’s slice doesn’t fall, which would be – you know – bad luck.
Sources and interesting reading:
“Birthday Cake,” Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Birthday_cake
“Birthday Superstitions,” New World Witchery – the Search for American Traditional Witchcraft, blog post 159. https://newworldwitcher.com/2012/06/05/blog-post-159-birthday superstitions/
“Ceremonial Use of Lights,” Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ceremonial_use_of_lights
“Christmas,” World Book Encyclopedia, 1966, 3:408 – 417
Deezen, Eddie. “Why do we put candles on a birthday cake?” Neatorama blog. http://www.neatorama.com/2016/05/18/why-do-we-put-candles-on-a-birthday-cake/
Dwived, Bhojraj, Dr. The Study of Omens. New Delphi: Diamond Pocket Books, 2000.
Goldschneider, Gary, and Joost Elffers. The Secret Language of Birthdays: Your Complete Personology Guide for Each Day of the Year. New York: Viking Penguin, 1994.
Haymond, Bryce. “Blowing out Birthday Candles,” Temple Study: Sustaining and Defending the LDS Temple (Latter Day Saints) 18 July 2008. http://www.templestudy.com/2008/07/18/blowing-out-birthday-candles/
“History of Candle Making,” Nature’s Garden class. http://www.naturesgardencandles.com/candlemaking-soap-supplies/item/history/-history-of-candle-making.html
“The History of the Birthday Cake,” Hankering for History blog by bravodeluxe, http://hankeringforhistory.com/the-history-of-the-birthday-cake/
“The Importance of Lighting Candles,” Sepulchre Candles. http://www.sepulchre-candles.com/category/the-importance-of-lighting-candles
Linton, Ralph and Adelin. The Lore of Birthdays. Omnigraphics: 1952.
“Mithrasim,” Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mithraism
“Name Day,” Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Name_Day
“The Origin of Birthday Cake and Candles,” ProFlowers blog. http://www.proflowers.com/blog/origin-of-birthday-cake-and-birthday-candles
“Pagan.” Dictionary.com. http://www.dictionary.com/browse/pagan
Puckles Family Bakehouse, “A History of Birthday Cakes,” 2011. http://www.puckles.com/au/pages/a-history-of-birthday-cakes
“Quick History of the Birthday Cake and Candles,” Trivial Importance video. www.youtube.com/watch?v=dn5nndo_rz0
“St. Stephen’s Day,” Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/St._Stephen%27s_Day
“Sol Invictus,” (image) Shadows Magick Place http://shadowsmagickplace.blogspot.com/2012/12/solinvictusyuleandmagick.html
Still Waters Revival Books, “Birthdays: Pagan/Occult Origins & the Highest of All Holy Days (Holidays) in the Satanic Bible,” http://www.sermonaudio.com/new_details3asp?ID=18801
“Theodosius I,” Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Theodosius_I
Thomas, Daniel and Lucy. Kentucky Superstitions. New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1920.
Turner, Bambi. “10 Wacky Birthday Superstitions,” How Stuff Works. http://people.howstuffworks.com/10-wacky-birthday-superstitions.htm
“Why Australians won’t let kids blow out birthday candles,” Wide World of Stuff blog, 20 February 2013. https://michaeljlewis.wordpress.com/2013/02/20/why-australians-wont-let-kids-blow-out-birthday-candles-a-great-documentary-short-about-a-nyc-hoops-legend-and-michael-jordan-at-50-a-terrific-read/ (photo)
“Why do we blow out candles to celebrate birthdays?” Alusi Candles blog, 1 June 2015. http://alusi.com/why-do-we-blow-out-candles-to-celebrate-birthdays/
“Why do we blow out candles on your birthdays? A deep insight into it” Naresh Golla blog, http://nareshit.blogspot.com/2011/09/why-do-we-blow-out-candles-on-our.html
Sacrifice, as we usually understand the concept, is purposeful giving up. It may be as simple as foregoing chocolate or alcohol during Lent or as difficult as killing humans or animals for what is perceived as the greater good.
Ancient people practiced human sacrifice in many different areas, including Africa, Europe, South America, Central America, North America, the Near East, Austronesia, and the Far East. These sacrifices generally served either to please the gods or to honor prestigious humans who wanted a group of people to accompany them into the afterlife. According to Joseph Watts and his colleagues at the University of Auckland in New Zealand, when Pacific Island chiefs beheaded their more helpless rivals, the act helped to create a sense of social stratification and control.
But usually, when we think of human or animal sacrifice, we think of offerings to the gods, which is curious in itself. The photo shows an Inca mummy left out on the mountains as an offering to the spirits.
Why did people use sacrifice to contact their gods and affect the course of events? Let’s start with what we know and work our way backwards in time.
Blood: the fluid of life
For the ancient Maya, blood, the fluid of life, was the most valuable substance that people could offer the gods. Blood offerings kept the world turning and the gods appeased. The more valuable the offering, the more worthy the sacrifice.
Like the Olmecs before them, the Maya sacrificed both animals and humans. Animals included crocodiles, iguanas, dogs, jaguars, and turkeys. Human sacrifice, however, was seen as more valuable. As Ethan Watrall, Assistant Professor at Michigan State University explains, “It [Sacrifice] has been a feature of almost all pre-modern societies during their development and for mainly the same reason: to propitiate or fulfill a perceived obligation toward the gods.”
Beheading appears often in Mayan literature, including the Hero Twins creation story recorded in the Popul Vuh, sometimes called the Mayan Bible. The picture included here shows a stone panel from Chichen Itza showing one of the Hero Twins (on the right) after he has been decapitated during a ballgame with the Lords of the Underworld. His head, used as the ball for a while in the game, appears in a circle to the left of the twin who is spurting rivers of blood from his neck.
However, death is a temporary state in the Popul Vuh, and the twin who was decapitated later gets his head back later in the story. Still, the Hero Twins show themselves to be quite willing to play with death, literally, in the form of the Lords of the Underworld with all their potent magic.
Recent finds at Tonina, in Chiapas, Mexico, indicate that it was known as the City of Divine Captives. The beheading of two sons of rival ruler Pakal from Palenque is memorialized in stone at the site. (See photo.) The captives, with their hands bound behind them, slump in defeat. But according to the beliefs of the time, spilling their royal blood would increase the prosperity of Tonina and help keep the cosmos alive.
This seems hard for us to understand. Today people feel little connection with or obligation to the natural world, but sacrifice was once perceived as the way to keep the world going. The movement of the sun, moon, and stars, the abundance of land and sea animals, the continuation of life itself depended on the active participation of people. If they stopped giving gifts to the gods, everything stopped, and disaster followed.
This belief may have been the result of apparent causality: people stopped offering sacrifices to the gods and then something terrible happened. It could also carry the weight of tradition. We’ve always killed a young woman to make the crops grow, so we better not change.
Righting a wrong
Sometimes, sacrifice is a means of righting a wrong. In that case, the ancient people had to have an awareness of sin – a moral transgression that required a moral gift to the gods to erase it.
The French philosopher Georges Bataille maintained that it was the consciousness of transgression that defined modern humans and separated them from the animals. To make amends for their sins, people offered sacrifices to the gods, including the spilling of human blood.
But sacrifice is more complicated than righting wrongs. It also served as a way to acknowledge and worship the gods, to make a request, or to give thanks, or perhaps all of the above.
The Greek sculpture from the Louvre collection, pictured, shows the sacrifice of a boar to the gods. (Photo, below)
In order to gain God’s favor, believers of many ancient faiths regularly sacrificed animals, perhaps because killing humans dangerously depleted their population after a while, especially if they kept sacrificing the best. So certain animals may have become the stand-in for people. In some cases, the animals were cooked and parts were eaten in a sort of communal feast with the gods. The books of Exodus and Leviticus in the Old Testament give clear directions on the kinds of animals (such as a bull, lamb, goat, or dove) to be sacrificed for each kind of sin and the portions the priest and the faithful should eat. Each explanation includes the reassurance that God will find the aroma of the burnt offering pleasant. “It is a burnt offering, an offering made by fire, an aroma pleasing to the Lord” (Leviticus 1:12).
Biblical scholar Alice C. Lindsey maintains that animal sacrifice as defined in the Old Testament came from much older societies, including older Mesopotamian civilizations, such as the Kushites. Nimrod, the son of Kush, moved to the Tigris-Euphrates valley and established the practice of sacrificing rams, bulls, and sheep. Abraham was a descendant of Nimrod.
To be a suitable sacrifice, the animal had to be perfect, and the person sacrificing the animal had to identify with it at the moment he took its life. If these conditions were met, the guilt would be transferred to the innocent animal, the sacrifice would be pleasing to God, and the act of spilling its blood would bring purification to the supplicant in particular and the society in general, by transference. “Without the shedding of blood, there is no forgiveness” (Hebrews 9:22). The more valuable the animal, the more valuable the sacrifice.
As a cautionary note, the book of Leviticus includes the story of two of Aaron’s sons who decided to make their own offering by burning incense before the Lord, contrary to His command. “So fire came from the presence of the Lord and consumed them, and they died before the Lord” (Leviticus 10:2). Clearly, death is the punishment for straying from the correct path.
Older models of animal sacrifice
But the practice of animal sacrifice is far older than the events recorded in the Old Testament. Vedic Hindu teachings of ancient India use the word bali to mean tribute, offering, or the blood of an animal, which might be a horse (symbol of the cosmos) a goat, a bull, an ox, a chicken, or a calf. Later, for Hindus, the cow became the revered symbol of all life, and of Earth, the nourisher of life, the representative of Kamadhenu, the divine, wish-fulfilling cow, and as such merited protection. Interestingly, the cow was also the symbol of Hathor, the ancient Egyptian goddess of love, joy, and motherhood, usually depicted as a sacred cow or a woman with a cow-horn headdress.
Also consider the famous San paintings in South Africa which feature dancing men surrounding the “dream beast,” the eland, the favorite animal of the gods. The men are dream-hunting the dream-beast that controls the rain. When the beast bleeds, rain falls. In the most famous panel, from the Game Pass Shelter in Drakensburg, the shaman imitates the eland, standing behind it, his legs crossed the same way the eland’s are, bleeding from the nose just as the dying eland is. Again, this shows a sort of ritual sacrifice.
The ultimate sacrifice and gift, according to the Bible
In the Bible, human sacrifice at God’s request is the ultimate test of faith. The most famous example in the Old Testament is God asking Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac. (In the Koran, the son is not named but many Muslims believe it to be Ishmael.) In obedience, Abraham prepares the pyre.
At the last moment, an angel stops Abraham and shows him a ram he can sacrifice instead of his son. (Interestingly, the ram, like the bull, is a common choice for sacrifice.)
The heart of the New Testament is the sacrifice of Jesus, whose death Christians feel liberates them from their heritage of sin. In the Catholic mass, the priest pours a little water into the wine in the chalice then lifts the bread and wine as an offering to God. He then ceremonially washes his hands, just as priests and rabbis did before ritual slaughters. The priest then says, “Pray, brethren (brothers and sisters), that my sacrifice and yours may be acceptable to God, the Almighty Father.” In the old version of the Catholic mass, the Latin wording translates as “Come, O Sanctifier, Almighty and Eternal God, and bless this sacrifice prepared for the glory of Your holy name.” The consecrated bread becomes, for the faithful, the body of Christ. The wine becomes the blood of Christ. The faithful then consume both, in order to share in the sacrifice and the redemption it promises.
Symbolic human sacrifice
When I was helping on an archaeological dig of an early Maya site in Chocola, Guatemala, workers found a small statue of a bound, beheaded captive included in the foundation of a building. Along with the metates (grinding bowls) and intentionally smashed cookware also included in the foundation, archaeologists interpreted the figure of the captive as a dedicatory offering to the gods.
The Chocola figure struck me as interesting because it was a symbolic blood sacrifice, a clay figure that took the place of a human.
Today, many Christians keep a crucifix on the wall, remembering the sacrifice of Jesus Christ, known as the Lamb of God, on the cross. Like the Chocola figure, this statue symbolically replaces the ultimate human/divine sacrifice.
So the idea of ritual sacrifice is wide-spread, but where did it come from?
A triple burial found in Moravia and dated to 27,000 years ago may provide some clues. In the grave, three adolescents are laid out so one is facing down while the other two face each other. The figure on the left in the photo (below) is apparently reaching over to the genital area of the one in the middle, who was affected by congenital dysplasia. Since the bodies seem to have been purposely arranged, the site brings up many unanswered questions. Why were these three buried together? What was their relationship? Were they killed?
