Solstice and Santa

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Santa map-roman-empire1

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

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

Santa, Sun, Mithra, Apollo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Santa Saint Nicholas window

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

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

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

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


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


goat with elf and light

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

Goat and elves-Nystrom_God-Jul_10

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


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


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

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



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

Santa carrying Jesus

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Halo (Religious Iconography)” Wikipedia.

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

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

“Icelandic Folklore,” Iceland Travel.

“Julbock ornament – pewter” Scandinavian

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

Map of Persian Empire about 500 BC,

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

“Mithraism/Persian Religion,” Encyclopedia Britannica,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Saint Nicholas,” Wikipedia.

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

“Santa Claus,”

“Santa Claus,” Wikipedia.

“Saturn,” Encyclopedia Britannica.

“Sinterklaas,” Wikipedia.

“Sol Invictus,” Wikipedia.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yule Goat,” Wikipedia,


Another book, Another controversy

MV migration_map


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

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

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

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

Olmec head unearthed

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

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

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

West Africa


Misfits and Heroes: West from Africa

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

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

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

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

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


The South Pacific

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

map Polynesian boat


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

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

Polynesian star compass

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


The Merger of Asian and African

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

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

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

A Meeting of Clans



The Outsiders

MV Solutrean

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



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


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

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

A Family of Strangers 


The Misfits and Heroes series

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

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

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


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


Sources and interesting reading:

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

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

Axel Busch sail across the Atlantic video, You Tube,

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

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

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

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

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

“Homo Floresiensis”  Wikipedia.

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

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

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

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

“Solutrean Hypothesis,” Wikipedia,

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

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

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

The Neanderthal Influence

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

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


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

cave view from El Castillo

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

El Castillo Frieze wall

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

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

March Neanderthal seals painting

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

Three Interesting Sites

The Lozoya Child in Central Spain

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

The Stalagmite Circle in France

Neanderthal circle

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

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

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


The Shanidar Skeletons of Iraq


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

The Red Lady

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


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


The Creative Juncture

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

An Even Greater Shock

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

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

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

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


Sources and interesting reading:

“Bruniquel Cave,” Wikipedia,

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

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

“Divje Babe Flute” Wikipedia,

“Early Human Migrations,” Wikipedia,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Shanidar Cave,” Wikipedia, https?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.



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,”

“Alien Explorations: Von Daniken’s Mayan Rocket Man,”

“The Book of Kells,” The Library of Trinity College, Dublin.  https:///

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

Four evangelists, from The Book of Kells, Public Domain,

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.

Guenter, Stanley. “The Tomb of K’inich Janaab Pakal: The Temple of the Inscriptions at Palenque,” Southern Methodist University,

Heyworth, Robin, “Chicanna Structure II: The Monster Mouth Temple,” Uncovered History (blog) 16 July 2016.

“K’inich Janaab’ Pakal,” Wikipedia,’_Pakal

The Linda Schele Drawings Collection, FAMSI.

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

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,

“Pacal’s Rocket,” Ancient Aliens Debunked (blog)

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.”

“The Sentinel (short story)”  Wikipedia,

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,


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

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,

Baudez, Claude F. and Peter Mathews, “Captive and Sacrifice at Palenque,” Mesoweb

Benson, Emily. “Human sacrifice may have helped societies become more complex,” Science Magazine, April 2016, http:///

Cartwright, Mark.  “Coatlicue,” Ancient History Encyclopedia.  November 2013,

“The Catholic Worship Service: The Mass,”

Coffee, Albert. “New Discoveries at Tonina!” Albert’s Archaeoblog, July 2015,

“Elephantiasis” National Organization for Rare Disorders (NORD) 2009,

“The First Artists,” Exhibit at the Israel Museum, Jerusalem,

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,”

Holy Bible: New International Version. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan Bible Publishers, 1989.

“Human sacrifice,” Britannica Online Encyclopedia,>

Jongko, Paul. “10 Ancient Cultures That Practiced Ritual Human Sacrifice,” 2014, TopTenz,

Linsley, Alice C. “Where Did Animal Sacrifice Originate?” Just Genesis (blog), August 2013,

“Lymphatic filariasis,” World Health Organization (WHO) updated 2016, http://www.who.into/mediacentre/factsheets/fs102/en/

“Lymphatic filariasis,” Wikipedia,

Parker-Pearson, Mike.  “The Practice of Human Sacrifice.” BBC, 2011.

