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.

Sunday, February 5, 2017


Pictish stone,,
public domain.

Pictish stone,, 
public domain.

Every once-in-a-while I find it to be almost irresistible to give in to whimsy. This posting is a prime example of that because I am devoting it to showing a striking resemblance between examples of rock art that cannot possibly be related, from pretty much opposite sides of the world, and probably separated by centuries in time.

Strathmartine Castle Stone,
- public domain.

One side of this resemblance comparison is represented by an animal commonly portrayed in the art of the Picts, and is called the "Pictish Beast. "The Picts were a tribal confederation of peoples who lived in what is today eastern and northern Scotland during the Late Iron Age and Early Medieval periods. They are thought to have been ethnolinguistically Celtic. Where they lived and what their culture was like can be inferred from the geographical distribution of brochs, Brittonic place name elements, and Pictish stones. Picts are attested to in written records from before the Roman conquest of Britain to the 10th century, when they are thought to have merged with the Gails. They lived to the north of the rivers Forth and Clyde.

Pictish petroglyph panel, From Pappas,
Live Science, Jan. 22, 2017

Picts are assumed to have been the descendants of the Caledonii and other tribes that were mentioned by Roman historians or on theworld map of Ptolemy. Pictland, also called Pictavia by some sources, gradually merged with the Gaelic kingdom of Dal Riata to form the Kingdom of Alba (Scotland). Alba then expanded, absorbing the Brittonic kingdom of Strathclyde and Bernician Lothian , and by the 11th century the Pictish identity had been subsumed into the "Scots" amalgamation of peoples." (Wikipedia)

Sea Wolf petroglyph, Nanaimo,
Vancouver Island, British Columbia,
Canada. Photograph Jack and
Esther Faris, 1992.

The other side of this resemblance is represented by the mythical Sea Wolf figure of the First Nations People of Vancouver Island, on the Northwest Coast of North America. One group of these people live in the area of Nanaimo, on Vancouver Island.
The First Nation people of Nanaimo are the Snuneymuxw, a Coastal Salish people. "The Snuneymuxw First Nationis currently located in and around Nanaimo on east-central Vancouver Island, British Columbia, Canada. Although the Snuneymuxw now only have a total reserve land base of 266 hectares, divided into small, separated reserves, they once occupied a wide region of south-central Vancouver Island where they lived for more than 5,000 years. Snuneymuxw Territory on the eastern coast of Vancouver Island, the Gulf Islands, and the Fraser River in British Columbia was in the center of Coast Salishterritory." (Wikipedia)
There are a number of the Sea Wolf depictions at the Nanaimo petroglyph site.

Sea Wolf petroglyph, Sproat Lake,
Vancouver Island, British Columbia,
Canada. Photograph Peter Faris, 1995.

The other group of First Nations People that I looked at are the people who lived in the area of Sproat Lake, also on Vancouver Island. "The Kleh-koot-aht people resided around Kleh-koot (Sproat Lake) (means long stretch of level land). Kleh-koot-aht’s area was between Yaaqis (Prairie Farm) and Sproat Falls and there was a seasonal village located on the Sproat River. This village was a great place for fishing and smoking salmon, picking blackberries, hunting deer and picnicking. Also at this place was a longhouse where they performed several potlatches in the winter season." (Wikipedia) There is a large petroglyph panel found at Sproat Lake which also includes the Sea Wolf figure.

Petroglyph, Gabriola Island,
British Columbia, Canada. From
Bentley, 1981, p. 26.

Remember, as I said above, the Sea Wolf cannot possibly be related in any way to the Pictish Beast. Yet the resemblance between the creatures, especially their heads, is marked, and I find it delightful.  Remember: "There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy." (William Shakespeare)

NOTE: Photos of the Pictish Beast were found on the internet with a search for "Pictish Beast public domain". If I recovered any photographs that were not public domain I did so inadvertently, and I apologize for their use.


Bentley, Mary and Ted,
1981   Gabriola: Petroglyph Island, Sono Nis Press, Victoria, B.C.

Hamlet, by William Shakespeare

Pappas, Stephanie,
2017   Lost Dark Ages Fort Found in Scotland, January 22, 2017, Live Science,
·        Wikipedia

Saturday, January 28, 2017


Cave painting of an aurochs.
Public Domain.

