Sacrifice

Sacrifice, as we usually understand the concept, is purposeful giving up.  It may be as simple as foregoing chocolate or alcohol during Lent or as difficult as killing humans or animals for what is perceived as the greater good.

Ancient people practiced human sacrifice in many different areas, including Africa, Europe, South America, Central America, North America, the Near East, Austronesia, and the Far East.  These sacrifices generally served either to please the gods or to honor prestigious humans who wanted a group of people to accompany them into the afterlife.  According to Joseph Watts and his colleagues at the University of Auckland in New Zealand, when Pacific Island chiefs beheaded their more helpless rivals, the act helped to create a sense of social stratification and control.

venus Human-Sacrifice

But usually, when we think of human or animal sacrifice, we think of offerings to the gods, which is curious in itself.  The photo shows an Inca mummy left out on the mountains as an offering to the spirits.venus Inca mummy

 

Why did people use sacrifice to contact their gods and affect the course of events?  Let’s start with what we know and work our way backwards in time.

Blood: the fluid of life

For the ancient Maya, blood, the fluid of life, was the most valuable substance that people could offer the gods.  Blood offerings kept the world turning and the gods appeased.  The more valuable the offering, the more worthy the sacrifice.

Like the Olmecs before them, the Maya sacrificed both animals and humans.  Animals included crocodiles, iguanas, dogs, jaguars, and turkeys.  Human sacrifice, however, was seen as more valuable. As Ethan Watrall, Assistant Professor at Michigan State University explains, “It [Sacrifice] has been a feature of almost all pre-modern societies during their development and for mainly the same reason: to propitiate or fulfill a perceived obligation toward the gods.”

Beheading appears often in Mayan literature, including the Hero Twins creation story recorded in the Popul Vuh, sometimes called the Mayan Bible.  The picture included here shows  a stone panel from Chichen Itza showing one of the Hero Twins (on the right) after he has been decapitated during a ballgame with the Lords of the Underworld.  His head, used as the ball for a while in the game, appears in a circle to the left of the twin who is spurting rivers of blood from his neck.

Venus Chichen_Itza_JuegoPelota_Relieve

However, death is a temporary state in the Popul Vuh, and the twin who was decapitated later gets his head back later in the story.  Still, the Hero Twins show themselves to be quite willing to play with death, literally, in the form of the Lords of the Underworld with all their potent magic.

Recent finds at Tonina, in Chiapas, Mexico, indicate that it was known as the City of Divine Captives.  The beheading of two sons of rival ruler Pakal from Palenque is memorialized in stone at the site. (See photo.) The captives, with their hands bound behind them, slump in defeat.  But according to the beliefs of the time, spilling their royal blood would increase the prosperity of Tonina and help keep the cosmos alive.

Venus Tonina-captives

This seems hard for us to understand.  Today people feel little connection with or obligation to the natural world, but sacrifice was once perceived as the way to keep the world going. The movement of the sun, moon, and stars, the abundance of land and sea animals, the continuation of life itself depended on the active participation of people.  If they stopped giving gifts to the gods, everything stopped, and disaster followed.

This belief may have been the result of apparent causality: people stopped offering sacrifices to the gods and then something terrible happened.  It could also carry the weight of tradition.  We’ve always killed a young woman to make the crops grow, so we better not change.

Righting a wrong

Sometimes, sacrifice is a means of righting a wrong.  In that case, the ancient people had to have an awareness of sin – a moral transgression that required a moral gift to the gods to erase it.

The French philosopher Georges Bataille maintained that it was the consciousness of transgression that defined modern humans and separated them from the animals. To make amends for their sins, people offered sacrifices to the gods, including the spilling of human blood.

But sacrifice is more complicated than righting wrongs. It also served as a way to acknowledge and worship the gods, to make a request, or to give thanks, or perhaps all of the above.

Animal sacrifice

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

 venus Sacrifice_boar_Louvre

In order to gain God’s favor, believers of many ancient faiths regularly sacrificed animals, perhaps because killing humans dangerously depleted their population after a while, especially if they kept sacrificing the best.  So certain animals may have become the stand-in for people.  In some cases, the animals were cooked and parts were eaten in a sort of communal feast with the gods.  The books of Exodus and Leviticus in the Old Testament give clear directions on the kinds of animals (such as a bull, lamb, goat, or dove) to be sacrificed for each kind of sin and the portions the priest and the faithful should eat.  Each explanation includes the reassurance that God will find the aroma of the burnt offering pleasant. “It is a burnt offering, an offering made by fire, an aroma pleasing to the Lord” (Leviticus 1:12).

Biblical scholar Alice C. Lindsey maintains that animal sacrifice as defined in the Old Testament came from much older societies, including older Mesopotamian civilizations, such as the Kushites.  Nimrod, the son of Kush, moved to the Tigris-Euphrates valley and established the practice of sacrificing rams, bulls, and sheep.  Abraham was a descendant of Nimrod.

To be a suitable sacrifice, the animal had to be perfect, and the person sacrificing the animal had to identify with it at the moment he took its life.  If these conditions were met, the guilt would be transferred to the innocent animal, the sacrifice would be pleasing to God, and the act of spilling its blood would bring purification to the supplicant in particular and the society in general, by transference.  “Without the shedding of blood, there is no forgiveness” (Hebrews 9:22).  The more valuable the animal, the more valuable the sacrifice.

As a cautionary note, the book of Leviticus includes the story of two of Aaron’s sons who decided to make their own offering by burning incense before the Lord, contrary to His command.  “So fire came from the presence of the Lord and consumed them, and they died before the Lord” (Leviticus 10:2).  Clearly, death is the punishment for straying from the correct path.

Older models of animal sacrifice

But the practice of animal sacrifice is far older than the events recorded in the Old Testament. Vedic Hindu teachings of ancient India use the word bali to mean tribute, offering, or the blood of an animal, which might be a horse (symbol of the cosmos) a goat, a bull, an ox, a chicken, or a calf.  Later, for Hindus, the cow became the revered symbol of all life, and of Earth, the nourisher of life, the representative of Kamadhenu, the divine, wish-fulfilling cow, and as such merited protection.  Interestingly, the cow was also the symbol of Hathor, the ancient Egyptian goddess of love, joy, and motherhood, usually depicted as a sacred cow or a woman with a cow-horn headdress.

Also consider the famous San paintings in South Africa which feature dancing men surrounding the “dream beast,” the eland, the favorite animal of the gods.  The men are dream-hunting the dream-beast that controls the rain.  When the beast bleeds, rain falls.  In the most famous panel, from the Game Pass Shelter in Drakensburg, the shaman imitates the eland, standing behind it, his legs crossed the same way the eland’s are, bleeding from tvenus San rock art Game Pass Shelterhe nose just as the dying eland is.  Again, this shows a sort of ritual sacrifice.

 

The ultimate sacrifice and gift, according to the Bible

In the Bible, human sacrifice at God’s request is the ultimate test of faith.  The most famous example in the Old Testament is God asking Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac.  (In the Koran, the son is not named but many Muslims believe it to be Ishmael.)  In obedience, Abraham prepares the pyre.

venus abraham-and-isaac-1

At the last moment, an angel stops Abraham and shows him a ram he can sacrifice instead of his son.  (Interestingly, the ram, like the bull, is a common choice for sacrifice.)

 

The heart of the New Testament is the sacrifice of Jesus, whose death Christians feel liberates them from their heritage of sin.  In the Catholic mass, the priest pours a little water into the wine in the chalice then lifts the bread and wine as an offering to God. He then ceremonially washes his hands, just as priests and rabbis did before ritual slaughters. The priest then says, “Pray, brethren (brothers and sisters), that my sacrifice and yours may be acceptable to God, the Almighty Father.”  In the old version of the Catholic mass, the Latin wording translates as “Come, O Sanctifier, Almighty and Eternal God, and bless this sacrifice prepared for the glory of Your holy name.”  The consecrated bread becomes, for the faithful, the body of Christ.  The wine becomes the blood of Christ.  The faithful then consume both, in order to share in the sacrifice and the redemption it promises.

 

Symbolic human sacrifice

When I was helping on an archaeological dig of an early Maya site in Chocola, Guatemala, workers found a small statue of a bound, beheaded captive included in the foundation of a building.  Along with the metates (grinding bowls) and intentionally smashed cookware also included in the foundation, archaeologists interpreted the figure of the captive as a dedicatory offering to the gods.

The Chocola figure struck me as interesting because it was a symbolic blood sacrifice, a clay figure that took the place of a human.

Today, many Christians keep a crucifix on the wall, remembering the sacrifice of Jesus Christ, known as the Lamb of God, on the cross.  Like the Chocola figure, this statue symbolically replaces the ultimate human/divine sacrifice.

 

So the idea of ritual sacrifice is wide-spread, but where did it come from?

A triple burial found in Moravia and dated to 27,000 years ago may provide some clues.  In the grave, three adolescents are laid out so one is facing down while the other two face each other.  The figure on the left in the photo (below) is apparently reaching over to the genital area of the one in the middle, who was affected by congenital dysplasia.  Since the bodies seem to have been purposely arranged, the site brings up many unanswered questions.  Why were these three buried together?  What was their relationship? Were they killed?

venus Moravia

Two other Paleolithic graves, in Italy and Russia, also contained adolescents with deformities.  As part of their burial, they were decorated with ivory beads, which would have been very valuable.

Archaeologists investigating a series of graves dating from 26,000 to 8,000 BC found several that contained the remains of young people who suffered from abnormalities, including extra fingers and toes.  In an article in Current Anthropology, Vincenzo Formicola of the University of Pisa, Italy, maintains that these burials could be a sign of ritual killing because, unlike usual burials, with a single body, these sites often contain multiples.  “These individuals may have been feared, hated, or revered,” Formicola said.

Perhaps, because they were different, they were both feared and revered as different and therefore “touched by spirits.”

 

 Back to the “Venus” Figurines

One of the most enduring enigmas in Western art is the popularity of the “Venus Figurines,” the small sculptures of obese, exaggerated female figures that appear in different sites from the Mediterranean to Siberia, over an enormous span of time, from the Venus of Hohle Fels (Germany), about 40,000 years old, to the Venus of Garagino (Ukraine), about 22,000 years old.  The illustration shown here gives a sampling of the “Venus” figures found.

venus map

In most cases, the female figures are small and thus portable.  While many have wildly exaggerated breasts and buttocks, and sometimes a pregnant belly, they have little or no face or feet, and sometimes no arms.  Many writers have pointed to these early figurines as evidence of a widespread “Goddess Cult.”

The problem is, many look more like sacrifices than gods, though I suppose the two entities can be combined.

Venus gagarino2Take the “Venus” of Gagarino figure, (photo, left) one of several found in the Voronezh region of Russia, in the same region as the Kostenki and Avdeeno sites (22,000 years old), which have also yielded extensive finds of bone awls and points, burnishers, shovels, and jewelry.  Gagarino yielded several Venus figures.  The one pictured was found buried in a prehistoric fire pit.  It has a featureless round head, enormous breasts, and an undefined lower body.venus of Moravany 2

 

The Venus of Moravany (photo, right), from about the same time period (23,000 years ago), was found in Slovakia.  Like many others, it was purposely beheaded before being buried.

Encyclopedia Mythica

Willendorf Venus

The famous Venus of Willendorf (Austria), perhaps the most well-known European Venus statue (24,000 years old), has sometimes been described as a celebration of fatness and therefore plenty, but she doesn’t look as if she’s celebratin.(photo, left).  With her bowed head and stooped shoulders, she looks like the victims at Tonina, Mexico.

The Venus of Lespugue (France) is even older and her features more exaggerated.  Again, her head is bowed.

The oldest European Venus statue, the Venus of Hohle Fels (Germany), dated to 35,000 years ago, has a huge middle, a tiny suggestion of a head, and no feet.

Many sources, including the program “How Art Made the World” on PBS, have called these statues a statement of exaggerated beauty.  The site called About Archaeology describes these statues as “Rubenesque,” but Rubens never painted women like these: faceless, footless, sometimes armless figures with hunched shoulders and bowed heads. Their creation, neuroscientist V. S. Ramachandran argues, shows that ancient artists valued the parts of the female that were most attractive and important: breasts and pelvic girdle.

