Championing New Views of the First Americans

Pedra Niede portrait

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

Pedra Furada pierced rock

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

Pedra rock art Wikipedia, by Diego Rego Monteiro

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

Pedra painting with red deer and humans

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

Pedra patterned body




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


The treasure underfoot

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

Clovis First”

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

Clovis points

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


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

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

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

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

Who’s she?  

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

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

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

But time, it seems, is on her side.


New finds in Chile and South Carolina

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

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

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

Fig 7

Santa Elina rock shelter and more

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

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

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

Even more radical theories

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


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

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

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

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

The Long Chronology

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

Serra da Capivara

Pedra Serra da Capivara entrance

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

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


Sources and interesting reading:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Niede Guidon,” Wikipedia,

“Niede Guidon,” WikiVividly,

“Pedra Furada,” Britannica Online Encyclopedia,

“Pedra Furada,” Wikipedia,

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Serra da Capivara National Park,” Wikipedia,

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

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




El Castillo: Wonders and Questions

El Castillo Cave

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

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

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

El Castillo gallery of disks

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

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

hand el-castillo-handprints

The 13,000 year span

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

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

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

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

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

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


The Panel of the Hands

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



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

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


Who left those hand prints?

el castillo hand

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

The semi-circle of dots

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

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



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

Addendum, January 2016

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

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

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

star chart 1

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

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

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

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

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

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

Addendum to the Addendum, June, 2017

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

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

The Bison

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

El Castillo bison2

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

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

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

El C. buxubison

The Bison Man

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

El C. Bison Man 2

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

The Techtiforms

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

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

El C. Buxu ideograph horse

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

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





Sources and Interesting Reading:

“Alphecca, jewel in Northern Crown,” Wikipedia,

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

“Buxu Cave,” Don’s Maps,

“Claude Levi-Strauss,” Wikipedia,

“Corona Borealis,” Wikipedia,

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

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

“Fixative atomizer,” Dick Blick Art Supplies catalog

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

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

Hughes, Virginia.  “Were the First Artists Mostly Women?”  National Geographic News, 09 October 2013,

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

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

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

“Paleolithic Cave Arts in Northern Spain: El Castillo Cave, Cantabria,” a video available on YouTube, with English subtitles,

Rappenglueck, Michael. “Ice Age People find their ways by the stars: A rock picture in the Cueva de el Castillo (Spain) may represent the circumpolar constellation of the Northern Crown,”,

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

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

Subbaraman, Nidhi. “Prehistoric cave prints show most early artists were women,” NBC News 15 October 2013,

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


Venus Figurines

Interestingly, in Europe, the period between 45,000 and 25,000 years ago, which saw so many important innovations, including eyed needles, the atlatl (spear thrower), pottery, fiber craft including baskets, rope, and clothing, as well as the great cave paintings of Lascaux, Chauvet, Altamira, and El Castillo, coincided with the period of co-existence of Homo sapiens and Homo Neanderthalensis, whom we now know interbred.  Perhaps the influx of new blood proved to be very beneficial to Homo sapiens.  Perhaps it provided the right conditions for the flowering of symbolic art.


Venus Figurines

The earliest examples of what are now called Venus Figurines were discovered in Israel and North Africa, though they are often excluded from the European Venus group, perhaps because the European figures were all dated between 35,000 and 20,000 years old, whereas the examples from Israel and Morocco were far older.  The Venus of Berekhat Ram, discovered in the Golan Heights, is little more than a pebble carved to resemble a woman’s head, shoulders, and breasts.  While it was originally dismissed as the result of natural erosion, microscopic study revealed the marks were man-made.  It was dated by the two strata it was found between – somewhere between 230,000 and 500,000 years old.

Only eighteen years later, the Venus of Tan-Tan was discovered in Morocco by Lutz Fiedler, a German archaeologist.  Like the Venus of Berekhat Ram, it was found between two layers.  The lower layer was dated 500,000 years ago, the upper layer to 200,000 years ago.  It was coated with red ochre. (See earlier post, “The Color of Life and Death” on red ochre.)

While the Venus of Berekhat Ram clearly shows enormous breasts, the Venus of Tan-Tan seems only generally humanoid in form, marking off a head, torso, and legs.  Most of the later Venus figures are clearly female, with exaggerated female traits, but some are ambiguous, with no gender evident, at least one is male, and some seem to be young, immature females.  In all cases, the term “Venus” is somewhat misleading.  None of them look like the classic Greek beauty!

Not exactly art as we usually think of it

While the Venus figurines from Eurasia are often called the first pieces of mobile art, I suspect they didn’t function the way modern art does.  Most were found rubbed with red ochre, broken in pieces and buried in fire pits.  That’s hardly the way most people today treat their art treasures.  More likely the figures were part of a wide-spread cult that involved ritual destruction and burial of the figurines, perhaps as a way to ensure abundance.

