Championing New Views of the First Americans

Pedra Niede portrait

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

Pedra Furada pierced rock

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

Pedra rock art Wikipedia, by Diego Rego Monteiro

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

Pedra painting with red deer and humans

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

Pedra patterned body

 

 

 

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

 

The treasure underfoot

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

Clovis First”

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

Clovis points

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

clovis_continent_647kb

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

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

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

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

Who’s she?  

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

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

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

But time, it seems, is on her side.

 

New finds in Chile and South Carolina

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

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

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

Fig 7

Santa Elina rock shelter and more

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

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

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

Even more radical theories

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

kayaker1-300

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

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

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

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

The Long Chronology

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

Serra da Capivara

Pedra Serra da Capivara entrance

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

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

 

Sources and interesting reading:

Bellos, Alex, “Archaeologists feud over oldest Americans, The Guardian, 10 February 2000, https://www.theguardian.com/science/2000/feb/11/archaeology.internationalnews

Bower, Bruce, “People may have lived in razil more than 20,000 years ago,” Science News, 5 September 2017, https://www.sciencenews.org/blog/science-ticker/stone-age-people-brazil-20000-years-ago

Bower, Bruce, “Texas toolmakers add to the debate over who the first Americans were,” Science News, 11 July 2018, https://www.sciencenews.org/article/texas-toolmakers-add-debate-over-who-first-americans-were

Brooke, James, “Ancient Find, But How Ancient?” 17 April 1990, The New York Times, https://www.nytimes.com/1990/04/17/science/ancient-find-but-how-ancient.html

Fenton, Bruce, “Brazilian rock shelter proves inhabited Americas 23,000 years ago” The Vintage News, 29 January 2018, https://www.thevintagenews.com/2018/01/29/brazilian-rock-shelter/

Guidon, Niede, “Nature and the age of the depostis in Pedra Furada, Brazil: Reply to Meltzer, Adovasio and others, Antiquity, vol.68, 1994. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/285362399_Nature-and-age_of_the_depostis_in_Pedra_Furada_Brazil…

“Interview with Niede Guidon,” Crosscultural Maria-Brazil, http://www.maria-brazil.org/niede-guidon.htm

Jansen, Roberta, “The archaeologist who fights to preserve the vestiges of the first men of the Americas,” BBC News, 12 March 2016, https://www.bbc.com/portuguese/noticias/2016/03/160312_perfil_niede_guidon_rj_ab

“Niede Guidon,” Wikipedia, https://en.eikipedia.org/wiki/NI%C3%A8de_Guidon

“Niede Guidon,” WikiVividly, https://wikivividly.com/wiki/Niede_guidon

“Pedra Furada,” Britannica Online Encyclopedia, https://www.britannica.com/place/Pedra-Furada

“Pedra Furada,” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pedra_Furada

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

Peron, Roberto, “Pedra Furada the Pierce Rock Site,” Peron Rants (blog) 28 April 2017, https://rperon1017blog.wordpress.com/2017/04/28/pedra-furada/

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

“The Rock Art of Pedra Furada,” The Bradshaw Foundation, http://www.bradshawfoundation.com/south_america/serra_da_capivara/pedra_furada/index.php

Rock Art panel, photo by Diego Rego Monteiro – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=43861884

Romero, Simon, “Discoveries Challenge Beliefs on Humans’ Arrival in the Americas,” The New York Times, 27 March 2015, https://www.nytimes.com/2014/03/28/world/americas/discoveries-challenge-beliefs-on-humans-arrival-in-the-americas.html

“Serra da Capivara National Park,” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Serra_da_Capivara_National_Park

Wade, Lizzie, “Traces of some of South America’s earliest people found under ancient dirt pyramid,” Science, 24 May 2017, http://www.sciencemag.org/news/2017/05/traces-some-south-america-s-earliest-people-found-under-ancient-dirt-pyramid

Wilford, John Noble, “Doubts Cast on Report of Earliest Americans,” The New York Times, 14 February 1995, https://www.nytimes.com/1995/02/14/science/doubts-cast-on-report-of-earliest-americans.html

 

 

 

“Fat Boys,” Magnetism, and Magic

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

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

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

Olmec map

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

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

fat boy sculpture

fatboys

Date

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

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

Source

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

Meaning

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

History

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

fatboy goddess

A new find provides a clue

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

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

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

Magnetism

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

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

fatboy turtle head

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

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

Olmec-Lodestone

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

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

The magic of magnetism

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

Lodestone 2

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

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

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

Another theoryPTLI new cover

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

 