Two other Paleolithic graves, in Italy and Russia, also contained adolescents with deformities. As part of their burial, they were decorated with ivory beads, which would have been very valuable.
Archaeologists investigating a series of graves dating from 26,000 to 8,000 BC found several that contained the remains of young people who suffered from abnormalities, including extra fingers and toes. In an article in Current Anthropology, Vincenzo Formicola of the University of Pisa, Italy, maintains that these burials could be a sign of ritual killing because, unlike usual burials, with a single body, these sites often contain multiples. “These individuals may have been feared, hated, or revered,” Formicola said.
Perhaps, because they were different, they were both feared and revered as different and therefore “touched by spirits.”
Back to the “Venus” Figurines
One of the most enduring enigmas in Western art is the popularity of the “Venus Figurines,” the small sculptures of obese, exaggerated female figures that appear in different sites from the Mediterranean to Siberia, over an enormous span of time, from the Venus of Hohle Fels (Germany), about 40,000 years old, to the Venus of Garagino (Ukraine), about 22,000 years old. The illustration shown here gives a sampling of the “Venus” figures found.
In most cases, the female figures are small and thus portable. While many have wildly exaggerated breasts and buttocks, and sometimes a pregnant belly, they have little or no face or feet, and sometimes no arms. Many writers have pointed to these early figurines as evidence of a widespread “Goddess Cult.”
The problem is, many look more like sacrifices than gods, though I suppose the two entities can be combined.
Take the “Venus” of Gagarino figure, (photo, left) one of several found in the Voronezh region of Russia, in the same region as the Kostenki and Avdeeno sites (22,000 years old), which have also yielded extensive finds of bone awls and points, burnishers, shovels, and jewelry. Gagarino yielded several Venus figures. The one pictured was found buried in a prehistoric fire pit. It has a featureless round head, enormous breasts, and an undefined lower body.
The Venus of Moravany (photo, right), from about the same time period (23,000 years ago), was found in Slovakia. Like many others, it was purposely beheaded before being buried.
The famous Venus of Willendorf (Austria), perhaps the most well-known European Venus statue (24,000 years old), has sometimes been described as a celebration of fatness and therefore plenty, but she doesn’t look as if she’s celebratin.(photo, left). With her bowed head and stooped shoulders, she looks like the victims at Tonina, Mexico.
The Venus of Lespugue (France) is even older and her features more exaggerated. Again, her head is bowed.
The oldest European Venus statue, the Venus of Hohle Fels (Germany), dated to 35,000 years ago, has a huge middle, a tiny suggestion of a head, and no feet.
Many sources, including the program “How Art Made the World” on PBS, have called these statues a statement of exaggerated beauty. The site called About Archaeology describes these statues as “Rubenesque,” but Rubens never painted women like these: faceless, footless, sometimes armless figures with hunched shoulders and bowed heads. Their creation, neuroscientist V. S. Ramachandran argues, shows that ancient artists valued the parts of the female that were most attractive and important: breasts and pelvic girdle.
However, other statues of females — not wildly exaggerated — have been found at these Paleolithic sites, as have statues of males, and many animal figures. What’s interesting is that most of the pieces found ritually destroyed and buried are of grossly exaggerated females. Why?
A couple of theories
A sacrifice to get rid of a problem
Like the ritually killed and buried people with abnormalities found in Eastern Europe, it’s possible that the Venus figurines represented diseased females. Elephantiasis, lymphedema, tuberculosis, leprosy, or podoconiosis would cause gross enlargement of the breasts and genitals. Genital elephantiasis can also be caused by sexually transmitted diseases, such as Chlamydia. Today, where women are affected by elephantiasis, they are socially shunned. Ironically, despite their swollen female features, they typically have trouble getting pregnant.
If this were the case in an ancient society, these women may have been ritually sacrificed. That would explain the ropes tying the Venus of Kostenki’s wrists and her missing head. It would also explain the many cut marks found on all of these figures. And perhaps the unusual clothing, including net or knitted headwear.
A sacrifice to avoid a problem
If the statues were a stand-in for a human sacrifice that would address some problem, even if it wasn’t disease-related, it’s likely the idea would spread quickly. In order to avoid these problems in your tribe, you could simply ritually kill a little statue. It could become part of the process of setting up a village or a dwelling, the way some people tack up a horseshoe over the garage – or the way the ancient Maya included the statue of a beheaded, bound captive in the foundation of their building.
A sacrifice to create life
Another possibility is the statue represents a female creation figure who must be destroyed for life to emerge, like the Aztec creation goddess, Coatlicue (She of the Serpent Skirt, pictured, left) and her daughter Coyolxauhqui (pictured below, right, after she was torn apart to create the world).
Spanish explorers discovered a statue of Coatlicue in 1790, near what is now called the Calendar Stone or Sun Stone, in Mexico City. She wears her skirt of snakes and a necklace of skulls. Her hands and feet have claws so she can devour her prey. (She was considered so frightening at the time that the statue was re-buried.) She is the destructive force that both gives life and takes it away. Her hair hangs down her back in 13 plaits, symbolic of the 13 lunar months and 13 heavens of Aztec religion.
That does make you wonder about the 13 marks on the horn (or crescent moon) held up by the Venus of Laussel (about 28,000 years old) discovered in the Dordogne Valley of France.
The problem is that nothing about the “Venus” figures suggests that kind of dark strength – or any kind of strength. With their hunched shoulders and downcast head, they seem powerless.
This is not to suggest that there was never a Goddess Cult, but only that the well-known Venus figurines were probably not representative of one. Certainly, though, some later figures in ancient Near Eastern and Mediterranean art depict powerful female figures. Inanna, Tanit, Astarte, Ishtar, Sekmet, Hathor and Isis were powerful goddesses with a huge following. (See the earlier post on them at https://misfitsandheroes.wordpress.com/2013/08/20/missing-fierce-powerful-goddess/)
The Venus figures, though, look more like sacrifices.
The question remaining is why this particular strange figure became the perfect symbolic sacrifice, copied, with variations, over an area ranging from current day Spain all the way to Russia! Perhaps it became a trade item or a gift, suggesting a sharing of powerful charms and therefore a social network. At some point in this sharing, she may have gone from an unfortunate victim to a magical one.
In any case, this statue apparently held enormous power.
Intriguing connections with Sudan, Siberia, and Indonesia wait to be explored. It’s also not clear what relationship, if any, the Berekhat Ram Venus figure (Golan Heights, 250,000 years old) has with the later sculptures of voluptuous females. Perhaps more research will help us fill in the blanks between them. It will be interesting to see what new facts we can learn about the sacrifices that were so central to our ancestors’ life.
Sources and interesting reading:
“Avdeevo: a Paleolithic site with strong links to Kostenki,” Don’s Maps, http://donsmaps.com/avdeevo.html
Baudez, Claude F. and Peter Mathews, “Captive and Sacrifice at Palenque,” Mesoweb. http://www.mesoweb.org/ari/publications/RT04/Capture.pdf
Benson, Emily. “Human sacrifice may have helped societies become more complex,” Science Magazine, April 2016, http:///www.sciencemag.org/new/2016/human-sacrifice-may-have-helped-societies-become-more-complex
Cartwright, Mark. “Coatlicue,” Ancient History Encyclopedia. November 2013, http://www.ancient.eu/Coatlicue/
“The Catholic Worship Service: The Mass,” http://www.dummies.com/how-to/content/the-catholic-worship-service-the-mass.html
Coffee, Albert. “New Discoveries at Tonina!” Albert’s Archaeoblog, July 2015, http://albertcoffeetours.com/blog/
“Elephantiasis” National Organization for Rare Disorders (NORD) 2009, http://rarediseases.org/rare-diseases/elephantiasis/
“The First Artists,” Exhibit at the Israel Museum, Jerusalem, http://www.imgf.org.il/exhibitions/presentation/exhibit/?id=358
Haviland, Willam A., et al. Anthropology: The Human Challenge. Belmont, California: Wadsworth Publishing, 2014.
Hirst, K. Kris. “Laussel Venus – Upper Paleolithic Goddess with a Horn,” http://archaeology.about.com/od/upperpaleolithic/qt/Laussel-Venus.htm
Holy Bible: New International Version. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan Bible Publishers, 1989.
“Human sacrifice,” Britannica Online Encyclopedia, https://www.britannica.com/topic/human-sacrifice>
Jongko, Paul. “10 Ancient Cultures That Practiced Ritual Human Sacrifice,” 2014, TopTenz, http://www.toptenz.net/10-ancient-cultures-practiced-ritual-human-sacrifice.php
Linsley, Alice C. “Where Did Animal Sacrifice Originate?” Just Genesis (blog), August 2013, http://jandyongenesis.blogsport.com/2011/10/origins-of-animal-sacrfice.html
“Lymphatic filariasis,” World Health Organization (WHO) updated 2016, http://www.who.into/mediacentre/factsheets/fs102/en/
“Lymphatic filariasis,” Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lymphatic_filariasis
Parker-Pearson, Mike. “The Practice of Human Sacrifice.” BBC, 2011. http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/ancient/british_prehistory/human_sacrifice_01.shtml
Saint Joseph Daily Missal: The Official Prayers of the Catholic Church for the Celebration of Daily Mass. New York: Catholic Book Publishing Co., 1961.
Shoemaker, Tom. “Images of the Ancient Goddess,” Mesa Community College, 2015, http://www.mesacc.edu/~thoqh49081/summer2015/100web/goddess-images.html
Swezey, Thomas. F. “The World’s Oldest Religious Ritual,” 2002, http://www.winternet.com/~swezeyt/bible/oldestrit.htm
“Venus figures from Russia,” Don’s Maps, http://donsmaps.com/ukrainevenus.html
“Venus figures from the Stone Age arranged alphabetically” Don’s Maps. http://www.donsmaps.com/venus.html
“Venus Figurines, Indonesian Art and the Interconnectedness of the Stone Age,” Biology Magazine, November 2014, http://en.paperblog.com/venus-figurines-indonesian-art-and-the-interconnectness-of-the-Stone-Age-1051077/
“Venus Figurines of the Upper Paleolithic,” Wake Me Up Before You Gogh Gogh blog, December 2013, http://wakemeupbeforeyougoghgogh.blogspot.com/2013/12/venus-figurines-of-upper-paleolithic-art.html
“The Venus Figurines of the European Paleolithic Era,” Ancient Origins, http://www.ancient-origins.net/ancient-places-europe/venus-figurines-european-paleolithic-era-001548
“Venus of Berekhat Ram,” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia_org/wiki/venus_of_Berekhat_Ram
“Venus of Gagarino,” Visual Arts Cork, http://www.visual-arts-cork.com/prehistoric/gagarino-venus.htm
“The Venus of Moravany” Venus Figures from the Stone Age, Don’s Maps, http://donsmaps.com/moravanyvenus.html (Don’s Maps is an excellent source.)
“Venus of Willendorf: Exaggerated Beauty,” How Art Made the World, PBS, Episode 1, 2006, http://www.pbs.org/howartmadetheworld/episodes/human/venus/
Whipps, Heather. “Early Europeans Practiced Human Sacrifice,” Live Science, 2007, http://www.livescience.com/1594-early-europeans-practiced-human-sacrifice.html
White, Richard. “Bataille on Lascaux and the Origins of Art.” Creighton University. www.janushead.org/11-2White.pdf
Wynd, Shona, and others. “Understanding the community impact of lymphatic filariasis: a review of the sociocultural literature.” World Health Organization, http://www.who.int/bulletin/volumes/85/6/06-031047/en
If you take a trip to the local medical center or pharmacy, at least in the United States, it will probably involve dealing with several ancient symbols. The most common is the caduceus, the herald’s staff, featuring opposite, twin serpents entwined around a staff topped by a ball and wings. If you look up the definition of caduceus, you’ll learn that the symbol comes from Greek mythology and refers to the staff carried by Hermes (pictured below).
But that’s only part of the story.
Hermes has something of a mixed reputation, being the messenger of the gods, guide of the dead, and protector of merchants, shepherds, athletes, liars, and thieves. As several writers have pointed out, that doesn’t seem like much of an advertisement for doctors! They maintain that the use of the caduceus symbol for members of the medical profession is a mistake. It should be the rod (or staff) of Asclepius, the son of Apollo, pictured below, left.