On January 7, 2017, I posted a column titled Cave Art Provides A Confirmation Of A Hybrid Bison Species In Paleolithic Europe, which presented the use of cave art to confirm a theory about the evolutionary development of the European bison which had been based upon genetic analysis of ancient remains. Previously, on December 4, 2011, I had posted a column titled Lascaux's Paintings, the Aurochs, and Heck's Cattle, about attempts in the middle of the last century to breed cattle back to their Paleolithic form, the Aurochs. These Heck's Cattle were produced using traditional methods of selecting for traits and crossbreeding. Each generation being selectively bred for appearance and behavior that was assumed to be similar to the Aurochs. These attempts were begun in Germany in the 1920s by two brothers with the name of Heck. They were later supported by the Nazi party in Germany. A lineage of cattle was bred by each brother, one in Berlin and one in Munich. The Berlin animals did not survive the war so modern Heck cattle are descended from the Munich line.

Gaur, the largest living cattle
breed. Public domain.

"The aurochs was one of the largest herbivores in postglacial Europe, comparable to the wisent (European bison). The size of an aurochs appears to have varied by region; in Europe, northern populations were bigger on average than those from the south. For example, during the Holocene, aurochs from Denmark and Germany had an average height at the shoulders of 155–180 cm (61–71 in) in bulls and 135–155 cm (53–61 in) in cows, while aurochs populations in Hungary had bulls reaching 155–160 cm (61–63 in). The body mass of aurochs appears to have shown some variability. Some individuals were comparable in weight to the wisent and the banteng, reaching around 700 kg (1,500 lb), whereas those from the late-middle Pleistocene are estimated to have weighed up to 1,500 kg (3,300 lb), as much as the largest gaur (the largest extant bovid). The sexual dimorphism between bulls and cows was expressed with the cows being significantly shorter than bulls on average." (Wikipedia)

Cave painting of an aurochs,
Lascaux. Public domain.

A number of programs in Europe are now undertaking to breed a new aurochs, not through traditional breeding practices exemplified by the Heck's Cattle, but by using genetic analysis to locate genes similar to the aurochs in modern breeds and recombine them, in a sense to breed back to future of the aurochs.

A photoshopped image representing an
aurochs with two men. Public domain.

"The Dutch-based Tauros Programme (initially TaurOs Project) is trying to DNA-sequence breeds of primitive cattle to find gene sequences that match those found in "ancient DNA" from aurochs samples. The modern cattle would be selectively bred to try to produce the aurochs-type genes in a single animal. Starting around 2007, Tauros Programme selected a number of primitive breeds mainly from Iberia and Italy, such as Sayaguesa Cattle, Maremmana primitivo, Pajuna Cattle, Limia Cattle, Maronesa, Tudanca Cattle, and others, which already bear considerable resemblance to the aurochs in certain features. Tauros Programme started collaborations with Rewilding Europe and European Wildlife, two European organizations for ecological restoration and rewilding, and now has breeding herds not only in the Netherlands, but also in Portugal, Croatia, Romania, and the Czech Republic. Numerous crossbred calves of the first, second, and third offspring generations have been born already." (Wikipedia)

Cro-Magnon graffito of aurochs (Bos
primigenius) in Grotta del Romito,
Papasidero, Italy. Wikipedia,
public domain.

Arden Dier, writing for, on January 10, 2017, wrote: "Standing nearly as tall as an elephant, the aurochs grazed for 250,000  years until its extinction in 1627. But its story may not end there: Scientists say they are close to resurrecting the "supercow," once the largest land mammal in Europe, reports CNN. In search of herbivores to maintain land areas at risk of becoming barren, geneticists began breeding aurochs descendant with similar cattle breeds in 2008 and found they could "produce animals far closer to the aurochs than we would have expected," says Ronald Goderie of the Tauros Project. Fourth-generation beasts have now been introduced in Croatia, Spain, Portugal, the Czech Republic, and Romania with promising results.
"We see progress not only in looks and behavior but also in de-domestication of the animals," says Goderie, noting one herd has learned to defend itself against wolves. The hope is that they will become part of the ecosystem to maintain land for other enimals. But a rep for the International Union for the Conservation of Nature says it's unclear "whether primarily wetland forests like the aurochs used to inhabit still exist, whether it could negatively impact wild or domestic plants or animals, and if it might endanger people." Indeed, a British farmer had to kill some of his aurochs-descended cattle in 2015 because they tried to kill him, per the Independent. That species, however, came from a Nazi breeding program that used Spanish fighting cattle." (

Once again we look at the possibility of being able to see the mighty creatures that our ancient ancestors lived among and that they recorded in the beautiful heritage of Paleolithic cave art. Definitely an exciting possibility (you can read the original story at, check the full address in References below.)

