El Castillo: Wonders and Questions

El Castillo Cave

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

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

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

El Castillo gallery of disks

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

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

hand el-castillo-handprints

The 13,000 year span

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

The Panel of the Hands

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

Print

el_castillo_sketched

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

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

 

Who left those hand prints?

el castillo hand

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

The semi-circle of dots

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

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

el_castillo_sketched

 

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

Addendum, January 2016

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

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

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

star chart 1

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

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

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

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

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

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

Addendum to the Addendum, June, 2017

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

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

The Bison

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

El Castillo bison2

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

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

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

El C. buxubison

The Bison Man

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

El C. Bison Man 2

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

The Techtiforms

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

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

El C. Buxu ideograph horse

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

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

 

 

 

 

Sources and Interesting Reading:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Fixative atomizer,” Dick Blick Art Supplies catalog

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Cave Art

Jean Clottes, the French cave art expert, has written several books, including one on Chauvet Cave and one entitled Cave Art, an imposing coffee-table sized book with beautiful full-page color illustrations.  However, it’s curious that a book with the title Cave Art is really about only three caves in France:

Chauvet, (35,000 – 22,000 years ago)

Lascaux, (22,000 – 17,000 years ago) and

Niaux, (from 11,000 years ago).

That list may be understandable in that the author is French and most familiar with French cave art in these areas.  However it’s misleading and perpetuates a misconception.

cave art, Altamira UNESCO

At first glance, it seems to be a glaring omission of Spain’s notable cave art, especially that of Altamira, El Castillo, and other sites.  Altamira cave paintings are so impressive that the area was designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1985.  One section of the ceiling of Altamira cave is shown in the photo (left).

   ROCK El Castillo disk

El Castillo Cave (Spain) contains the oldest cave paintings known in Western Europe, with a red disk dated to 40,800 years old – perhaps the work of our Neanderthal cousins.  That’s at least 8,000 years older than the oldest dates from Chauvet Cave in France.  The photo on the right shows negative hand prints and a red dot visible in the lower left – the famous disk.

 

But Clottes omits more than Spain.  He leaves out the rest of the world!

In his introduction to Cave Art, Clottes defines art as “the result of the projection of a strong mental image on the world, in order to interpret and transform reality, and recreate it in a material form.”  Thus, he says, older marks, like circles, spirals, and crossed lines cannot be considered art.  I wonder if he’s strolled through a modern art collection lately.

He dismisses African and Australian art as hard to date and therefore not worth considering.  He omits Indian and Indonesian cave art entirely.  Even Eastern European finds like Pestera Coliboaia cave art in Romania, the oldest cave art in Central Europe, doesn’t merit a mention.

Then he moves on without apology:  “So while we can be sure that European Paleolithic art was not modern man’s first artistic endeavor, it is without a doubt the best known and best researched form of ancient art.  This is due in part to complex economic and historical factors – Europe is rich, and its Paleolithic art has been studied for well over a century – but also, and perhaps especially, because its spectacular imagery still appeals to our modern sensibilities.”

That’s the argument, in a nutshell.  And its endless repetition helps perpetuate the erroneous idea that art originated in Europe because, well, you know, Europe is the richest and the best.  And by Europe, he means France.

The truth is that French cave art is probably the most extensively studied but not the oldest or even the most sophisticated cave art in the world.  Instead, it shares many themes with other cave art sites around the world and fits easily into the world cave art collection.

