Saturday, March 25, 2017


Moab Mastodon, Photograph
by Dell Crandall.

 On November 25, 2009, I wrote a column in RockArtBlog titled Elephantids In North American Rock Art - The Moab Mastodon, in which I expressed the opinion that this famous image, usually identified as the Moab Mastodon, is actually a bear eating a large fish.

Bear eating a salmon, National
Geographic, Vol. 209(2),
February 2006, photograph
Steve Winter.

In support of this suggestion I compared it to a photograph taken by Steve Winter for National Geographic Magazine of an Alaskan brown bear eating a salmon in virtually the same pose.

Bear eating a salmon,
carved antler, Lourdes,
France, redrawn from

Another related example of the theme of a bear eating a fish found in Lourdes, France, was illustrated on page 218 in Dale Guthrie's excellent book The Nature of Paleolithic Art. A Paleolithic antler carving from Lourdes, France, shows a bear with a salmon in his mouth (Guthrie, p. 218).

Is this proof of anything, no it is not. It is circumstantial evidence only. While not bearing (really, a pun here?) directly on the question of the identification of the so-called Moab Mastodon, this carving at least helps establish that the theme of a bear eating a fish is one that had been illustrated by a primitive artist before, providing perspective on this claim for the identity of the Moab image.


Faris, Peter
2009 Elephantids In North American Rock Art, Nov. 25, 2009,

Guthrie, R. Dale
2005    The Nature of Paleolithic Art, page 208, University of Chicago Press, Chicago.

Winter, Steve,
2006 National Geographic, Vol. 209, No. 2

Saturday, March 18, 2017


Mammoth engraving from Abro
Cellier, France. Photo and
drawing by R. Bourrillon.

I  have commented on recent discoveries by Randall White from New York University and his team of researchers, and their discoveries in the French rock shelters Abri Blanchard, Abri Castanet, and Abri Faravel. Now another article adds Abri Cellier to the list of their discoveries of remarkably old rock art. Lorraine Boissoneault, writing in, has detailed their discoveries in her column "Prehistoric Pointillism? Long Before Seurat, Ancient Artists Chiseled Mammoths Out of Dots."

Aurochs engraving from Abri 
Blanchard, France. Photo and
 drawing by R. Bourrillon.

The same story was well covered by Laura Geggel, a senior writer for on February 24, 2017, in her article "Just Like Van Gogh: Prehistoric Artists Used Pointillist Technique."

These articles illustrate 38,000-year-old imagery carved into blocks of limestone from the above mentioned locations with animals portrayed in patterns of dots, and both authors liken these images to the "Pointillism" used by George Seurat and some other impressionist artists. One example, found in 2014 at Abri Cellier, has been identified by White and his team as a wooly mammoth, and another from Abri Blanchard as an aurochs.

Sketch for Sunday Afternoon on
Grande-jatte, Georges Seurat.
1886, Public domain.

The problem is that neither of these images, nor any others that they have identified have anything to do with Pointillism. As I have written elsewhere this problem occurs when non-art historians use artistic terminology without really understanding it. The Impressionism movement of the late 1800s was essentially motivated by an attempt to reproduce the effect of light on the surface of the subject, relying on the eye to mix areas of color to form the bright, colorful image. As an offshoot of Impressionism, Pointillism was also driven by the goal of providing areas of pure color and pigment which were then mixed in the viewers eye to provide the other hues. In basic Impressionism the colors were applied loosely to the surface of the canvas (thus, an area intended to be green might include yellow and blue and rely on visual mixing) , while in its purest form, Pointillism, they were patterned much more regularly leading to a painted surface that consisted essentially of ordered dots of pure color. These artists were aiming for the same effect that we perceive today when we view a color half-tone picture in a book or magazine, or now on the television screen.

Pointillist color wheel.

The color wheel above illustrates this in the orange, green, and purple secondary colors. They are composed of mixed dots of the primary colors red (magenta), blue (cyan), and yellow.

                   Georges Seurat, 1886.
                        Public domain.

