Friday, April 29, 2011


La Ferrassie rock slab with cupules, redrawn from
p. 25, Chakravarty and Bednarik, Indian Rock Art
and Its Global Context, 1997. Peter Faris, 11-21-10.

There has recently been a spate of interest in the question of Neandertal cognition. A recent scientific news story has circulated about an example of Neandertal jewelry exemplified by a pierced and purposefully painted scallop shell. My point then was that I really cannot doubt that a human mind that has been shown to be capable of creating such an example of purposeful decoration could have not been capable of another form of purposeful decoration, in this case rock art.

In 1933, in the cave of La Ferrassie, in the Dordogne in southwest France, the burial of a Neandertal child was discovered which had been covered by a large limestone slab. On the underside of this slab an arrangement of man made pits had been created, commonly known as cupules these are usually considered to be an element of rock art. They are described as two larger hollows and eight pairs of smaller holes. Given its association with evidence of Mousterian occupation these cupules have been assigned a date of approximately 60,000 years BCE.

So here is my point, since we classify cupules as rock art when we find it to have been created by Native Americans, Australian aboriginals, or any other modern human populations in any part of the world, why is it not rock art if it was created by Neandertals? The cupules on this slab have been called the “oldest rock art in Europe” and do represent, if we accept cupules as rock art, an example of Neandertal rock art. What else might be awaiting our recognition?

Saturday, April 23, 2011


A COMMENT ON “HEAVY BROWS, HIGH ART”, an article by Charles Q. Choi in the March 2010 issue of Scientific American magazine.

Painted scallop shell, Spain. From Scientific American,
March, 2010 issue, written by Charles Q. Choi,
photo by João Zilhão, University of Bristol.

One fascinating question in the study of rock art in Europe and the Middle East involves the great span of time that these areas were occupied by Homo neandertalensis, who left traces of their material culture, burials, and habitation, but no commonly recognized rock art panels or images. In his book The Mind In The Cave: Consciousness and the Origins of Art, David Lewis-Williams (2002) ambitiously tackled that question. In questioning the differences between Neandertal and Homo sapiens he looks at the remains left by our sapiens ancestors – “instances of material culture, body adornment and burial were both associated with the expression and construction of hierarchical, or at least differentiated, society that was not simply based on age, sex, and physical strength. For the Neanderthals, this kind of society was – literally – unthinkable.” We have long known the Neandertal material culture as Mousterian, discovered in the earlier layers of many habitation sites in their area of occupation. Archaeologists have also discovered Neandertal burials, some with indications of purposeful ceremonial components. We now know of manufactured items of body adornment from Neandertal deposits, apparently satisfying Lewis-William’s third criteria.

Archaeologists from the University of Bristol in England have found 50,000-year-old jewelry at two caves in southeastern Spain, 10,000 years before modern humans entered Europe. An article in the March 2010 Scientific American written by Charles Q. Choi, reports that archaeologist João Zilhão and his colleagues discovered in Cueva (Cave) Antón a pierced king scallop shell painted with orange pigment made of yellow goethite and red hematite collected some five kilometers from the site. Among material unearthed at Cueva de los Aviones, alongside quartz and flint artifacts, found two pierced cockleshells that were painted with traces of red hematite. No dyes were found on food shells or stone tools, suggesting the jewelry was not just painted at random.

Indeed, in the same article “anthropologist Erik Trinkaus of Washington University in St. Louis, who did not take part in this study, hopes that the finds “will start to bury the idea that’s been around for 100 years—that Neandertals died out because they were stupid.” The jewelry also implies that "Neandertals might have taught our ancestors how to paint—or vice versa.”

We would do well to remember that in our modern culture we do classify the design and creation of jewelry as an art form. While this report does not connect Neandertal abilities and activities with the production of cave art, it is certainly direct evidence that speaks to their abilities and interests. If the Neandertals of southeastern Spain could collect or trade for these scallop shells, manufacture the paint from goethite and hematite, paint the shells, string them on a cord of their manufacture, and wear them for personal adornment, can anyone seriously believe that they could not have painted on cave walls the images of animals from their environment and symbols from their imaginations? We may yet hope for the eventual discovery of rock art created by the Neandertal people. Or conversely, ironically, we may already have it but because of cultural bias simply not have recognized it and attributed it to them.

Saturday, April 16, 2011


A candidate for the earliest known art in North America was found a few years ago near Vero Beach, in east central Florida. Vero Beach is known to fossil collectors for its prehistoric mammal fossils and shark teeth. Fossil hunter James Kennedy had discovered a 15” (38 centimeter) piece of bone and placed it in a box under his sink for storage for a time and had retrieved it and dusted it off when he discovered that something was engraved on the bone.

Writing in the National Geographic Blog Central, June 10, 2009, Chris Sloan reported that “when the specimen came to the attention of Dr. Barbara Purdy and other experts at the University of Florida and the Florida Museum of Natural History, they initiated a study which has thus far been unable to show that it is a fake. At this time, they are cautiously supporting its authenticity. Dennis Stanford of the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History said, "One does have to wonder, but at face value it looks pretty good.”

Purdy, a professor emerita at the University of Florida, and scientists there, also “determined the bone belonged to one of three animals: a mammoth, a mastodon, or a giant sloth—all of which died out at the end of the last ice age, between about 12,000 to 10,000 years ago. I literally went on the assumption that [the carving] was a fake," said Purdy, who was later convinced of its authenticity after the bone had passed a barrage of tests by University of Florida forensic scientists. The examinations revealed that the light etching is not recent, and that it was made a short time after the animal died, according to Purdy.”