Consider these examples:

Maros Cave, Sulawesi Island, Indonesia 

rock pig deer Indonesia

 

Currently, cave art found in Sulawesi Island, Indonesia has been dated to over 40,000 years old. (If you’re keeping score, that’s competing with Europe’s oldest.)  The red ochre paintings were dated by examining the calcite deposits that had formed on top of the drawings, on the theory that the paintings had to be at least as old as the material that covered them.  Paintings include human figures, wild animals, and many hand stencils, one of which, when tested, was found to be 39,900 years old.  Next to that print is a drawing of a pig, found to be 35,400 years old.  They are currently the earliest known handprint and the earliest known drawing of an animal.  Interestingly, scholars have known about these drawings since the 1950’s, but the images were dismissed as being no more than 12,000 years old because that was the date they had assigned to human migration to the island.  This sort of constricted thinking, in which the data must fit the model, is a continuing problem in archaeology.  The image in the photo (left)  is fragmented by deposits laid down on top of it.  The animal is facing right.  Its narrow nose is fairly easy to spot.  Its little hind legs are also easy to see.  A stenciled hand print is visible below the pig’s shoulder.

 

Australiarock art Kakadu, Australia

Some cave paintings in Arnhem Land feature the Genyornis, a giant emu-like bird considered extinct for over 40,000 years.  Rock shelters in the Northern Territory provided homes for people as far past as 50,000 years ago.  They left behind drawings of fish (photo, right), turtles, possums, and wallabies, but few images have been dated. Geologist Bruno David noted, “We don’t have the dated art itself, but we’ve found the tools that were used to make the art.  For that reason, we rightfully assume that Australia has pigment art going back to when people first came here which is close to 50,000 years ago.”

 

The charcoal drawings at Nwarla Gabarnmang have been dated to 28,000 years old.  A drawing of the Rainbow Serpent in the Northern Territory was found to be 23,000 years old.  All of these would then be older than the famous paintings in Lascaux Cave in France.

One of the problems with dating Australian aboriginal rock art in some areas is the practice of renewing sacred drawings: painting over images to increase their power.  While the practice is completely understandable, it makes dating the images very difficult.

India

rock art India Bhimbetka_rock_paintng1

Evidence found in the Bhimbetka rock shelters in Madhya Pradesh, India indicate they were inhabited by hominins for over 300,000 years; some experts claim more like 700,000 years.  That would make the most ancient residents Homo erectus.  Some cupules and an engraving discovered in the 1990s were dated to 290,000 years old!

This adds more evidence to the argument that art came before modern humans.

The earliest Bhimbetka paintings known at this time have been dated to 30,000 years old (Photo, left).  That’s close to the dates for Chauvet Cave, the oldest rock art site in France.

 

South AmericaPedra Furada rock art

Pedra Furada, the controversial early site in Brazil, has been dated to between 32,000 and 48,000 years old.  Some experts claim 60,000 years old.  Rock art there, including images of animals, has been dated to at least 12,000 years old.  The image on the right may show a mother deer and baby, as well as a smaller figure, perhaps a frog or turtle.

Cueva de las Manos in Patagonia (Argentina side) has handprints dated to 13,000 years ago.

 

Mongolia

rock art, Mongolia

Khoit Tsenkheriin cave in Mongolia has paintings dating back to the Upper Paleolithic Period (20,000 – 15,000 years ago).  In one corner of the cave, overlapping symbols and animals painted on the ceiling and wall include lions, elephants, sheep, ibexes, ostriches, and antelopes, camels. Often, the animals’ horns, humps, and necks are exaggerated, just as they are in the more well-known cave art of Lascaux, roughly its contemporary.

 

 

Commonality

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

Stylized animals

rock Rhinocéros_grotte_Chauvet

rock rhinocoliboaiasm

Often the creatures painted on cave walls are not animals commonly hunted for food but fearsome, powerful beasts.  Typically they are painted in profile, with exaggerated but recognizable features.  The head, horns, neck and shoulder sometimes stand in for the whole animal.  The wooly rhino from Chauvet Cave (left) is remarkably similar to the painting from Pestera Coliboaia cave in Romania (right).

 

rock Chauvet bison

The bison paintings are also similar.  The painting on the left is from Chauvet Cave, France, while the figure on the rock bison, Coliboaia Cave, Romaniaright is from Coliboaia Cave, Romania.  Interestingly, both images give a sense of movement in the front legs.  The Romania image uses the natural curve of the stone.  The French image uses a kind of animation effect where multiple front and back legs give the sense of motion.