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,

Swezey, Thomas. F. “The World’s Oldest Religious Ritual,” 2002,

“Venus figures from Russia,” Don’s Maps,

“Venus figures from the Stone Age arranged alphabetically” Don’s Maps

“Venus Figurines, Indonesian Art and the Interconnectedness of the Stone Age,” Biology Magazine, November 2014,

“Venus Figurines of the Upper Paleolithic,” Wake Me Up Before You Gogh Gogh blog, December 2013,

“The Venus Figurines of the European Paleolithic Era,” Ancient Origins,

“Venus of Berekhat Ram,” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia_org/wiki/venus_of_Berekhat_Ram

“Venus of Gagarino,” Visual Arts Cork,

“The Venus of Moravany”   Venus Figures from the Stone Age, Don’s Maps,  (Don’s Maps is an excellent source.)

“Venus of Willendorf: Exaggerated Beauty,” How Art Made the World, PBS, Episode 1, 2006,

Whipps, Heather. “Early Europeans Practiced Human Sacrifice,” Live Science, 2007,

White, Richard.  “Bataille on Lascaux and the Origins of Art.” Creighton University.

Wynd, Shona, and others. “Understanding the community impact of lymphatic filariasis: a review of the sociocultural literature.” World Health Organization,

Face Jugs

On one episode of the PBS show History Detectives, April Hynes of Washington Crossing, Pennsylvania brought in a small ceramic jug to be evaluated by antiques experts.  It was discovered in the 1950’s by her grandfather, a plumber working in Germantown, Pennsylvania, who thought it might be an Indian piece, so he took it home.  It has remained with the family ever since.

The jug is about 6” tall, with a greenish-brown glaze. (See photo) Its most striking feature is the face on it.  The eyes are round and staring, and the mouth is open, exposing clenched teeth.

face jug

In the course of the show, experts from the Philadelphia Museum of Art and art historians examining the piece concluded it was not an American Indian artifact.  Instead, it was very similar in size, design, and glaze to jugs made in the 1850’s and 1860’s by slave potters on Edgefield County, South Carolina plantations.

Jekyll Island and The Wanderer incident

Many of those slaves were brought from the Congo through ports in Angola and imprisoned on slave ships bound for North America.  Some of those who survived the voyage were “processed” through Jekyll Island, off the coast of Georgia and worked on plantations on the South Carolina side of the Savannah River, including the Edgefield plantations.

face jekyll-island club

Ironically, Jekyll Island is today a lovely place, home to upscale vacation resorts, like the one in the photo above.  Its blood-soaked history has been largely ignored.  The Jekyll Island Club Hotel “Island History” handout dedicates a short paragraph to the 19th century, saying:

“Slaves were imported to pick cotton, which was the primary agricultural product on the  island during this time.  The U.S. government banned the importation of slaves in 1807, but smuggling still continued.  On November 29, 1858, The Wanderer unloaded 409     slaves on Jekyll Island, one of the last cargoes of slaves imported into the United States.        Those involved in the activities of the Wanderer were indicted by the federal             government.”

face The Wanderer oil painting, Blue World Web Museum

The racing yacht The Wanderer refitted as a slave ship, shown in the oil painting above.

That’s the end of the 19th century history section.  But what the Jekyll Island Club Hotel piece fails to include is that the slave traders were never convicted, despite three attempts by the federal government.  Outcry over The Wanderer slave trading trials helped fuel anti-slavery sentiment in the north, including support for the Underground Railroad and the Civil War.

In yet another bizarre chapter of its history, in 1859, The Wanderer, which was not a standard slave trade ship, having been built as a racing yacht originally, was apparently taken on one more slave trading voyage after the trials, despite the fact that slave trading had been illegal for fifty years by then.  However, near the coast of Africa, the first mate led a mutiny, set the captain out to sea in a small boat, and returned the ship to Boston.  During the Civil War, the U.S. government seized the ship and used it as a gunboat in the blockade of the South.

face Farnum Further, J. Egbert Farnum, (photo, left) who had been a hot-headed, hard-drinking officer on The Wanderer on its infamous 1858 voyage, later regretted his part the affair and headed north after being acquitted.  When the Civil War broke out, he signed up with the Northern Army to make amends.  He later suffered nineteen bullet wounds and two saber wounds.