However, other statues of females — not wildly exaggerated — have been found at these Paleolithic sites, as have statues of males, and many animal figures.  What’s interesting is that most of the pieces found ritually destroyed and buried are of grossly exaggerated females. Why?

 

A couple of theories

A sacrifice to get rid of a problem

Like the ritually killed and buried people with abnormalities found in Eastern Europe, it’s possible that the Venus figurines represented diseased females. Elephantiasis, lymphedema, tuberculosis, leprosy, or podoconiosis would cause gross enlargement of the breasts and genitals.  Genital elephantiasis can also be caused by sexually transmitted diseases, such as Chlamydia.  Today, where women are affected by elephantiasis, they are socially shunned.  Ironically, despite their swollen female features, they typically have trouble getting pregnant.

If this were the case in an ancient society, these women may have been ritually sacrificed.  That would explain the ropes tying the Venus of Kostenki’s wrists and her missing head.  It would also explain the many cut marks found on all of these figures. And perhaps the unusual clothing, including net or knitted headwear.

A sacrifice to avoid a problem

If the statues were a stand-in for a human sacrifice that would address some problem, even if it wasn’t disease-related, it’s likely the idea would spread quickly.  In order to avoid these problems in your tribe, you could simply ritually kill a little statue.  It could become part of the process of setting up a village or a dwelling, the way some people tack up a horseshoe over the garage – or the way the ancient Maya included the statue of a beheaded, bound captive in the foundation of their building.

A sacrifice to create life

Venus CoatlicueAnother possibility is the statue represents a female creation figure who must be destroyed for life to emerge, like the Aztec creation goddess, Coatlicue (She of the Serpent Skirt, pictured, left) and her daughter Coyolxauhqui (pictured below, right, after she was torn apart to create the world).Venus Coyolxauhqui, daughter of Coatlicue

Spanish explorers discovered a statue of Coatlicue in 1790, near what is now called the Calendar Stone or Sun Stone, in Mexico City. She wears her skirt of snakes and a necklace of skulls.  Her hands and feet have claws so she can devour her prey.  (She was considered so frightening at the time that the statue was re-buried.) She is the destructive force that both gives life and takes it away.  Her hair hangs down her back in 13 plaits, symbolic of the 13 lunar months and 13 heavens of Aztec religion.

 

That does make you wonder about the 13 marks on the horn (or crescent moon) held up by the Venus of Laussel (about 28,000 years old) discovered in the Dordogne Valley of France.

The problem is that nothing about the “Venus” figures suggests that kind of dark strength – or any kind of strength.  With their hunched shoulders and downcast head, they seem powerless.

This is not to suggest that there was never a Goddess Cult, but only that the well-known Venus figurines were probably not representative of one.  Certainly, though, some later figures in ancient Near Eastern and Mediterranean art depict powerful female figures.  Inanna, Tanit, Astarte, Ishtar, Sekmet, Hathor and Isis were powerful goddesses with a huge following.  (See the earlier post on them at https://misfitsandheroes.wordpress.com/2013/08/20/missing-fierce-powerful-goddess/)

The Venus figures, though, look more like sacrifices.

The question remaining is why this particular strange figure became the perfect symbolic sacrifice, copied, with variations, over an area ranging from current day Spain all the way to Russia!  Perhaps it became a trade item or a gift, suggesting a sharing of powerful charms and therefore a social network. At some point in this sharing, she may have gone from an unfortunate victim to a magical one.

In any case, this statue apparently held enormous power.

Intriguing connections with Sudan, Siberia, and Indonesia wait to be explored.  It’s also not clear what relationship, if any, the Berekhat Ram Venus figure (Golan Heights, 250,000 years old) has with the later sculptures of voluptuous females.  Perhaps more research will help us fill in the blanks between them.  It will be interesting to see what new facts we can learn about the sacrifices that were so central to our ancestors’ life.

 

Sources and interesting reading:

“Avdeevo: a Paleolithic site with strong links to Kostenki,” Don’s Maps, http://donsmaps.com/avdeevo.html

Baudez, Claude F. and Peter Mathews, “Captive and Sacrifice at Palenque,” Mesowebhttp://www.mesoweb.org/ari/publications/RT04/Capture.pdf

Benson, Emily. “Human sacrifice may have helped societies become more complex,” Science Magazine, April 2016, http:///www.sciencemag.org/new/2016/human-sacrifice-may-have-helped-societies-become-more-complex

Cartwright, Mark.  “Coatlicue,” Ancient History Encyclopedia.  November 2013, http://www.ancient.eu/Coatlicue/

“The Catholic Worship Service: The Mass,” http://www.dummies.com/how-to/content/the-catholic-worship-service-the-mass.html

Coffee, Albert. “New Discoveries at Tonina!” Albert’s Archaeoblog, July 2015, http://albertcoffeetours.com/blog/

“Elephantiasis” National Organization for Rare Disorders (NORD) 2009, http://rarediseases.org/rare-diseases/elephantiasis/

“The First Artists,” Exhibit at the Israel Museum, Jerusalem, http://www.imgf.org.il/exhibitions/presentation/exhibit/?id=358

Haviland, Willam A., et al.  Anthropology: The Human Challenge. Belmont, California: Wadsworth Publishing, 2014.

Hirst, K. Kris.  “Laussel Venus – Upper Paleolithic Goddess with a Horn,” http://archaeology.about.com/od/upperpaleolithic/qt/Laussel-Venus.htm

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

“Human sacrifice,” Britannica Online Encyclopedia, https://www.britannica.com/topic/human-sacrifice>

Jongko, Paul. “10 Ancient Cultures That Practiced Ritual Human Sacrifice,” 2014, TopTenz, http://www.toptenz.net/10-ancient-cultures-practiced-ritual-human-sacrifice.php

Linsley, Alice C. “Where Did Animal Sacrifice Originate?” Just Genesis (blog), August 2013, http://jandyongenesis.blogsport.com/2011/10/origins-of-animal-sacrfice.html

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

“Lymphatic filariasis,” Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lymphatic_filariasis

Parker-Pearson, Mike.  “The Practice of Human Sacrifice.” BBC, 2011. http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/ancient/british_prehistory/human_sacrifice_01.shtml

Saint Joseph Daily Missal: The Official Prayers of the Catholic Church for the Celebration of Daily Mass. New York: Catholic Book Publishing Co., 1961.

Shoemaker, Tom. “Images of the Ancient Goddess,” Mesa Community College, 2015, http://www.mesacc.edu/~thoqh49081/summer2015/100web/goddess-images.html

Swezey, Thomas. F. “The World’s Oldest Religious Ritual,” 2002, http://www.winternet.com/~swezeyt/bible/oldestrit.htm

“Venus figures from Russia,” Don’s Maps, http://donsmaps.com/ukrainevenus.html

“Venus figures from the Stone Age arranged alphabetically” Don’s Mapshttp://www.donsmaps.com/venus.html

“Venus Figurines, Indonesian Art and the Interconnectedness of the Stone Age,” Biology Magazine, November 2014, http://en.paperblog.com/venus-figurines-indonesian-art-and-the-interconnectness-of-the-Stone-Age-1051077/

“Venus Figurines of the Upper Paleolithic,” Wake Me Up Before You Gogh Gogh blog, December 2013, http://wakemeupbeforeyougoghgogh.blogspot.com/2013/12/venus-figurines-of-upper-paleolithic-art.html

“The Venus Figurines of the European Paleolithic Era,” Ancient Origins, http://www.ancient-origins.net/ancient-places-europe/venus-figurines-european-paleolithic-era-001548

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

“Venus of Gagarino,” Visual Arts Cork, http://www.visual-arts-cork.com/prehistoric/gagarino-venus.htm

“The Venus of Moravany”   Venus Figures from the Stone Age, Don’s Maps, http://donsmaps.com/moravanyvenus.html  (Don’s Maps is an excellent source.)

“Venus of Willendorf: Exaggerated Beauty,” How Art Made the World, PBS, Episode 1, 2006, http://www.pbs.org/howartmadetheworld/episodes/human/venus/

Whipps, Heather. “Early Europeans Practiced Human Sacrifice,” Live Science, 2007, http://www.livescience.com/1594-early-europeans-practiced-human-sacrifice.html

White, Richard.  “Bataille on Lascaux and the Origins of Art.” Creighton University. www.janushead.org/11-2White.pdf

Wynd, Shona, and others. “Understanding the community impact of lymphatic filariasis: a review of the sociocultural literature.” World Health Organization, http://www.who.int/bulletin/volumes/85/6/06-031047/en

El Castillo: Wonders and Questions

El Castillo Cave

El Castillo Cave in northern Spain is famous for containing the oldest cave art in Europe: a red disk that was painted on the cave wall at least 40,800 years ago, perhaps as long as 42,000 years ago.  These dates caused a major uproar because it’s just about the time modern humans (Homo sapiens sapiens) are thought to have arrived in Western Europe.  Before then, Neanderthals (Homo neanderthalensis) occupied the area.  So debate rages about whether the red dot was the work of our Neanderthal cousins, modern humans, or perhaps a hybrid of the two.  The latter is certainly a possibility; we now know the two races/species interbred. Or perhaps the meeting of the two lines of hominins released a flood of new creativity on both sides.

You can find a good introductory video, “Paleolithic Cave Arts in Northern Spain,” on YouTube.  It also shows how close the quarters are inside some sections of the cave.

The cave also contains many very old hand stencils, the oldest of which are at least 37,000 years old.  Just for reference, the oldest paintings in Chauvet Cave in France are 32,000 years old, and the famous Lascaux Cave paintings are about 20,000 years old.

El Castillo gallery of disks

People are drawn to contests determining the first and the oldest, so most of the attention given to El Castillo has been directed at the very old dots and hand stencils.  Two of those tested are marked on the photo.

But El Castillo’s value is more than just its antiquity.

hand el-castillo-handprints

The 13,000 year span

Experts once considered the drawings made on the walls of El Castillo the product of a single time period – about 17,000 years ago.  This somewhat arbitrary date was assigned because they thought France had the oldest cave art, so any cave in Spain had to be younger than Lascaux Cave in France.  When scientists were able to date the art by dating the calcite deposits that had formed over the top of it, they were amazed at its age.   And its range.

The oldest, the red disks, are over 40,000 years old.  Some may be 42,000 years old.  But some disks are far younger, at 20,000 years old.

The disk and hand print that were analyzed by Pettitt, Pyke, and Zilhao are marked with numbers on the sketch below.

Some of the hand stencils, mostly near the front and middle sections of the cave, were apparently painted more than 37,000 years ago, but some of the more recent hand stencils are 24,000 years old.

The animal figures painted over the hand stencils are generally more recent than the stencils, in some cases by thousands of years.

So the artwork in the cave was created over thirteen thousand years. Thus, it’s impossible for us to make a single assumption or interpretation about all the paintings in the cave.  The space, though probably considered very powerful and important, may have served very different purposes over those years.  What’s interesting is the ancient artists’ decision to continue to mark the cave, often using the same imagery, and in some cases to mark right over the top of earlier signs.

 

The Panel of the Hands

One of the most intriguing sections of the cave is the Panel of Hands, located far back in one leg of the cave.

Print

el_castillo_sketched

The stenciled hands included in it were created by placing a hand over the rock and blowing a mixture of red ocher and water over it.  The slurry was held either in the artist’s mouth and blown out directly over the hand, or in a clam shell. (Several shells, mixing stones, and hollow bird bones were found on site.)  When researchers attempted to recreate the process of creating a hand stencil, they tried two methods: they blew out a mixture held in their mouth for some and for others they used two tubes, one inserted in the slurry and one held in the mouth.  The passage of air from the mouth tube over the slurry tube creates a vacuum that then allows the slurry to be sprayed over the hand.  Those of you old enough to remember artists’ fixative blowers before aerosols will be familiar with the process.  As the Dick Blick art supplies site explains, “Place the short tube in your mouth and the long tube in the bottle of fixative.  Blow gently and evenly, aiming at your drawing.  This atomizer can also be used to spray watercolors and thinned acrylics for special effects.”  (In the photo below, a modern artist uses an atomizer for special effects.)