 

 

 

The hand stencil

The most universal image in cave art is the hand print and the negative hand stencil.  The print was made by applying pigment to the hand and pressing the hand against the stone.  The stencil was made by placing a hand on the rock and blowing pigment over it, leaving the negative image of hand.  In many sites, both techniques are employed.

These positive and negative hand prints appear all over the world, including sites in India, Borneo, Australia, Africa, Europe, North and South America.

rock cueva de las Manos 2  

 

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

 

handprints Canyon de Chelley

 

 

 

 

 

 

rock El Castillo hands and dots

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

 

For ancient people, a handprint might have been a registry: “I was here,” an ancient form of marking (or “tagging”).  Several hand prints might mark the presence of a group.  Multiple prints in the same spot might increase the energy of that place and reinforce the power of the group.  The hand print proclaims participation, even if it is with the rock surface itself, just as you might touch a sacred relic or a photo of a long-lost friend or relative.

 

The handprint is still very important in our culture.  In some hospitals, a baby’s hand and foot prints are recorded immediately after birth. As they grow up, children love putting their handprints on – everything!  Maybe your toddlers put handprints along your clean wall because the desire to mark a place with their hands is embedded in them.  It’s part of being human.

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

In a local high school I noticed a large paper sign covered with hand prints, apparently from students who had agreed not to drink and drive after their senior prom.  The photo of chalk hand prints on a blackboard (left) brings out the sense of energy that the collective prints generate.

If you’re a famous movie star, you get to leave your hand and foot prints on the Hollywood Walk of Fame by the Chinese Theater.  Then you’ve really made your mark. (See photo, right)

rock hands - Walk of Fame, Chinese Theater

 

 

 

Rather than perpetuating the myth of art beginning in Europe, we should be celebrating the wealth of our heritage as humans all over the world.  We are, as far as we know, the only species to make art (and orchestral music and space flight).  We need to keep exploring rock art sites, especially in areas that are currently being lost to rising ocean levels, so we can learn as much as possible about these treasures.

 

Sources and interesting reading:

“Aboriginal rock art – how old is it actually?”  Ask an Expert.  ABC Science, Brad Pillans and Keith Fifield’s talk about dating cave art.  http://www.abc.net.au/science/articles/2014/10/09/4102916.htm.

“Ancient Art of Kakadu,” Australia.com, http://www.australia.com/en/places/kakadu/nt-rock-art.html

Balter, Michael. “Romanian Cave May Boast Central Europe’s Oldest Cave Art,” Science Magazine,   http://news.sciencemag.org/erope/2010/06/romanian-cave-may-boast-central-europes-oldest-cave-art

Bryner, Jeanna. “In Photos: The World’s Oldest Cave Art,” Live Science, http://www.livescience.com/48199-world-oldest-cave-art-photos.html/

“Cave of Altamira and Paleolithic Cave Art of Northern Spain,” United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), World Heritage List, http://whc.unesco.org/en/list/310/

“Cave painting,” Wikipedia (a very good article), https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cave-painting

Clottes, Jean.  Cave Art.  London: Phaidon Press, 2008.

Clottes, Jean.  “Paleolithic Cave Art in France,” The Bradshaw Foundation, http://www.badshawfoundation.com/clottes

“Cueva de las Manos: A Cultural Heritage of Humanity,” http://www.patagonia.com.ar/circuits/587E_Cueva+de+las+Manos

“El Castillo Cave Paintings” Encyclopedia of Stone Age Art. Visual Arts Cork, http://www.visual-arts-cork.com/prehistoric/castillo-cave-paintings.htm/

Ghosh, Pallab, Science Correspondent, “Cave paintings change ideas about the origin of art,” BBC News, 8 October 2014,   http://www.bbc.com/news/science-environment-29415716/

“Hand Paintings: Hand Paintings in Rock Art around the World”  The Bradshaw Foundation, http://www.bradshawfoundation.com/hands/