I am certainly not disputing any aspect of the discoveries of Paleolithic imagery composed of dot patterns, I am only addressing the misuse of the term Pointillism as a description of those dots. While I cannot determine what the Paleolithic artists were attempting to do with their patterns of dots, it cannot by definition, be anything related to Pointillism. Lacking color, an image constructed by a pattern of dots might be likened to the black-and-white half-tone pictures in our books and magazines, or on an old black-and-white television. I do not personally think that even this is, however, an accurate representation. Half-tone reproduction essentially required the invention of photography before it was conceived, and I am not a believer in the Paleolithic camera obscura. Indeed, while I am vastly impressed by the many sophisticated effects and images produced by these artists, I cannot credit these dot-covered images with being attempts at half-tone reproductions of the animal. 

What do the animal images comprised of dots actually imply? I do not know. But I am very confident that I know what they are not.

NOTE: Images in this posting were retrieved from the internet after a search for public domain photographs. If any of these images are not intended to be public domain, I apologize, and will happily provide the picture credits if the owner will contact me with them. For further information on these reports you should read the originals at the sites listed below.



Saturday, March 11, 2017


The team of researchers with the
hole-in-the-rock. Photograph:

A recent story by Rossella Lorenzi, in written on January 5, 2017, and titled "Ancient Stonehenge-Like 'Calendar Rock' Aligns With Winter Solstice" documented a large boulder with a hole carved through it that the people involved have identified as a Solstice Marker.

        "Featuring a 3.2-foot diameter hole, the rock formations marked the beginning of winter some 5,000 years ago. The holed Neolithic rock was discovered on November 30, 2016, on a hill near a prehistoric necropolis six miles from Gela, on the southern coast of Sicily - - - -.
        It appeared clear to me that we were dealing with a deliberate, man-made hole," archaeologist Giuseppe La Spina told Seeker. "However, we needed the necessary empirical evidence to prove the stone was used as a prehistoric calendar to measure the seasons." (Lorenzi 2017)

View of solstice sunrise through
hole-in-the-rock. Photoraph:
Giuseppe La Spina, ttps://tallbloke.files.

It appears, however, from the photographs and the evidence provided, that this hole is the only feature, the article gives no indication of a sighting point that would prove an alignment. I have always had a problem accepting as a "precision" marker something with only one reference point. If you are viewing the sun through a hole, you can move around until you find the point where it can be seen as fitting perfectly, you have many degrees of freedom in a visual cone of reference. With two reference points, such as a hole and, say, a pointed rock, you can instantly see if they are properly aligned or not, like gun sights.

This discovery marks something to be sure, but I am not convinced it is proven to be a solstice marker. Interesting, and perhaps exciting possibilities, but not proven.

NOTE: Images in this posting were retrieved from the internet after a search for public domain photographs. If any of these images were not intended to be public domain, I apologize, and will happily provide the picture credits if the owner will contact me with them. For further information on this report you should read the original at the site listed below.


Lorenzi, Rossella,
2017 Ancient Stonehenge-Like 'Calendar Rock' Aligns With Winter Solstice, January 5, 2017,

Saturday, March 4, 2017


Painted block of stone from Abri
Castanet, figures in red and black
pigment are identified as animals.
Sciencedaily photograph by
Raphaelle Bourillon.

On Saturday, February 11, 2017, I posted about the announcement of a date of 38,000 B.P. confirmation for an engraved block of stone from Abri Blanchard, in France. Now, a Science Daily report confirms another 38,000 year-old date for rock art from nearby Abri Castanet. These come from the Aurignacian culture of 43,000 to 30,000 B.P. (

Like the previous report of 38,000-year-old art from Abri Blanchard, the team which made the discovery at Abri Castanet was led by Randall White of New York University. They are collapsed rock shelters "once inhabited by some of Europe’s first modern humans. Abri Blanchard and its neighbor to the south, Abri Castanet, sit along a cliff face in the Castel Merle Valley, just beyond the quiet, 190-person commune of Sergeac. Abri Blanchard, perched to the left, and Castanet, to its right, once housed extended families who congregated here in the winter." (