The ship’s story sounds like a movie plot.


But back to the strange little pot uncovered near Philadelphia.

In the PBS show, David Barquist, curator of American Decorative Arts at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, confirmed what April Hynes had discovered – that face jugs were generally associated with slave potters in Edgefield County, South Carolina.  Barquist went on to say that only a dozen or so of the original face jugs have been discovered.  Most are now in museums or private collections. (The one pictured below right is from the collection of the Milwaukee Art Museum.)

face jug, Milwaukee art museum

The grimace and green-brown ash glaze are typical of face jugs made in Edgefield during the 1850’s and 1860’s.  Jim McDowell, a potter who continues the face jug tradition using 19th century techniques he learned from his Jamaican ancestors, showed how the face would be created and attached to the jug.  When he was asked how the jugs were used, McDowell said they probably were not used to carry water.  Instead, they were used as grave markers since slaves were not allowed to erect stone markers.

Indeed, shards of face jugs have been found in slave burial grounds.

Fusion of Old and New Beliefs – Ancestor worship, Voodoo, and Christianity

The face jug featured in the show carries a long cultural tradition behind it.  It represents West African beliefs put into a form outsiders could not recognize – or forbid.  It served as more than a grave marker to people who were not allowed to erect grave markers.  Face jugs became containers for holding and guarding a precious connection with the past.

Wyatt MacGaffey, author of Kongo Political Culture: The Conceptual Challenge of the Particular, explains that power comes from the land of the dead, and in precolonial times, was present and available for use in minkisi: fabricated items that provide local habitations for the dead, throuface Nkisi Nkondi, power figure, early 19th century Congogh which the powers of such spirits are made available to the living.  Minkisi typically include clay, stones, or grave dirt.  A Nkisi, singular form of Minkisi,  power figure from the Congo is pictured, left.)


Thus, the jug, especially when it contained dirt from the grave, became a powerful item, very similar to the ritual baskets popular in parts of West Africa, which contained teeth, hair, or bone fragments of the dead person.  These items link the dead to the living, making an unbroken lifeline, which would have been especially important to people who had been wrenched away from their homeland.  The ancestors, as represented by the face jugs, are then part of life and ceremonies, and can be consulted on matters of importance.  Also, they lend considerable strength.

Spirit objects

It seems clear that these small jugs were portable representations of the dead and their power.  As Gary Dexter, an Aiken, South Carolina potter and historian remarked, “Obviously, this [the face jug] was the single most important cultural item they had.”

The big question for the people in the TV show was how the face jug wound up near Philadelphia if it was made in South Carolina, 700 miles away.

The Underground Railroad

If the jug was owned by a slave, which seems to be the case based on studies of other jugs of similar size, design, and construction, it could have been carried north during the owner’s attempt to escape to free territory.  Philadelphia was a hub for those trying to get to Canada and freedom.  (See map below, which shows Philadelphia as part of one route.)

face underground-railroad-map

The Underground Railroad was a series of safe shelters for runaway slaves.  They were often private homes run by people who abhorred slavery and sought to help as many slaves as possible escape that fate.  The Lemoyne House in Washington, Pennsylvania was one such stop.  The Mother Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church, the oldest AME church in the United States, was another.  In Germantown, the area of northwest Philadelphia where the face jug was buried, there were several safe houses.  The whole area was predominantly anti-slavery, mostly due to the influence of the Society of Friends (Quakers), so if escaped slaves could get there, chances were good they could find a place to rest.

Finding the pot buried in Germantown points to the owner being an escaped slave.  Unfortunately, we have no way of knowing why the precious artifact was buried, so the story remains unfinished.



face antique memory jug on Etsy

“Memory bottles”

The influence of slave-made face jugs spread far beyond the slave communities.  In the 1800’s, memory bottles or “spirit jars” became popular across North America.  A thick layer of putty, lacquer, plaster, clay, or cement added to the bottle or jug held the various charms, mementos, and decorations that were reminiscent of the deceased loved one.  Some of them look surprisingly like the African spirit figures of long ago.  (A Midwestern “memory bottle” is on the left, an African Nkisi figure on the right in the photos below.)

face memory jug, buttons     face male Nkisi figure with strips of hide

Memory bottles enjoyed a Renaissance in the 1950’s and 60’s, especially in the Midwest and Appalachia, crossing racial lines.  Currently, both E-bay and Etsy do a lively business in both antique and modern memory bottles.  The one on the left (below), advertised on Etsy, seems to have its own bizarre power.   The one on the right was made in memory of a member of the clergy.

face memory jug   face clergy memory jug on etsy

Death, power, and memory combined: the legacy of the original face pots.