As the god of medicine in Greek mythology, perhaps based on a real person, Asclepius does seem to be a better choice, at least at first. He is usually pictured with a serpent-entwined staff because, according to legend, a serpent taught him the secrets of healing. Snakes were widely respected as sacred beings of healing, wisdom, and resurrection. Shrines erected to Asclepius always featured non-poisonous snakes. In the drawing based on a famous sculpture, you can see the frowning Asclepius (center) with his serpent staff in hand, meeting Hermes, holding the caduceus. Meanwhile three of Asclepius’s daughters, including Hygenia and Panacea, stand off to the right.
One snake or two?
Today, the World Health Organization and the American Medical Association use the staff of Asclepius in their logos (as pictured). However, many more organizations use the caduceus, and most people in the USA recognize the caduceus as the symbol of the healing power of medicine. So why did the caduceus win over the staff of Asclepius? Maybe it was an accident of history. Or maybe the caduceus has more visual impact. Or perhaps it still carries traces of more powerful magic from the past.
Accident of history?
According to some sources, in 1902, the US Army Medical Corps adopted the caduceus as their official symbol and ordered it to be included on all medical officers’ uniforms and field offices. From there, the symbol spread to other medical professionals. However, the Medical Service Corp’s History page describes how the Corps grew out of earlier medical service wartime groups, including the Revolutionary War apothecaries, the Civil War Ambulance Corps, and the World War I Sanitary Corps. At the end of that war, the permanent medical ancillary organization was formed, morphing into the current Medical Service Corp in 1947, long past the 1902 date.
Today, the caduceus is so central to the Medical Corps that their association is called the Silver Caduceus Association. Current Medical Corps men and women embrace the caduceus, no matter what some folks say about the staff of Asclepius. One Navy Medical Corps artist posted a stunning tattoo design of it that elicited several requests from current medical corpsmen for permission to use it. Pictured, right, it has a great sense of strength.
Actually, the Army Medical Department uses both the caduceus (for their branch insignia) and the staff of Asclepius (for the regimental insignia). So it doesn’t seem that the Medical Service Corps is responsible for the dominance of the caduceus.
A more dynamic logo
In my opinion, the caduceus is just a more powerful image. It has symmetry, motion, and balance. The staff of Asclepius makes a much less dramatic graphic, especially with the snake drooping off the staff. Note that the AMA, in using the staff, also includes a spiral, to create some sense of motion.
Gustav Klimt certainly made a powerful image out of the Asclepius serpent in his painting of Hygeia, but the power lies as much in the figure of the young woman and the gold decoration as in the snake. She seems to evoke the powerful snake goddesses of the past.
Long history of magic in both symbols
The serpent staff of Asclepius was thought to possess magical properties. But it wasn’t only that staff. Serpents were respected – and feared – magical creatures in many ancient cultures, from India, Africa, and Australia, to Persia and Ireland. In the Old Testament, both Aaron and the pharaoh’s magicians have magical staffs that can turn from staff to snake and back (Exodus 6: 8 – 10). When the Israelites were bitten by poisonous snakes in the desert, God instructed Moses to build a bronze serpent on a staff and treat the people (Numbers 21: 5 – 7).
Most sources say the caduceus comes from Greek myth. But where did it come from before that? Take your pick. Since the eastern Mediterranean was home to many different peoples, including Phoenicians from the Arabian Peninsula, Persians from central Asia, Egyptians from North Africa, and Sumerians from Asia, it was a melting pot of ideas about spirituality, magic, and healing power. And twin snake images abound.
The Chinese mythological progenitors were said to be serpent-tailed humans: male and female, Nuwa and Fuxi, shown here on an ancient painting unearthed in Xinjiang.
In ancient Egypt, twin serpents were associated with Thoth, the god of learning. In the image shown below, the ibis-headed god’s headdress includes both the center staff and the opposing serpents.
The powerful North African goddess Tanit, like her counterparts Astarte, Ishtar, and Isis, is often shown with twin snakes. In the stone pictured below, right, the twin snakes rise on both sides of Tanit, while her symbols: the triangle, the crescent moon, and the sun/flower stand over her.
In the Kundalini yoga practices of India and southern Asia, twin male and female forces/snakes, rise through the chakras of the body until they enter the brain and open the third eye of wisdom, as shown in the illustration.
The pre-Christian sculpture in Ireland (pictured) features twining, opposite snakes culminating in a cross and circle. Other monuments feature crossed snakes leading to an open hand.
In all of these images, the paired snakes are moving, crossing each other, and leading to a circle, sometimes a winged orb. There is a sense of increasing power and enlightenment. The caduceus, as a symbol, is a promise of that power bestowed on the supplicant. In that sense, it’s hard to beat that as a symbol of the healing arts.
So when we see the caduceus on the wall of the medical center or drugstore, we see a symbol that echoes thousands of years of belief in the power of serpents and the pairing of opposites, the dynamic power of yin and yang/male and female, a concept far older and more universal than the Greek god Hermes or his Roman equivalent, Mercury.
Sources and interesting reading:
Amaro, John A. “The Caduceus, Chakras, Acupuncture and Healing” (Part I), 2002, http://www.iama.edu/Articles/CaduceusCharkrasAcuHealing.htm
Army Medical Department – Medical Service Corps Heraldry, “Insignia and Plaques, Army Medical Department – Medical Services Corps,” http://www.tioh.hqda.pentagon.mil/Catalog/Heraldryld+15396&Categoryld=9362&grp=2&menu=Uniformed%20Services&ps=24&p=0
“Asclepius,” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Asclepius
Blayney, Keith, “The Caduceus vs the Staff of Asclepius (Asklepian), revised October 2005, http://www.drblayney.com//Asclepius.html
Caduceus drawing for Medical Corps, Bad Medicine (part 1) fnmyalgia.com
“Caduceus,” Pinterest. http://www.pinterest.com/pin/494692340288581428/
“Caduceus,” the photo of a stained glass work from sunlightstudio, to Pinterest, http://www.pintrest.com/pin/444800900673055007/
“Caduceus,” Symbol Dictionary: a visual glossary. http://symboldictionary.net?p=1131
“Caduceus,” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Caduceus
“Caduceus as a symbol of medicine,” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Caduceus_as_a_symbol_of_medicine
Champollion, Jean-Francois. “Thoout, Thoth Deux fois Grand, le Second Hermes,” Brooklyn Museum collection, Wilbour Library of Egyptology, Special Collections imprint 1823 – 1825. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thoth#/media/File:Thoout,_Thoth_Deux_fois_Grand,_le_Second_Herm%C3%A9s,_N372.2A.jpg
Gill, Joseph O. “Origins of the Caduceus, as told in the world’s oldest language: symbolism,” June 2011, http://www.worldglobetrotters.com/Links?Caduceus/caduceus.htm
“Hermes,” Wikipedia. https;//en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hermes
“Highlights of Medical Service Corps’ History,” Silver Caduceus Association, 2016, http://www.silvercaduceusassociation.com/history.html
Holy Bible: New International Version. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan Bible Publishers, 1989.
“Hygeia,” painting by Gustav Klimt, pinned to Pinterest, https://www.pinterest.com/pin/444800900667632448/
Images of the winged staff with intertwined snakes as a symbol of ancient Indian medicine, as well as a drawing based on the monument by Aubin Louis Millin (1811) showing Mercury (Hermes) and a merchant approaching the disapproving Asclepius, Immune ACCORD, http://www.immuneaccord.com/history.php
Jenkins, Avery. “The problem with mainstream medicine is staring us in the face” 28 March 2013, DocAltMed, http://www.averyjeckins.com/?p=977
“Snakes in Chinese Mythology,” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Snakes_in_Chinese_mythology
“Tanit,” Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tanit
On one episode of the PBS show History Detectives, April Hynes of Washington Crossing, Pennsylvania brought in a small ceramic jug to be evaluated by antiques experts. It was discovered in the 1950’s by her grandfather, a plumber working in Germantown, Pennsylvania, who thought it might be an Indian piece, so he took it home. It has remained with the family ever since.
The jug is about 6” tall, with a greenish-brown glaze. (See photo) Its most striking feature is the face on it. The eyes are round and staring, and the mouth is open, exposing clenched teeth.
In the course of the show, experts from the Philadelphia Museum of Art and art historians examining the piece concluded it was not an American Indian artifact. Instead, it was very similar in size, design, and glaze to jugs made in the 1850’s and 1860’s by slave potters on Edgefield County, South Carolina plantations.
Jekyll Island and The Wanderer incident
Many of those slaves were brought from the Congo through ports in Angola and imprisoned on slave ships bound for North America. Some of those who survived the voyage were “processed” through Jekyll Island, off the coast of Georgia and worked on plantations on the South Carolina side of the Savannah River, including the Edgefield plantations.
Ironically, Jekyll Island is today a lovely place, home to upscale vacation resorts, like the one in the photo above. Its blood-soaked history has been largely ignored. The Jekyll Island Club Hotel “Island History” handout dedicates a short paragraph to the 19th century, saying:
“Slaves were imported to pick cotton, which was the primary agricultural product on the island during this time. The U.S. government banned the importation of slaves in 1807, but smuggling still continued. On November 29, 1858, The Wanderer unloaded 409 slaves on Jekyll Island, one of the last cargoes of slaves imported into the United States. Those involved in the activities of the Wanderer were indicted by the federal government.”
The racing yacht The Wanderer refitted as a slave ship, shown in the oil painting above.
That’s the end of the 19th century history section. But what the Jekyll Island Club Hotel piece fails to include is that the slave traders were never convicted, despite three attempts by the federal government. Outcry over The Wanderer slave trading trials helped fuel anti-slavery sentiment in the north, including support for the Underground Railroad and the Civil War.
In yet another bizarre chapter of its history, in 1859, The Wanderer, which was not a standard slave trade ship, having been built as a racing yacht originally, was apparently taken on one more slave trading voyage after the trials, despite the fact that slave trading had been illegal for fifty years by then. However, near the coast of Africa, the first mate led a mutiny, set the captain out to sea in a small boat, and returned the ship to Boston. During the Civil War, the U.S. government seized the ship and used it as a gunboat in the blockade of the South.
Further, J. Egbert Farnum, (photo, left) who had been a hot-headed, hard-drinking officer on The Wanderer on its infamous 1858 voyage, later regretted his part the affair and headed north after being acquitted. When the Civil War broke out, he signed up with the Northern Army to make amends. He later suffered nineteen bullet wounds and two saber wounds.
The ship’s story sounds like a movie plot.
But back to the strange little pot uncovered near Philadelphia.
In the PBS show, David Barquist, curator of American Decorative Arts at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, confirmed what April Hynes had discovered – that face jugs were generally associated with slave potters in Edgefield County, South Carolina. Barquist went on to say that only a dozen or so of the original face jugs have been discovered. Most are now in museums or private collections. (The one pictured below right is from the collection of the Milwaukee Art Museum.)
The grimace and green-brown ash glaze are typical of face jugs made in Edgefield during the 1850’s and 1860’s. Jim McDowell, a potter who continues the face jug tradition using 19th century techniques he learned from his Jamaican ancestors, showed how the face would be created and attached to the jug. When he was asked how the jugs were used, McDowell said they probably were not used to carry water. Instead, they were used as grave markers since slaves were not allowed to erect stone markers.
Indeed, shards of face jugs have been found in slave burial grounds.
Fusion of Old and New Beliefs – Ancestor worship, Voodoo, and Christianity
The face jug featured in the show carries a long cultural tradition behind it. It represents West African beliefs put into a form outsiders could not recognize – or forbid. It served as more than a grave marker to people who were not allowed to erect grave markers. Face jugs became containers for holding and guarding a precious connection with the past.
Wyatt MacGaffey, author of Kongo Political Culture: The Conceptual Challenge of the Particular, explains that power comes from the land of the dead, and in precolonial times, was present and available for use in minkisi: fabricated items that provide local habitations for the dead, through which the powers of such spirits are made available to the living. Minkisi typically include clay, stones, or grave dirt. A Nkisi, singular form of Minkisi, power figure from the Congo is pictured, left.)
Thus, the jug, especially when it contained dirt from the grave, became a powerful item, very similar to the ritual baskets popular in parts of West Africa, which contained teeth, hair, or bone fragments of the dead person. These items link the dead to the living, making an unbroken lifeline, which would have been especially important to people who had been wrenched away from their homeland. The ancestors, as represented by the face jugs, are then part of life and ceremonies, and can be consulted on matters of importance. Also, they lend considerable strength.