“Handprints on blackboard” photo, celestecotaphotography.com

“History of India,” Wikipedia. http://en.wikipedia.org/History_of_India/

“Khoit Tsenkheriin cave,” Mongolian Cave Research Association, http://www.mongoliancave.com/CaveEng/2

“Madhya Pradesh,” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Madhya_Pradesh/

“Oldest Rock Art,” Encyclopedia of Stone Age Art.  http://www.visual.art.cork.com/prehistoric/rock-art.htm/

“Pestera Coliboiaia – Coliboaia Cave Rock Art,” Central Europe’s oldest cave paintings discovered at Coliboaia Cave, Don’s Maps (a fabulous source)  http://www.donsmaps.com/index.html#sites

“Prehistoric Hand Stencils,” Encyclopedia of Stone Age Art, Visual Arts Cork, http://www.visual-arts-cork.com/prehistoric/hand-stencils-rock-art.htm/

Thompson, Helen, “Rock (Art) of Ages: Indonesian Cave Paintings are 40,000 Years Old,”  Smithsonian.com, http://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/rockart-ages-indonesian-cave-paintings-are-40,000-years-old-180952970/?no-ist

Vergano, Dan. “Cave Paintings in Indonesia Redraw Picture of Earliest Art,” National Geographic News, http://news. Nationalgeographic.com/news/2014/10/141008-cave-art-sulawesi-hand-science/

Vergano, Dan. “Q&A: Cave Art Older, More Widespread than Thought, Archaeologist Says,” National Geographic News,  http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2014/10/141010-cave-art-indonesia-alistair-pike-questions-science/

Wilford, John Noble.  “Cave Paintings in Indonesia May Be among the Oldest Known,” The New York Times, 8 October 2014,   http://www.nytimes.com/2014/10/09/science/ancient-indonesian-find-may-ival-oldest-known-cave-art.html/

The Tree of Life

The Tree of Life image is very popular today.  It’s found on T-shirts, jewelry, drawings, paintings, wall-hangings, sculptures, the French 2-euro coin, and many beautiful tattoos.

If someone asked you to draw the tree of life, you’d probably draw a tree trunk rising in the center, surrounded by spreading branches.  Maybe you’d draw a circle around the image, or perhaps the foliage tree of life trivetwould create a circle.  If you drew a Tree of Life like the one on the trivet pictured on the right, which is identified in a sale catalog as a Tree of Life, what makes it a Tree of Life rather than just a tree?

The answers are varied because the image has many forms.  The one on the trivet is a very plain variety. Others tree Julia's Needlewordshold many animals in their branches, including those that never live in trees (like deer or lions) or contain elements that don’t go with the tree, like giant flowers. Or very stylized branches and foliage, like those pictured in the drawing (right).tree Yggdrasil ultime IIby Bog Viking

Often, the image contains a clear pairing of opposites, such as the foliage fan contrasting with the root fan.  Or the presence of the sun and moon.  Or a bird in the branches and a snake in the roots.  In the tattoo illustration on the left, an eagle perches in the tree top while the dragon/serpent controls the lower part.

tree yggdrasil_and_dragon_by_tattoo_design-d7652i2

In many of the examples you’ll find on this post, the Tree of Life features male and female elements.  The trunk is an upright rod (male) while the branches form a fan or circle (female).  Sometimes the whole design is enclosed in a circle.  It’s a symbolic glorification of the union of opposites.

In some cases, the tree itself is simplified into a series of lines, but the intent is the same.  These are examples from Persian rug designs and from ancient Assyria:
tree Persian carpet patternstree Assyrian bas-reliefs

tree of life celtic nordic belt buckle, ebay live_fast (13205)

Some Tree of Life images quite clearly indicate sexual union of humans, but the symbol is usually far more universal.  It illustrates the pairing of opposite forces that engenders creation in all of nature.  Thus the flowers and animals appearing in its branches. The fine pressed paper design by Kevin Dyer uses the oak tree, sacred to the Druids, to illustrate the pairing of opposites that results in new life, represented by the acorn cradled in its roots.tree of life cast paper by Kevin Dyer