NOTE: Some of the illustrations above were procured as the result of an Internet search for "aurochs - public domain." If any of these images were not actually meant for public domain usage I apologize for misusing them.

NOTE-2: A few days after posting this article I received my March 2017 issue of Discover magazine which includes a longer article on this subject, "Return of the Aurochs," written by Jonathon Keats. Check this out.


Dier, Arden
2017 Cows Once As Big As Elephants May Soon Roam Europe,, January 10, 2017.

Faris, Peter
2011 Lascaux's Paintings, the Aurochs, and Heck's Cattle,, December 4, 2011.


Saturday, January 21, 2017


 Mural 30, Cliff Palace, Mesa Verde,
Colorado. Public domain photograph,
National Park Service. 

On November 26, 2016, I posted a column titled Huerfano Butte, New Mexico, as the Model for Painted Mountains at Mesa Verde?. In this I posited that the theme of three mountains painted in a kiva at Eagle's Nest ruin on the Ute Mountain Ute Reservation, as well as the three mountain painting at Spruce Tree House were inspired by the small triple peaks of Huerfano Butte.

Munson describes these paintings (below) as landscape representations, although just a general "landscape", not the particular identifiable feature which I am suggesting, and Munson also recognized these triangles as "mountain shapes": "Pueblo III murals (1000-1325) from across Chaco and San Juan/Mesa Verde regions typically consist of a bicolor banded pattern or of "blended" designs (figure 4.3) combining bands with geometric designs derived from textiles and pottery (Ortman 2008). Several authors have argued that the banded designs represent landscapes, with a dark (usually red) lower register marking the horizon and a white upper register as the sky (Brody 1991:57-68; Cole 2006; Newsome and Hays-Gilpin in press). These landscapes are sometimes modified with triangular "mountain" shapes that jut up from the red band into the upper register, triangular "cracks" into the lower and, or lines of dots. The repetition in these patterns suggest that time was important in Pueblo III murals, with the various dots, triangles, and other marks possibly relating to astronomical observations  (Malville and Putnam 1993) or to leaders' responsibilities for scheduling rituals based on observations of the sun and sky. Newsome and Hays-Gilpin (in press) argued that the position of the observer was critical to the meaning of Pueblo III murals, for the configuration of the rooms in which they are found would have situated the viewer within the landscape and calendrical cycles  defined by the paintings. They also suggested that the murals might be an early reflection of the process of linking Ancestral Pueblo people to space in a meaningful way by establishing the Center Place." (Munson 2011:85-87)

Cliff Palace, Mesa Verde, Colorado.
Photograph Peter Faris, May 1988.

Another example of this thee mountain theme at Mesa Verde is Mural 30, seen at Cliff Palace, in Mesa Verde. "Mural 30, on the third floor of a rectangular tower (more accurately a room block) at Cliff Palace, is painted red against a white wall. The mural includes geometric shapes that are thought to portray the landscape. This mural is similar to murals inside other cliff dwellings, including Spruce Tree House and Balcony House. Scholars have suggested that the red band at the bottom symbolizes the earth while the lighter portion of the wall symbolizes the sky. The top of the red band, then, forms a horizon line that separates the two. We recognize what look like triangular peaks, perhaps mountains on the horizon line. The rectangular element in the sky might relate to clouds, rain, or the sun and moon. The dotted lines might represent cracks in the earth." (Wikimedia Commons)
This many examples of this theme certainly suggest that it had importance to the Pueblo III people of Mesa Verde. It was used a number of times in different locations so it must have resonated to many of the inhabitants of the region. Was it actually a representation of the three peaks on Huerfano Butte, New Mexico? Any attempt to answer that would require a full survey of the fire beacon communication system linking Mesa Verde and the Chimney Rocks community to reveal its full extent, but it is an interesting possibility.


Munson, Marit K.
2011 The Archaeology of Art in the American Southwest, Altamira Press, New York.,_Cliff_Palace,_Mesa_Verde.JPG

Saturday, January 14, 2017


Engraved horse head,
 Parpallo cave-6,

"Parpalló cave is located in the Monduber Mountains, close to Gandia, in the province of Valencia, Spain. The cave was discovered by Vilanova y Piera in 1872.

The cave was excavated by L. Pericot between 1922 and 1931. The resulting stratigraphical record, which was recently revised, shows a timeline of occupation extending from the end of the Gravettian period, through the entire Solutrean period to the Mediterranean Upper Magdalenian, indicating a time interval approximately ranging from 28,000 years to 11,000 years before the present.