 

Sources and interesting reading:

Amarolli, Paul. “A Newly Discovered Potbelly Sculpture from El Salvador and a Reinterpretation of the Genre,” www.fundar.org.su/referencias/teopan.pdf

Barreto, Christina, ed. “Figurine Traditions from the Amazon,” Oxford Handbook of Prehistoric Figurines, Oxford University Press, 2016, https://www.reasearchgate.net/figure/Santarem-figurine-of-pregnant-woman-left-and-back-of-seated-figurine-with-perforated_273134801

“Aztec ‘Birthing Figure’” Aztecs, Mexicolore, http://www.mexicolore.co.uk/aztecs/artifacts/birthding-figure

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Izapa,” Mundo Maya.  http://mundomaya.travel/en/arqueologia/top-10/Izapa.html

“Izapa,” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Izapa

“Enigma of the Ancient Magnetic ‘Fat Boys’ and Their Curious Magnetic Properties,” MessagetoEagle.com, 19 April 2014, http://www.messagetoeagle.com/enigma-of-the-ancient-magnetic-fat-boys-and-their-curious-magnetic-properties/

Jenkins, John Major, “Some Iconographic and Dosmological Observations of the Symbolism of the new Stela 48 from Takalik Abaj,” Alignment, 22 April 2008, http://alignment2012.com/Takalik48.html

“Kaminaljuyu,” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kaminaljuyu

“Lodestone,” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lodestone

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

“Lodestone – Physical Properties and Healing Properties,” Kidzrocks. http://www.kidzrocks.com/v/education/LODESTONE

“Magnetite and Lodestone,” Geology.com, https://geology.com/minerals/magnetite.shtml

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

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

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

“Olmec,” Encyclopedia Britannica online, https://www.britannica.com/print/article/427846

“Olmec,” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Olmec (an excellent source)

“Potbelly sculpture,” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Potbelly_sculpture

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

Stern, David P. “The Lodestone,” Earth mag, http://www.phy6.org/earthmag/lodeston.htm

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

Wilford, John Noble, “Oldest Pottery in Americas Is Found in Amazon Basin,” The New York Times, 13 December 1991, http://www.nytimes.com/1991/12/13/world/oldest-pottery-in-americas-is-found-in-amazon-basin.html

Another book, Another controversy

MV migration_map

 

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

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

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

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

Olmec head unearthed

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

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

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

West Africa

 

Misfits and Heroes: West from Africa

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

The journey itself has been repeated many times.  Katie Spotz rowed a bow across the Atlantic – solo.  Axel Busch sailed across the Atlantic – solo – in 21 days.  You can watch his video on YouTube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VPL35Ul0Ses  In 1970, Thor Heyerdahl took Ra II, a reed boat modeled after Egyptian sailing vessels, from Morocco to Barbados, in the Caribbean.

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

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

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

 

The South Pacific

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

map Polynesian boat

 

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

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

Polynesian star compass

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

The Merger of Asian and African

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

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

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

A Meeting of Clans

 

 

The Outsiders

MV Solutrean

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

Atlatl-illustration-1024x460

 

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

clovis_continent_647kb

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

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

A Family of Strangers 

 

The Misfits and Heroes series

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

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

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

 

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

 

Sources and interesting reading:

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

“Anthony Smith (explorer)” Wikipedia, htps://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anthony_Smith_(explorer)

Axel Busch sail across the Atlantic video, You Tube, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VPL35Ul0Ses

Botkin-Kowacki, Eva. “A final blow to myth of how people arrived in the Americas,” Christian Science Monitor, 10 August 2016,  https://www.csmonitor.com/Science/2016/0810/A-final-blow-to-myth-of-how-people-arrived-in-the-Americas

Bower, Bruce.  “People may have lived in Brazil more than 20,000 years ago,” Science News, 5 September 2017, https://www.sciencenews.org/blog/science-ticker-stone/stone-age-people-brazil-20000-years-ago?utm_content=buffer8976dd&utm_medium=social&utm_sour

Doucleff, Michaeleen.  “How the sweet potato crossed the Pacific way before the Europeans did,” NPR, Food, History, and Culture, 22 January 2013, http://www.npr.org/sections/thesalt/2013/01/22/16998044/how-the-sweet-potato-crossed-the-pacific-before-columbus