Examples of art from two, essentially adjacent, rock shelters, dated to the same age, suggest that they might have been done by the same group of people. "'Early Aurignacian humans functioned, more or less, like humans today,' explained New York University anthropology professor Randall White, one of the study's co-authors. 'They had relatively complex social identities communicated through personal ornamentation, and they practiced sculpture and graphic arts.'" (

"In 2007, the team discovered an engraved block of limestone in what had been a rock shelter occupied by a group of Aurignacian reindeer hunters. Subsequent geological analysis revealed (that) the ceiling had been about two meters above the floor on which the Aurignacians lived - within arms' reach. Using carbon dating, the researchers determined that both the engraved ceiling, which includes depictions of animals and geometric forms, and the other artifacts found on the living surface below were approximately 37,000 years old." (

You can see the complete story at Another exciting discovery, it pays to keep looking.


Saturday, February 25, 2017


Wadi Sura II pictographs, Egypt. 
Tiny handprints circled. Photo, 
public domain.

In the past, I have posted columns on human handprints in rock art, and columns about animal tracks in rock art, but this is my first time reporting on little animal hand prints in rock art.

An interesting October, 2016, report by Laura Geggel for Live Science described an important rock art found at a site in western Egypt. Discovered in the Egyptian portion of the Libyan Desert in 2002, the cave is named Wadi Sura II, and is located about 6 miles (10 kilometers) from Wadi Sura I, The Cave of the Swimmers, discovered in 1933.

Wadi Sura II pictographs, Egypt. 
public domain.

Among the imagery in Wadi Sura II can be found a large number of hand prints, many of them surprisingly small.  "The roughly 8,000-year-old 'hands' painted on a rock wall in the Sahara Desert aren't human at all, as researchers originally thought, but are actually stencils of the 'hands' or forefeet of the desert monitor lizard, a new study finds.
These tiny lizard hands are intermingled with paintings of human adult hands, which ancient rock artists stenciled around using red, yellow, orange and brown pigments, the researchers said." (Geggel)

Dr. Emmanuelle Honore, a research fellow of the McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research at the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom, determined to attempt to find out what the little hand prints meant. "Honore was stunned the first time she walked into Wadi Sura II in 2006. 'I immediately saw those tiny hands among the [nearly] thousands of paintings,' she said. In earlier studies researchers hypothesized that the large and small hands were stenciled around adult and baby hands. Yet, shortly after looking at the 13 'baby' hand drawings, Honore concluded that they weren't human.
For one thing, they were too small to belong to a human infant, she said. Moreover, the digits were pointy and 'very long and thin' Honore said. In contrast babies have fingers that are roughly the same length as their palms." (Geggel)

Tiny hand print - center.
Wadi Sura II pictograph, Egypt. 
public domain.

Honore's research began with careful measurements of human hand prints, including the hands of a number of normal and premature babies. "Honore and her colleagues also measured 11 of the tiny hands at the Wadi Sura II site. (The other two were incomplete and difficult to measure, she said.) In addition, they measured 30 of the large hands at Wadi Sura II and 30 hands from living adults, and found that they matched well, she said.
But several parameters indicated that the tiny hands were not human. Though the stenciled fingers were long, overall the hands were small - just 1.8 inches (4.5 centimeters) from the base of the palm to the end of the middle finger. That's much smaller than a human baby hand, which measures and average of 2.4 inches (6.2 cm.) long, she said." (Geggel)

This meant that the adult human hand prints were overlaid with unidentified small hand prints.  "At first, Honore thought the tiny hands belonged to a small monkey. But none of the thousands of monkey hand pictures she researched looked like those o the wall at Wadi Sura II. Then, when she was doing research at a crocodile farm in Zambia, she realized that the prints belonged to a reptile.
The front feet of the desert monitor lizard (Varanus) had the closest match to the paintings, she found. A baby crocodile (Crocodylus) was another possibility. However, crocodiles likely didn't live in the desert at that time, so a person would have needed to transport one over from the Nile or another watery region, Honore said." (Geggel)

"Other prehistoric cultures used animals as stencils for their rock art. For example, the Aboriginal people used emu foot stencils in the Carnarvon Gorge and Tent Shelter in Australia, and choike/nandu (birds in the genus Rhea) stencils are in the rock art at La Cueva de las Manos in Argentina." Honore is now working on a study to try to figure out some possible reasons for the monitor lizard hand prints.(Geggel)

For this full article see Laura Geggel referenced below. She also reported that the findings were published in the April 2016 issue of the Journal of Archaelogical Science: Reports.