When experimental archaeologists attempted to replicate the hand stencil technique with two hollow bird bones forming the atomizer, they found it El C atomizer in usedifficult to master. Archaeologist Paul Pettitt reported that using the two tubes to spray the slurry left them light-headed.  Many heard a persistent whirring or whistling noise in their ears.  It’s not hard to see how this would have added to the impression of entering a different world.

 

Who left those hand prints?

el castillo hand

Another interesting discovery colors our view of this panel.  Older interpretation was that the hand prints were those of men seeking success in the hunt, but research now shows that three-quarters of the hand prints and stencils in the caves of France and Spain were made by women.  Dean Snow, who analyzed hundreds of hand stencils in eight caves in France and Spain, showed that the hand prints carry a distinct signature.  Women tend to have ring and index fingers of the same length.  Men’s ring fingers tend to be longer than their index fingers. Snow’s data showed that 24 of the 32 hands in El Castillo were female. Their reasons for making the prints remain a mystery.

The semi-circle of dots

Another curious feature of this panel is the semi-circle of dots on the far right.  Several scholars have interpreted this as a representation of the Northern Crown constellation (Corona Borealis).  It’s a fascinating theory.  (I admit this whole section is sheer speculation but fun!)CoronaBorealis

El Castillo seven dots, drawing after Anati, 1991
In northern Spain, the Northern Crown constellation is visible in the night sky from spring to fall.  Since El Castillo seems to have been occupied only during those seasons, it would make sense to include it as a sort of seasonal marker.  If that’s true, it shows an impressive level of sophistication in our relatives so long ago.

el_castillo_sketched

 

If you want to push that theory, you could point to the position of the Northern Crown on the far right and see the vertical line of hands as the standing Milky Way, as the sky would have appeared in the spring. The line of hands across the middle would cross the center of the sky in early May.
The dark curved bands would appear at the base of the Milky Way, just about where Cassiopeia would be.

Addendum, January 2016

There’s something about the El Castillo Frieze of Hands that I can’t let go.  I thought initially that the Northern Crown constellation was notable enough to include in the post, though of course it is speculation.  However, I now think that the entire panel, perhaps excluding the bison drawings, relates directly to the summertime night sky.

The section marked with the heavy red lines that resemble a boat looks like the summer position of the constellation Cassiopeia. It appears, about 9:00 PM, as an uneven “W” in the summer and an uneven “M” in winter, while it appears to stand on one leg during spring and fall.

Above it rises the Milky Way, with the three stars of the Summer Triangle marked near the top, the most conspicuous asterism in the summer sky, made up of the brightest stars from the constellations Aquila, Lyra, and Cygnus.

star chart 1

With Cassiopeia in the position marked, this would be a mid-summer star scene, typical of about 9:00 PM in July.

In the drawing shown earlier, the somewhat enigmatic figure in the center of the panel could refer to a number of constellations or combinations of them.  If it is Perseus to the Pleiades, that angle would be typical of a later summer sky, late August or September.

Finally, the only times the Northern Crown would look the way it’s painted on the far right of the panel (arms pointing up) would be in spring or fall (March and October).  The constellation appears in the spring and disappears from the night sky in the fall.

The three constellations would then reference three different times during the summer.

It’s fascinating to consider the possibility that our ancestors so long ago not only understood the patterns in the stars and their relationship to the seasons but could reproduce them deep inside a cave.

Forgive me if I’ve stepped into the land of speculation.  This one wouldn’t stay quiet.

 

The Bison

Interestingly, at least eight yellow bison figures were painted over the top of the stenciled hands in the Frieze of Hands.  More appear in other sections of the cave, often painted in black.  The bison images are remarkably similar – showing the same rump and single hind leg, large hump and (often partial) head with two horns, as if they all followed the same template.  They appear at the top of the vertical line of hand stencils in the photo on the left, and over the left and central portions of the horizontal line of hands.  In the image below, lines of yellow ocher descend from the bison’s mouth, as if it’s bleeding.

El Castillo bison2

While experts once thought the hand stencils on this panel were a way for hunters to spiritually connect to the bison, perhaps to ensure success in the hunt, current research shows the people who used the cave didn’t eat bison.  Mostly they depended on deer for meat.  As the famed anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss pointed out, “Animals were chosen [for representation] not because they were ‘good to eat’ but because they were ‘good to think.’”

Besides, the bison were painted later than the hands – in some cases, much later.  The hands aren’t touching the bison.  The bison are crowding out the hands, or superseding them.

Bison also appear prominently in both Chauvet (France) and Altamira (Spain), as well as Las Monedas, Buxu, and El Pendo.  Rather than a form of hunting magic, the bison image, which seems very similar from one site to another, might have represented a spirit power, in particular a male power in a female cave.  The figure on the left is from El Castillo.  The one on the right is from Buxu Cave (Spain).

El C. buxubison

The Bison Man

This bison spirit idea is supported in El Castillo by the “Bison Man” figure.  Deep in the recesses of the cave is a carved stalactite figure known as the Bison Man.  It seems to show the figure of a bison standing upright or climbing a cliff.  There’s a nice YouTube video of the Bison Man at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FdbMAZgC7VA showing not only the carving of the bison but also the shadow effect when a light is shined on the whole formation, transforming it into a bison-human moving through the cave.  The photo (left) does not show the figure very well.  Start with the hind leg, toward the bottom of the photo.  Then follow the standing figure, which looks as more like a wolf hybrid than a bison to me.  The body uses the natural form of the rock and emphasizes it  with black drawing.

El C. Bison Man 2

The Bison Man figure is reminiscent of the Sorcerer figure in the back of Chauvet Cave (France), which combines both male and female characteristics, and the Sorcerer figure in Trois Freres Cave (France) which combines features of reindeer, bison, bear, horse, and human male.  It would be interesting to find out the date for Bison Man and compare that to the dates of the bison drawings.  If indeed the bison is the mark of a particular cult or group, it would seem logical for those people to put their symbol over the top of earlier ones, just as the horse and mammoth figures were superimposed on earlier animal forms in Chauvet.  Or the way Roman Catholic Spaniards in Peru built their churches on top of Inca stonework.

The Techtiforms

There’s much to learn from the drawings made so long ago in El Castillo cave, including the meaning of the bizarre abstract figures, called techtiforms, that appear at the base of the vertical line of hands and other places in the cave, each time accented very definitely. (Photo, right.)El Castillo boats

These forms are usually explained away as drawings of boats, maps, buildings, corrals, or simply the product of hallucinations or shamanic trance.  But they obviously had a very specific meaning and great importance.  That’s why they were repeated and emphasized.  Perhaps findings in other caves in the area will help us understand.  The drawing from Buxu Cave shown in the photo  (below left) seems to suggest an animal form, maybe a horse, but it’s hard to tell. I suspect that as we make more discoveries, we’ll get a better idea of what these diagrams mean.

El C. Buxu ideograph horse

Studying these very old drawings reminds us that our ancestors were far more sophisticated than we guessed.

If it turns out that at least some of the El Castillo artists were Neanderthals, the evidence of their art should help revise the negative image of them we’ve held for so long.

 

 

 

 

Sources and Interesting Reading:

“Alphecca, jewel in Northern Crown,” Wikipedia, http://earthsky.org/brightest-stars/alphecca-norathern-crowns-brightest-star/

Borenstein, Seth. “Spanish cave paintings shown as oldest in the world,” USA Today, 14 June 2012, http://usatoday30.usatoday.com/tech/scienc/story/2012-06-14/cave-paintings-spain/55602532/1\

“Buxu Cave,” Don’s Maps, http://donsmaps.com/buxu.html

“Claude Levi-Strauss,” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Claude_1_%C3%A0vi-Strauss/

“Corona Borealis,” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Corona_Borealis/

“El Castillo Cave,” Don’s Maps (an excellent source), http://www.donsmaps.com/castillo.html

“First Painters May Have Been Neanderthal, Not Human,” Wired, 14 June 2012, http://www.wired.com/2012/06/neanderthal-cave-paintings/

“Fixative atomizer,” Dick Blick Art Supplies catalog

Garcia-Diez, Marcos.  “Ancient paintings of hands,” BBC Travel photos of El Castillo

Garcia-Diez, Marcos, Daniel Garrido, Dirk L. Hoffmann, Paul B. Pettitt, Alistar W. G. Pike, and Joao Zilhao, “The chronology of hand stencils in European Palaeolithic rock art: implication of new U-series results from El Castillo Cave (Cantabria, Spain), Journal of Anthropological Sciences, Vol 93 (2015) 135-152.

Hughes, Virginia.  “Were the First Artists Mostly Women?”  National Geographic News, 09 October 2013, http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2013/10/131008-women-handprints-oldest-neolithic-cave-art/

“A journey deep inside Spain’s temple of cave art,” BBC Travel, www.bbc.com/trael/story/20141027-a-journey-deep-inside-spains-temple-of-cave-art

“New Research uncovers Europe’s Oldest Cave Paintings,” The New Observer, 24 September 2013

“The Night Sky,” the original 2-sided planisphere (star guide), copyright 1992, David Chandler

“Paleolithic Cave Arts in Northern Spain: El Castillo Cave, Cantabria,” a video available on YouTube, with English subtitles, https://www.youtube.com

Rappenglueck, Michael. “Ice Age People find their ways by the stars: A rock picture in the Cueva de el Castillo (Spain) may represent the circumpolar constellation of the Northern Crown,”  Artepreistorica.com, http://www.artepreistorica.com/2000/12/ice-age-people-find=their-way-by-the-stars

Rimell, Bruce. “El Castillo – Formative Image from the Upper Palaeolithic,” Archaic Visions, http://www.visionaryartexhibition.com/archaic-visions/el-castillo-formative-images-from-the-upper-palaeolithic/

Sanders, Nancy K.  Prehistoric Art in Europe. Yale University Press, 1995.

Subbaraman, Nidhi. “Prehistoric cave prints show most early artists were women,” NBC News 15 October 2013, http://www.nbcnews.com/science/prehistoric-cave-prints-show-most-early-artists-were-women-8C11391268

Zim, Herbert, and Robert H. Baker.  Stars: A guide to the constellations, sun, moon, planets, and other features of the heavens.  New York: Simon and Schuster, 1956.  Still a cute book.

 

Chauvet Cave

In 1994, three cave explorers were surveying a cave in the Ardeche region of southern France when they discovered another cave nearby.  That cave, now world-famous, carries the name of the lead explorer: Jean-Marie Chauvet.  More than 400 meters long, it features several “rooms” or sections covered in amazing paintings, some of which have been found to be between 30,000 and 33,000 years old.  The famous paintings in France’s Lascaux Cave, in comparison, are about 20,000 years old.  The Chauvet dates were so old that many archaeologists refused to believe them even after artifacts had been tested repeatedly.  That’s because Chauvet art challenged a long held theory that art “progressed” or developed greater sophistication as modern humans developed.  Thus early art should be primitive, minimal, and naïve.  Instead, Chauvet art showed great power and inventive design effects.

Chauvet Cave Layout

Chauvet Cave is a 400-meter (1312’) long network of galleries and rooms divided by very narrow sections. A landslide 26,000 years ago completely sealed off the cave, preserving its contents until its discovery in 1994.  So when we study the images of the cave provided by Jean Clottes, Werner Herzog, and the French Ministry of Culture we see exactly what the ancients – and some wild animals – left behind.

Several rockslides closed the original opening.  When Jean-Marie Chauvet, Christian Hillaire, and Eliette Brunel found the current opening, they had to squeeze through a very narrow space that led to a deep shaft.  Eliette Brunel, the only woman in the group, went first, climbing down to the large chamber that now bears her name.  When she saw drawings on the wall, she cried out, “They have been here!”  Indeed they had, though the artists and the viewers had missed each other by an almost unimaginable stretch of time.

Brunel Chamber

In the Brunel Chamber, an ancient artist must have felt the mineral flows on one wall looked like a mastodon, for the form has been outlined in red ochre. The mastodon is one of the central animal forms in the cave decorations.

This chaBrunel Chamber red panelmber also contains a striking panel of red dots made by coating a hand with red ochre and pressing it against the wall.  To the right of the red dots is a section with red dots and lines that seem to pour out from a central fissure in the rock.  The cruciform symbol appears several times on the panel (photo, left).

chauvet brunel bears

Farther along in the Brunel chamber is a panel of three bears drawn in red ochre (photo, right). Almost every drawing in the front half of the cave is done in red.  Drawings in the back of the cave are done in black.