While the tree is often generic, as in the trivet, sometimes it’s a specific species, such as an oak (Celtic) or an ash (Nordic), an almond tree (basis for the menorah), a Ceiba (Maya), a Ficus (India), flowering yucca (Anasazi), or a wild plum (The Koran).  In other areas, an ear of wheat, a corn plant, or a thistle might be substituted.  Most of the time, the male (rod) /female (circle) balance remains.

tree thistle by Devin Dyer

In other examples, the tree is a mirror image, combining the power of positive and negative opposites, forming an arboreal yin and yang.

tree of life Paradign Shift

History

tree petroglyph, Naquane, ItalyBecause the Tree of Life is a very old symbol, it’s had many variations over thousands of years and probably many different meanings.  Certainly, the graphic elements of the rod and circle are some of the oldest known images found carved in stone.  The example on the left is from Italy, but similar figures appear all over the world.tree pictograph interior pictograph BC,Canada The rock art figure from British Columbia, Canada, on the right, shows a figure rising out of the combined rod and circle elements.  The stone carving  in the center is from Galicia, Spain.rock art, Spain

While we don’t know what meaning the carvers attached to those images so long ago, we can interpret some of the more recent uses of the same image by asking the descendants of the carvers.  In some cases, the flowering of the combination of male and female is cosmic, as in the union of the earth and the sun, or Scan_20150622personal, as in this petroglyph from Crow Canyon, New Mexico.  The humpbacked Ye’i known as Ghanaskidi bears a sack full of seeds, decorated with feathers.  Similar to the Hopi kachina Kokopelli, he seduces the girls and then offers them gifts. He’s associated with harvest and abundance, increased fertility in humans, plants, and animals.

tree Huichol goddess of lifeThe peyote-driven yarn painting created by the Huichol Indians (Mexico) shows Tacutsi, the Goddess of Life,  giving birth to everything that lives.

 

 

 

 

The Importance of Trees

In some creation stories, the tree was literally the source of life, in that people, plants, and animals emerged from it.   In the Nordic epic, the Edda, the first couple: Askr and Embla, were created from ash and elm trees.  Ancient Indian tales mention a giant Ficus (fig) tree that granted wishes and immortality.  In Germanic myths, apple trees guarded by dragons grew the fruit of eternal youth.  Remains of apples found in a burial site in Sweden, dated to 1500 BC, seem to reinforce this idea.

tree Pakal 2The famous tomb lid of K’inich Janaab’ Pakal, in Palenque, Mexico, shows the dead Maya lord being reborn as the young Maize God on the Tree of Life.   Unfortunately, bizarre theories explaining this as the figure of an alien astronaut have become so widespread that people fail to see the very consistent Maya imagery used in the carving.  Pakal, who died as quite an old man, is dressed as the young Maize God.  His position is typically used to show a baby.  He lies just above the gaping jaws of the Underworld, but above him rises the cruciform World Tree that unites the three worlds.  At the top the creator god, Itzamna, perches.  Like the kernel of corn, he must be buried in order to be reborn.  This idea is reinforced by the turtle shell ornament he wears on his chest, a reference to the world being born out of the split back of a turtle.  Around the edges are images of the sun, moon, and stars.

Spirit Trees

Many groups around the world believed that dead people’s souls returned as trees.  Tree worship was common Sacred tree, Japanin many areas in the distant past and persists in some areas to this day.  The photo on the right shows an honored spirit tree in Japan.

 

Modern religious application

Because the Tree of Life was a powerful and popular symbol, it was incorporated into the monotheistic religions that replaced older animist beliefs. In ancient Babylonia, the Tree of Life was called Ea, and the fruits of it bestowed eternal life.  This is perhaps the source of the Old Testament Tree of Life growing in the center of Paradise. Judaism also incorporated that image in the menorah and the Kabbalah Tree of Life.  The Koran includes mention of the Sidra or Tuba tree, which grows in the center of Paradise.

tree  Christ crucified  on treeInterestingly, the male/female dynamic that was so central to older representations of the Tree of Life was often played down or replaced by the central figure of the faith, who became the sole generative force.  In the image shown on the left, the tree of life image was used to represent Christ’s crucifixion on the cross (tree) as the source of life in the world.

