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.

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