Like most of the figures in the cave, these feature a clear head, shoulder and top line while legs are merely suggested.

Also in the Brunel Chamber is an animal form made of dots – handprints actually, all from the same artist.  Together they make up another mammoth.

The Red Panels Gallery

chauvethyenaandpanther2sm

The eastern wall of this gallery holds several panels of hand prints, dots, and red figures of a bear/hyena and a panther (photo, left).  Note the similarity in drawing style to the bears pictured above, especially in the treatment of the face and the added smudging or stumping around the eye ridge and nostril.

The Cactus Gallery

The most prominent features in this section are a red mammoth painted on a hanging u-shaped formation (photo, right) and a red bear on the wall (photo, left).chauvet cactus mammoth

chauvet cactus red bear

Note the similarity of the style of the bear drawing with the previous bear and hyena drawings.

Past the Cactus Gallery, the cave abruptly narrows, the floor drops and the ceiling drops, making a tight passageway that forms a natural boundary between the two sections of the cave.  The art is also divided by this point.  The front section is almost exclusively painted in red figures and forms.  From footprints left behind, researchers know that men, women, and children visited the front section. The back chambers, including the monumental panels painted in black, are very different and may have had far fewer visitors.

The Back of the Cave

The Hillaire Chamber

The Hillaire Chamber has a deep depression in the center, about ten meters (32’) in diameter and four meters (13’) deep.  The walls around it feature over a hundred paintings as well as engravings of a horse and a mammoth, (shown in photo, left) and an owl.  Some other engravings to the left of the horse have been scratched out.

chauvet hillaire horse and mammoth

The most famous panel in this chamber is the one featuring a collection of horses, rhinos and aurochs (photo), as well as fainter marks that might have been earlier figures.  According to researchers who have recreated the order of painting, the horse heads are the most recent addition to the panel.  Next to the group is a fissure in the rock, so the horses seem to be emerging from it.

Chauvet horses and rhino

On the left wall is a panel of horses as well as a pair of cave lions. The horse heads in this panel seem to be drawn by the same artist as those on the other panel, or at least in the same style.  The lion heads show especially delicate shading work and stippling around the muzzle.

 cave lion pair and horses

Researchers have recreated the sequence of strokes involved in painting the lions.  See photo below.

chauvet cavelionstumping

Also in this chamber is a panel of drawings of aurochs, bison, horses, and others – all done in brief outlines with none of the shading or power of the previously mentioned panels.

The Skull Chamber

This section gets its name from a cave bear skull left on a prominent rock.  Over 3700 cave bear bones were found in Chauvet Cave, thought to belong to at least 190 different individuals.  (The next most common was wolf bones, belonging to six individuals.)

The End Chamber

Beyond the Megaloceros passage is the End Chamber, which contains some of the most astounding art panels in the cave.  A young mammoth was drawn over older figures of rhinos.  Three lions, using the same shading and stippling pattern as the earlier ones, were drawn over earlier figures.  Multiple rhinos appear on one side of a crevice while what looks like a pack of lions chases bison and other animals on the other side of the crevice.  A single horse appears in a scraped-clean recessed area (photo below left).  The photo on the right shows the whole section, complete with the phallic protrusion described below and the hole on the cave wall.

chauvet end chamber rhinosbisonimg285sm


chauvet end chamber

Thechauvet bisonwomansm most enigmatic part of the End Chamber, and indeed the whole cave, is the V-shaped rock formation mentioned above.  It’s painted with the head of a male bison and the pubic triangle and leg of a woman that seems to fade into a lioness painted on the flat section (See photo, left).  It’s often called the Sorcerer.  Though its function is unknown, it certainly encourages comparisons with the androgynous Spirit Master of western US cave art.  Yahwera, as the spirit master is known, keeps all the animals inside the earth and then releases them through a crack or crevice.  People mark the location of the portal to the Spirit Master’s cave with hand prints and drawings on the rock.

Past the End Chamber is a small area known as the Sacristy, which contains only the figure of a mammoth drawn in black with tusks emphasized by engraving.

What do these images mean?

Doodling

There’s always some expert who claims ancient people were incapable of abstract thought; therefore anything they produced must be simply doodling, without any specific meaning.  It’s hard to believe these people actually looked at the images in the photographs.

Hunting Magic

Some experts claim the cave paintings were a form of hunting magic.  Hunters drew images on the walls to increase their luck in the hunt.  The problem is that most of the animals on Chauvet’s walls weren’t animals the people hunted. And, unlike the images in Lascaux Cave, these animals do not appear with arrows piercing them. Often they appear to be emerging from cracks in the cave wall, or in the case of the End Chamber, from the depth of the cave itself, like a womb of life presided over by the androgynous figure of the Sorcerer.

The Brilliant Crazy Ones

David Whitley, in his book Cave Paintings and the Human Spirit: The Origin of Creativity and Belief, argues that amazing ancient cave art is the work of one or more individuals we would call mentally ill. Specifically, he suggests bi-polar disorder and schizophrenia.  These mood disorders, he says, provide the springboard for creativity.  He backs up his argument with studies of shamans who endured mental illness and through their struggles were able to experience the mythic creation of the world.  He claims that in the case of Chauvet, the enlightened crazy ones “used art to permanently materialize their spirit contact.  They created something in the real world [art] to illustrate what was in fact unreal.”

While I don’t rule out enlightened crazy artists, I think the process of art creation in Chauvet was more gradual that that thesis implies.  The art in Chauvet was an on-going process.  The first stage covered two thousand years!  Newer artists painted over older work.  Sometimes they purposely scratched out older images.  Older images tend to be simpler line figures without varying intensity of line or shading while the most recent work is very sophisticated indeed. But then, the later artists had a great gallery of previous work to study.

Neanderthals?

Studies of the earliest cave art at El Castillo Cave in Spain, dated to over 40,000 years old, revealed the strong possibility that the first artists to leave their marks on the cave walls were Neanderthals.  They left red dots and series of lines as well as two figures clearly resembling fish.  Perhaps the impetus for the great art of Chauvet and later Lascaux in southern France came from the folks who lived in the area for thousands of years before Homo sapiens sapiens.

Trance

Other experts, following the lead of David Lewis Williams, show that a trance state, brought on by fasting, drugs, repetitive sound, light deprivation, or even the toxic air inside the cave could have resulted in the impression that the mineral deposits on the walls were indeed animals coming out of the rock.  This idea is backed up by the outlined mammoth shape in the front half of the cave.  Trance was and is critical to religious practices in many parts of the world.  Through trance, shamans – people especially in tune with the spirit world through their constitution and their training – can bridge the gap between the world of spirits and the world of people in order to restore balance between them.

In many parts of the world caves are still seen as portals to the Underworld, powerful places that form a passage between worlds.

These theories may in fact overlap.  Perhaps inspired by the claw marks bears left on the walls, early residents left their own marks.  Later, visionary individuals may have understood the cave as a place to contact the spirit world.  These people and those who believed them would want to touch the walls that formed the only barrier between them and the otherworld. They would want to put their mark on the cave, to become part of it.  Later, the cave might become so powerful in local society it had to be claimed for a specific group and covered with their symbols. As that power shifted, so did the symbols.

Competition

Even among the most recent works in Chauvet, there seems to be some competition involved, perhaps by individual artists, clans, villages, or other groups. In the Skull Chamber, older red hatch marks were covered with an ibex drawing which was later scratched out and a reindeer added.  The mammoth outline is often drawn over older rhinos. A mammoth has been included in various parts of the cave (including the front and far back) over earlier images. Lions are often drawn over older figures (including on the feline panel in the End Chamber), but the most common over-draw is the horse head, occurring often as a head scratched right over the top of other figures or as the suggestion of a whole body, such as the figure in the Niche of the Horse in the End Chamber, which was drawn over a scraped area.  Other older red figures were effaced, along with a series of dots.

Several of the charcoal drawings seem to have been made by the same master artist who didn’t hesitate to cover or replace earlier works.  In the photo, it’s clear that the artist has scraped the left panel clean to make a stronger contrast between the white background and the black charcoal.

chauvet sectorofhorses

The mammoth artist seems to have a different style entirely but also “tagged” many different areas in the cave.  This artist tends to use only an outline, sometimes of the head, shoulders, and front leg, and sometimes the whole body.  The very last image in the cave is just such a figure.  (See photo, right)  The young mammoth was drawn first in charcoal, then the tusks were emphasized by engraving.

chauvet sacristy mammoth

Competition among artists may have also driven rapid developments of style.  The fully shaded horse heads and lion figures make a far more powerful statement than the smaller outlines of earlier efforts.

Conclusions

It may be difficult to explain how the ancient people perceived these cave drawings, but one conclusion is easy: The paintings in Chauvet Cave should show how absurd the whole Social Darwinism/March of Progress theory really is.  Obviously, the development of humankind is not a slow and steady march toward greater ability and sophistication, with modern humans at the top of the mountain.  Our distant ancestors had art, culture, and abstract thought 30,000 years ago!

While the cave is closed to the public to protect its contents, you can visit a replica that is now open near the cave.  Or check out the French Cultural Ministry’s map of Chauvet Cave at http://www.culture.gouv.fr/fr/arcnat/chauvet/en/   It provides an overview of the cave shape as well as an interactive display of the paintings, human artifacts, and animal remains in each section.  It’s worth seeing!

Sources and Interesting Reading:

Balter, Michael, “Did Neandertals Paint Early Cave Art?” Science/AAAS/News, 14 June 2012, http://news.sciencemag.org/2012/06/did-neadertals-paint-early-cave-art

“Chauvet,” French Ministry of Culture site, http://www.culture.gouv.fr/fr/arcnat/chauvet/

“Chauvet Cave (ca.30,000 BC)” Hellbrunn Timeline of Art History, Metropolitan Museum of Art, http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/chav/hd_chav.htm

“Chauvet Cave,” Don’s Maps, www.donsmaps.com/chauvetcave.html   – This is an excellent source for photos of the paintings and maps of the galleries!

“Chauvet Cave Paintings: Prehistoric Murals, Ardeche, France: Discovery, Significance, Cave Layout,” Visual Arts Cork, http://www.visual-arts-cork.com/prehistoric/chauvet-cave-paintings.htm

Clottes, Jean. Chauvet Cave: The Art of Earliest Times. University of Utah Press, 2003

Clottes, Jean.  Cave Art.  Phaidon Press, 2010.  This coffee table book has fabulous full-color photos of very famous and some less famous European cave paintings and engravings.

“Decorated Cave of Pont d’Arc, known as Grotte Chauvet-Pont d’Arc, Ardeche,” United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), World Heritage List, http:whc.unesco.org/en/list/1426

Herzog, Werner. Cave of Forgotten Dreams (film) 2011, IFC Films

Hitchcock, Don, “Floor Plan of Chauvet Cave,” from Philippe et Fosse (2003) with additional text from Chauvet Cave: The Art of Earliest Times, by Jean Clottes (2003)

“Introduction to the Chauvet Cave,” Bradshaw Foundation, http://www.bradshawfoundation.com/chauvet/chauvet_cave_paintings.php

“Prehistoric Colour Palette: Paint Pigments Used by Stone Age Artists in Cave Paintings and Pictographs” Visual Arts Cork, http://www.visual-arts-cork.com/artist-paints/prehistoric-colour-palette.htm

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

Thurman, Judith “First Impressions: What does the world’s oldest art say about us?” The New Yorker 23 June 2008, http://www.newyorker/com/magazine/2008/06/23/first-impressions

Whitley, David.  Cave Paintings and the Human Spirit: The Origin of Creativity and Belief.  Amherst, New York: Prometheus Books, 2009.

Photos: Photos from the French Ministry of Culture’s website are credited to Dominique Baffier and Valerie Ferugio.  Other photos come from Don’s Maps Chauvet post, at www.donsmaps.com/chauvetcave.html  Some of the photos on his post come from Jean Clottes and his team, some from National Geographic photographers.

The Shaman and The Spirit Master

Wow – What is it?