Neanderthal sites

Most of the sixty or so Eurasian Venus figurines discovered so far were found in a wide band running from the Atlantic coast near northern Spain to the Mediterranean Sea near the border of southern France and Italy, all the way to the north and east of the Black Sea, in present-day Ukraine and Russia. They have been found in France, Germany, Austria, Italy, Czech Republic, Slovenia, Russia, and the Ukraine, with dates ranging from 35,000 BC to 20,000 BC.  That’s quite a large area and a spread of 15,000 years.  It’s also the same area that the Neanderthals and Denisovans occupied.  The map at right shows the main Neanderthal sites discovered to date.

The European Venus figures are embarrassingly exaggerated, grotesque to modern eyes. They present only the middle of the female body, emphasizing large, pendulous breasts, swollen belly, fat thighs and buttocks.  The rest of the body seems irrelevant.  In many the face is featureless (or missing) and the feet – and sometimes the arms – omitted completely.

Venus of Dolni Vestonice

Few women 25,000 years ago would have looked like these figures.  They’re not portraits.  The importance of the figures is their embodiment of swelling birth.  Perhaps the figure is meant to be a spirit related to fertility or birth.  Perhaps her fatness, which we see as grotesque, was her beauty.  She might have been a symbol of amazing abundance.  Some years ago, a college president who was originally from the Philippines greeted an instructor he passed in the hall by saying, “You look nice and fat today.”  The instructor was insulted, but it was meant as a compliment.  If you have plenty, you have abundance, a form of wealth.  In a land where too much to eat was never a problem, fatness would have been an admirable quality, a form of status, a clear indication you’d done well.

Very likely, the figurine represented some form of the Mother figure that we still reference when we speak of Mother Earth or Mother Nature.  The figure in the photo is the Venus of Dolni Vestonice, found in the Czech Republic.

The figures

Some of the most famous figures include the following:

 Venusof Hohle Fels

Venus of Schelklingen (Hohle Fels Cave), (35,000 – 40,000 years old) Germany, carved mammoth ivory.  This exaggerated female form lacks head and feet.  Her arms and belly are marked with incised lines.  Nicholas Conrad, whose team found the figurine in Hohle Fels cave, said, “Head and legs don’t matter.  This is about sex, reproduction.”  Unlike other experts, he dismisses the idea of the Venus figure and the mammoth, lion, and diving bird figurines also found in the cave as talismans ensuring hunting magic. He sees the figures as representations of complex ideas with tremendous emotional significance.

Venus of Kostensky, Russia

venus of Kostenski

(30,000 years old), carved from animal bone, found broken in pieces and interred in a ritual fire pit.  Particularly interesting for what appears to be rope tying her wrists together, making her look like a sacrificial victim.

Venus of Laussel

Venus of Laussel, France, limestone carving on cave wall near Lascaux (23,000 years old).  This figure holds what some experts have identified as a bison horn incised with 13 lines.  Other experts claim it is a crescent moon and the 13 lines refer to the 13 moons in an annual cycle.  Yet other interpretations include a drinking horn or a musical instrument. Traces of red ochre coating remain on the figure.  Since the discovery of the wall carving in 1911, the cave has yielded many other finds, including female figurines similar to the carving, others representing young, immature females, one male figure, and many half-finished pieces which apparently broke during the carving process.  The sheer number of items brings up the possibility that they were being crafted as trade items.

Venus of Dolni Vestonice, Czech Republic, fired clay figurine (29,000 years old), found broken in two in fire pit ash.  In the same area, archaeologists discovered 700 animal figurines, including mammoth, horse, fox, rhino, owl, bear, and lion, as well as 2000 balls of burned clay.

Venus of Willendorf, Austria, (25,000 years old), covered with red ochre, marked with crisscross lines indicating a woven cap pulled down to cover the face.  While some have claimed the figure represents a Mother Goddess or Earth Mother figure, she seems more victim than goddess.  A possible combination of the two functions would be something like the Aztec Creator Mother Coatlicue, who had to be destroyed in order for the world to be created.  (It’s interesting that this figurine and several others  show clear representations of rope and textiles.)

Venus of Brassempouy, France (probably about 25,000 years old) carved from mammoth ivory, head and neck only.  This figure is famous for its realistic portrayal of complicated hair style, or a combination of a hair net and braids.  It’s also unusual in that it includes only a head and neck and that the features, except for the mouth, are clearly marked.  After its discovery in the 1880s, it sparked a fierce debate about the subject’s race; many thought it looked Chinese.  Her picture appears at the top of this post.

Venus of Moravany, Slovakia, (24,000 years old) carved mammoth bone, found in an area known to be a Neanderthal settlement in the Middle Paleolithic period

Venus of Savignano, Italy (25,000 years old) carved serpentine stone, marked with red ochre, found in a clay deposit by a river.