It seems clear that these small jugs were portable representations of the dead and their power. As Gary Dexter, an Aiken, South Carolina potter and historian remarked, “Obviously, this [the face jug] was the single most important cultural item they had.”
The big question for the people in the TV show was how the face jug wound up near Philadelphia if it was made in South Carolina, 700 miles away.
The Underground Railroad
If the jug was owned by a slave, which seems to be the case based on studies of other jugs of similar size, design, and construction, it could have been carried north during the owner’s attempt to escape to free territory. Philadelphia was a hub for those trying to get to Canada and freedom. (See map below, which shows Philadelphia as part of one route.)
The Underground Railroad was a series of safe shelters for runaway slaves. They were often private homes run by people who abhorred slavery and sought to help as many slaves as possible escape that fate. The Lemoyne House in Washington, Pennsylvania was one such stop. The Mother Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church, the oldest AME church in the United States, was another. In Germantown, the area of northwest Philadelphia where the face jug was buried, there were several safe houses. The whole area was predominantly anti-slavery, mostly due to the influence of the Society of Friends (Quakers), so if escaped slaves could get there, chances were good they could find a place to rest.
Finding the pot buried in Germantown points to the owner being an escaped slave. Unfortunately, we have no way of knowing why the precious artifact was buried, so the story remains unfinished.
The influence of slave-made face jugs spread far beyond the slave communities. In the 1800’s, memory bottles or “spirit jars” became popular across North America. A thick layer of putty, lacquer, plaster, clay, or cement added to the bottle or jug held the various charms, mementos, and decorations that were reminiscent of the deceased loved one. Some of them look surprisingly like the African spirit figures of long ago. (A Midwestern “memory bottle” is on the left, an African Nkisi figure on the right in the photos below.)
Memory bottles enjoyed a Renaissance in the 1950’s and 60’s, especially in the Midwest and Appalachia, crossing racial lines. Currently, both E-bay and Etsy do a lively business in both antique and modern memory bottles. The one on the left (below), advertised on Etsy, seems to have its own bizarre power. The one on the right was made in memory of a member of the clergy.
Death, power, and memory combined: the legacy of the original face pots.
Sources and interesting reading:
Bradley, Eric. “10 Things You Didn’t Know about Memory Jugs,” 24 February 2011, Antique Trader, http://ww.antiquetrader.com/articles/feature-stories/ten_things_about_memory_jugs
“Destination Freedom: Traveling PA’s Underground Railroad Pennsylvania,” Visit PA, http://www.visitpa.com/articles/destination-freedom-traveling-pas-underground-railroad
“Face Jug” episode of History Detectives, Season 8, episode 8, PBS, 2010 www.pbs.org/historydetectives
“Face jug,” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Face_jug
“Germantown, Philadelphia,” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Germantown_Philadelphia
“History of the African-American Face Jug” The Black Potter: Face Jugs and Functional Pottery, http://www.blackpotter.com
Hynes, April. “Farnum,” The Wanderer Project, 15 June 2012, https://thewandererproject.wordpress.com/2012/06/15/farnum/
“Island History,” Jekyll Island Club Hotel, http://www.jekyllclub.com/about-us/island-history/
MacGaffey, Wyatt. Kongo Political Culture: The Conceptual Challenge of the Particular. Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press, 2000.
“Matt Jones Pottery – Face Jugs,” http://jonespottery.com/face-jugs/ This source includes photos of grotesque face jars that are little more than racial slurs made into pottery, but it also includes some modern face jugs that carry on the African tradition.
“Nkisi,” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nkisi
“Nkisi Nkondi, Kongo people,” Central Africa: Democratic Republic of the Congo, KHAN Academy, https://khanacademy.org/humanities/art-africa/central-africa/democratic-republic-of-the-congo/a/nkisi-nkondi
Osborne, John, reporter. “In Charleston, South Carolina, all charges in the Wanderer slave ship case are dropped,” report on federal trial of J. Egbert Farnum and others, as recorded in Tom Henderson Wells’ book, The Slave Ship Wanderer.
“Reliquary Guardian Figures,” Central African Art: A Personal Journey, from the Lawrence Gussman Collection, http://africa.si.edu/exhibits/journey/guardian.html
Richman, Jeff. “Green-Wood Connections Everywhere!” Green-Wood Historian Blog, 29 October 2009, https://www.green-wood.com/2009/green-wood-connections-everywhere-2/
“Ritual Pottery from Togo and Benin,” Arte Magica Galerie, http://www.artemagica.nl/Ritualpottery
“Slave Pottery: Face Jugs” US Slave (blog), http://usslave.blogspot.com/2012/05/slave-pottery-face-jugs.html
“South Carolina Plantations: Edgefield County, SC Plantations,” SCIWAY: South Carolina Information Highway, http://south-carolina-plantations.com/edgefield/edgefield-county.html
“The Underground Railroad: A Well-Kept Secret,” ArtSmart Indiana, http://www.artsmartindiana.org/resources/ugrr.php
“Underground Railroad Map,” American Historama, http://www.american-historama.org/1829-1841-jacksonian-era/underground-railroad-map.htm
“Unusual Vintage African Mask – Republic of Congo, for sale on Quintessentia, http://www.quintessentia.com/art/africana/unusual-vintage-african-mask-republic-of-congo-9.html
“Vodun (aka Voodoo) and related religions,” Religious Tolerance: Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance, http://www.religioustolerance.org.voodoo.htm
“Wanderer (slave ship)” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wanderer_(slave_ship)
Well, Tom Henderson. The Slave Ship Wanderer. Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 1967.
“West African Vodun,” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/West_African_Vodun
“Wooden Nkongi Fetish Statue,” from the Pinterest board “Togo” https://www.pinterest.com/angsor1/togo
When I was hiking on Exuma Cay in the Bahamas, I came across a number of flat stones marked with chalk circles. On top, inviting the passer-by to experiment, were two oblong striker stones. The flat stones were musical. The chalk circles marked the best places to hit the stones for clear tones covering most of a scale. This is exactly what ancient people found – unexpected musical stones. Except where I found them entertaining, they found them endowed with magical power.
Tanzania has several ringing stones. One is a free-standing stone in Serengeti National Park that’s been struck so many times it has cup-marks in different spots. Its use by the native people is unclear though it might have part of rain-making ceremonies.
Discovering the cup-marks as musical place holders brings something new to the discussion of cup-marks, which are easily the oldest and most common form of rock art in the world.
Photo by Wayne Jones
Ringing Rocks County Park, Bucks County, Pennsylvania, USA gives another interesting example. The most famous part of this park is the seven-acre field of boulders that sing. The Lenape Indians considered the area sacred, but it was acquired by the Penn family in 1737. In 1895, Abel Haring, president of the Union National Bank, purchased the land. Apparently he also saw some extraordinary value in the parcel; he refused an offer to sell the land to manufacturer who wanted to quarry the blocks. Haring eventually donated the land to Bucks County. The protected area now includes 128 acres.
Interestingly, the Lenape Indians left marks on the singing stones (See photo, right) much like those in other parts of the world.
Southeastern Pennsylvania and central New Jersey are home to over a dozen ringing rock boulder fields. While some have been obliterated by development, others have been carefully protected and now enjoy a community of supporters and researchers.
Single stones have been used as gongs all over the world. Usually, they are suspended and struck to make a single loud sound. Occasionally, multiple gongs are used at once, as shown in the photo from Ethiopia (below).
Lithophones are larger versions of exactly what I found in the Bahamas: a series of stones, either balanced on a frame or suspended from a bar, that produce specific tones when struck. It’s the ancestor of our xylophones and marimbas.
Interestingly, many ancient sounding stone sites also include rock art images. In 1956, archaeologist Bernard Fagg noted that rock gongs in Birnin Kudu, Nigeria also had cave paintings nearby and guessed that the two were linked in some way. M. Catherine Fagg has continued the research at many sites world-wide.
In Azerbaijan, the caves of Gobustan include a rock which emits a deep resonating sound when struck. Rock art images in the cave depict dancers.
India has many ancient sites that include ringing stones. In Sangana-Kupgal, hundreds of petroglyphs decorate ringing rocks. When the rocks are struck near the carvings, the stones emit a loud, musical tone. (See photos, left and below)
Some of the bigest lithophones come from VietNam, where the instrument still enjoys considerable popularity. In 1949, a French archaeologist named Georges Condominas came across a set of 11 tuned rocks, which he took to be very old, in the central highlands where the M’nong people, originally from Malaysia, lived. Condominas took the stones back to France, and they now live in the Musee de l’homme in Paris.
As it turns out, the area is rich in lithophones, and their popularity has spread throughout the country. You can now listen to quite lively and tuneful performances. My favorite is on YouTube, at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gCHno2kftVU.
Photo by Angeles Mosquera
Perhaps the largest and most famous lithophone of all is Stonehenge in Wiltshire, England. According to recent research, about five thousand years ago people moved the giant bluestones, weighing about four tons each, at least 140 miles from a site in Wales to their current home on Salisbury Plain. We have little information about these people, their reason for undertaking this Herculean task, or their plans for the stones once they’d reached the plain. Most research on Stonehenge has concentrated on its astronomical features, including the stones’ alignment with the solstice. However Stonehenge may well have been more than a visual wonder. In recent experiments, British archaeologists found the stones have a distinct ring, not thud, when hit with a hammerstone, and that each stone has a different tone. They described the sounds as something like wooden or metal bells, which brings up the idea of church bells and all of their different functions in an area. Indeed, the Welsh village of Maenclochog (translated as Stone Bells) used Bluestones as church bells up until the 1700’s. Marks on the Stonehenge bluestones indicate they were struck repeatedly, though we do not know the reason.
Dr. Rupert Till, an archaeoacoustics expert, maintained that based on his experiments, Stonehenge would have had extraordinary acoustics that included overlapping echoes. He suggests listeners could have achieved a trance state by listening to music played within the circle.
Stalactites and Stalagmites
Some cave formations are also emit sounds when struck. Their location within a cave serves to amplify the sound. The Great Stalacpipe Organ in Luray Caverns, Shenandoah National Park, Virginia (USA) is a perfect example. As early as 1878, the musical properties of the stalactites in Luray Caverns were well known. Guides played folk tunes on the stalactites to the delight of visitors. The 1906 postcard from Luray Cavers shows people playing the stalactites with hammers.
The resemblance of a row of 37 tonal stalactites to a pipe organ inspired Leland W. Sprinkle to build the Great Stalactite Organ in 1955, which now uses a keyboard and a series of rubber mallets that strike the stalactites. While this is certainly a commercial venture, it’s a modern reflection of the same awe the ancient people must have felt when they heard the amazing sounds. It’s worth listening to one of many YouTube recordings of the organ being played in the cave. A recording of “Moonlight Sonata” is included in the reading list.
Perhaps because ancient people did not understand sound the same way we do, they attributed special powers to the stones themselves. Some singing stones gave voice to the spirits or the ancestors. The most powerful of these were the places where spirits spoke back through echoes. Sound-reflecting surfaces were often viewed as animate beings or as abodes of spirits.
In some cases, magic singing, which is singing with the echoes, was practiced, a skill which indicated a supernatural power. This practice was carried over into medieval churches, where echoes were explained as accompaniment by a choir of angels.
The sound of water and rock
Ancient people often viewed boundary sites as especially powerful.
In Finland, rock art has often been associated with water features. (See photo, above) Antii Lahelma, Finnish rock art expert, has noted in her paper “Hearing and Touching Rock art: Finnish rock paintings and the non-visual” that most of the rock paintings she’s studied were associated with ancient water courses. She claims the rock art images are more than visual, that they celebrate the meeting of worlds, the sound of water on rock. They need to be touched and heard as well as seen.
In Alta Vista, Mexico, Tecoxquin people still visit ancient petroglyph sites as water’s edge to leave offerings. Note the petroglyph on the rock on the left.
We are limited in our understanding of ancient sites by our tendency to put perception in rather clearly limited boxes. It’s art or it’s music or it’s religion. Increasingly, what we’re finding is a world that encompassed all of those things seamlessly.