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

Anasazi pictograph

Animal Master PBA

 

Learning to see through others’ eyes

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

rock art in Arkansas

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

 

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

Game Pass Shelter drawing

 

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

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

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

South central California rock art

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

The shaman as intermediary

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

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

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

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

 

An interesting side note:

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

And another:

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

 

 

And now to ancient cave art in Europe

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

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

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

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

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

Venus and Sorcerer

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

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

 

Sources and interesting reading:

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

“Art of the Chauvet Cave,” Ice Age Paleolithic Cave Painting, Bradshaw Foundation www.bradshawfoundation.com/chauvet

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

“Cave Painting,” Wikipedia   http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cave_painting

“Cave Paintings (40,000 – 10,000 BC)” Artchive.com   http://www.artchive.com/artchive/C/cave.html

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

Garfinkel, Alan, with Donald Austin, David Earle, and Harold Williams, “Myth, ritual and rock art: Coso decorated animal-humans and the Animal Master,” Petroglyphs.US, 19 May 2009 <http://www.petroglyphs.us/article_myth_ritual_and_rock_art.htm&gt;

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

Howley, Andrew. “70th Anniversary of the Discovery of Lascaux” National Geographic Newswatch, 17 September 2010, http://newswatch.nationalgeographic.com/2010/09/17

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

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

“The Sorcerer (cave art)” Wikipedia   http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Sorcerer_(cave_art)

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

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

“Venus and the Sorcerer” image from http://www.bradshawfoundation.com/chauvet

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

 

 

 

The March of Progress

You’ve probably seen the image or one of hundreds of parodies of it.  The original shows fifteen males, starting with an ape on the far left and ending with a modern human on the far right.

March_of_Progress - full version

The simplified version frequently uses only six. The artist who painted the original illustration, Rudolph Zallinger, said it wasn’t meant to imply a straight or simple path from ape to human, but in fact that’s exactly what it did.  From the moment it appeared in Early Man, the 1965 Time-Life book, it became conflated with the Darwinian theories of evolution and natural selection.  Currently, the article “What is Darwin’s Theory of Evolution?” on Livescience.com sports a simplified March of Progress illustration right at the beginning, one of many such references.

Criticism of the image is loud and ongoing.  All of the figures are male, culminating with a contemporary white male.  It’s sexist, racist, ethno-centric, and stupidly self-congratulatory.  Though so common it’s hardly noticeable anymore, it reinforces Social Darwinism, grossly over-simplifies the story of human history, and blinds us to the abilities of our ancestors.  Its only saving grace is that it spawned dozens of funny variations, including these:

Homersapien

Survival of the Fittest

Implied in the original March of Progress illustration is the theory of Survival of the Fittest.  Darwin noted that more individuals of every species are born than can survive.  Therefore, the ones that have an edge, perhaps through an adaptation, are more likely to survive than the others.  Those who survive are more likely to reproduce.  He uses many examples from the natural world, including the famous finches in the Galapagos Islands.

Darwin's finches

Though they share a common ancestor, they have developed different beak shapes and sizes to help them reach and process the different foods they eat.  Thus, adaptation allows for survival.

Social Darwinism

In the 19th century, Darwin’s idea of survival of the best-adapted, or fittest, was frequently applied to social situations, especially as a way to explain why some people had all the money and power while others starved to death.  It was simply Nature’s plan, the rich people argued, unfortunate, perhaps, but inescapable.

Survival of the Fittest – and Luckiest

Harvard University paleontologist Stephen Gould modified the idea of survival of the fittest by saying that chance also plays a huge part in the success of individuals and species. His book, Wonderful Life, published in 1989, explores the concept using the fossilized sea creatures in the Burgess Shale formation in British Columbia, Canada, as examples.  He points out that they were well-suited to their environment yet all perished because of an overwhelming environmental change.  Basically, he thought survival was a function of luck as much as ability.

About that Linear Progress

Another problem with the March of Progress image is its assumption that the hominids that preceded us were much less capable than we are.  New finds challenge that idea.  In fact, they pretty clearly indicate that long before there were modern humans, there were great explorers.

The oldest dates for modern man (Homo sapiens sapiens) are hard to pin down because experts argue over what defines a modern human and because new evidence contradicts older theories.  According to skull shape, modern humans first appeared in East Africa somewhere between 115,000 and 160,000 years ago.  According to genetic studies, anatomically modern humans appeared in Africa between 150,000 and 200,000 years ago and first migrated out of Africa 125,000 years ago.  According to Archaeologydaily.com, modern humans arrived in Europe between 30,000 and 40,000 years ago.

And yet, consider these finds:

Dmanisi, Republic of Georgia – hominid remains dated to 1.8 million years ago which show dental wear consistent with frequent use of a toothpick.  Also thousands of extinct animal bones and a thousand stone tools

The Sima del Elefante rockshelter in the Sierra de Atapuerca of northern Spain – remains of Homo antecessor, dated to 1.1 million years old

Happisburg, near Norfolk, England – 78 pieces of razor-sharp flint shaped into cutting tools, dated to between 840,000 and 950,000 years old

Pakefield, near Lowestoff in Suffolk, England – flint tools dated to 700,000 years old

Boxgrove, England – stone, antler, and bone tools dated to 500,000 years old

A cold phase that began around 470,000 years ago probably killed or forced out the resident hominid populations in Britain.  New settlers arrived during the next warm spell.

Swanscombe Heritage Park, northwest Kent, England – hand axes and skull fragments dated to 400,000 years old.  The skull, dubbed “Swanscombe Man,” was subsequently found to belong to a woman.

Bilzingsleben, Germany – 200,000 stone artifacts and hundreds of bone, wood, and antler artifacts, fragments of two hominid skulls, probably Homo erectus, remains of a circle of oval huts, all between 320,000 and 412,000 years old, a fragment of elephant tibia incised with lines (illustration)

 Bilzingsleben bone

Schoningen, Germany – wooden throwing spears found with 16,000 animal bones, the first evidence of active hunts, dated to 300,000 years ago

So these ancestors were apparently long-distance explorers with a social structure, counting and building skills, as well as collective hunting ability.  Those assume some sense of geography and an accurate communication system (language).  Since rivers were the easiest way to get from one forested or mountainous area to another, boat building was probably also necessary for survival.  If they were out after dark, some form of navigating by the moon and stars would enable them to return to their village or camp.

Hardly grunting dim-wits.

Oldest cave art, in Spain

It’s curious now that research has shown many of us to be related through our DNA to the Neanderthals or their Denisovan cousins, attitudes toward them have changed.  Suddenly, the earliest cave art in Spain, a painting of two seals, and a series of negative hand prints and rows of red dots, have been ascribed to Neanderthal painters.

We have a fascinating history that we’re only beginning to understand.  Perhaps someday, instead of the March of Progress, we’ll come up with an equally compelling but far more accurate illustration of that story.

Sources and interesting reading:

“Ancient Britons were earliest northern Europeans,” Natural History Museum (UK), 07 July 2010

Borenstein, Seth. “Cave art suggests that Neanderthals weren’t such Neanderthals, after all,” The Christian Science Monitor, 15 June 2012

“Darwin’s Theory of Evolution.”  All about Science.  http://www.darwins-theory-of-evolution.com

“Devon jawbone reveals earliest NW European,” Natural History Museum (UK) 02 November 2011

“Evolution,” Wikipedia

Gould, Stephen Jay.  Wonderful Life: The Burgess Shale and the Nature of History.  Norton & Co., 1989

Hirst, K. Kris, “Bilzingsleben (Germany)” About.com Archaeology

Hirst, K. Kris, “Lower Paleolithic Sites in Europe,” About.com Archaeology

“Homo heidelbergensis” Wikipedia (an excellent article)

“Hunting for the first humans in Britain” British Archaeology magazine, May 2003.  http://www.archaeologyuk.org/ba/ba70/feat1.shtml

“March of Progress,” Wikipedia

“More Findings Emerge from Oldest Known Hominin Fossils Outside of Africa” Popular Archaeology, 07 October 2013 http://popular-archaeology.com/issur/09012013

O’Neil, Dennis. “Early Modern Homo sapiens.”  Evolution of Modern Humans: Early Modern Homo sapiens.  http://anthro.palomar.edu/homo2/mod_homo_4.htm

“Recent African origin of modern humans” Wikipedia (an excellent article)

“Resourceful Neanderthals in France,” Popular Archaeology, 01 November 2013

Sample, Ian.  “First humans arrived in Britain 250,000 years earlier than thought,” The Guardian. 07 July 2013 http://the guardian.com/science/2010jul/07/first-humans-britain-stone-tools

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

Tasty Summer Reads Blog Hop

Thank you, Jessica Knauss, for inviting me to join this blog hop about fiction and food.  I’ve asked Carol Anita Ryan, author of Right Now Is Perfect, <rightnowisperfect.com> to join the hop too.

When I started writing a series of prehistoric adventure novels, I didn’t know I’d end up learning about many subjects, including wild foods.  A local foraging guru showed me a fabulous world of wild edible and medicinal plants out there.  I’ve found I love the adventure of finding, preparing, and eating wild foods.

We’re surprisingly ignorant about the plants that surround us, but ancient people knew all about the wild foods available each season; they had to.  Elders warned young people not to eat the fruits or one plant, to peel those of another, to cook and mash another.  Their accumulated knowledge allowed the tribe to survive.

This is the world I write about in Misfits and Heroes: West from Africa and Past the Last Island, the second book in the Misfits and Heroes series, both set 14,000 years ago.  The first book follows a group of travelers from the coast of West Africa across the Atlantic.  The second follows explorers island-hopping eastward across the South Pacific until they decide to pass the last island and head out into the open sea.

Now, for the questions:

Do you snack as you write?  Sadly, yes.  Sweet or salty?  Both.  The current vice is blue corn chips, but chocolate cookies are never very far away.

Outline or seat of the pants?  Both.  I have a general outline and section guidelines, but once I’m writing a scene, I tend to just go with it, or “pants it,” as one writer put it.

Do you stick to a recipe or wing it?  I always begin thinking I’ll stick to the recipe then find I’m missing some ingredient but I have something sort of like it that might work if I just adjust those other ingredients, and so on.  Sometimes it works out very nicely, but then I can’t remember exactly what I did to make it work.  With wine, I find I have to take careful notes.  Otherwise, I just repeat the same mistakes on the next batch.

What’s next?  My WIP is the third book in the series, where both groups meet in what is now known as southern Mexico.  Beyond that, a fourth is lurking in the wings.

How hot is it?  Like Ginger Myrick, I tend to suggest sex rather than describe it.  Some sections are romantic, but the book’s accent is on adventure rather than romance, though romance is certainly part of the adventure.  I guess it’s a 3.  Maybe.  I’d love to hear from a reader on that score.

Now, for the recipes:

Wild foods can be very simple to prepare or incredibly complicated.  I tend to go with the easy stuff.  Here are two very easy possibilities:

dandelionDandelion fritters

Pick fresh dandelion flowers from an area you think is safe from chemicals and pets.  Rinse off any visiting bugs, shake the flowers out and let them dry on a towel.

Heat oil in a heavy pan.

Mix up one cup of flour, one egg, and one cup of milk.

Swirl dandelion flowers in the batter and fry them until golden brown, then flip them over until the other side is brown.  Then remove and set on paper towel.   While they’re still hot, dust them with kosher salt.  Enjoy!  Even people who have never eaten wild foods will (probably) love them.  They have a very mild flavor, not bitter like dandelion leaves, though they’re great too.

Orange daylily

Daylily salad

When daylilies (aka ditch lilies) are in season, pick a couple of handfuls of buds and four open flowers from an area away from car exhaust and lawn chemicals.  Remove the stamens and pistils from the flowers.  Cut the stem ends off the buds rinse them off and let them dry.  Include the buds with the tossed salad fixings you like best.  The buds have a very mild flavor, a little like asparagus, and go with almost anything.  Fill the cup of the flowers with herbed cheese and put them on top of the salad as an edible garnish.  Their very mild flavor goes well with something stronger, like garlic or pungent herbs.

Then I hope you go crazy with more wild foods.  So delicious – and free!

Be sure to check out the other blogs in the hop!

Clovis, Updated

So about the Land Bridge Theory…

In a shocking reversal of the traditional model of the peopling of the Americas, Dr. Dennis Stanford, head of the Archaeology Division, National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution, has claimed that the people who made the famous Clovis points, first discovered near Clovis, New Mexico in 1929, did not come from Asia.  Probably they came from northern Spain.  His interesting March 12, 2012 lecture given at Gustavus Adolphus College is available on YouTube.