In some cases, ancient tree worship combines with modern religious beliefs, as in the icon tree pictured on the left.  It also includes the idea of the tree rising out of the waters of life.

icon tree

The Labyrinth

The new labyrinth is a revival of a very old symbol that provides yet another dimension oftree labyrinth the Tree of Life.  Like the most abstract versions of the Tree of Life, it is a rod (the only path in) and a number of circles (which must be navigated in ritual stages), with a six-petal flower at the center of the circle and end of the rod.  In this case, the flowering is personal and spiritual, rather than sexual or universal.  The pattern pictured on the right is most commonly used in contemporary labyrinths.  It’s based on the design in the Cathedral of Chartres, France, built in 1220 AD, though the earliest surviving labyrinth was found in a rock carving in Sardinia, dated to 2500 BC.  Others were found in Crete, Syria, Greece, and Egypt.  At one time, walking the labyrinth was a popular spiritual exercise.  And it’s coming back into favor.  Over fifty turf labyrinths are currently found in England, Poland, the Czech Republic, Denmark, and Sweden.   The Labyrinth at Grace Cathedral in San Francisco, California has been so successful that church leaders had to make portable versions to take to other locations.  Dr. Lauren Artress, who spearheaded the effort to establish the labyrinth at Grace Cathedral, notes in her book, Walking a Sacred Path: Rediscovering the Labyrinth, that the Chartres labyrinth references the moon, sun, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn as elements of the whole that one enters when walking the labyrinth.  How interesting that the ancient sense of wholeness, including the sky world, is now popular among church goers in San Francisco!  Many people have said that the experience of walking the labyrinth was transformative and included an element of the feminine and spiritual that they felt had disappeared from the Christian church.

tree turf labyrinth The photo on the left shows an open-air version of the labyrinth. Unlike a maze, the labyrinth does not involve solving puzzles.  The path is very straightforward, can be walked at any pace, and can be used as a guide to meditation.

 

 

So the trivet, the item we saw initially as the Tree of Life, is actually a stripped-down version of an ancient symbol.  It’s lost most of its sexual and spiritual elements, yet it retains something of its history and power.  That’s why it’s so popular.  tree of enlightenment, heaven on earth silks

tree CrowsFeaters Art wire tree amd agate
tree of life steel drum art from Global Crafts

Sources and interesting reading:

Amadi, Reza T.  “Symbolism in Persian Rugs,” Manuscripta Orentalia, vol. 3, no. 1, March 1997. http://www.islamicmanuscripts.info/reference/articles/Ahmadi-a997-mo-03-1-Symbolism.pdf

Artress, Dr. Lauren. Walking a Sacred Path: Rediscovering the Labyrinth as a Spiritual Tool.  New York: Riverhead Books, 1995.

Bonaguida, Pacino di, “Tree of Life” painting of the crucified Christ, from the Galleria dell’ Accademia, Florence, Italy

Bjornson, Anthony, “The World Tree or Tree of Life,” norsespirtualism.wordpress.com

Circle of Ancient Iranian Studies (CAIS), “Images of Ancient Iran: Achaemenid Dynasty (550 – 330 BC) Metalwork and Glass, Golden Décor Piece,” RezaAbbasi9.jpg

Collyer, Chris.  “Tree of Life Rock: Bronze Age Rock Carving”  http://www.stone-circles.org.uk/stone/treeoflife.htm

“Conventional trees of Assyrian bas-reliefs” (Figure 63), www.sacred-texts.com

Davidson, H. R. Ellis.  Gods and Myths of Northern Europe.  Reprinted by Penguin Books, 1990.

Diaz, Gisele, and Alan Rodgers (ed) The Codex Borgia. New York: Dover Press, 1993.