Sources and interesting reading:
“Ancient Indians made ‘rock music,’ BBC News. 19 March 2004, http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/science/nature/3520384.stm
Amos, Jonathan. “Stonehenge design was ‘inspired by sounds’” BBC News, 5 March 2012, http://www.bbc.com/news/science-environment-17073206
Fagg, M. Catherine. Rock Music. Pitt Rivers Museum, University of Oxford, 1997.
“The Great Stalacpipe Organ,” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Great_Stalacpipe_Organ
“The Great Stalacpipe Organ: Moonlight Sonata” (video) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HsKUUn29tSs
“Historical,” from Lithophones.com, a comprehensive list of countries with known musical stones. http://www.lithophones.com/index/php?id=2
Keating, Fiona. “Scientists recreate ancient ‘xylophone’ made of prehistoric stones,” IB Times, 15 March 2014, http://www.ibtimes.co.uk/scientists-recreate-ancient-xylophone-made-prehistoric-stones-1440455
“Kupgal petroglyphs,” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kupgal_petroglyphs
“La Pietra Sonante,” Pietro Pirelli, musician (video). Powerful ringing sound! http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p5Q5bW3bYMM
Lahelma, Antii. “Hearing and Touching Rock Art: Finnish rock paintings and the non-visual,” Academia. http://www.academia.edu/2371980/hearing_and_touching_rock_art_ Finnish_rock_paintings_and_the_non-visual/ A very interesting paper.
LeRoux, Mariette and Laurent Banguet, “Cavemen’s ‘rock’ music makes a comeback,” The Telegraph, 17 March 2014, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/music/10702186/Cavemens-rock-music-makes-a-comeback.html
“Litofonos.” Piedras que hablan…con musica. (video) www.youtube.com/watch?v+qY1L–irW70
“Musical Stone, Namibia,” http://www.namibian.org/travel/archaeology/musical-stone.html
“A Mystifying Experience: The Alta Vista Petroglyphs,” A Gypsy’s Love blog, agypsyslove.com/2001/07 – photo of Alta Vista glyphs
“Ringing Rocks,” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ringing_rocks
“Ringing Rocks: A Geological and Musical Marvel,” It’s Not that Far: Great places to see and things to do near Eastern Pennsylvania, 10 September 2010, http://www.itsnothtatfar.com/2010/09/ringing-rocks/
“Rock gong,” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rock_gong
Schultz, Colin. “Stonehenge’s Stones Can Sing,” Smithsonian.com. 10 March 2014. http://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news-stonehenges-stones-can-sing-180950034/?no-ist
“A short introduction to musical stone,” from Lithophones.com. http://www.lithophones.com/index/php?id=45
“The Sky at Night,” BBC 2-minute video about drums at a model of Stonehenge, 5 July 2013, http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p01ccpsp
“Swakop River, Namibia (video – a little windy but interesting) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hrlPxT4MS8.
Tellinger, Michael. “Stone Xylophone.” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6aG-e7zGq3Y
Tellinger, Michael. “Stones that ring like bells.” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uX2P8utjk3A
Waller, Steven J. “Archaeoacoustics: A Key Role of Echoes at Utah Rock Art Sites,” Utah Rock Art, Volume 24
Waller, Steven J. “Rock Art Acoustics” – a very extensive collection of information about sites and research. https://sites.google.com/site/rockartacoustics/
We’ve long thought of ancient people as a little (or a lot) less sophisticated than we are. Maybe the March of Progress illustration is to blame, but we see the folks who came before us as kind of dull-witted. I mean, they didn’t have iPhones, right?
Worse is the assumption that they also lacked intelligence and emotional complexity, even language. This despite extensive evidence to the contrary, including new finds at Blombos Cave in South Africa, including engraved red ochre blocks, ochre mixing kits, shell beads, as well as bone and stone tools dated 70,000 to 100,000 years ago!
Let’s take a boat
And why do we assume that our ancient ancestors had to walk everywhere when evidence of their boating ability abounds?
Humans crossed open sea and reached Australia by boat 50 – 75,000 years ago. (Kimberly rock art shown in photo)
Thomas Stasser and Eleni Panagopoulou’s work on Crete uncovered stone artifacts over 130,000 years old. Their conclusion: modern humans were not the first to sail the Mediterranean. Neanderthals, or perhaps even earlier hominins arrived before them.
Even earlier evidence points to hominins’ ability to sail. Homo Floresiensis, the so-called “Hobbit People” for their diminutive size, braved treacherous deep sea waters to reach the island of Flores in what is now Indonesia. Some artifacts on the island are 800,000 years old.
England enjoyed at least four waves of colonizers, starting 800,000 years ago. The Boxgrove site on the southern coast yielded the oldest hominin remains: a leg bone and two teeth from what might be Homo heidelbergensis, considered the ancestor of both Homo neanderthalensis and Homo sapiens.
But in the Americas
On the other hand, the peopling of the Americas is always described as a plodding migration of humans along a single path. According to the theory most often taught in school, Ice Age hunters followed big game across what was then the land bridge between Siberia and Alaska, known as Beringia.
It wasn’t a new theory. Jose de Acosta of Spain first proposed it in 1590.
The Smithsonian vs. Clovis First
The Smithsonian Institution has had an interesting relationship with Clovis First. Although the first “Clovis” point was discovered in 1906 by George McJunkin, a self-educated African-American cowboy and former slave, it didn’t come to the attention of the Smithsonian until the 1920s when Jess Higgins, the director of the Colorado Museum of Natural History, found a similar point embedded in an extinct bison. In the 1930s more points like these were discovered near Clovis, New Mexico, which gave its name to the famous lithic style. The theory that grew out of these finds stated that the first Americans came across the Land Bridge from Asia and from there spread throughout the Americas.
Ales Hrdlicka, taking over from William Henry Holmes at the Smithsonian, used his considerable influence to squash any research into the Clovis theory. But the evidence kept piling up that modern humans were in North America at the same time as mammoths and Ice Age bison, about 13,000 years ago.
The Paleoindian Database of the Americas map above shows the distribution of Clovis points found in North America. The highest concentration is in the middle south.
So the push was on, with renegade western archaeologists pitted against the stodgy Eastern establishment. The theory eventually proved so popular that it was accepted as dogma. In a strange turn of events, anyone who questioned Clovis First was ridiculed by the archaeological establishment. Its force became so strong that any study that produced results conflicting with it was considered flawed. Scientists learned to ignore results that didn’t fit the model.
Thousands of maps like this one, courtesy of Bing, were created, presenting an over-simplified and probably incorrect picture of the peopling of the Americas.
Over the years, finds that conflicted with Clovis First kept coming in. Clovis points are concentrated in the southeastern part of the USA, not the west, as would be expected from the Clovis First migration theory.
In yet another strange turn-around, Dennis Stanford of the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History now claims there was never any evidence of Clovis points originating in Siberia. He now claims that the points are Solutrean, and the colonizers came from northern Spain to the eastern coast of North America.
And now to South America
When Tom Dillehay came up with a date of 14,800 years ago for the Monte Verde site in Chile, the archaeological community, in a fit of collective panic, said they simply couldn’t accept evidence that refuted their favorite theory. No site in South America could predate the opening of the ice sheets in North America.
And now, Dillehay has published a new paper in PLOS One, with dates from a different section of the Monte Verde site, establishing human presence there 18,500 years ago.
This brings up the possibility that the direction of the migration arrow in the old model was dead wrong. Maybe people showed up in South America and then moved north.
But here’s the strangest part of this odd drama: Why, when we accept seafaring relatives in the Mediterranean as far back as the Neanderthals – maybe farther – can’t we accept seafaring explorers who arrived in the Americas? Not just coastline huggers. True seafarers, excellent navigators from the South Pacific.
Maybe they were outlaws or people who got lost at sea. Or maybe they just had to see what was out there.
That’s the premise of the second book in my series, Past the Last Island. A group of explorers, driven away from their homeland by natural disasters, purposely sets out into the open ocean to find whatever lies beyond the edge of the world. I believe that’s a human trait. It’s what took us to the moon and someday, I hope, to Mars and other planets.
If we grant the people from long ago the same intelligence and complexity we value in ourselves, we open up new possibilities in our history, and our collective story becomes that much richer.
(The next big shake-up in the ancients’ world is going to come from China. Stay tuned.)
Sources and interesting reading:
“Blombos Cave,” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Blombos_Cave
Bower, Bruce. “Ancient Hominids Took to the Seas,” Science News, 27 November 2012, news.discovery.com/human/evolution/ancient-hominids_sailors_seas.htm
“Clovis: Why the Controversy?” The Bradshaw Foundation, http://www.bradshawfoundation.com/journey/clovis.html
Curry, Andrew. “Finding the First Americans,” The New York Times, 19 May 2012, http://www.nytimes.com/2012/05/20/opinion/sunday/who-arrived-in-the-americas-first.html
Dillehay, Tom, and others. “New Archaeological Evidence for an Early Human Presence at Monte Verde, Chile,” PLOS One, 18 November 2015, http://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0141923.
Dixon, Jim, “Vicariant models for the initial colonization of North America,” People Colonizing New Worlds, 1st Harvard Australian Studies Symposium, 17-18 April, 2009
“First Americans arrived 2500 years before we thought,” New Scientist, Daily News, 24 March 2011, http://www.newscientist.com/article/dn20287-first-americans-arrived-2500-years-before-we-thought?DCMP=OTC-rss&nsref+online-news
Gugliotta, Guy. “When Did Humans Come to the Americas?” Smithsonian Magazine, February 2013, http://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/when-did-humans-come-to-the-americas-4209273/
“Homo Floresiensis,” Human Origins, Smithsonian Museum of Natural History, http://humanorigins.si.edu/evidence/human-fossils/species/homo-floresiensis
Jones, Tim. “100,000 Year-Old Incised Ochre Found at Blombos Cave,” Anthropology.net: Beyond bones and stones, 12 June 2009, http://anthropology.net/2009/06/12/100000-year-old-incissed-ochre-found-at-blombos-cave/
Hawks, John. “Did humans approach the southern tip of South America more than 18,000 years ago?” John Hawks Weblog, 19 November 2015, http://johnhawks.net/weblog/reiews/archaeology/america/dillehay-monte-verde-2015.html
Mann, Charles C. “The Clovis Point and the Discovery of America’s First Culture,” Smithsonian Magazine, November 2013, http://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/the-clovis-point-and-the-discovery-of-americas-first-culture-3825828/?no-ist
Meltzer, David. “Why don’t we know when the first people came to North America?” American Antiquity, 54(3), 1989, 471-490. (This article is interesting but out of date.)
Map of Clovis points distribution, PIDBA, Paleoindian Database of the Americas, web.utk.edu/~dander19/clovis_continent-647kb.jpg
“Neanderthals May Have Sailed to Crete,” Discovery.com, 13 December 2012, newsdiscovery.com/history/archaeology/Neanderthals-sailed-Mediterranean-121115.htm
Pringle, Heather. “Primitive Humans Conquer Sea, Surprising Finds Suggest, National Geographic, 17 February 2010, news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2010/02/100217-crete-primitive-humans-mariners-seafarers-mediterranean-sea/
Simmons, Alan. “Extinct pygmy hippopotamus and early man in Cyprus,” Nature, 333, 09 June 1988, 554-557, hhtp://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v333/n6173/abs/333554a0.html
“Upside-Down Map of the Americas” Peregringo blog, http://peregringo.com/?attachment_id=315
Wayman, Erin. “The Top Five Human Evolution Discoveries from England,” Smithsonian Magazine 25 July 2012, http://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/the-top-five-human-evolution-discoveries-from-england-6792571/
Wilford, John Noble. “On Crete, New Evidence of Very Ancient Mariners,” The New York Times, 15 February 2010, http://www.nytimes.com/2010/02/16/science/16archeo.html
Poor Neanderthals. No matter how many wonderful things we learn about them, they remain our lesser predecessors, dismissed as stupid and coarse.
The problem began with their discovery. In 1856, workers in the Neander Valley near Dusseldorf, Germany came across a skull that looked human, except it had a prominent brow ridge, large eye sockets, and a flattened cranium. Thick fossilized bones were discovered nearby. At first, experts thought the bones belonged to humans with rickets. They explained the flattened head by suggesting it had been deformed by repeated blows.
After the Neander valley find, scientists realized similar bones had already been uncovered in Belgium in 1829 and Gibraltar in 1848. Thus, they decided the bones represented a sub-set of humans who suffered from rickets, a vitamin D deficiency that results in the softening and distortion of bones. (Curiously, several Neanderthal skeletons do show evidence of severe arthritis.)