Dr. Stanford, an expert on Clovis archaeology, begins his talk with an overview of the traditional Clovis First theory, which developed after sophisticated bifacial fluted points were found near Clovis and other sites in the American west in the 1930s.  Subsequently, Clovis points – very distinctive in their style – were found in almost every state east of the Mississippi River.  Note how both sides are worked all the way across the stone in the photo.

Based on those finds, archaeologists concluded that people arrived in the Americas by way of Beringia, the land bridge connecting Siberia and Alaska during the Ice Age, and from there, they spread across and down the Americas.  That’s a strange conclusion when you realize there was never any evidence of the Clovis people coming from Asia.  Even stranger was the assumption of direction of human migration from north to south – during the Ice Age – and west to east.  Yet the theory has been repeated so many times in the past seventy years that it’s assumed to be fact.  An illustration something like this appears frequently in history texts.

However, after spending decades looking for the origins of Clovis points in Siberia, Stanford and other archaeologists realized that ancient Siberian technology was completely different from Clovis points.   Instead of the distinctive bifacial fluted quartz crystal points the Clovis people used, ancient hunters in Siberia used pieces of bone that had sharpened stone shards driven into them.

As research on Clovis points continued and the findings from many different sites were compiled, archeologists found the vast majority of Clovis points were discovered on the east side of North America, especially in the areas now known as Maryland, Virginia, and Delaware and through the Appalachian region.

Further, the Clovis people seemed to have moved from the east to the west, or at least their technology did, not the other way around.  The eastern sites tend to be quite large, supporting large populations, while the western sites are much smaller and more scattered.

Making the Solutrean Connection

In studying the sites along the east coast, Stanford found artifacts very similar to those made by the Solutrean Age people of northern Spain/southern France, especially the fluted bi-facial points. (See photo.)  According to Stanford, working both sides (faces) of a spear point or knife is relatively uncommon.  Most ancient people worked only one side of the stone.  Flutes are the hollowed-out sections in the points that allowed them to be hafted (attached) to a spear or dart.

In addition to bi-facial points, Solutrean Age people in northern Spain and southern France developed atlatls (dart throwers), eyed needles, all-weather clothing, and extensive cave art dating back to 35,000 years ago, such as the famous paintings in Lascaux, El Castillo, and Altamira caves.  Stanford points out that sites in coastal Maryland have yielded Solutrean-style points and other artifacts dating from 17,000 to 21,000 years ago. Scallop fishermen working seventeen miles off the Virginia coast in 1970 pulled up a mass of Mammoth bones with a Solutrean style point more than 18,000 years old embedded in one of the bones.

Stanford’s conclusion is that Clovis points were the next generation of Solutrean technology brought to the Americas by people from northern Spain/southern France.  He backs up the theory with references to the rarity of bi-facial points, the similarities between Solutrean points and Clovis points, and the finding of Solutrean style points along the east coast of North America, the coast of Newfoundland, and off the coast of France and the Netherlands.

There are several points worth noting from Dr. Stanford’s talk:

  • Clovis people did not come from Asia.
  • They didn’t migrate south and east across the Americas.

And several other points worth considering though not included in his talk:

  • Clovis people were clearly not the first people in the Americas, no matter where they came from.  Cactus Hill (Virginia) and Meadowcroft Rockshelter (Pennsylvania) as well as important sites in South America, including Pedra Furada (Brazil) and Monte Verde (Chile) all predate Clovis by a very long time.  Dr. Al Goodyear, digging at the Topper site in South Carolina, found Clovis points dating to 13,000 years ago.  A meter deeper, he found numerous pre-Clovis stone artifacts dated by an outside team of geologists to 16,000 years ago.  Five meters down, he found artifacts similar to the pre-Clovis tools, dated to 50,000 years ago.
  • The study of Clovis points should not assume that the people traveled with the points.  Maybe they did.  Or maybe the technology spread in trade.
  • Any single point of origin theory of human migration into the Americas should be suspect.  It’s pleasantly simple and therefore seductive, but it’s limiting.  It encourages archaeologists to ignore data that doesn’t fit within its clean, simple lines.  Why do people have to arrive in the Americas from only one place of origin?  If people were in the southern tip of Chile 30,000 years ago, probably they came by boat across the Pacific.  If people were in northeastern Brazil 60,000 years ago, probably they came across the Atlantic from Africa.  If people were in coastal Maryland 18,000 years ago, perhaps they came from Spain.  If they were in Alaska, they probably came from Asia.  These possibilities and many more can exist side by side.  The evidence must determine the conclusion, not the theory.
  • Many early settlements probably failed, for any number of reasons including natural disasters such as the Younger-Dryas Event, known as The Big Chill, which occurred between 12,800 and 11,500 years ago.  People who lived in failed settlements would not be recorded in DNA lines of current inhabitants.  Nevertheless, those people lived.

In his talk, Stanford briefly acknowledged that other people, before and after the Clovis people, may have arrived by boat along the west and east coast.  However, he stopped short of opening the door to multiple migrations over a long period of time.  He is a longtime Clovis advocate.  It was a setback for him to realize that Clovis people didn’t come from Asia.  But the Solutrean hypothesis allows him to form a new Clovis Theory and to connect Clovis points found in North America with the fabulous cave art and advanced building techniques of the Solutrean peoples of northern Spain and southern France.  Certainly, the new theory is an improvement on the original Beringia story.

The debate over Clovis, while interesting, is ultimately only one chapter in a very complicated story.  The past is far older than the beautiful Clovis points and more complicated than we like to admit.  That’s what makes it fascinating.

Sources and interesting reading:

Dennis O’Neil, “Early Modern Human Culture” Behavioral Science Department, Palomar College, California, <http://anthro.palomar.edu/homo2/mod_homo_5.htm&gt;

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

Dennis Stanford’s talk on the Clovis-Solutrean Connection http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rLV9A8P00bw&list=LPfQThQ0_E_Vw&index=3&feature=plcp

“Clovis Point,” Wikipedia http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Clovis_point

Ian Sample, “First humans arrive in Britain 250,000 years earlier than thought,” The Guardian, July 7, 2010 <http:// www.guardian.co.uk/science/2010/jul/07/first-humans-britain-stone-tools>

“Aurignacian” Wikipedia <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aurignacian

Richard A. Lovett, “Footprints Show 1st Americans Came 25,000 Years Early? National Geographic News, June 6, 2008, <http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2008/06/080606-ancient-footprints.html&gt;

Ancient Navigators

Did ancient explorers cross oceans to reach the New World?

Many popular theories explaining the peopling of the Americas, including Clovis First (See earlier post on the Clovis theory) claim that people first arrived in the Americas by walking across Beringia, the Ice Age land bridge from Siberia to Alaska  around 13,000 years ago.  From there they eventually spread overland all the way across and down the Americas.

Monte Verde

Mario Piño, from Chile, and Tom Dillehay, from the USA, provided the best challenge to the Clovis-first theory with their work on the Monte Verde site in Chile (See map).  In 1977, they published their findings, which included evidence of human presence at the site 14,200 years ago.  The upper level yielded interesting finds, including the remains of 20’ long structures made of walls of poles covered with animal hides, large hearths lined with clay, coprolites containing remnants of 45 different plant species including nine species of seaweed, seeds, nuts, berries, remains of local animals, and wild potatoes.  Some of their food came from 150 miles away, indicating either a large gathering area or a functioning food network.

In 1997, the Monte Verde dates were rechecked and confirmed by previously doubting archaeologists, some of whom were forced to admit they might need a more complex answer to the question of how people arrived in the Americas.

However, that wasn’t the real shocker.  Tom Dillehay knew more than he said in his published paper.  He and Piño had excavated a lower level with dates Dillehay knew would never be accepted, so he ignored the lower level in his paper, except to note “although the stratigraphy is intact, the radiocarbon dates are valid, and the human artifacts are genuine, I hesitate to accept this older level without more evidence and without sites of comparable age elsewhere in the Americas.”  Later, he admitted he had found “charcoal scatters which may be the remnants of fireplaces next to possible stone and wood artifacts, and these were dated to at least 33,000BC.”

Mario Piño had fewer reservations.  He asserted the 35,000 years ago date based on his finds at Monte Verde and corresponding dates from an animal bone found at another archaeological site 120 miles north.

Pedra Furado

Another pivotal discovery was made in South America at a site called Pedra Furado in eastern Brazil.  Here, the dates were so revolutionary that few American archaeologists accepted them. In 1986, a woman named Niede Guidon published a paper claiming she had discovered the oldest known site of human habitation in the Americas (at least 33,000 years ago; some dates range from 41,000 to 56,000 years ago).  Included in the strata dated 32,000 years old were fragments of pottery and rock art figures.

Not only did this find challenge the cherished view that the first people to visit the Americas came across the land bridge from Asia into North America 13,000 years ago and then populated the Americas; it blew it out of the water by 20,000 years!  And in South America!  And discovered by a woman!

Even more shocking was the level of sophistication of the very early explorers, with pottery and art.  Its location on the east side of Brazil was also troubling.  If the first people in the Americas came across the Bering Strait, getting to eastern Brazil would mean a sea journey of 10,000 miles down the west coast of the Americas, followed by an incredibly difficult overland journey of thousands more to reach the Pedra Furada sites.  Even some Clovis-Firsters thought it seemed far more plausible that the early explorers in Brazil came from Africa, making a trans-Atlantic journey of about 2000 miles, with both currents and wind in their favor.  (In 2012, Katie Spotz, a 22-year old woman, rowed her way from West Africa to South America, solo, in 70 days.)

More recent finds at the Meadowcroft Rock Shelter in Pennsylvania have been dated to 14,250 years ago, pre-dating the Clovis sites by a thousand years.  Other ancient sites in Delaware and Virginia have again raised the possibility that ancient explorers crossed the Atlantic Ocean long before Leif Erickson and Saint Brendan did.

The problem, it seems to me, is underestimating both the intelligence and the navigational skill of the ancient explorers.

Amazing explorers

Homo floresiensis, the “Hobbit” people whose remains were found on Flores Island in eastern Indonesia, lived from 94,000 to 12,000 years ago.  The oldest bone fragment unearthed at the dig site was dated to 74,000 years ago.  People settled in Australia at least 45,000 years ago, though some claim the date is more than 60,000 years ago.  In order to reach these places, even with the ocean levels much lower than they are today, people needed to use boats.

Ancient Polynesian navigators, the greatest open ocean explorers in the world, found their way from Indonesia and New Guinea out into the Pacific Ocean, covering an area larger than North and South America combined, including Fiji, Hawaii, and Easter Island.  (DNA studies have shown the Easter Islanders to be Polynesian.) It’s 4,610 miles from Fiji to Easter Island.  Many believe that the Polynesians went on from Easter Island to explore the west coast of South America, (only 2,400 miles farther) bringing chickens from Asia to the New World and taking sweet potatoes back with them to Easter Island and Polynesia.

When European explorers arrived in Polynesia, they were amazed that the native mariners regularly sailed far out of sight of land and returned safely, maintaining a wide-area trade system that linked over a hundred islands, all without use of maps, compass, or sextant.

Later colonizers refused to believe these “savages” could be so skillful, dismissing their claims as fiction.  In the 20th century, when the old ways of the navigator had almost disappeared, some Western sailors decided to learn the ways of the native navigators.  The most famous was David Lewis, an accomplished sailor whose book We, the Navigators: The Ancient Art of Landfinding in the Pacific became the best source of information on the fading art of the South Pacific navigator.  The 13,000 miles he sailed with native navigators in the South Pacific showed him how amazingly accurate their methods were.  On some of the early voyages, he kept a compass and charts locked away in case he needed them.  He didn’t.

Steering by the Stars

A traditional Polynesian navigator needs to know the night sky so well that he can mentally see the whole sky even if most of it is obscured by clouds.  (I’m using he because all of the traditional Polynesian navigators still alive are male, and instruction in the art is now limited to males.  However, ancient pictographs of Polynesian explorers show men, women, and children on board, in addition to lots of plants, even trees, and animals.)