Gannon, Megan. “Study: The First Americans Didn’t Arrive by the Bering Land Bridge,” Mental Floss, 10 August 2016, http://mentalfloss.com/article/84506/first-americans-didnt-arrive-bering-land-bridge-study-says

Hawks, John. “Did humans approach the southern tip of South America more than 18,000 years ago?” John Hawks blog, http://johnhawks.net/weblog/reviews/archaeology/america/dillehay-monte-verde-2015.html

“Homo Floresiensis”  Wikipedia.  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Homo_floresiensis

Hilleary, Cecily.  “Native Americans Call for Rethink of Bering Strait Theory,” VOA news, 19 June 2017, https://www.voanews.com/a/native-americans-call-rethink-of-bering-strait-theory/3901792.html

“New Evidence Puts Man in North America 50,000 Years Ago,” Science Daily, 18 November 2004, https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2004/11/041118104010.htm

Perkins, Sid. “DNA study links indigenous Brazilians to Polynesians: Sequences shared by far-away populations stir up a Palaeoamerican mystery,” Nature, 01 April 2013. http:///www.nature.com/news/dna-study-links-indigenous-brazilians-to-polynesians-1.12710

Pringle, Heather. “Primitive Humans Conquered Sea, Surprising Finds Suggest: Prehistoric axes found on a Greek island suggest that seafaring existed in the Mediterranean more than a hundred thousand years earlier than thought,” National Geographic, 17 February 2010, http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2010/02/100217-crete-primitive-humans-mariners-seafarers-mediterranean-sea/

“Solutrean Hypothesis,” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Solutrean_hypothesis

Vialou, Denis, Mohammed Benabdelbadi, James Feathers, Michel Fontugne, “Peopling South America’s center: the late Pleistocene site of Santa Elina, Antiquity, 08 August 2017, https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/antiquity/article/peopling-south-americas-centre-the-late-pleistocene-site-of-santa-elina/04FF561EBC1883B6

Yirka, Bob. “Evidence suggests Neanderthals took to boats before modern humans,” Phys.org   1 March 2012, https://phys.org/news/2012-03-evidence-neanderthals-boats-modern-humans.html

Wade, Lizzie.  “Traces of some of South America’s earliest people found under ancient dirt pyramid,” Science, 24 May 2017, http://www.sciencemag.org/news/2017/traces-some-south-amercias-s-earliest-people-found-under-ancient-dirt-pyramid

The Neanderthal Influence

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

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

ENTRADA A LA CUEVA DE EL CASTILLO EN PUENTE VIESGO

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

cave view from El Castillo

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

El Castillo Frieze wall

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

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

March Neanderthal seals painting

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

Three Interesting Sites

The Lozoya Child in Central Spain

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

The Stalagmite Circle in France

Neanderthal circle

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

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

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

 

The Shanidar Skeletons of Iraq

neanderthal-burial-scene-Shanidar-cave-631

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

The Red Lady

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

 

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

 

The Creative Juncture

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

An Even Greater Shock

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

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

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

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

 

Sources and interesting reading:

“Bruniquel Cave,” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bruniquel_Cave

Calaway, Ewen. “Europe’s first humans: what scientists do and don’t know,” Nature, 22 June 2015, http://www.nature.com/news/europe-s-first-humans-what-scientists-do-and-don-t-know-1.17815/

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

“Divje Babe Flute” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Divje_Babe_Flute/

“Early Human Migrations,” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Early_human-migrations

Edwards, Owen. “The Skeletons of Shanidar Cave,” Smithsonian magazine, March 2010.  http://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/the-skeletons-of-shanidar-cave-7028477/

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

Ghose, Tia. “Ancient Mourners May Have Left Flowers on ‘Red Lady Grave’” Live Science, 20 May 2015, https://www.livescience.com/50897-red-lady-grave-flowers.html

Gibbons, Ann. “Neanderthals and modern humans started mating early,” Science magazine, 4 July 2017, http:/www.sciencemag.org/news/2017/07/Neanderthals-and-modern-humans-started-mating-early?utm_campaign=news_daily_2017-07-04/

Gray, Richard. “Cave fires and rhino skull used in Neanderthal burial rituals,” This Week, New Scientist, 28 September 2016, https://www.newscientist.com/article/mg23230934-800-cave-fires-and-rhino-skull-used-in-neanderthal-burial-rituals/