Drawing of Pakal’s sarcophagus lid, Palenque, Mexico, http://www.utexas.edu

Fage, Luc-Henri. “Rock Art of Borneo,” interactive image, from Hands across Time: Exploring the Rock art of Borneo, books.nationalgeographic.com/ngm/0508/feature2/zoomify/index.html

Kagedan, Binyamin, “Menorah: History of a Symbol,” JNS.org.  Httyp://www.jns.org/latest-articles/2013/9/23/menorah-history-of-a-symbol

Kim, Jimi, “Yggdrasil” by lazysongwriter, traditional art painting, fc01-deviantart.net

“Labyrinth,” Blanton-Peale Institute and Counseling Center, http://www.blantonpeale.org/labyrinth.html

“Labyrinth: The Walking Prayer,” http:..www.emu.edu/seminary/labyrinth

Lechler, George, “The Tree of Life in Indo-European and Islamic Cultures,” Ars Islamica, Vol.4 (1937) 369-419.

Nuttall, Zelia (ed).  The Codex Nuttall: A Picture Manuscript from Ancient Mexico. New York: Dover Press, 1975.

Rock art, Navajo petroglyph of humpbacked Ye’i, Crow Canyon, New Mexico, from The Serpent and The Sacred Fire by Dennis Slifer

Rogers, Richard A. “Rock Art: Indigenous Images, Historic Inscriptions and Contemporary Graffiti,”  documentaryworks.org/stories/rockart.htm

Saward, Jeff.  “Historic Turf Labyrinths in England,” Labyrinthos, Labyrinths and Maxes Resource Centre, Photo Library and Archive, http://www.labyrinthos.net/turflabuk.html

Slifer, Dennis.  The Serpent and the Sacred Fire: Fertility Images in Southwest Rock Art.  Santa Fe: Museum of New Mexico Press, 2000

“The Tree of Life,” Learning about Rock Art, http://www.angelfire.com/trek/archaeology/tree.html

“The Tree of Life” Symbol Dictionary: A Visual Glossary, http//symboldictionary.net?p=34

“Tree of Enlightenment mandala” from Heaven on Earth Silks, www.etsy.com/listing/182211309/treeofenlightenment

“Tree of Life,” Carpets Auction – LAVER KIRMAN

“Tree of Life,” cast paper art by Kevin Dyer

“Tree of Life,” Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tree_of_life/

“Tree of Life in Oriental Rugs,” www.capethomeca.com

“Tree of Life mandala,” from Heaven on Earth Silks, www.etsy.com/listing/117394192/tree-of-life-mandala

“Tree of Life Meaning,”   http//www.treeoflife.net.au

“Tree of Life” steel drum art, Global Crafts, Haiti

“Tree of Life Teachings: Living with Passion, Heart and Purpose,” http://www.treeoflifeteachings.com/tree-of-life/

Tree of Life trivet (wood) from Oxfamshop.org.au

“Yggdrasil Art, Yggdrasil,” th05.deviantart.net

Wire Tree of Life on Agate, CrowsFeather Art, on Etsy

Guest Post by Mary S. Black

 Mary S. Black is the author of Peyote Fire, a novel set 4,000 years ago in the canyonlands of southwest Texas. Mary S. BlackLearn more about her at http://www.marysblack.com, or find her on Facebook. She also participants in the Prehistoric Writers and Readers Campfire on Facebook and Goodreads. Her book is now available on Amazon.

PF cover

Tell us a little bit about your new book.  What’s it about?

Peyote Fire is the story of people who created incredible rock art in southwest Texas over 4,000 years ago. This area is known as the Lower Pecos region today, and is located right on the Rio Grande, about 50 miles west of Del Rio,Texas. Archaeologists have identified over 300 rock art sites in four different styles in this area. My protagonist, Deer Cloud, is painting just such a mural when his powerful grandfather dies, and his life changes.   Deer Cloud is called to walk the shaman path and finally, to bring the buffalo through his visionary power.