He needs to memorize the exact path, including rising and setting points, of at least 36 major stars and over a hundred secondary ones.  For example, some stars rise in the east, such as Altair, the brightest star in our constellation Aquila the Eagle, and arc toward the north, so they can be used as reliable indicators of east only for a short time after they rise, a period usually measured in fists.  The navigator holds out his arm so his fist lies between the horizon and the star he’s using.  He knows this particular star is only reliable until it reaches two fists above the horizon.  After that, he needs a new star to take him to the east.  It might be a new star rising in the east or a star like Spica, which sets directly west. Navigators who travel to particular islands regularly know a sequence of stars to follow to each destination.  The star compass pictured includes many of the stars navigators would know though they were known by different names in different areas.  This knowledge was carried in the navigator’s memory, not on paper.

If the eastern part of the sky is obscured by clouds, he must be able to use whatever part of the sky he can see to give him the orientation he needs to fill in the rest of the sky.  Absolutely accurately.

Pictured above is the Universal Star Compass, from The Barefoot Navigator.

Currents

He also needs to read the pattern and direction of the waves passing under the flexible hulls of his boat.  Ocean currents in Polynesia tend to be very consistent.  As the long waves pass under the boat at a consistent angle, the navigator knows where the currents are coming from and judges his direction accordingly.  He knows that the currents bend and shorten as they near land.  If storms are coming in, the surface currents will be different from the deeper currents. In some cases, he has six or seven different currents to track.  Some navigators lie down on the deck or the outrigger to get an exact reading of the multiple currents.

The stick chart pictured shows the currents in a particular area.  Islands are marked with shells.  While navigators sometimes studied charts like this before a voyage, they were not typically brought along on the boat.  Few navigators explained the charts to outsiders.

Birds, Vegetation Mats, Clouds, Colors, Smells

The traditional navigator knows that while certain birds are trans-oceanic flyers, like the albatross, others serve as good indicators of nearby land. Terns and noddies fly out from land in the morning and return at night.  Frigate birds released from their cages are another good indicator of land.  Since the birds will drown if they get their wings wet, they will either fly toward nearby land or head back to the boat.

The migration of the Pacific golden plover was said to inspire the ancient Polynesians in Tahiti to look for the land the plovers were heading toward, which turned out to be the Hawaiian Islands.  Later, Captain Cook also used the migration of the plover as an indication that land lay to the north, which is how he found Hawaii in the middle of the ocean.  The golden plover, kolea, appears on the Hawaii state stamp (pictured) and on petroglyphs on Hawaii (illustration). 

Mats of vegetation are also reliable indications that land is fairly close.  Farther away, the mats break up due to wave action.  The navigator looks to the clouds for information on wind velocity and approaching weather.   In addition, clouds tend to form over land due to transpiration, so a lone cloud on the horizon might indicate an island lies beneath it.   Sky color is also important, as is the color of the water, paler over reefs or submerged islands, darker in very deep sections.

A traditional Polynesian navigator had to use his entire body as a sensor.  It’s no wonder the ancients respected him.

A Polynesian Network

Upon discovering the remains of a reed boat and wild sweet potatoes on Easter Island, Thor Heyerdahl theorized that South Americans drifted with the western current to Easter Island, bringing both the boat and the sweet potato with them, then later drifted all the way to Polynesia.  While this theory has since been discarded, it may be partially correct.  If the Polynesians went east all the way to South America, they may well have made the round-trip, bringing chickens to South America and the sweet potato to Easter Island.

Another fascinating hint at a Polynesian network comes from a Peruvian mummy examined by the University of York’s Mummy Research Group.  They found it had been embalmed with the resin of the Araucaria conifer, closely related to the Monkey Puzzle Tree found in New Guinea.

The Importance of the Sea Explorer Community

Exploration by sea may have played a very important role in the development of human society.  It necessitated an exact and widespread language, a desire to act together for the common good, advanced tool use, engineering skill, and extensive knowledge of the natural environment.  It would have been driven by a need for constant innovation: stronger, flexible hulls, a more complete star map, different sail, hull, and paddle designs, double masts, outriggers.  Knowledge was power.  The person who could take a boat out of sight of land and return again was recognized as special.  The person who could manage the same feat by night was very special.  If he could manage a voyage of many days and nights between distant islands, he was extraordinary.   Sea exploration created a society made of an accepted leader and his followers.  The navigator’s word was law, just as it is today onboard a ship.  Once the explorers formed a settlement in the new land, it would have been natural to maintain this social order, at least until populations grew and resources became scarce.

The ancient navigators faced a world ready to kill them if they were stupid or careless, maybe even if they weren’t.  They accepted life that way.  Sometimes I think it’s sad that so many people hunger for that kind of adventure today and find it only inside a video game.

Sources and interesting reading:

Guidon, N. and B. Arnaud. “The chronology of the New World: Two Faces of One Reality,” Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences, Sociales, Paris

Guidon, N. and Delbrios, G. 1986 “Carbon 14 dates point to man in Americas 32,000 years ago,” Nature, 321:769-771.

Gladwin, Thomas.  East Is a Big Bird: Navigation and Logic on Puluwat Atoll. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1970.

“Homo Floresiensis,” Wikipedia

Lagan, Jack.  The Barefoot Navigator: Navigating with the skills of the ancients.  Dobbs Ferry, New York: Sheridan House, 2005.

Lewis, David.  We, the Navigators: The Ancient Art of Landfinding in the Pacific, second edition. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1994 (an excellent source)

“Monte Verde,” Wikipedia

“New Evidence from Earliest Known Human Settlement in the Americas,” Science Daily.  www.sciencedaily.com

“Pedra Furada, Brazil: Paleoindians, Painting, and Paradoxes,” Athena Review, vol. 3, no. 2: Peopling of the Americas. www.athenapub.com/10furad.htm.

“Pedra Furada sites, (Piaui, Brazil)” by George Weber, www.andaman.org/BOOK/chapter 54

“Polynesian Discovery,” History channel, available on YouTube

“Sailing by the Stars – How the Ancients Did It” sailboat2adventure.com.blogspot.com

Schmitz, P. I. 1987. “Prehistoric hunters and gatherers of Brazil.” Journal of World Prehistory, 1:53 – 126.

Horoscopes

Many people today are pessimistic about the future.  They listen to dire newscasts and worry about apocalyptic predictions ranging from Y2K to Armageddon to the end of the 13th baktun in the Mayan calendar.

But they’re always curious about their personal, immediate future.  That’s why the girl in love picks the petals off a daisy, muttering “He loves me.  He loves me not.  He loves me.  He loves me not,” picking off the petals one by one until she comes up with the answer. 

And they read their horoscopes.  Even folks who don’t believe in horoscopes glance at them in newspapers or magazines.  Usually, the language is as vague as the note in a fortune cookie, with a message like “Hard work and perseverance will pay big rewards.”  Still, they’re very popular.

Horoscopes have a very, very long history.  They’re based on the assumption that all parts of the natural world are connected. Specifically, you are influenced by everything around you, including the sun, moon, stars and planets.  In western astrology, your daily horoscope is based on the angles (“aspects”) of the sun, moon, and planets, as well as their placement in the sky.  Your “sign” refers to the sun’s position in the ecliptic on the day you were born.  The ecliptic is the path the sun takes across the sky over the course of a year.  If you could superimpose the sun’s path on the night sky, it would move through the twelve constellations we call the Zodiac: Aries, Taurus, Gemini, Cancer, Leo, Virgo, Libra, Scorpio, Sagittarius, Capricorn, Aquarius, and Pisces.

While some people dismiss modern astrology as nonsense, it may well have been the impetus for early humans to develop advanced counting systems, directional orientation, sophisticated language, and mathematics.

The Moon

For ancient people, the heavens provided a way to understand space and time.  According to the NASA Lunar Science Institute, etched bones tracking lunar cycles date to at least 36,000 years ago (Lebombo bone found in Africa (photo), Aurignacian bone in Europe).  After the sequence of day and night, the moon cycle offered the mostly easily understood division of time. Every moon followed the same pattern, taking the same number of days to wax and wane. It was predictable in the same way as day and night. Yet each moon was also connected to a slightly different season.  It had its own name and activities.

People near the sea probably knew that the moon influenced the tides.  During the full moon or new moon, they saw the high tide was higher, the low tide lower.  During quarter phases, the tides were weaker.  And it was obvious that a woman’s menstrual cycle followed the same general timing as the moon, which is perhaps why the moon was often described as female.  Clearly, the heavens influenced what happened on earth in profound and very personal ways.

They could see that the stars too moved in a predictable fashion.  The constellations that revolved around the center of the sky were always there, while those closer to the horizon appeared at a certain season and then later disappeared off the opposite horizon.

Their appearance, disappearance, and reappearance coincided with specific seasons.  They created the calendar.

Sirius, the “Dog Star” in Canis Major

For example, the first day that Sirius, the very bright star to the lower left of Orion (shown in diagram), appeared in the pre-dawn sky in the east was considered the beginning of the year for the ancient Egyptians because it marked the time the Nile would flood, bringing its life-giving waters to the parched area.

The ancients needed to know when the Nile would flood, so they needed to be able to count the days and record the information.  This necessitated both advanced counting and consistent record-keeping, to allow them to learn that it would be about 365 days between one instance of Sirius rising, bringing the floods, and the next.  Sirius, which they called Sopdet, came to be associated with the goddess Isis, wife of Osiris and mother of Horus, the falcon-headed god.  In ancient stories, the 70-day absence of Sirius from the sky was the time Osiris spent in the Underworld after he was murdered.  As Isis wept for him, her tears flooded the Nile.  Using her magic, she was able to collect the parts of Osiris’ body and restore him to life.  Of course, the flooding of the Nile also restored life to the area, and the celebration of the death and rebirth of Osiris became linked to the pre-dawn rising of Sirius and the annual regeneration of the parched earth along the banks of the Nile.

For the ancient Greeks, the pre-dawn appearance of Sirius marked the beginning of the hot, dry summer.  Since they called it the Dog Star, they called the stifling hot days that followed its appearance the “Dog Days of summer.” They found its appearance a bad omen, bringing on strange behavior in those under the star’s influence, a condition they called “star-struck.”

For the ancient Maori, the pre-dawn appearance of Sirius marked the beginning of winter.  One term for the star, Takurua, also meant winter.

Very early on, people realized that with enough effort, this sacred union of heaven and earth that moved time in cycles could be understood.  More importantly, if humans wanted to be part of this time, they needed to participate in the drama being played out in the sky.

Venus – The Morning and Evening Star

Many ancient people believed each day was a separate entity, defined by the combination of celestial forces at work on it.   For the Maya, one of the most powerful forces was Venus, the Morning and Evening Star.  They knew this “wandering star” appeared as the Evening Star just after sunset in the west for about 263 days and then sank into the Underworld for about 8 days before being reborn in the east as the Morning Star, just before dawn.  It stayed in the east for about 263 days then sank into the Underworld for about 50 days before reappearing in the west as the Evening Star.  The whole cycle took 584 days.  Five Venus cycles equals eight solar years, or 2,920 days.

The Dresden Codex, one of the few Mayan screen-fold books to escape burning by Bishop de Landa, dedicates six pages to notations of the appearance of Venus as both Morning and Evening Star, covering five full cycles or 2920 days.

The rising of Venus as the Morning Star was a very dangerous time.  Its light could bring evil down on those who looked at it.  In addition, it was often the first day of warfare with another Maya city-state.  The original “Star Wars.”

Lunar Eclipses

The Dresden Codex also follows solar and lunar cycles through 405 lunar months, for a total of 11,959 days.  Both the lunar eclipse glyph and the solar eclipse glyph  are visible in the pages in the photo (shown).  They have a light half and a dark half, suspended from a sky band.  A k’in (day) sign is superimposed on the two halves.  In some, a serpent rises from below, mouth agape.

The tables in the Dresden Codex are extraordinary records, requiring the collective efforts of many people over a long period of time.  These astronomers followed in the foosteps of many others who had recorded their observations.  Some of the oldest human records  note celestial events.  It wasn’t idle curiosity that drove these people.  It was a desire to be active participants in the sacred world the gods established.

Harmony of the Spheres

The famous Greek mathematician and philosopher Pythagoras (580 BC) felt the sun, moon, and stars generated unique sounds that blended into what he called the Harmony of the Spheres.  This sound was echoed in all life on earth.