Anglo Irish geologist William King suggested the name Homo neanderthalensis, based on the location of the German find. (This blog post uses both Neanderthal and Neandertal since both terms are in common use.) He decided Neanderthals were incapable of complex thought.
While many people in 19th century Europe accepted the Biblical story of creation, in which God created all creatures at once, some scientists had already questioned it. They knew some species, like the dinosaurs, had gone extinct, so there must be some mechanism for the progression of species. In 1809 Jean Baptiste Lamarck published Philosophie Zoologique, in which he argued that nature is governed by certain laws that lead to a progression of more advanced types of organisms through environmental change. While his theories were seen as quite radical, they stirred a good deal of debate.
In 1859 (only three years after the Neander valley find), Charles Darwin published his book On the Origin of Species through Natural Selection. He pointed out that more young are born each year than can survive. Those with an advantage, something that allowed them to be more successful in their environment, were more likely to survive and reproduce. Since longer-necked giraffes could reach higher branches, they got more to eat, so they would be healthier. They could chase off rivals, mate, and reproduce. Those offspring were more likely to inherit the longer neck. In the case of the famous finches in the Galapagos that now bear his name, he saw that various finch species had developed different beak shapes in order to better access and process their selected foods.
Knowing that The Descent of Man, his treatise on human evolution, would shock those who believed in the Bible creation story, Darwin held off publishing it until 1871. In this, he argued that all life forms, including people, evolved from simpler ones. He used the metaphor of the tree. While a tree may have many branches that grow from the same roots, some survive and grow while others shrivel and die. He suggested that far back in time, apes and humans shared a common ancestor. Some, like the Neanderthals, did not thrive.
In the public imagination, those two works combined in the simplified format of “Survival of the Fittest.” Or “Only the strong survive.” That provided a reason that Homo sapiens survived and Homo neanderthalensis didn’t: we were clearly better, stronger, brighter, more inventive, more adaptive, and definitely prettier. Or so it seemed.
From 1899 – 1905, a Croatian paleontologist named Dragutin Gorjanovic-Kramberger assembled a huge collection of animal fossils, stone implements, and Neanderthal bones he found on Husnjak hill, near the town of Krapina. He made careful, extensive notes about the stratigraphy, geology, hydrology, and paleoclimatology, in an era when many others simply dug up bones. He felt these hominids, whom he named Homo primigenius (later known as Homo neanderthalensis) were the ancestors of Homo sapiens.
Unfortunately, his studies were eclipsed in Europe by the discovery of a Neanderthal skeleton at La Chapelle aux Saints, in France. But more about Dragutin Gorjanovic-Kramberger later.
The Boule image
In 1908, after the discovery of the skeleton of an old Neanderthal man, along with remains of wooly rhinoceros, reindeer, ibex, hyena, bison, and wild horse at La Chapelle aux Saints, Marcelline Boule, the influential French paleontologist, concluded that the Neanderthal was brutish, bent-kneed, and did not stand fully upright. The illustration he had made by Frantisek Kupka (pictured on the left) shows a hairy gorilla-like figure with opposable toes.
All of this makes sense, I suppose, given the rise of “Survival of the Fittest” theories and the search for “The Missing Link.” The public loved it. The powerful but brutish ape-man appears in Arthur Conan Doyle’s 1912 story, “The Lost World,” and later in H. G. Wells’ 1921 story “The Grisly Folk,” in which Neanderthals are hideous, primitive cannibals.
The most famous personification of the brutish ape-man is King Kong, who was described as “neither beast nor man.” The original film (1933) sets up Kong as the King of Beasts on Skull Island, an island lost in time, where giant dinosaurs roam. Kong is captured and taken to New York, where he’s exhibited as the Eighth Wonder of the World. Things do not go well, and Kong winds up being shot down by airplanes as he climbs to the top of the Empire State Building in an attempt to abduct (or protect) Ann Darrow, a white woman in a filmy dress. (Photo, right)
The concept proved so popular, it reappeared many times, including Son of King Kong, King Kong vs. Godzilla, King Kong Escapes, King Kong (1976), King Kong Lives, and the most recent King Kong (2005). (In the Peter Jackson remake, Kong is a silverback gorilla, not an ape-man). More King Kong films are in the works, including Kong: Skull Island, and Godzilla vs. Kong.
King Kong, or something very similar, even wound up in a Superman comic (pictured, left).
Boule’s theories about Neanderthals and the terrible illustration that accompanied them still stick in the public mind, even in the face of contradictions. Recent studies have shown that Neanderthals had a robust build and a larger brain than Homo sapiens. A 2007 study of the Neanderthal genome in several individuals, led by Carles Laleuza-Fox and published in Science, suggested that Neanderthals had varied skin pigmentation and eye color, just as modern humans do.
And no language
When I was in college, one psychology class used a textbook titled The Difference in Man and the Difference It Makes. One of its theses was that only Homo sapiens had complex speech. That was part of what separated us from the other animals. This despite the evidence from whales and dolphins of varied, complex, even regional vocal patterns. Doesn’t matter. If we can’t understand them, they don’t count.
So it’s not surprising that experts decided that Neanderthals didn’t have complex language skills. As a matter of fact, Neanderthals were often dismissed as mute. But the fact is the Neanderthal hyoid bone, which was used as evidence of their lack of language is, according to new research, “virtually indistinguishable” from our own. A study published in PLOS ONE showed that Neanderthals used their vocal tract the same way modern humans do.
“By analyzing the mechanical behavior of the fossilized bone with micro x-ray imaging, we were able to build models of the hyoid that includes the intricate internal structure of the bone, “Stephen Wroe, one of the authors, said. “From this research, we can conclude that it’s likely that the origins of speech and language are far, far older than once thought.”
So what is true about Neanderthals?
They spread out over a very large area, from North Africa around the entire Mediterranean up to the ice sheets that covered northern Europe. They arrived sometime around 250,000 years ago, though some sources say “proto-Neanderthals” arrived far earlier – up to 600,000 years ago.
They are closely related to modern humans, differing in DNA by only 0.12%.
They co-existed with modern humans for 2500 to 5000 years, depending on the location, and interbred with them. Most of us carry between 1% and 4% of Neanderthal DNA, though the parts we share vary.
They started making stone tools about 300,000 years ago. By 170,000 years ago, they had a sophisticated tool set.
They practiced burial rituals and apparently cared for their wounded.
They lived in social communities and built buildings and watercraft, probably crossing the Mediterranean Sea as early as 110,000 years ago.
They were skilled hunters, able to bring down deer, reindeer, ibex, even aurochs.
They dried fresh meat
They also cooked their vegetables.
They painted on cave walls and used personal adornment.
They went extinct somewhere around 40,000 years ago, at the start of a very cold period in Europe, about the time modern humans arrived. Theories explaining their extinction vary widely.
The eagle talon necklace
Back in 1899, Dragutin Gorjanovic-Kramberger (Remember the paleontologist from Croatia?) discovered a very rich Neanderthal fossil site near Krapina. His many specimens (hundreds of bones and teeth, over 800 stone tools, over 2000 animal remains) were subsequently stored in the Department of Geology and Paleontology at the Croatian Natural History Museum in Zagreb. One of these finds was a set of polished eagle talons. A 2015 study by Davorka Radovic and others, published in PLOS ONE, shows that these eight talons from Krapina, dating to 130,000 years ago, show clear signs of human manipulation (cuts and polishing). The authors note in their abstract:
“These features suggest they were part of a jewelry assemblage, – the manipulations a consequence of mounting the talons in a necklace or bracelet. An associated phalanx articulates with one of the talons and has numerous cut marks, some of which are smoothed. These white-tailed eagle bones, discovered more than 100 years ago, all derive from a single level at Krapina and represent more talons than found in the entire European Mousterian period. Presence of eight talons indicates that the Krapina Neandertals acquired and curated eagle talons for some kind of symbolic purpose. Some have argued that Neandertals lacked symbolic ability or copied this behavior from modern humans. These remains clearly show that the Krapina Neandertals made jewelry well before the appearance of modern humans in Europe, extending ornament production and symbolic activity early into the European Mousterian.”
Since other Neanderthal sites have included twisted fibers, it’s reasonable to suggest that Neanderthals strung together the eagle talons in a pattern consistent with the wear on the talons.
Neanderthals had an eagle talon necklace 130,000 years ago!
Perhaps it’s time we gave the Neanderthals an image makeover. They certainly deserve it.
Sources and interesting reading:
“A Tree of Life for Gene Flow within Species,” Charles Darwin’s 1837 sketch, Scientific Blogging, Science 2.0, http://science 20.com/news/articles/tree-life-gene-flow-within-species-100622
Begun, David (ed.) A Companion to Paleoanthropology. Wiley-Blackwell, 2013.
D’Anastasio, Ruggero, Stephen Wroe, and others, “Micro-Biomechanics of the Kebara 2 Hyoid and Its Implication for Speech in Neanderthals,” PLOS ONE, 18 December 2013, http://jounrals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0082261#references
“Dragutin Gorjanovic-Kramberger,” Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dragutin_Gorjanovi%C4%87-Kramberger
Graham, Ruth. “Our lost cousins, the Neanderthals,” The Boston Globe, 13 February 2015.
Hawks, John. “Infographic: Field guide to Pleistocene hookups,” from John Hawks’ blog, 21 December 2013, http://johnhawks.net/weblog/topics/humor/field-guide-pleistocene-hookups-2013.html
Hogenboom, Melissa, Science reporter. “Neanderthals could speak like modern humans, study suggests,” 20 December 2013, BBC News, http://www.bbc.com/news/science-environment-25465102
“Homo Neanderthalensis,” Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, Human Origins, http://humanorigins.si.edu/evidence/human-fossils/species/homo-neanderthalensis
“King Kong,” Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/King_Kong
Lalueza-Fox, Carles and others, “A Melanocortin Receptor Allele Suggests Varying Pigmentation among Neanderthals,” Science, 318, 1453-5.
Lents, Professor Nathan H. “Did Neanderthals Speak?” on The Human Evolution Blog, 9 February 2015, http://thehumanevolutionblog.com/2015/02/09/did-neanderthals-speak?
“Marcellin Boule,” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org.Marcellin_Boule
Martinez and others, “Human hyoid bone from the middle Pleistocene site of the Sima de los Huesos (Sierra de Atapuerca, Spain)” Journal of Human Evolution, January 2008, 118-124, http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S004724840700139X
McKie, Robin, Science editor. “Why did the Neanderthals die out?” The Guardian 2 June 2013, http://www.the guardian.com/science/2013/jun/02/why-did-neanderthals-die-out
Mintz, Zoe. “Did Neanderthals Speak? 60,000-Year-Old-Hyoid Bone Is ‘Virtually Indistinguishable’ From Our Own,” International Business Times, 3 March 2014, http://www.ibtimes.com/did-neanderthals-speak-60000-year-old-bone-virtually-indistinguishable-our-own-1559113
Morelle, Rebecca, Science reporter. “Hunter-gatherer European had blue eyes and dark skin,” BBC World Service, 27 January 2014, http://www.bbc.com/news/science-environment-25885519
“Neanderthal,” Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Neanderthal
“Neanderthal Man,” Sheppard Software. http://www.sheppardsoftware.com/Eruopeweb/factfile/Unique-facts-Europe15.htm
“Neanderthals Made Jewelry with Eagle Talons,” Archaeology magazine, 11 March 2015, http://archaeology.org/news/3077-150311-croatia-neanderthal-jewelry
“New Dates for Italy’s Neanderthals,” Archaeology magazine, 5 November 2015, http://archaeology.org/news/3858-151105
“Paleogenomics Lab, Group members,” http://www.ibe.upf-scic.es/research/research-labs-lalueza-fox.html
Radovcic, Davorka, and others, “Evidence for Neandertal Jewelry: Modified White-Tailed Eagle Claws at Krapina,” PLOS ONE, 11 March 2015, http://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0119802
Spencer, Frank (ed.) History of Physical Anthropology, vol. 1. New York and London: Garland Publishers, 1997.