Engraving,  Parpallo cave-6,

Besides the importance of the artefacts uncovered - stone tools and worked bone - the main reason for Parpalló cave’s position of prominence in the field of Palaeolithic art is due to the impressive collection of mobile art found in the cave. This mobile art includes more than 5,000 decorated limestone plates and blocks discovered during archaeological excavations." (

Parpallo cave-1,

"The mobile art of Parpalló is designed on bone (more than one hundred objects) and, predominantly, on the famous collection of thousands (5,034) of limestone plates and blocks as well as some pebbles. The designs are primarily of animals (mainly horses, goats, deer and bovines, as well as very rare carnivores and some birds) and abstract signs (consisting of complex linear shapes, such as waves, zigzags, dotted step shapes and swirl shapes, squares, etc.) and there is a single anthropomorphic design.

Parpallo cave-3,

This impressive set of artefacts was primarily produced using the technique of engraving. In some cases the figures were subsequently filled in by painting or by a combination of these two procedures (engraving and painting) within the initially defined space of the representations." (

The examples of portable art from Parpallo were created over a vast period of time indicating repeated occupations of the cave for the same length of time. Examples have been dated from 28,000 B.P. to 11,000 B.P., a record of at least 17,000 years in the one location illustrating evolving styles and influences. "Its relatively slow start, in terms of numbers, was during the Gravettian occupation (28,000 - 21,000 years before present). This stage encompasses only 7 plates, all with animal engravings and some with a painted interior".

"The next period, identified as the Solutrean (21,000 – 16,500 years before the present) includes the time said to be the peak of Parpalló mobile art. It is the phase when artistic expression and originality are at a maximum. This phenomenon, as it happens, can be generalised for all Palaeolithic art south of the River Ebro. No-one knows why this is so, but it could be due to the concentration of Palaeolithic communities in this area, which was likely an area of refuge from the worsening climate conditions that occurred at the height of the last ice age.

Accordingly, more than 150 plates have been dated to the Lower Solutrean (± 21,000 years before the present).

Parpallo cave-7,

More than 850 decorated pieces were attributed to the Middle Solutrean (± 20,000 – 19,000 years before the present), , - the development of some innovative aspects can be seen, such as the increased variety and complexity of geometric patterns and, above all, the significant increase in the size of the stones on which the engravings and painting are made. That increase in size, reaching half a metre in length in some cases, seems to want to convey the idea that the art of Parpalló wishes to leave its mark in stone.

The Evolved Solutrean (19,000 – 16,500 years before the present) comprises two distinct phases of development. The initial phase (Upper Solutrean), to which 915 pieces are attributed, encompasses a reduction to the size of the stone media, returning to their usual standard, as well as a sharp decrease in the use of the some pictorial elements, especially as regards animation and the representation of scenes. In the final phase of this period, known as the Solutrean-Gravettian, and represented by 558 objects.

The mobile art attributed to the Magdalenian period (16,500 – 11,000 years before the present) can also be divided into different phases, like the art of the previous period.

Hence, in the Lower Magdalenian (16,500 – 14,000 years before the present), the first phase of development (Ancient Magdalenian A) has links to some of the standards and norms of the preceding early Solutrean period i.e. a decrease in pictorial richness (less dynamics and detail, and even the evident regression of pictorial technique) and fewer pieces of art (323 plates). The standards and precepts are again reversed in the final phase of this period (Ancient Magdalenian B). This reversal comprises, in the first instance, an increase in the quantity of figures (671 pieces of art), as well as the establishment of the qualities that come to represent the essential characteristics of art of the late Pleistocene in Europe, i.e. the dominance of representations of animals, realism, respect for proportions and the attention to anatomical details. The Ancient Magdalenian B phase is also noted for the reappearance of geometrical patterns and their increased complexity and diversity.

Finally, the Upper Magdalenian (14,000 – 11,000 years before the present) is represented through 440 objects (including stone plates and engraved bone tools). The trend for naturalist representations in this period entails continuity of the processes initiated in the previous stage."

Parpallo cave,

A recent study published in the online journal PLOS studied the pigments used to paint the Parpallo Cave plaquettes by energy dispersive X-ray fluroescence spectometry (EDXRF), for 73 sides with red paint from 67 plaquettes, and 15 sides with yellow images from 14 plaquettes. Samples were also studied under Fourier Transform Infrared spectroscopy (FT-IR) to confirm the EDXRF findings. These confirmed that all red and yellow pigments used at Parpallo were iron based (oxides and/or hydroxides) with the addition of a large number of elements in smaller amounts such as arsenic, manganese, and lead (Garcia et. al. 2016). We are rushing into an era where the study of rock art can be viewed in many aspects as a hard science. For full details of this interesting study I will direct you to the original paper listed below.