Jaubert, Jacques, Sophie Verheyden, Dominique Genty, and others.  “Early Neanderthal constructions deep in Bruniquel Cave in southwestern France,” Nature (534) 02 June 2016, https://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v534/n7605/full/nature18291.html/

“Neanderthals, humans may have coexisted for thousands of years,” Associated Press, 22 August 2014, CBC, http://www.cbc.ca/news/technology/neanderthals-humans-may-have-coexisted-for-thousands-of-years-1.2742067/

Rincon, Paul.  “Neanderthal ‘artwork’ found in Gibraltar cave,” BBC News, 1 September 2014, http://www.bbc.com/news/science-environment-28967746/

“Shanidar Cave,” Wikipedia, https?en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shanidar_Cave

Than, Ker. “Neanderthal Burials Confirmed as Ancient Ritual,” National Geographic, 16 Deccember 2013, http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2013/12/131216-la-chapelle-neaderthal-burials-graves/

Than, Ker. “World’s Oldest Cave Art Found – Made by Neanderthals?” National Geographic News, 14 June 2012, http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2012/06/120614-neanderthal-cave-paintings-spain-science-pike/

UNESCO World Heritage Center. “Cave of Altamira and Paleolithic Cave Art of Northern Spain,” UNESCO, http://whc.unesco.org/en/list/310

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

Wong, Sam. “Neanderthal artist revealed in a finely carved raven bone,” New Scientist Daily News, 29 March 2017, https://www.newscientist.com/article/2126292-neanderthal-artist-revealed-in-a-finely-carved-raven-bone/

Yong, Ed.  “A Shocking Find in a Neanderthal Cave in France,” The Atlantic, May 2016.  https://www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2016/05/the-astonishing-age-of-a-neanderthal-cave-construction-site/484070/

It’s Not an Alien Astronaut

When I visited the famous Maya city of Palenque, in southern Mexico, I had the chance to see the full-size replica of the sarcophagus of K’inich Janaab’ Pakal, or Pakal the Great.

Pacal tomb lid 2

The original is still under the Temple of Inscriptions, where it was discovered in 1952.  Unfortunately, archaeologists at that time were not able to translate the many symbols and glyphs on the sarcophagus.  So people guessed at the meaning.  One guess, in particular, proved to be very popular.

In his book, Chariots of the Gods, published in 1968, Eric Von Daniken proposed that the image on the sarcophagus actually showed an alien astronaut.  Palenque was one of the ancient sites that he proposed were proof of alien presence on Earth. The book was wildly popular, selling over seven million copies.  That same year, Arthur C. Clarke’s space epic, 2001: A Space Odyssey, was published.  It continued a story line from his earlier work, “The Sentinel,” written in 1951, which tells the story of an ancient artifact left on the moon by alien beings.  In 2001: A Space Odyssey, the obelisk proves to be the force behind the sudden advancements in human achievement, including the first use of weapons by the ape-men shown at the beginning of the movie.Pacal Von Daniken

So Von Danniken was simply using popular science fiction theories and imposing them on specific ancient sites, including, among others, Machu Pichu, Nazca, Cusco, and Palenque.  The problem is now that experts can read Mayan glyphs and understand Mayan cosmology, people still want to see a picture of an alien astronaut on Pakal the Great’s tomb.

 

When I was walking from the ruins to the museum, I passed numerous street vendors offering small replicas of Pakal’s tomb lid, one of which I bought for ten dollars.  But the vendor also held the plaque up sideways and pointed out the alien astronaut, in case that’s what I wanted.

Pacal ancient aliens astronaut theory debunked YouTube

The hoax is extraordinarily long-lived.  Maybe it’s the appeal of seeing intelligent aliens as part of our history.  TV shows like “Ancient Aliens,” “In Search of Aliens,” “Mystery Quest,” and “History’s Mysteries” keep the story of the alien astronaut alive and well.  For an episode of “Ancient Aliens,” Paul Francis, a model maker, created a 3-D image of the alien astronaut on Pakal’s tomb lid. (See photo, above.)  He admitted, “I had to be a little interpretive.”  I guess so!  The “rocket” he created looks nothing like the image on the sarcophagus.