To reach his goal, Deer Cloud must visit five mythical wolves who make him fear for his life and his sanity in order to become a shaman. Of course he must ingest powerful hallucinogenic herbs to see the wolves, and that frightens him even more. He must learn to overcome his fears and find his true life.

The female shaman, Jumping Rabbit, takes an interest in him, and introduces him to a little cactus, peyote. Peyote naturally grows in the Lower Pecos and has been used for thousands of years as a powerful medicine. However, this new drug threatens another shaman, Stone Face, who wants to hold on to his own power. When scouts spy a herd of buffalo several days away, Stone Face challenges Deer Cloud to call the beasts using his new spirit helper.

Of course Stone Face uses his own songs and hallucinogenic drugs to call the buffalo. The herd comes and are stampeded over a cliffwhiteshaman rock art panel in a horrific scene. But whose magic really called them? Stone Face or Deer Cloud? The one with the most powerful magic will lead the people from now on.

What inspired you to write about these people?

 I’ve made many trips to the Lower Pecos over the past 25 years to see rock art and other archaeological sites. Every time I’ve seen these rock art panels, I always wondered who made it. I’ve always wondered what the artist thought about as he or she painted the stories in the rockshelters. The paintings are complex, and up to now, little has been known about their meaning. Today, researchers are making great strides in interpreting these stories from the past, so it’s very exciting. (Photo, right: White Shaman rock art panel, the same image that appears on the cover of Peyote Fire.)

The remains of a huge buffalo jump in one of the smaller canyons have been known by archaeologists since the 1930s or before. It’s estimated over 800 animals died in one amazing episode, and many bones are still there today. So part of the story is based on this as well.

Spring, Lower Pecos canyonlands

I wanted to make these ancient people walk and talk in my novel, using everything archaeologists and others have learned about their culture to bring them to life.  (Photo left: spring in the Lower Pecos Canyonlands)

 What differences between their era and ours do you find most striking?

Well, certainly the people had a completely different world-view than we do today. Yet they had explanations for the phenomena of the world. Generally their explanations centered on the behavior of certain gods, such as Father Sun or Mother Rain, but often included the behavior of animals as well. For example, in my book, the people’s explanation for fire is that Possum discovered Fire already in the wood, and brought it to the people. I actually took this story from Huichol mythology. The people’s observations of the world around them were acute—they had to be in order to live. Fire was considered the Great Transformer, because nothing that enters fire comes out the same ever again. Of course this is a world-view that I constructed based on ethnographic research, and certainly cannot be “proven” to be “correct.” It’s fiction, after all. We’ll never know exactly what they thought, of course.

 

How did you get the background information you needed about these people and their lifestyle?

Fate Bell Shelter, Seminole Canyon, Texas I did years of research. I didn’t start actually writing until I thought I knew enough to begin. Even then I would have to stop every other paragraph to look something up. I wanted to be as accurate as possible, based on what archaeologists and others have discovered. Sometimes translating those scientific papers, etc., into language for the general public is not easy! But I wanted to share what is known about these people with a wider audience. I also visited the Lower Pecos many times and was lucky enough to tag along with a few archaeologists so I got to see and experience many places inaccessible to the public. I was fortunate enough also to study for a short time with one of the most important researchers of that particular rock art. (Photo: Rock art panel in Fate Bell Shelter, Seminole Canyon State Park, Texas)

What do you want readers today to know about ancient peoples?

I want people to know that these ancient people were fully human, with complex thinking, planning, and organizing skills. I find many Americans today know little about the ancient past and therefore fail to celebrate the ingenuity of all human beings.

What are you working on next?

I’m writing a brief travel guide to the Lower Pecos. It will be divided into three sections: Environment, Rock Art, and Towns and Ghost towns. After that I’ll start the second novel, about the female shaman who seduces Deer Cloud in book number one.

You can find Mary S. Black’s book Peyote Fire on Amazon.com.  She says the Kindle version should be out soon.