NOTE: The images used to illustrate this review were retrieved from the Internet with a search for Parpallo Cave Art Public Domain. If any of these images were not public domain I apologize to the owners of the rights to the image.


Garcia, Clodoaldo Roldan; Bonilla,Valentin Villaverde; Marin, Isabel Rodenas, and Mascaros, Sonia Murcia,
2016   A Unique Collection of Palaeolithic Painted Portable Art: Characterization of Red and Yellow Pigments from the Parpalló Cave (Spain), PLOS,

Saturday, January 7, 2017


Male European bison, Poland.
Rafal Kowalczyk.

European bison, Poland.
Rafal Kowalczyk.

From time to time we hear discussion of the possibility of using cave paintings and other rock art to add to scientific knowledge by identifying animals by species for a given time period and/or location. We now may have an example of just that. Writing in of October 19, 2016, Jason Daley reported on a paper from Science by Jessica Boddy that announces that genetic testing, confirmed by cave art, has discovered an unknown species of European bison. Named the "Higgs Bison", a tongue-in-cheek reference to the Higgs Boson particle only recently detected by physicists after a 50-year search.

First detected when a team at the Australian Centre for Ancient DNA at the University of Adelaide, led by Alan Cooper, began sequencing DNA from ancient European bison looking for past impacts of climate change. The DNA from many of the bones had a different genetic makeup to anything they had previously known, which looked to them like a new species.

Aurochs, Lascaux Cave, France.
Photograph public domain.

"The researchers dubbed the creature Bison-X and Higgs Bison. Furtheer examination of the DNA showed that this new animal was actually a hybrid between the steppe bison and the aurochs, a species of wild cattle believed to be the ancestor of modern cows Beyond that the researchers knew very little about the animal including what it looked like." (Daley 2016)

Aurochs, Lascaux Cave, France.
Photograph public domain.

"Cooper contacted French cave researchers to see if the animal might have been captured by the hunters who decorated the caves of Lascaux and Pergouset. And indeed there was a record of this creature." (Daley 2016)

Steppe bison, Chauvet cave, France. - public domain.

Steppe bison, Chauvet cave, France. - public domain.

They found that images of cave bison which could be dated to between 18,000 to 22,000 years ago clearly depict the steppe bison with its long horns and stout forequarters. However images from 5,000 years later show a creature without such a barrel chest and thinner horns. Researchers of cave art had previously assumed that the differences were ones of style and regional variation in portrayals.

Researchers believe that the shift in dominant types was likely due to the periodic changing climates in the Paleolithic period. "Cooper and his colleagues traced the Higgs Bison back over 120,000 years using DNA from fossil bones from Europe, the Urals and  the Caucusus Mountains, according to a press release. During warm spells, the steppe bison was the dominant bovine in western Eurasia. During cold spells, the fossil record suggests that the hybrid animals did better. While the steppe bison eventually went extinct, Higgs Bison survived and is the ancient ancestor of modern European bison." (Daley 2016)

"'Once formed, the new hybrid species seems to have successfully carved out a niche on the landscape, and kept to itself genetically,' Cooper says in the press release. 'It dominated during colder tundra-like periods, without the warm summers, and was the largest European species to survive the megafaunal extinctions.'" (Daley 2016)

Wisent, Higgs bison, Lorblanchet cave,
Public domain.

Wisent, Higgs bison
Public domain.

One contributing factor in the large difference observed in the genome of the Higgs Bison compared to the European Bison is that the modern European Bison went through a genetic bottleneck. During the 1920s the population declined to only 12 animals so the genome looks quite different from its ancient ancestors. (Daley 2016)

With the origin of the hybrid bison traced back to approximately 120,000 years we now have to wonder if the North American bison also carries the genetic markers of the hybrid species. There would have been plenty of opportunity for them to enter North America across Beringia. Careful analysis of North American rock art and genetic testing of Bison bison DNA could reveal new information as well.

(Read the whole story at: http://www.smithsonianmag./smart-news/how-cave-art-helped-dig-new-animal-species-180960833/#lcLx3TozUKrd8Hah.99)


Daley, Jason
2016       Cave Paintings Help Unravel the Mystery of the 'Higgs Bison',, October 19, 2016