Pacal Ganesha   Pacal Kells

This whole debate arose out of ignorance of the belief system and cultural symbols of the ancient Maya.  It would be like seeing a photo of the Indian god Ganesh (See image, above) and trying to interpret it with no knowledge of the Hindu beliefs behind it.  Or looking at the image from the Book of Kells, the beautiful illuminated gospels drawn on calfskin in Ireland around 800 AD, without an understanding of the Four Evangelists it pictures and their winged representations.  (That would be clockwise from the top left: Mathew – shown as a winged man, Mark – shown as a winged lion, John – shown as an eagle, and Luke – shown as a winged ox.)  These symbols come from the prophetic Revelation of St. John.

Imagine the wild theories you could come up with if you didn’t know the background.

 

Maya symbols and cosmology

The World Tree

Pacal worldtree

As it turns out, Maya cosmological beliefs, many of which were absorbed from earlier cultures, were fairly consistent across the Maya city-states.  They saw the world as divided into three zones: The Upper World, or the land of the gods, the Middle World, where humans live, and the Underworld, which is the realm of death.  However, these realms weren’t necessarily defined as good or evil.  Every part had its value.

 

The World Tree spanned all three worlds.  Its roots were in the Underworld, its trunk in the Middle World, and its highest branches in the Other World.  It took several forms, including a Ceiba tree, a stylized maize plant, and a cacao tree.  The version used on Pakal’s tomb lid is also used in a mural in the Temple of the Foliated Cross at Palenque.

Pacal Foliated Cross

Here you see the same imagery (minus the reclining human): the World Tree rising from the offering bowl (marked with the dotted X “kin” sign and filled with the trappings of royalty: the crossed sky band, the fish, and the lancet for ritual blood-letting) on top of the Underworld/realm of the dead (Cauac monster head).  At the top of the tree is the Principal Bird Deity.

 

Shining Glory

Pacal celts

All along the tree you find the symbol for precious greenstone celts, emphasizing wealth and power as well as shining glory. (In the diagram the glyphs for jade celts are marked in red)  The tree is also marked with the sign for wood.

Curled around the upper section of the tree is the Milky Way conflated with the double-headed serpent bar, which was the symbol of power for Maya kings. (See diagram below. Each serpent has a huge upper jaw.)

Pacal serpent bar

Pacal Temple of the Cross

 

 

It’s interesting to see the same elements repeated in other tablets and murals which show the World Tree in the center, growing out of the Earth Monster/ Underworld.  In the case of the Temple of the Cross (drawing above), the World Tree is a maize plant, with personified ears of corn growing out of the branches.  Once again, it grows out of the Cuauc Monster/Underworld figure at the bottom, and the Principal Bird Deity rests at the top.  Interestingly, the two figures in the mural are the same person at different ages.  Note that the figure on the right stands on a personified maize plant, while the one on the left stands on a Cuauc monster with a cleft head from which corn emerges.

The King Dying and the Young Maize God Being Reborn

Pakal, on his tomb lid, is presented as both the man dying, falling into the maw of the Underworld (between jaguar jawbones) and the baby being born onto the Tree of Life.  Certain Maya rulers were thought to take on the role of god-kings who could intercede with the spirit world after death.  In this image, Pakal is being reborn as the maize god. (Note the seed and leaf image just below the reclining figure of Pakal.) Just as the maize seed must be buried in the earth in order to grow, Pakal is falling into the Underworld only to rise again.

Pacal baby

Pacal, birth of maize god

The Baby

Pakal is shown lying on his back, with the right leg raised, which is the sign for “unen” or baby (drawing on left).  While this sign usually shows an infant, it’s also used to show the birth of the maize god on a Late Classic vase (drawing on right).Note the vegetation growing out of the cleft head of the Cuauc monster.

Pacal mother's skirt

The jade skirt

Pakal’s net jade skirt is interesting in that the diamond weave is usually associated with women.  Indeed, a very similar skirt seems to be worn by Pakal’s mother in a tablet found in the royal palace. (See drawing, left)  This may suggest an androgynous combination, just as the adult in the baby pose suggests a combination of youth and age.

Pakal rebirth of maize godPacal turtle

The turtle emblem

The turtle emblem Pakal carries on his chest (drawing by Linda Schele, left) may be a reference to the rebirth of the Maize God from the Turtle Shell, as referenced on this plate (drawing above, right).:

Ancestors and nobles

All along the border on the outside of the image are references to celestial bodies and six portraits of leading nobles.  The coffin inside the sarcophagus is carved on all four sides with portraits of Pakal’s ancestors emerging as trees sprouting from the earth.  Painted stucco figure on the walls of the tomb echo these references to relatives and important figures in the life of the leader who was laid to rest in the tomb.