Sources and interesting reading:

Bradley, Eric. “10 Things You Didn’t Know about Memory Jugs,” 24 February 2011, Antique Trader,

“Destination Freedom: Traveling PA’s Underground Railroad Pennsylvania,” Visit PA,

“Face Jug” episode of History Detectives, Season 8, episode 8, PBS, 2010

“Face jug,” Wikipedia,

“Germantown, Philadelphia,” Wikipedia,

“History of the African-American Face Jug” The Black Potter: Face Jugs and Functional Pottery,

Hynes, April. “Farnum,” The Wanderer Project, 15 June 2012,

“Island History,” Jekyll Island Club Hotel,

MacGaffey, Wyatt.  Kongo Political Culture: The Conceptual Challenge of the Particular.  Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press, 2000.

“Matt Jones Pottery – Face Jugs,”  This source includes photos of grotesque face jars that are little more than racial slurs made into pottery, but it also includes some modern face jugs that carry on the African tradition.

“Nkisi,” Wikipedia,

“Nkisi Nkondi, Kongo people,” Central Africa: Democratic Republic of the Congo, KHAN Academy,

Osborne, John, reporter. “In Charleston, South Carolina, all charges in the Wanderer slave ship case are dropped,” report on federal trial of J. Egbert Farnum and others, as recorded in Tom Henderson Wells’ book, The Slave Ship Wanderer.

“Reliquary Guardian Figures,” Central African Art: A Personal Journey, from the Lawrence Gussman Collection,

Richman, Jeff. “Green-Wood Connections Everywhere!” Green-Wood Historian Blog, 29 October 2009,

“Ritual Pottery from Togo and Benin,” Arte Magica Galerie,

“Slave Pottery: Face Jugs” US Slave (blog),

“South Carolina Plantations: Edgefield County, SC Plantations,” SCIWAY: South Carolina Information Highway,

“The Underground Railroad: A Well-Kept Secret,” ArtSmart Indiana,

“Underground Railroad Map,” American Historama,

“Unusual Vintage African Mask – Republic of Congo, for sale on Quintessentia,

“Vodun (aka Voodoo) and related religions,” Religious Tolerance: Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance,

“Wanderer (slave ship)” Wikipedia,

Well, Tom Henderson.  The Slave Ship Wanderer.  Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 1967.

“West African Vodun,” Wikipedia,

“Wooden Nkongi Fetish Statue,” from the Pinterest board “Togo”



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 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.



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 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


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.


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,

Amos, Jonathan.  “Stonehenge design was ‘inspired by sounds’” BBC News, 5 March 2012,

Fagg, M. Catherine.  Rock Music.  Pitt Rivers Museum, University of Oxford, 1997.

“The Great Stalacpipe Organ,” Wikipedia,

“The Great Stalacpipe Organ: Moonlight Sonata” (video)

“Historical,” from, a comprehensive list of countries with known musical stones.

Keating, Fiona. “Scientists recreate ancient ‘xylophone’ made of prehistoric stones,” IB Times, 15 March 2014,

“Kupgal petroglyphs,” Wikipedia,

“La Pietra Sonante,” Pietro Pirelli, musician (video).  Powerful ringing sound!

Lahelma, Antii.  “Hearing and Touching Rock Art: Finnish rock paintings and the non-visual,” Academia. 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,

“Litofonos.” Piedras que hablan…con musica.  (video)–irW70

“Musical Stone, Namibia,”

“A Mystifying Experience: The Alta Vista Petroglyphs,” A Gypsy’s Love blog, – photo of Alta Vista glyphs

“Ringing Rocks,” Wikipedia,

“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,

“Rock gong,” Wikipedia,

Schultz, Colin.  “Stonehenge’s Stones Can Sing,”  10 March 2014.

“A short introduction to musical stone,” from

“The Sky at Night,” BBC 2-minute video about drums at a model of Stonehenge, 5 July 2013,

“Swakop River, Namibia (video – a little windy but interesting)

Tellinger, Michael.  “Stone Xylophone.”

Tellinger, Michael.  “Stones that ring like bells.”

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.

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.