Venus of Malta, Russia (25,000 years old), carved mammoth ivory, found near Lake Baikal.  Similarities to the European Venus figurines suggest a wide-spread network of the cult that used these figurines.

Venus of Garagino, Ukraine (22,000 years old), carved volcanic rock, found in a cave with petroglyphs, stone tools, and animal bones.  This is probably the most exaggerated, abstract form of the Venus figure.

Some thoughts:

Debate over these figures is loud and on-going.  Most archaeologists agree that they represented some abstract form of fertility or abundance.  I find it interesting that so many were apparently ritually broken and burned, representing a sacrifice, perhaps one meant to ensure abundance.  Whatever its beliefs, the cult’s influence was very widespread and lasted over 15,000 years.

Many of the Venus figurines were coated with red ochre, mineral clay sometimes used to renew the power of a talisman.  It’s connected with vitality, worn on the face in many societies.  It’s what modern western women dust on their cheeks in make-up “blusher.”  The Venus of Tan-Tan, discovered in Morocco, dated between 200,000 and 500,000 years ago, also has traces of red-ochre coating.  Perhaps the division of the earlier Venus figurines from those found in Eurasia is not warranted.

The time when the Venus figurines were spreading from the Atlantic to the Mediterranean to the Black Sea was also the time when Neanderthals/Denisovans and Homo sapiens inhabited those very areas.  Perhaps the combination of the two produced the first examples of widespread, symbolic creations in Europe.

Sources and interesting reading:

Curry, Andrew, “The Cave Art Debate,”, March 2012

da Silva CM. 2010, “Neolithic Cosmology”  Journal of Cosmology 9:2207-2010.

Duhard J-P. 1991. “The shape of Pleistocene Women,” Antiquity 65(248):552-561.

“A Female Figurine from Basal Aurignaic,” Nature (459) 248-252, 14 May 2009

“Neanderthal,” Wikipedia

“Oldest Art,” Encyclopedia of Art,

Tattersall I, Schwartz, JH (June 1999) “Hominids and Hybrids: The place of Neaderthals in human evolution,”  Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 96 (13) 7117 – 9

Sofer, O, Adovasio, JM. And Hyland, D.C. “The Venus Figurines,” Current Anthropology (41) August-October, 2000

“Venus Figurines,”

“Venus of Laussel,”

White, Randall, “The Women of Brassenpouy: A Century of Research and Interpretation,” Journal of Archaeological Method  (13) 4.

Witcombe, Christopher, “The Venus of Willendorf – Mother Goddess,”

Webley, Kayla “Top 10 Earth Goddesses,” Time, 22 April, 2011

The Color of Life and Death

The Color of Life and Death

Blombos Cave in South Africa was already famous in archaeological circles as the site where researchers found a series of pierced shells, carefully worked stone points, a tool kit, and a block of red ochre marked with crisscross designs, all more than 60,000 years old (photo).  (See earlier post “I Think; Therefore I Decorate Myself.”)  Most of the media attention went to the shells as evidence of some of the oldest, if not the oldest, jewelry in the world.  Perhaps while we were dazzled by the jewelry, we should have looked a little more closely at the decorated block of red ochre that went with them.

This month, Blombos Cave was in the news again, in the journal Science and The New
York Times
.  An international team of researchers working in Blombos Cave, led by Dr. Christopher Hencilwood, has identified a full paint kit which is 100,000 years oldThe main ingredient of the paint is red ochre, a mineral clay that gets its color from iron oxide.  Tools at the site include hammerstones and grind stones to chip and crush the clay and abalone shells to serve as bowls.  (See photo.) In order to get the composition they wanted, the ancient people mixed the crushed red ochre with animal fat, charcoal, stone chips, quartz grains, and some liquid, then stirred the mix in the shells.  The find also included stir sticks with the same substance still on them.

Why was red ochre worth all this effort?

This is a difficult question to answer, but there are some clues.  In many ancient societies, red ochre was associated with blood and therefore with both life and death.  It was used in body decoration, medicines, wood and sail preservatives, compounds for dying and preserving skins, as well as preparations used on the dead.  Ochre-painted bones dated to 62,000 years ago were found in Australia.  The practice was also common in Mesoamerica.  In parts of Asia, cinnabar was used instead.

Ancient Pict warriors (Scotland) painted themselves with red ochre.  The Celts (England and Ireland) were called “red men” from their habit of painting themselves with a substance called bog iron.  The Chumash Indians (California) used red ochre in their body paint.  The Moche (Peru) used it in face paint. Ancient Egyptian women used red ochre for their lipstick and rouge.  Australian Aborigines used different color
ochre pigments (red, yellow, brown) for their body and rock paintings.