 

Thoughts

While some may find it harmless fun to see an alien astronaut instead of a famous leader immortalized by his tombstone, for me, it seems a little insulting to the people who created this amazing piece of complicated and beautiful art.

 

Sources and interesting reading:

“Alien Explorations: Ancient Aliens season 1, episode 4,” http://alienexplorations.blogspot.com/2012/02/pacal-votan-tomb-lid-ancients-aliens.html

“Alien Explorations: Von Daniken’s Mayan Rocket Man,” http://alienexplorations.blogspot.co.uk/1979/02/von-danikens-mayan-rocket-man.html

“The Book of Kells,” The Library of Trinity College, Dublin.  https:///www.tck.ie/library/manuscripts/book-of-kells.php/

Coe, Michael D.  The Maya.  New York:  Thames and Hudson, 1999.

Four evangelists, from The Book of Kells, Public Domain, http://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index/php?curid+4013150

Fields, Virginia M. and Dore Reents-Budet.  Lords of Creation:  The Origins of Sacred Maya Kingship.  Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Scala Publishers: 2005.

Foster, Lynn V.  Handbook to Life in the Ancient Maya World. Oxford:  Oxford University Press, 2002.

“Ganesh,” Manas: Indian Religions, Ganesh. https://www.sscnet.ucla.edu/southasia/Religions/Avatars/Ganesh.html

Guenter, Stanley. “The Tomb of K’inich Janaab Pakal: The Temple of the Inscriptions at Palenque,” Southern Methodist University, http://www.mesoweb.com/articles/guenter/Tl.pdf/

Heyworth, Robin, “Chicanna Structure II: The Monster Mouth Temple,” Uncovered History (blog) 16 July 2016. http://uncoveredhistory.com/mexico/chicanna/chicanna-structure-ii-monster-temple/

“K’inich Janaab’ Pakal,” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kinish_Jannab’_Pakal

The Linda Schele Drawings Collection, FAMSI. http://research.famsi.org/schele_list.php?rowstart=150&search=125&title=Schele%20Drawing%20Collection&tab=schele&sort=

Mark, Joshua. J.  “K’inich Janaab’ Pakal,” Ancient History Encyclopedia. http:///www.ancient.eu/Kinich_Janaab_Pacal/

Martin, Simon, and Nikolai Grube.  Chronicle of the Maya Kings and Queens: Deciphering the Dynasties of the Ancient Maya.   London: Thames and Hudson, 2000.

Miller, Mary, and Simon Martin.  Courtly Art of the Ancient Maya.  Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, Thames and Hudson, 2004.

Minster, Christopher, “The Sarcophagus of Pakal,” Latin American History, About.com. http://latinamericanhistory.about.com/od/Maya/fl/The-Sarcophagus-of-Pakal.htm

“Pacal’s Rocket,” Ancient Aliens Debunked (blog) http://ancientaliensdebunked.com/references-and-transcripts-pacals-rocket/

Palenque: History, Art and Monuments, booklet, reproduced and authorized by the National Institute of Archaeology and History (INAH) 2001.

“Palenque Mexico,” Mayan Ruins: The Ultimate Guide of the Mayan Ruins.” http://mayanruins.info/mexico/palenque-mexico/

“The Sentinel (short story)”  Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Sentinel_(short_story)

Stone, Andrea, and Marc Zender. Reading Maya Art: A Hieroglyphic Guide to Ancient Maya Painting and Sculpture.  New York: Thames and Hudson, 2011.

Tedlock, Dennis.  2000 Years of Mayan Literature. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2010.

“The World Tree: A World in Layers,” Mayan Kids, http://www.mayankids.com/mmkbeliefs/worldtree.htm

Sacrifice

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.

venus Human-Sacrifice

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.venus Inca mummy

 

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.

Venus Chichen_Itza_JuegoPelota_Relieve

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.

Venus Tonina-captives

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.

Animal sacrifice

The Greek sculpture from the Louvre collection, pictured, shows the sacrifice of a boar to the gods. (Photo, below)

 venus Sacrifice_boar_Louvre

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 tvenus San rock art Game Pass Shelterhe 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.

venus abraham-and-isaac-1

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?

venus Moravia

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.

venus map

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.