NOTE: The images illustrating this article were obtained from the internet as the result of a search for Wadi Sura II public domain. If any of these images were, in fact, not public domain I apologize for their use.


Geggel, Laura,
2016   Nonhuman Hands Found in Prehistoric Rock Art, October, 2016, LiveScience,

Saturday, February 18, 2017


Spear thrower, carved antler, showing
an  ibex or chamois giving birth,
Mas d'Azil, France. Public domain.

Continuing with the practice of classifying Paleolithic portable art as related to the category of rock art I am writing today about a theme that has fascinated people for many years. Among the amazingly realistic antler Paleolithic carvings decorating spear throwers there is a theme sometimes known as "bird on a turd". This theme consists of an animal (deer, ibex or chamois, or bovine) with its tail raised and a protuberance from its anal area with one or two birds sitting on the protuberance. The animal usually has its head twisted around to look back at the scene.

Spear thrower, carved antler, showing
an  ibex or chamois giving birth,
Mas d'Azil, France. Public domain.

Spear thrower, carved antler, showing
an  ibex or chamois giving birth,
Mas d'Azil, France. Public domain.

Spear thrower, carved antler,
showing an ibex or chamois
giving birth, France.
Public domain.

A number of these spear throwers have been recovered from Paleolithic sites in France, some so nearly identical that the assumption is that they may well have been created by the same hand. " Perhaps this explains the similarities between particular objects found at different sites (the famous antler spearthrowers of the Pyrenees, for example), which are so clear they must have been the product of a single  individual." (Pettit 2016:26) Others are quite like each other but show differences in workmanship and detail, so we can also assume that the motive that led to their creation was spread more widely than to just one individual. Note the different handling of the legs, some examples are pierced through while others remain filled in.

My original assumption, based upon a quick observation many years ago, was that the birds were picking seeds out of the excrement, a phenomenon that I have seen on farms and ranches with the droppings of cattle or horses. A closer look, however, and a little reflection leads to the conclusion that it cannot be that because the anal expression is all wrong for excrement. Deer (or ibex, or chamois) droppings consist of relatively small balls of matted digested vegetation, not one large protuberance as in the carvings.

Deer droppings. Photograph
Public Domain.

Deer giving birth. Photograph
Public Domain.

The most likely explanation of this theme is that the animal is a doe in the process of giving birth. Paul Pettit wrote in "Ice Age Splendor: Redrawing The Past, in the October/November 2016 issue of World Archaeology Magazine: "Another genitive element in the art is the so-called "bird and turd" antler spearthower crooks of the Pyrenean Magdalenian. Bahn prefers the old interpretation of these: a doe, turning her head back to look at one or two birds that have landed on an excrement emerging from her behind. Deer scats do not have this morphology, and others have suggested that these represent does giving birth - but why should birds be present? In fact, corvids have been observed feeding on the cauls of deer and cattle newborn. This artistic expression both of life and death seems a far more plausible interpretation of some of the most characteristic Upper Palaeolithic portable art objects than imaginary scatological humor." (Pettit 2016:29)

Spear throwers from La Madeleine
rock shelter, France. Photograph
public domain.

Spear thrower from La Madeleine
rock shelter, France. Photograph
public domain.

Spear thrower showing a bovine
giving birth. La Madeleine rock
shelter, France. Photograph
public domain.

As noted above there are also examples of this basic them with other animals as in the spear thrower from La Madeleine that shows a bovine instead of an ibex or deer, and lacks the birds perched upon the anal extrusion. A number of examples have openings pierced through between the animals legs, but Guthrie (2005:290) has pointed out that this leads to a weakness because of lack of material in that portion of the spear thrower, a weakness that was corrected in the example above by portraying the animal as posed with its rear legs folded under it.