This idea that human and celestial time are intimately connected wasn’t limited to the ancients.  Johannes Kepler, the noted German mathematician, astronomer and astrologer, explored the same concept in his treatise Harmonices Mundi (1619), in which he stated that the regular pattern of the movements of the sun and planets reflected the glory of God.  The unique combination of planets and stars at a given moment created a special harmonic vibration that was then taken up by all the creatures under their influence.  This reflected the Hermetic maxim: “That which is Below corresponds to that which is Above, and that which is Above corresponds to that which is Below.”  Today, however, Kepler is more likely referenced for his discovery of the Laws of Planetary Motion and his ability to predict the motion of the planets far into the future.

That’s exactly what the ancients wanted to do – to claim the future as part of their own time by extending their understanding far beyond the present.  That quest demanded a uniform method of investigation, an exact method of counting and recording, a figuring of recurrent patterns, and a desire to share accumulated knowledge.

In our disenchanted age, where too much information is the norm and most of it is suspect, the daily horoscope survives as the distant echo of the time when people knew as surely as they were breathing that the alignment of the sun, moon, stars, and planets influenced all life on earth.

Sources and interesting reading:

Michael John Finney “The Dresden Codex: Eclipse Table” and The Dresden Codex: Venus Table” www.bibliotecapleyades.net

Maya Astronomy Page  www.michielb.n/maya/venus

The Dresden Codex: The Book of Mayan Astonomy by  Vladimir Bohm www.wolny.cz/paib/dresden_codex

NASA Ames Research Center “Johannes Kepler” kepler.nasa.gov/Mission/JohannesKepler

“Isis”  and “Sirius”  Wikipedia

Will Kyselka The Hawaiian Journal of History vol. 27 (1993)

Games

When we think of ancient people, we usually picture them hunting big game, gathering plants, making clothing and shelter, warding off terrifying beasts, fighting enemies, dealing with drought, flood, storms, injuries, and disease – in other words, struggling to survive.

However, studies of contemporary societies and recent archaeological finds paint a different picture.  For contemporary hunter-gatherers, at least in the 20th century, collecting food, even in a challenging environment, took only half the day.  Thousands of years ago, the job might have been even easier because there were far fewer people competing for available resources.  Ancient people in temperate environments may well have spent far less time working each day than modern folks do.

So what did ancient people do with all that spare time?  Apparently, some of them did exactly what we do: they played games.

Games played by individuals

Individual contests have probably been around since people have.  It’s natural for us to want to know who can fight the best, run the fastest, or jump the highest.   Winners gain power and prestige; losers are shamed.

However, physical contests can also prove deadly.  The invention of the game allowed people to compete without having to die for the victory.   It provided a format in which two individuals could struggle for dominance, but it also established a stopping point and rules about what was allowed and what was forbidden.

Wrestling is the oldest individual competition with documented rules.  A papyrus discovered in Egypt but written in Greek, dated to 100 AD, states the rules of the game at that time.  It’s also represented in a sort of ancient animation sequence in an Egyptian mural that is 4000 years old (shown).

War games

Settling disputes without having to kill a lot of people was also important in early warfare.  In some cases, rather than have opposing armies battle each other with tremendous loss of life on both sides, the outcome was decided by a battle of champions.  Each side picked the person most likely to win the fight (usually the biggest and strongest) to represent them.  Once the contest was won, everyone could go home, except of course for the champion who lost.  One of the most famous battles of champions is recalled in the Bible story of David and Goliath.  Goliath, the champion of the Philistines, was a mighty giant whose challenge to the Israelites’ army went unanswered until David volunteered.  In an early example of brain vs. brawn, David won the contest with the help of a few well-aimed stones from his sling.  Once Goliath was defeated, David cut off his head and displayed it to the enemy forces, at which point they retreated.  Thus, a conflict that might have killed many men was settled by two individuals.  In this case, war imitated a game.  There were rules and limits.

Some Plains Indian tribes used the practice of counting coup for the same end.  They would strike the enemy in the head with a hand or a coup stick, which counted as a kill in terms of pride and power  but didn’t actually kill the loser.  This was particularly important when human population density was low and the hunters were needed to feed the rest of the people.  In some cases, the impression of victory was enough to settle the dispute.

Team games

A team competition is very different from an individual contest.   In a team, the individual’s drive to win is subsumed to the collective success of the group.  The great team player is one that makes sure the team wins, even if it sometimes means less personal glory.

Once a player dons the uniform of a famous team, he takes to himself part of that past glory.  He becomes more than he was alone.   As the Liverpool Football Club logo says, “You’ll never walk alone.”

The team creates a tribal identity for both players and supporters.  The team’s success directly affects the tribe it represents.  Team competition is ritualized warfare by a group of champions (in the old sense of the word) specifically chosen to represent the larger community in battle.  People today proudly wear the colors of the team they support, like the yellow and blue of the Brazilian soccer team in the photo, fly team flags outside their homes, even paint their faces to display their allegiance to that group, all of which are clear echoes of ancient practices.  Allegiance to a particular team can be so ingrained that a long-time New York Yankees fan might find it hard to support the San Francisco Giants, even after moving to California.

While a win is cause for celebration among all of the team’s supporters, a loss is a bitter disappointment.  True, we don’t sacrifice the losers on the ballcourt the way some Mesoamericans did, but a loss is still painful.  In some soccer matches, the loss of an important game can bring death threats to the players involved and bloody, sometimes fatal fights among the fans.  In these cases, the failure of the team is a personal disgrace.

Political connections

The spectacle of organized large-scale games can also reinforce political power.  The oldest documented teaImage from Majorie Barrick Museum, University of Nevadam sport is the Mesoamerican ballgame.  At least 3,500 years old, it was often used as a symbol of cultural identity and political power, with rulers of powerful city-states frequently appearing on monuments in the garb of a ball player, sometimes combined with images of the gods.  That’s not surprising.  According to Maya creation stories, the Hero Twins had to face many ordeals before they played ball against the Lords of the Dead.  The contest was long and complicated, involving many personal tests and the use of the head of one Twin as a ball in the game.  Like their father, they had to die before they could be reborn.  The game is therefore intimately connected with death and rebirth, especially that of the maize seed that must be buried in the earth before it can be reborn into the life-sustaining plant.  It’s easy to see why the Maya kings wanted to be connected to the ballgame.  The first illustration is an artist’s conception of the ancient game in play.  The other is taken from a vase commemorating the visit of a neighboring ruler, showing him dressed as a ballplayer.  While his garb is impressive, it’s not really suited to playing the game.  It’s the symbolism that counts.

The ancient Romans were famous for their games at the Coliseum, which could involve fights with or between wild animals, gladiatorial combat (shown), comical farces, even capital punishment (or reprieve), all with free lunch and wine courtesy of the Emperor.  The observers certainly understood who was providing the show.  In 76 BC, Julius Caesar organized a naval battle show that involved a specially-dug lake, over a hundred ships, and thousands of men.   The spectacle reinforced the image of the Empire’s power in the minds of the spectators.  It was entertaining but also a little scary.

It’s interesting that all major US football, soccer, basketball, baseball, and hockey games begin with the singing of the national anthem, a practice that began during World War II.  However, individual sports events such as golf and tennis do not.  Is that because the team competition is related to the larger team – the nation?  Is it a subtle reminder of who is bringing you this afternoon of sport?

The board game: a race or a war

Not all games involve physical activity.  Some are virtual competitions played out on a board with pieces representing the players.  The most common form is the race game, in which the player who gets to the end point first wins.  You might recognize the race in a modern game like Candy Land or an more ancient game like backgammon or parcheesi (based on the Indian game pachisi).

Another common form is the fight game, where the goal is the annihilation of the opponent through strength and strategy.  It appears in modern games like Risk and more ancient games like chess or checkers.  It’s also the core of popular video games like World of Warcraft, Halo, Call of Duty, Deus Ex, etc.

According to “Games People Played,” an article in the May/June issue of Archaeology magazine, archaeologists working at the Tlacuachero site in southern Mexico (occupied over 5,000 years ago) were puzzled by groups of tiny holes in an oval pattern clustered in one section of the site.  A possible answer was suggested by a 1907 book called Games of the North American Indians by Stewart Colin.  Across Canada, the United States, and Mexico, Colin collected accounts of indigenous peoples’ board games, all of which were either race or war games.  The Hualapai people of Arizona used a game board closely resembling the one at Tlacuachero.  Players tossed pieces of wood flattened on one side and smooth on the other to determine how many places they could move their stone or shell pieces.  The winner was the first player to move all the pieces to the finish.

Game boards have been found in ancient Mesoamerican sites from Teotihuacan (northeast of Mexico City) to Copan (Honduras).  Of course, many other games might have been played without leaving a wood or stone board behind for archaeologists to find.  A race game could be played with nothing more than pebbles and holes in the sand.  A war game like marbles would leave no recognizable clues behind.

Mancala/Oware

If the game board was rectangular instead of spiral, the Tlacuachero game would look very similar to mancala (known by many other names, including Kalah and Oware), developed from an African count and capture war game that some suggest is well over 7000 years old.

Senet

Another ancient board game is Senet, shown in the picture being played by Nefetari, one of the Great Royal Wives of the pharoah Ramses the Great, about 3500 years ago.

Unfortunately, no one has found any record of the rules of the game.
Checkers

Played on a board similar to the modern one, checkers also shows up in ancient Egypt.

The Royal Game of Ur

This board game, popular in Ur (Iraq) at least 5000 years ago, worked as both a race game and a divinatory tool.  Each player had five pieces; moves were determined by a throw of knuckle bones or cowry shells.  Certain squares, which apparently had astronomical connections, portended good fortune if landed on.  Several very ornate boards have been found, the most famous of which is currently in the British Museum’s collection in London (shown in photo).

Backgammon

This race game, which originated in Persia (Iran)more than 4,500 years ago, has survived to this day in much the same form.   It’s worth noting that the oldest backgammon board was found at a mysterious and wonderful ancient city called Shahr-e Sukteh (Iran).  The fields on the game board were made to resemble the coils of a great snake.  (Another interesting though unrelated find at this site was the first artificial eyeball, a round object covered in gold foil.  Tiny holes in the sides allowed the eyeball to be threaded and then sewn to the eyesocket.  The wearer was a six-foot tall woman, whose remains were dated to 4,800 years ago.  The site also included a skull with signs of brain surgery and the oldest known dice.)

Chess

The undisputed king of board games, often called the game of kings, is chess, the ultimate war game.  It has many variations and multiple historical sources, including India, China, and Persia.  In the illustration, Radha and Krishna play a game called chaturanga, a precussor of chess which gave different powers to different pieces.  According to a story told by Stewart Gordon in his article “The Game of Kings,” Persian nobles first learned the game from a visiting Indian emissary.  Completely taken with the game, they practiced non-stop for days and then beat him!  In the list of ancient games, though, it is a relative newcomer, at only 2000 years old.

What is the value of games?

A game is a controlled competition.  Like counting coup, it allows the opponents to compete with a clear sense of what constitutes winning.  A board game is a virtual competition with minimal risk (though I’ve seen more than one relationship end over Monopoly games).

Team games create tribal connections.  We are, at least for that moment, united with others in support of a common goal.

When we play a game of football  or chess, or we cheer on our favorite team, we are carrying on a very, very old tradition.

Sources and interesting reading:

The Sport of Life and Death: The Mesoamerican Ballgame, by Michael Whittington, published by Thames and Hudson, 2001

“The Sport of Life and Death: The Mesoamerican Ballgame” http://www.ballgame.org

Artist’s rendering of the Mesoamerican ballgame, from the Majorie Barrick Museum, University of Nevada, Las Vegas

“The Royal Game of Ur” http://www.gamecabinet.com/history/Ur

“Big Game Hunter,” Time Magazine, June 19, 2008

“Board Game” Wikipedia

“Games Ancient People Played” by Barbara Voorheis,  Archaeology magazine, May/June, 2012

“Shahr-e Sukteh” Wikipedia

“Ancient text proves wrestling is oldest sport on record,” by Gary Mihoces, USA Today, October 11, 2011

“The Game of Kings,” by Stewart Gordon, Saudi Aramco World, July/August, 2009