El Castillo Cave
El Castillo Cave in northern Spain is famous for containing the oldest cave art in Europe: a red disk that was painted on the cave wall at least 40,800 years ago, perhaps as long as 42,000 years ago. These dates caused a major uproar because it’s just about the time modern humans (Homo sapiens sapiens) are thought to have arrived in Western Europe. Before then, Neanderthals (Homo neanderthalensis) occupied the area. So debate rages about whether the red dot was the work of our Neanderthal cousins, modern humans, or perhaps a hybrid of the two. The latter is certainly a possibility; we now know the two races/species interbred. Or perhaps the meeting of the two lines of hominins released a flood of new creativity on both sides.
You can find a good introductory video, “Paleolithic Cave Arts in Northern Spain,” on YouTube. It also shows how close the quarters are inside some sections of the cave.
The cave also contains many very old hand stencils, the oldest of which are at least 37,000 years old. Just for reference, the oldest paintings in Chauvet Cave in France are 32,000 years old, and the famous Lascaux Cave paintings are about 20,000 years old.
People are drawn to contests determining the first and the oldest, so most of the attention given to El Castillo has been directed at the very old dots and hand stencils. Two of those tested are marked on the photo.
But El Castillo’s value is more than just its antiquity.
The 13,000 year span
Experts once considered the drawings made on the walls of El Castillo the product of a single time period – about 17,000 years ago. This somewhat arbitrary date was assigned because they thought France had the oldest cave art, so any cave in Spain had to be younger than Lascaux Cave in France. When scientists were able to date the art by dating the calcite deposits that had formed over the top of it, they were amazed at its age. And its range.
The oldest, the red disks, are over 40,000 years old. Some may be 42,000 years old. But some disks are far younger, at 20,000 years old.
The disk and hand print that were analyzed by Pettitt, Pyke, and Zilhao are marked with numbers on the sketch below.
Some of the hand stencils, mostly near the front and middle sections of the cave, were apparently painted more than 37,000 years ago, but some of the more recent hand stencils are 24,000 years old.
The animal figures painted over the hand stencils are generally more recent than the stencils, in some cases by thousands of years.
So the artwork in the cave was created over thirteen thousand years. Thus, it’s impossible for us to make a single assumption or interpretation about all the paintings in the cave. The space, though probably considered very powerful and important, may have served very different purposes over those years. What’s interesting is the ancient artists’ decision to continue to mark the cave, often using the same imagery, and in some cases to mark right over the top of earlier signs.
The Panel of the Hands
One of the most intriguing sections of the cave is the Panel of Hands, located far back in one leg of the cave.
The stenciled hands included in it were created by placing a hand over the rock and blowing a mixture of red ocher and water over it. The slurry was held either in the artist’s mouth and blown out directly over the hand, or in a clam shell. (Several shells, mixing stones, and hollow bird bones were found on site.) When researchers attempted to recreate the process of creating a hand stencil, they tried two methods: they blew out a mixture held in their mouth for some and for others they used two tubes, one inserted in the slurry and one held in the mouth. The passage of air from the mouth tube over the slurry tube creates a vacuum that then allows the slurry to be sprayed over the hand. Those of you old enough to remember artists’ fixative blowers before aerosols will be familiar with the process. As the Dick Blick art supplies site explains, “Place the short tube in your mouth and the long tube in the bottle of fixative. Blow gently and evenly, aiming at your drawing. This atomizer can also be used to spray watercolors and thinned acrylics for special effects.” (In the photo below, a modern artist uses an atomizer for special effects.)
When experimental archaeologists attempted to replicate the hand stencil technique with two hollow bird bones forming the atomizer, they found it difficult to master. Archaeologist Paul Pettitt reported that using the two tubes to spray the slurry left them light-headed. Many heard a persistent whirring or whistling noise in their ears. It’s not hard to see how this would have added to the impression of entering a different world.
Who left those hand prints?
Another interesting discovery colors our view of this panel. Older interpretation was that the hand prints were those of men seeking success in the hunt, but research now shows that three-quarters of the hand prints and stencils in the caves of France and Spain were made by women. Dean Snow, who analyzed hundreds of hand stencils in eight caves in France and Spain, showed that the hand prints carry a distinct signature. Women tend to have ring and index fingers of the same length. Men’s ring fingers tend to be longer than their index fingers. Snow’s data showed that 24 of the 32 hands in El Castillo were female. Their reasons for making the prints remain a mystery.
The semi-circle of dots
Another curious feature of this panel is the semi-circle of dots on the far right. Several scholars have interpreted this as a representation of the Northern Crown constellation (Corona Borealis). It’s a fascinating theory. (I admit this whole section is sheer speculation but fun!)
In northern Spain, the Northern Crown constellation is visible in the night sky from spring to fall. Since El Castillo seems to have been occupied only during those seasons, it would make sense to include it as a sort of seasonal marker. If that’s true, it shows an impressive level of sophistication in our relatives so long ago.
If you want to push that theory, you could point to the position of the Northern Crown on the far right and see the vertical line of hands as the standing Milky Way, as the sky would have appeared in the spring. The line of hands across the middle would cross the center of the sky in early May.
The dark curved bands would appear at the base of the Milky Way, just about where Cassiopeia would be.
Addendum, January 2016
There’s something about the El Castillo Frieze of Hands that I can’t let go. I thought initially that the Northern Crown constellation was notable enough to include in the post, though of course it is speculation. However, I now think that the entire panel, perhaps excluding the bison drawings, relates directly to the summertime night sky.
The section marked with the heavy red lines that resemble a boat looks like the summer position of the constellation Cassiopeia. It appears, about 9:00 PM, as an uneven “W” in the summer and an uneven “M” in winter, while it appears to stand on one leg during spring and fall.
Above it rises the Milky Way, with the three stars of the Summer Triangle marked near the top, the most conspicuous asterism in the summer sky, made up of the brightest stars from the constellations Aquila, Lyra, and Cygnus.
With Cassiopeia in the position marked, this would be a mid-summer star scene, typical of about 9:00 PM in July.
In the drawing shown earlier, the somewhat enigmatic figure in the center of the panel could refer to a number of constellations or combinations of them. If it is Perseus to the Pleiades, that angle would be typical of a later summer sky, late August or September.
Finally, the only times the Northern Crown would look the way it’s painted on the far right of the panel (arms pointing up) would be in spring or fall (March and October). The constellation appears in the spring and disappears from the night sky in the fall.
The three constellations would then reference three different times during the summer.
It’s fascinating to consider the possibility that our ancestors so long ago not only understood the patterns in the stars and their relationship to the seasons but could reproduce them deep inside a cave.
Forgive me if I’ve stepped into the land of speculation. This one wouldn’t stay quiet.
Interestingly, at least eight yellow bison figures were painted over the top of the stenciled hands in the Frieze of Hands. More appear in other sections of the cave, often painted in black. The bison images are remarkably similar – showing the same rump and single hind leg, large hump and (often partial) head with two horns, as if they all followed the same template. They appear at the top of the vertical line of hand stencils in the photo on the left, and over the left and central portions of the horizontal line of hands. In the image below, lines of yellow ocher descend from the bison’s mouth, as if it’s bleeding.
While experts once thought the hand stencils on this panel were a way for hunters to spiritually connect to the bison, perhaps to ensure success in the hunt, current research shows the people who used the cave didn’t eat bison. Mostly they depended on deer for meat. As the famed anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss pointed out, “Animals were chosen [for representation] not because they were ‘good to eat’ but because they were ‘good to think.’”
Besides, the bison were painted later than the hands – in some cases, much later. The hands aren’t touching the bison. The bison are crowding out the hands, or superseding them.
Bison also appear prominently in both Chauvet (France) and Altamira (Spain), as well as Las Monedas, Buxu, and El Pendo. Rather than a form of hunting magic, the bison image, which seems very similar from one site to another, might have represented a spirit power, in particular a male power in a female cave. The figure on the left is from El Castillo. The one on the right is from Buxu Cave (Spain).
The Bison Man
This bison spirit idea is supported in El Castillo by the “Bison Man” figure. Deep in the recesses of the cave is a carved stalactite figure known as the Bison Man. It seems to show the figure of a bison standing upright or climbing a cliff. There’s a nice YouTube video of the Bison Man at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FdbMAZgC7VA showing not only the carving of the bison but also the shadow effect when a light is shined on the whole formation, transforming it into a bison-human moving through the cave. The photo (left) does not show the figure very well. Start with the hind leg, toward the bottom of the photo. Then follow the standing figure, which looks as more like a wolf hybrid than a bison to me. The body uses the natural form of the rock and emphasizes it with black drawing.
The Bison Man figure is reminiscent of the Sorcerer figure in the back of Chauvet Cave (France), which combines both male and female characteristics, and the Sorcerer figure in Trois Freres Cave (France) which combines features of reindeer, bison, bear, horse, and human male. It would be interesting to find out the date for Bison Man and compare that to the dates of the bison drawings. If indeed the bison is the mark of a particular cult or group, it would seem logical for those people to put their symbol over the top of earlier ones, just as the horse and mammoth figures were superimposed on earlier animal forms in Chauvet. Or the way Roman Catholic Spaniards in Peru built their churches on top of Inca stonework.
There’s much to learn from the drawings made so long ago in El Castillo cave, including the meaning of the bizarre abstract figures, called techtiforms, that appear at the base of the vertical line of hands and other places in the cave, each time accented very definitely. (Photo, right.)
These forms are usually explained away as drawings of boats, maps, buildings, corrals, or simply the product of hallucinations or shamanic trance. But they obviously had a very specific meaning and great importance. That’s why they were repeated and emphasized. Perhaps findings in other caves in the area will help us understand. The drawing from Buxu Cave shown in the photo (below left) seems to suggest an animal form, maybe a horse, but it’s hard to tell. I suspect that as we make more discoveries, we’ll get a better idea of what these diagrams mean.
Studying these very old drawings reminds us that our ancestors were far more sophisticated than we guessed.
If it turns out that at least some of the El Castillo artists were Neanderthals, the evidence of their art should help revise the negative image of them we’ve held for so long.
Sources and Interesting Reading:
“Alphecca, jewel in Northern Crown,” Wikipedia, http://earthsky.org/brightest-stars/alphecca-norathern-crowns-brightest-star/
Borenstein, Seth. “Spanish cave paintings shown as oldest in the world,” USA Today, 14 June 2012, http://usatoday30.usatoday.com/tech/scienc/story/2012-06-14/cave-paintings-spain/55602532/1\
“Buxu Cave,” Don’s Maps, http://donsmaps.com/buxu.html
“Claude Levi-Strauss,” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Claude_1_%C3%A0vi-Strauss/
“Corona Borealis,” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Corona_Borealis/
“El Castillo Cave,” Don’s Maps (an excellent source), http://www.donsmaps.com/castillo.html
“First Painters May Have Been Neanderthal, Not Human,” Wired, 14 June 2012, http://www.wired.com/2012/06/neanderthal-cave-paintings/
“Fixative atomizer,” Dick Blick Art Supplies catalog
Garcia-Diez, Marcos. “Ancient paintings of hands,” BBC Travel photos of El Castillo
Garcia-Diez, Marcos, Daniel Garrido, Dirk L. Hoffmann, Paul B. Pettitt, Alistar W. G. Pike, and Joao Zilhao, “The chronology of hand stencils in European Palaeolithic rock art: implication of new U-series results from El Castillo Cave (Cantabria, Spain), Journal of Anthropological Sciences, Vol 93 (2015) 135-152.
Hughes, Virginia. “Were the First Artists Mostly Women?” National Geographic News, 09 October 2013, http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2013/10/131008-women-handprints-oldest-neolithic-cave-art/
“A journey deep inside Spain’s temple of cave art,” BBC Travel, www.bbc.com/trael/story/20141027-a-journey-deep-inside-spains-temple-of-cave-art
“New Research uncovers Europe’s Oldest Cave Paintings,” The New Observer, 24 September 2013
“The Night Sky,” the original 2-sided planisphere (star guide), copyright 1992, David Chandler
“Paleolithic Cave Arts in Northern Spain: El Castillo Cave, Cantabria,” a video available on YouTube, with English subtitles, https://www.youtube.com
Rappenglueck, Michael. “Ice Age People find their ways by the stars: A rock picture in the Cueva de el Castillo (Spain) may represent the circumpolar constellation of the Northern Crown,” Artepreistorica.com, http://www.artepreistorica.com/2000/12/ice-age-people-find=their-way-by-the-stars
Rimell, Bruce. “El Castillo – Formative Image from the Upper Palaeolithic,” Archaic Visions, http://www.visionaryartexhibition.com/archaic-visions/el-castillo-formative-images-from-the-upper-palaeolithic/
Sanders, Nancy K. Prehistoric Art in Europe. Yale University Press, 1995.