Spear thrower, carved antler, showing
an  ibex or chamois giving birth,
Mas d'Azil, France. Public domain.

Note that in the most famous example the spear thrower's hook that fits into the depression on the base of the dart or spear is the bird's tail. Examples from Mas d'Azil, as well as La Madelaine, and others, show a variety of animals fitting into the same general category. The upright position, as well as the patterning of the birds suggest that they are intended to represent woodpeckers.



Woodpeckers possess a stiff tail that they can use as a support prop when holding on to a surface. "The stiffened tails of woodpeckers are crucial for their climbing and foraging techniques."  (Wikipedia).

In this theme we have yet another example of art that is useful to identify animal species (the woodpeckers, doe, bovine), multiple identifiable works by a single artist, and ancillary works by other, less skilled artists influenced by the theme.

Because of the context the most obvious conclusions would involve hunting magic, and/or game animal fertility affecting the food supply (although these themes are pretty much discounted in modern interpretation), yet I have not seen this theme on any of the Magdalenian period painted cave walls, and that brings up the very interesting question - why not? Why would we have multiple examples of this theme carved on spear throwers, and not see it in the more numerous examples of deer painted on cave walls? This suggests that the theme was contextual, that it was somehow logical to portray on an instrument of the hunt, but not to portray it on a cave wall. If there are other examples, or examples in other contexts, please let me know. Also, I will be interested in the other interpretations of this theme by my readers, so let me know that as well. 

Just think how wonderful it is that we have such a number of examples of this theme, from this long ago, and some of them are so similar that they were probably carved by the same hand.

NOTE: The images reproduced above were obtained by an internet search for public domain imagery. If any of them were not public domain they have been used accidentally and I apologize.


Guthie, R. Dale
2005 The Nature of Paleolithic Art, University of Chicago Press, Chicago.

Pettit, Paul
2016 Ice Age Splendor: Redrawing The Past, p, 22-29, World Archaeology Magazine, Issue 79, Vol.7, No. 7, October/November 2016,


Saturday, February 11, 2017


Photo credit: Limestone slab engraved
with an image of an aurochs, or estinct
wild cow, discovered at Abri Blanchard
in 2012 (Musee national de Prehistoire
collections - photo MNP - ph. Jugie).

Just when you decide that a site has been worked out, or that we have found out everything about a subject, fate has a way of surprising us. A recent example of that came from Abri Blanchard, in France, which had been extensively excavated early in the 1900s. A January 29, 2017, article from International Business Times, written by Himanshu Goenka, presented the discovery of a limestone plaque with the picture of an aurochs engraved on it from the collapsed rock shelter, Abri Blanchard. Goenka described a paper from the journal Quaternary International in which the discoverers of the rock slab discussed their findings.

"The limestone slab has an engraved image of an aurochs - an extinct wild cow - surrounded by rows of dots. The site it was found in had been previously excavated in the first half of the 20th century, but work on studying it in detail was started again in 2011 by a team led by New York University anthropologist Randall White. The aurochs engraving was found in 2012." (Goenka)

"'The discovery sheds new light on regional patterning of art and ornamentation across Europe at a time when the first modern humans to enter Europe dispersed westward and northward across the continent,' explains NYU anthropologist Randall White, who led the excavation in France's Vezere Valley. The findings, which appear in the journal Quaternary International, center on the early modern humans' Aurignacian culture, which existed from approximately 43,000 to 33,000 years ago." (NYU press release 2017)

We tend to lump anything before the neolithic into the category of "prehistory" and assume that human life from that period was hand-to-mouth and culturally unformed. Well to create art like this you have to be cultured, and have a tradition of creative imagination. 43,000 to 33,000 years is a long time by anybody's measure, and the discovery of art dated to that long ago puts the evolution of human cognition in perspective, as well as confirming the long history of modern human culture.


Goenka, Himanshu
2017 38,000-Year-Old Cave Art Found In French Cave, International Business Times, January 29, 2017.

NYU Press Release, January 27, 2017, New York City.