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


And now, Dillehay has published a new paper in PLOS One, with dates from a different section of the Monte Verde site, establishing human presence there 18,500 years ago.

This brings up the possibility that the direction of the migration arrow in the old model was dead wrong.  Maybe people showed up in South America and then moved north.


But here’s the strangest part of this odd drama:  Why, when we accept seafaring relatives in the Mediterranean as far back as the Neanderthals – maybe farther – can’t we accept seafaring explorers who arrived in the Americas?  Not just coastline huggers.  True seafarers, excellent navigators from the South Pacific.

Maybe they were outlaws or people who got lost at sea.  Or maybe they just had to see what was out there.

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,

Bower, Bruce. “Ancient Hominids Took to the Seas,” Science News, 27 November 2012,

“Clovis: Why the Controversy?” The Bradshaw Foundation,

Curry, Andrew. “Finding the First Americans,” The New York Times, 19 May 2012,

Dillehay, Tom, and others. “New Archaeological Evidence for an Early Human Presence at Monte Verde, Chile,” PLOS One, 18 November 2015,

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,

Gugliotta, Guy. “When Did Humans Come to the Americas?” Smithsonian Magazine, February 2013,

“Homo Floresiensis,” Human Origins, Smithsonian Museum of Natural History,

Jones, Tim. “100,000 Year-Old Incised Ochre Found at Blombos Cave,” Beyond bones and stones, 12 June 2009,

Hawks, John. “Did humans approach the southern tip of South America more than 18,000 years ago?” John Hawks Weblog, 19 November 2015,

Mann, Charles C. “The Clovis Point and the Discovery of America’s First Culture,” Smithsonian Magazine, November 2013,

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,

“Neanderthals May Have Sailed to Crete,”, 13 December 2012,

Pringle, Heather. “Primitive Humans Conquer Sea, Surprising Finds Suggest, National Geographic, 17 February 2010,

Simmons, Alan. “Extinct pygmy hippopotamus and early man in Cyprus,” Nature, 333, 09 June 1988, 554-557, hhtp://

“Upside-Down Map of the Americas” Peregringo blog,

Wayman, Erin. “The Top Five Human Evolution Discoveries from England,” Smithsonian Magazine 25 July 2012,

Wilford, John Noble.  “On Crete, New Evidence of Very Ancient Mariners,” The New York Times, 15 February 2010,




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.



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.



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 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,

Borenstein, Seth. “Spanish cave paintings shown as oldest in the world,” USA Today, 14 June 2012,\

“Buxu Cave,” Don’s Maps,

“Claude Levi-Strauss,” Wikipedia,

“Corona Borealis,” Wikipedia,

“El Castillo Cave,” Don’s Maps (an excellent source),

“First Painters May Have Been Neanderthal, Not Human,” Wired, 14 June 2012,

“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,

“A journey deep inside Spain’s temple of cave art,” BBC Travel,

“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,

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,”,

Rimell, Bruce. “El Castillo – Formative Image from the Upper Palaeolithic,” Archaic Visions,

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,

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.


Monte Verde Mysteries

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

Monte Verde siteMonte Verde map

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




Question 1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Question 2

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

MV close-up map

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

And about all that seaweed …

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

The two species listed above come from the coast.

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

MV giant kelp

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

This seaweed grows offshore.

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


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


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

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

The “cuds”

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

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

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


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

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

The Land Bridge Route

 paleomigration map

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

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


The Coastal Route (pink line on map)

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

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


The Kelp Highway

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

MV Solutrean

The Solutrean Solution

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

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

MV mysterious Pedra Furada art

The West from Africa Route – The Pedra Furada Dilemma

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

Pedra Furada

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

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


The South Pacific Route

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

Multiple routes map


Actually, a shocking discovery points exactly there.

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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


What if the answer is many answers?

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

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


Sources and interesting reading:

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

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

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

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

“Durvillaea Antarctica,” Seaweed Industry Association,

“Durvillaea Antarctica,” Wikipedia,

“Edible seaweed,” Wikipedia,

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

“Gracilaria,” Invasive Algae Database,

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Macrocystis,” Natural History Museum,

“Monte Verde Archaeological Site, UNESCO World Heritage Center,

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

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

“Monte Verde,” Wikipedia,

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

“Pedra Furada sites,” Wikipedia

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

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

“Sargassum,” Wilipedia

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

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

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