In many other cases, red pigment was rubbed on a sacred object in order to awaken its power.

Today, many people still use red ochre in body
painting.  The Maasai paint their bodies and color their hair with red ochre (photo). Hamar brides in Africa wear a mixture of ochre and animal fat.  Sudanese women from the Nuba mountains wear a mixture of oil and red ochre between puberty and their first pregnancy.  Iron oxide is one of the ingredients in common makeup blusher.

While not all of these uses are the same, they all point to a spiritual and social value of red pigment associated with blood, life, power, fertility, even death.

The blocks and paint pots found at Blombos might then represent both spirit power and trade wealth.

The people who left these pots behind were knowledgeable in the materials needed to get them the red paint they wanted.  That involved transfer of information (I tried it this way and it didn’t work.  I found a good source of red ochre about a day’s hike from here.), gathering or manufacture of tools, and plan for the dissemination of this material.  There was no hearth found with the paint pots.  Did they go to this cave specifically to make paint?  Was the cross-hatch mark a way to bring out the magical power of the block,  a way to claim ownership, or a counting system?  At this point we can’t tell, but these bring up more questions about these people’s intelligence, their communication system, their social network, and their cosmological beliefs.

To go back to the decorated blocks for a moment, look at the cross-hatch marks, including the top and bottom lines that enclose the design.  It’s a very purposeful creation.  It would seem to move the date for the first art back from 40,000 years ago (the cave paintings of France and Spain) to 100,000 years ago, which is quite a step.  But, you complain, a couple of decorated blocks aren’t much; there aren’t any paintings in Blombos Cave.  True. I suspect the canvas was the human body, not a rock wall.  The people who valued the pierced shells in the first necklace had to have a beautiful painted body on which to wear it.

The oldest art is body art, much of which is still alive today, from the exquisite henna designs on a bride to the tattooed face of a Maori to the array of clothing, hair styles, makeup, piercings, and tattoos worn by people of all ages walking the streets of America.  The sense of purposeful creation of ourselves is part of our heritage as humans.

I think; therefore I decorate myself

There is great debate in the archaeological community right now over what might be the world’s oldest jewelry.

The big contenders are:

The pierced, dyed shells found at Blombos Cave, South Africa, dated to 75,000 years ago (shown at left)

The pierced shells coated in red clay found in Morocco, dated to 82,000 years ago

The pierced and decorated ostrich shells found in Tanzania, dated to 70,000 years ago

The pierced, decorated snail shells found in Israel, dated to 100,000 years ago

The decorated shells and bone objects found in Algeria, dated to 90,000 years ago.

There is no current winner because everyone wants their contestant to win, so there is a good deal of criticism of other contendenders.

Regardless of which is the very oldest, it’s interesting to note, while looking at these very old dates, that at the same time that people were busy designing practical things like spear points and fish hooks, they went to the trouble to make jewelry.  Even more interesting is the fact that it seemed to serve many of the same purposes it does today.

Self-decoration, to many archaeologists, suggests a clear sense of self.  Their reasoning is if you don’t know you exist, you don’t care if you have a string of fabulous pierced, dyed beads to wear around your neck.

I’d suggest it meant a great deal more back then, just as it does now.  First, it’s a show of wealth.  It means you have enough money to buy food, clothing, and shelter and have enough left over to buy a gold watch or a labradorite ring.  In addition, these objects may be sold or traded, so they are a form of wealth that you can wear.

It’s also a sign of social status.  Your diamond tennis bracelet makes a clear statement about you and your place in the world.

The wedding ring you wear is a symbol of association.  So is a school ring, birthstone ring, Super Bowl ring, friendship ring, cross pendant, flag pin, etc.

Jewelry, in ancient times, was also important in burial rituals; most of the finds archeologists make are associated with burials.  This means that as long ago as 75,000 years ago, people were burying their dead with their wealth, an indication of a sense of an afterlife where the dead would need these goods.

There seemed to be little distinction between beautiful jewelry and fine tools, at least in grave goods.  Ancient toolmakers often spent an inordinate amount of time in making incredibly beautiful points, when something courser would have suficed to kill their prey.  Beauty and fine workmanship are interchangeable.  A fine spear point or fish hook has the same aesthetic value, it seems, as a string of beads.  The stone tools pictured below were excavated from Blombos Cave, the same site as the pierced shells pictured above.

Most of the information here was taken from National Geographic articles, especially “Old Jewelry Found in Morocco Cave” and “Oldest Jewelry?  ‘Beads’ Discovered in African Cave.”  For more information about the shells pictured above, you can Google Blombos Cave, in South Africa.

In Misfits and Heroes: West from Africa, Sheeah is having her hair braided and decorated with snail shells and carved tigerwood nuts.  The finished product would have been a great show of wealth as well as beauty, and it would have suited her status as the daughter of the chief.