Subbaraman, Nidhi. “Prehistoric cave prints show most early artists were women,” NBC News 15 October 2013, http://www.nbcnews.com/science/prehistoric-cave-prints-show-most-early-artists-were-women-8C11391268
Zim, Herbert, and Robert H. Baker. Stars: A guide to the constellations, sun, moon, planets, and other features of the heavens. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1956. Still a cute book.
Jean Clottes, the French cave art expert, has written several books, including one on Chauvet Cave and one entitled Cave Art, an imposing coffee-table sized book with beautiful full-page color illustrations. However, it’s curious that a book with the title Cave Art is really about only three caves in France:
Chauvet, (35,000 – 22,000 years ago)
Lascaux, (22,000 – 17,000 years ago) and
Niaux, (from 11,000 years ago).
That list may be understandable in that the author is French and most familiar with French cave art in these areas. However it’s misleading and perpetuates a misconception.
At first glance, it seems to be a glaring omission of Spain’s notable cave art, especially that of Altamira, El Castillo, and other sites. Altamira cave paintings are so impressive that the area was designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1985. One section of the ceiling of Altamira cave is shown in the photo (left).
El Castillo Cave (Spain) contains the oldest cave paintings known in Western Europe, with a red disk dated to 40,800 years old – perhaps the work of our Neanderthal cousins. That’s at least 8,000 years older than the oldest dates from Chauvet Cave in France. The photo on the right shows negative hand prints and a red dot visible in the lower left – the famous disk.
But Clottes omits more than Spain. He leaves out the rest of the world!
In his introduction to Cave Art, Clottes defines art as “the result of the projection of a strong mental image on the world, in order to interpret and transform reality, and recreate it in a material form.” Thus, he says, older marks, like circles, spirals, and crossed lines cannot be considered art. I wonder if he’s strolled through a modern art collection lately.
He dismisses African and Australian art as hard to date and therefore not worth considering. He omits Indian and Indonesian cave art entirely. Even Eastern European finds like Pestera Coliboaia cave art in Romania, the oldest cave art in Central Europe, doesn’t merit a mention.
Then he moves on without apology: “So while we can be sure that European Paleolithic art was not modern man’s first artistic endeavor, it is without a doubt the best known and best researched form of ancient art. This is due in part to complex economic and historical factors – Europe is rich, and its Paleolithic art has been studied for well over a century – but also, and perhaps especially, because its spectacular imagery still appeals to our modern sensibilities.”
That’s the argument, in a nutshell. And its endless repetition helps perpetuate the erroneous idea that art originated in Europe because, well, you know, Europe is the richest and the best. And by Europe, he means France.
The truth is that French cave art is probably the most extensively studied but not the oldest or even the most sophisticated cave art in the world. Instead, it shares many themes with other cave art sites around the world and fits easily into the world cave art collection.
Consider these examples:
Maros Cave, Sulawesi Island, Indonesia
Currently, cave art found in Sulawesi Island, Indonesia has been dated to over 40,000 years old. (If you’re keeping score, that’s competing with Europe’s oldest.) The red ochre paintings were dated by examining the calcite deposits that had formed on top of the drawings, on the theory that the paintings had to be at least as old as the material that covered them. Paintings include human figures, wild animals, and many hand stencils, one of which, when tested, was found to be 39,900 years old. Next to that print is a drawing of a pig, found to be 35,400 years old. They are currently the earliest known handprint and the earliest known drawing of an animal. Interestingly, scholars have known about these drawings since the 1950’s, but the images were dismissed as being no more than 12,000 years old because that was the date they had assigned to human migration to the island. This sort of constricted thinking, in which the data must fit the model, is a continuing problem in archaeology. The image in the photo (left) is fragmented by deposits laid down on top of it. The animal is facing right. Its narrow nose is fairly easy to spot. Its little hind legs are also easy to see. A stenciled hand print is visible below the pig’s shoulder.
Some cave paintings in Arnhem Land feature the Genyornis, a giant emu-like bird considered extinct for over 40,000 years. Rock shelters in the Northern Territory provided homes for people as far past as 50,000 years ago. They left behind drawings of fish (photo, right), turtles, possums, and wallabies, but few images have been dated. Geologist Bruno David noted, “We don’t have the dated art itself, but we’ve found the tools that were used to make the art. For that reason, we rightfully assume that Australia has pigment art going back to when people first came here which is close to 50,000 years ago.”
The charcoal drawings at Nwarla Gabarnmang have been dated to 28,000 years old. A drawing of the Rainbow Serpent in the Northern Territory was found to be 23,000 years old. All of these would then be older than the famous paintings in Lascaux Cave in France.
One of the problems with dating Australian aboriginal rock art in some areas is the practice of renewing sacred drawings: painting over images to increase their power. While the practice is completely understandable, it makes dating the images very difficult.
Evidence found in the Bhimbetka rock shelters in Madhya Pradesh, India indicate they were inhabited by hominins for over 300,000 years; some experts claim more like 700,000 years. That would make the most ancient residents Homo erectus. Some cupules and an engraving discovered in the 1990s were dated to 290,000 years old!
This adds more evidence to the argument that art came before modern humans.
The earliest Bhimbetka paintings known at this time have been dated to 30,000 years old (Photo, left). That’s close to the dates for Chauvet Cave, the oldest rock art site in France.
Pedra Furada, the controversial early site in Brazil, has been dated to between 32,000 and 48,000 years old. Some experts claim 60,000 years old. Rock art there, including images of animals, has been dated to at least 12,000 years old. The image on the right may show a mother deer and baby, as well as a smaller figure, perhaps a frog or turtle.
Cueva de las Manos in Patagonia (Argentina side) has handprints dated to 13,000 years ago.
Khoit Tsenkheriin cave in Mongolia has paintings dating back to the Upper Paleolithic Period (20,000 – 15,000 years ago). In one corner of the cave, overlapping symbols and animals painted on the ceiling and wall include lions, elephants, sheep, ibexes, ostriches, and antelopes, camels. Often, the animals’ horns, humps, and necks are exaggerated, just as they are in the more well-known cave art of Lascaux, roughly its contemporary.
Even more interesting than the range of ancient rock art is the number of curious commonalities.
Often the creatures painted on cave walls are not animals commonly hunted for food but fearsome, powerful beasts. Typically they are painted in profile, with exaggerated but recognizable features. The head, horns, neck and shoulder sometimes stand in for the whole animal. The wooly rhino from Chauvet Cave (left) is remarkably similar to the painting from Pestera Coliboaia cave in Romania (right).
The bison paintings are also similar. The painting on the left is from Chauvet Cave, France, while the figure on the right is from Coliboaia Cave, Romania. Interestingly, both images give a sense of movement in the front legs. The Romania image uses the natural curve of the stone. The French image uses a kind of animation effect where multiple front and back legs give the sense of motion.
The hand stencil
The most universal image in cave art is the hand print and the negative hand stencil. The print was made by applying pigment to the hand and pressing the hand against the stone. The stencil was made by placing a hand on the rock and blowing pigment over it, leaving the negative image of hand. In many sites, both techniques are employed.
These positive and negative hand prints appear all over the world, including sites in India, Borneo, Australia, Africa, Europe, North and South America.
Here is a sampling from Cueva de las Manos (Patagonia, Argentina – far left), Sulawesi (Indonesia second from left), and Canyon de Chelley, Navaho Nation (third from left)
For ancient people, a handprint might have been a registry: “I was here,” an ancient form of marking (or “tagging”). Several hand prints might mark the presence of a group. Multiple prints in the same spot might increase the energy of that place and reinforce the power of the group. The hand print proclaims participation, even if it is with the rock surface itself, just as you might touch a sacred relic or a photo of a long-lost friend or relative.
The handprint is still very important in our culture. In some hospitals, a baby’s hand and foot prints are recorded immediately after birth. As they grow up, children love putting their handprints on – everything! Maybe your toddlers put handprints along your clean wall because the desire to mark a place with their hands is embedded in them. It’s part of being human.
In a local high school I noticed a large paper sign covered with hand prints, apparently from students who had agreed not to drink and drive after their senior prom. The photo of chalk hand prints on a blackboard (left) brings out the sense of energy that the collective prints generate.
If you’re a famous movie star, you get to leave your hand and foot prints on the Hollywood Walk of Fame by the Chinese Theater. Then you’ve really made your mark. (See photo, right)
Rather than perpetuating the myth of art beginning in Europe, we should be celebrating the wealth of our heritage as humans all over the world. We are, as far as we know, the only species to make art (and orchestral music and space flight). We need to keep exploring rock art sites, especially in areas that are currently being lost to rising ocean levels, so we can learn as much as possible about these treasures.
Sources and interesting reading:
“Aboriginal rock art – how old is it actually?” Ask an Expert. ABC Science, Brad Pillans and Keith Fifield’s talk about dating cave art. http://www.abc.net.au/science/articles/2014/10/09/4102916.htm.
“Ancient Art of Kakadu,” Australia.com, http://www.australia.com/en/places/kakadu/nt-rock-art.html
Balter, Michael. “Romanian Cave May Boast Central Europe’s Oldest Cave Art,” Science Magazine, http://news.sciencemag.org/erope/2010/06/romanian-cave-may-boast-central-europes-oldest-cave-art
Bryner, Jeanna. “In Photos: The World’s Oldest Cave Art,” Live Science, http://www.livescience.com/48199-world-oldest-cave-art-photos.html/
“Cave of Altamira and Paleolithic Cave Art of Northern Spain,” United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), World Heritage List, http://whc.unesco.org/en/list/310/
“Cave painting,” Wikipedia (a very good article), https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cave-painting
Clottes, Jean. Cave Art. London: Phaidon Press, 2008.
Clottes, Jean. “Paleolithic Cave Art in France,” The Bradshaw Foundation, http://www.badshawfoundation.com/clottes
“Cueva de las Manos: A Cultural Heritage of Humanity,” http://www.patagonia.com.ar/circuits/587E_Cueva+de+las+Manos
“El Castillo Cave Paintings” Encyclopedia of Stone Age Art. Visual Arts Cork, http://www.visual-arts-cork.com/prehistoric/castillo-cave-paintings.htm/
Ghosh, Pallab, Science Correspondent, “Cave paintings change ideas about the origin of art,” BBC News, 8 October 2014, http://www.bbc.com/news/science-environment-29415716/
“Hand Paintings: Hand Paintings in Rock Art around the World” The Bradshaw Foundation, http://www.bradshawfoundation.com/hands/
“Handprints on blackboard” photo, celestecotaphotography.com
“History of India,” Wikipedia. http://en.wikipedia.org/History_of_India/
“Khoit Tsenkheriin cave,” Mongolian Cave Research Association, http://www.mongoliancave.com/CaveEng/2
“Madhya Pradesh,” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Madhya_Pradesh/
“Oldest Rock Art,” Encyclopedia of Stone Age Art. http://www.visual.art.cork.com/prehistoric/rock-art.htm/
“Pestera Coliboiaia – Coliboaia Cave Rock Art,” Central Europe’s oldest cave paintings discovered at Coliboaia Cave, Don’s Maps (a fabulous source) http://www.donsmaps.com/index.html#sites
“Prehistoric Hand Stencils,” Encyclopedia of Stone Age Art, Visual Arts Cork, http://www.visual-arts-cork.com/prehistoric/hand-stencils-rock-art.htm/
Thompson, Helen, “Rock (Art) of Ages: Indonesian Cave Paintings are 40,000 Years Old,” Smithsonian.com, http://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/rockart-ages-indonesian-cave-paintings-are-40,000-years-old-180952970/?no-ist
Vergano, Dan. “Cave Paintings in Indonesia Redraw Picture of Earliest Art,” National Geographic News, http://news. Nationalgeographic.com/news/2014/10/141008-cave-art-sulawesi-hand-science/
Vergano, Dan. “Q&A: Cave Art Older, More Widespread than Thought, Archaeologist Says,” National Geographic News, http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2014/10/141010-cave-art-indonesia-alistair-pike-questions-science/
Wilford, John Noble. “Cave Paintings in Indonesia May Be among the Oldest Known,” The New York Times, 8 October 2014, http://www.nytimes.com/2014/10/09/science/ancient-indonesian-find-may-ival-oldest-known-cave-art.html/