Venus gagarino2Take 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.venus of Moravany 2

 

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.

Encyclopedia Mythica

Willendorf Venus

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

Venus CoatlicueAnother 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).Venus Coyolxauhqui, daughter of Coatlicue

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,” Mesowebhttp://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 Mapshttp://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

Musical Stones

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.

Ringing Stones

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.

music Tanzania rock, Wayne Jones

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.music Ringing Rocks, Lenape

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.

 

Gongs

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).

music Ethiopian_Lithophones_with_Stand,_Monastery_of_Na’akuto_La’ab_ by A. Davey

Lithophones

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 petroglypmusic Kupgal 2hs decorate ringing rocks.  When the rocks are struck near the carvings, the stones emit a loud, musical tone.  (See photos, left and below)music Kupgal

 

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.

Vietnamese lithophone

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.

Stonehenge

Stonehenge photo by Angeles Mosquera

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.

music Organ_and_Chimes_-_Caverns_of_Luray_Va_1906_postcard

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.

Echoes

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.

Echo singing

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.

music Glosa rock art, Finland

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.

music rock art Mexico

 

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/

Overthrowing Old Theories

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)

Homo kimberley-hand-stencil 40,000 kya

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.

Homo map Crete at center

Map of Mediterranean – Crete at center

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.

clovis_continent_647kb

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.

Homo beringamigration

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.

Homo monte-verde-chile

CREDIT: KENNETH GARRETT/NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC SOCIETY, 1997 TOM D. DILLEHAY, STANDING, AND MARIO PINO LEADING A SCIENTIFIC TEAM THAT FOUND EVIDENCE IN MONTE VERDE IN CHILE THAT HUMANS HAD BEEN IN THE NEW WORLD 1,300 YEARS BEFORE PREVIOUSLY THOUGHT. 

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.

upside-down-americas-250x300

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.

PTLI new cover

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

 

 

 

El Castillo: Wonders and Questions

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.

El Castillo gallery of disks

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.

hand el-castillo-handprints

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.

Print

el_castillo_sketched

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 El C atomizer in usedifficult 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?

el castillo hand

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!)CoronaBorealis

El Castillo seven dots, drawing after Anati, 1991
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.

el_castillo_sketched

 

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.

star chart 1

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.

Addendum to the Addendum, June, 2017

After visiting El Castillo and looking at the panel in question, I have to admit I was wrong.  It’s not a clear semi-circle of stars but more like a full circle.  I suppose that’s the danger of working from a diagram rather than the real thing.

None of this detracts from the cave itself, which is incredibly powerful and impressive.

The Bison

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.

El Castillo bison2

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).

El C. buxubison

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.

El C. Bison Man 2

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.

The Techtiforms

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.)El Castillo boats

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.

El C. Buxu ideograph horse

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.

 

Cave Art

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.

cave art, Altamira UNESCO

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).

   ROCK El Castillo disk

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 

rock pig deer 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.

 

Australiarock art Kakadu, Australia

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.

India

rock art India Bhimbetka_rock_paintng1

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.

 

South AmericaPedra Furada rock art

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.

 

Mongolia

rock art, Mongolia

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.

 

 

Commonality

Even more interesting than the range of ancient rock art is the number of curious commonalities.

Stylized animals

rock Rhinocéros_grotte_Chauvet

rock rhinocoliboaiasm

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).

 

rock Chauvet bison

The bison paintings are also similar.  The painting on the left is from Chauvet Cave, France, while the figure on the rock bison, Coliboaia Cave, Romaniaright 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.

rock cueva de las Manos 2  

 

Here is a sampling from  Cueva de las Manos (Patagonia, Argentina – far left), Sulawesi (Indonesia second from left), and Canyon de rock hands BorneoChelley, Navaho Nation (third from left)

 

handprints Canyon de Chelley

 

 

 

 

 

 

rock El Castillo hands and dots

The panel of hands and dots on the lower left is from El Castillo Cave (Spain).   The ones on the right are from Indonesia.  The two panels are about the same age: 37,000 years old.rock art Indonesia hands

 

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.

Children's colorful hand prints on black background for texture and design

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)

rock hands - Walk of Fame, Chinese Theater

 

 

 

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/