Now we know that in other parts of the world where humans and mammoths co-existed, the humans left imagery of the mammoths in paint, bone and stone. To a certain extent we have to then ask ourselves if they did that elsewhere, why would they not have done so here as well. Until further scientific testing has managed to conclude the question of the engraving’s authenticity and date as an ancient artifact, we will have to leave the discussion open, but it is a fascinating possibility.


Sunday, April 10, 2011


Winnebago medicine animal,
Nebraska Historical Society.

Among the proto-historic tribes of the Great Plains (and one assumes the prehistoric tribes as well) there was a nearly universal belief in gigantic reptilian underwater monsters that are referred to as giant horned water serpents. For the Lakota peoples this creature was known as Unktehi. Unktehi was the male of the species, his mate was known as Uncegila. These creatures lived in lakes and rivers, and although most people would not claim to have seen them directly, everyone knew of someone who had seen one. In this respect their belief resembles the phenomenon known as an urban myth today.

Omaha water monster, 1906.

Juvenile mammoth skull, Lamb Springs, Douglas
county, Colorado. Photo Peter Faris.

Portrayals of these creatures generally show them with four short legs, large horns on their heads, and a long tail, usually with a saw-toothed backbone. It has been said that all mythology is based upon some reality. In this case I believe that the belief in Unktehi and similar creatures originated with observations of mammoth and mastodon fossils. Spring runoff erosion of riverbanks would occasionally have exposed the gigantic bones and skulls of these giant elephantids and, with no modern analog for the creature, the people would have figured out the best answer they could to them. In this case they assumed that they were found on the riverbank because they had lived in the river. Similarly, Inuit and other northern peoples usually believe that mammoth bones come from giant creatures which live underground because they find them weathering from the earth. In many of these beliefs the light of the sun is believed to be deadly to the creatures because by the time that they emerge to the light of day they only exist as bones or other remains. The abnormally large size of the bones on the riverbank would prove the gigantic size of the creatures. I believe that the idea of huge horns on their heads come from the tusks of the mammoths. Native American observers had no animal analog for the front-projecting tusks of an elephantid, instead they would assume that they projected upward like the horns of a bison, but immeasurably larger. Simply turn the mammoth skull upside down and there you have it, an immense skull with gigantic horns that stick up from the creature’s head.

Jonathan Carver, 1766-7, drawing of
Sioux water monster, British Museum.

Although called giant horned water serpents these creatures are usually portrayed as having short legs. Presumably, like the Sisiutl (see link below) that I posted about on May 1, 2010, they could grow legs whenever they wished. I believe that the myths of Unktehi and Uncegila represent the Native American’s creative solution to the questions raised by the giant fossils, and that portrayals of these myths provide the imagery in their art, including the rock art.


Saturday, April 2, 2011


Sea-wolf petroglyph at center-left, Nanaimo Petroglyph
Park, Vancouver Island, British Columbia.
Photo Peter Faris, 1995.

There is a new program on the National Geographic Channel on our cable that is named The Beast Hunter. The host of the program, biologist Pat Spain, searches for mythological creatures that are unknown to science but recorded in the mythology of peoples around the world. Various episodes have followed him in a search for the Mokele-mbembe in Africa, and Mapinguari in the Amazon. This program seems to be basically an exercise is crypto-zoology but is supposedly given scientific credence by the host’s degrees.

One recent episode concerned a search for the so-called Cadborosaurus in the waters around Vancouver Island, British Columbia. Various crypto-zoologists have suggested that the cadborosaurus actually exists and is descended from a relic population of plesiosaurs or mososaurs. Descriptions by witnesses who claim sightings often include a long neck, a serpentine body seen in two or three loops out of the water, and a vaguely horse-like head.

Sea-wolf petroglyph at center-left, Nanaimo Petroglyph
Park, Vancouver Island, British Columbia.
Drawing after Indian Rock Carvings, by Beth Hill,
Hancock House Publishers, 1980, p.22.

The host used as part of his evidence for the existence of this creature petroglyphs from the Nanaimo Petroglyph Park on Vancouver Island, British Columbia, Canada. The petroglyphs illustrated are ones that are usually identified as the “sea wolf” of Northwest Coast mythology. The sea wolf is a mythological sea animal of the Pacific Northwest native cultures of the Haida, the Tsimshian and the Tlingit. This mythological creature that is interpreted in many different forms throughout these diverse cultures often is often portrayed with the head of the wolf and the fins of the killer whale. Native representation of this beast often depicts a long serpentine animal and a dog like or crocodilian head, sometimes with small forelimbs.

Sea-wolf petroglyph, Sproat Lake, Vancouver Island,
British Columbia. Photo Peter Faris, 1995

Is there a “sea wolf”, I certainly cannot say. If such a legendary creature actually is based upon reality it may have been inspired by sightings of the cadborosaurus. Does cadborosaurus exist? I really don’t know although it is hard to picture the existence of such a large sea creature without a little more factual proof. For those of us who enjoy flights of imagination it is an entertaining program, and this episode, at least, provided some really good close-up views of the petroglyphs of Nanaimo which are notoriously difficult to photograph. I suppose that they deserve credit for that.


Hill, Beth
1980      Indian Rock Carvings, Hancock House Publishers, Surrey, BC.