Wednesday, November 25, 2009

ELEPHANTIDS IN NORTH AMERICAN ROCK ART - THE MOAB MASTODON:

On May 4, 2009, I wrote a posting about A POSSIBLE MASTODON PETROGLYPH IN SOUTHEASTERN COLORADO which presented an image that shows characteristics that lead some people to believe that it is meant to represent a mammoth or mastodon. Given that Paleolithic art in Europe and into Russia portrays mammoths and mastodons, and that people lived here in North America at a time that mammoths and mastodons still existed, and that these people are believed to have even eaten mammoth and mastodon, how can it be that there would not be any images of them in our rock art?


"Moab mastodon", Photo: Dell Crandall.

One example that has been frequently put forward as such a portrayal is the so-called Moab Mastodon in Utah, located near the Colorado River. This heavy-bodied quadruped certainly has thick legs like an elephant, and has what appears to be a trunk on the end of its head. For quite some time I have not been able to accept that this was actually a mammoth or mastodon, but my objection has been based upon very small details – it has toes (or claws). Proboscidians have no external toes, they have visible nails, but no external toes, and the Moab image definitely has toes (or claws). One alternate explanation for that image has been rather than portraying a proboscidian, the Moab image represents a bear, thick legs, claws (toes), and all. But how many bears have trunks?

National Geographic, Vol. 209 (2). Photo: Steve Winter.

The answer to that question has been that it is not a trunk, it is a fish that the bear has caught and is holding in its mouth. That would certainly explain it, but what is a fishing bear doing in the desert outside of Moab, Utah? Alaska yes, British Columbia yes, even the Pacific Northwest, but in Moab, Utah? In their February, 2006, issue, National Geographic magazine included a photograph by Steve Winter showing an Alaskan brown bear with a fish in its mouth. When I saw this photograph the plausibility of the explanation of the petroglyph being a bear with a fish in its mouth had been strengthened.

The real question is what kind of fish in the Colorado River would be that big? One possible candidate is the endangered Colorado Pikeminnow (Ptychocheilus lucius, formerly known as the squawfish). Reports of individuals of this species have (according to Wikipedia) ranged up to 6 feet (1.8 meters) long and weighing over 100 pounds (45 kilograms).

So let’s give credit where credit is due – while we may not have a petroglyph of an extinct mastodon, we just might have a petroglyph of an endangered fish.

3 comments:

  1. "So let’s give credit where credit is due – while we may not have a petroglyph of an extinct mastodon, we just might have a petroglyph of an endangered fish."

    I beg to differ, and should you be interested in putting a fish in its mouth please respond. ;-)
    I would be interested in your comments....

    Although I would be inclined not to believe it is a dipiction of a Mammoth, it certainly isn't a bear either....

    Daniel
    daniel.l@digis.net

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  2. I have been to the Moab Mastadon site and seen it for myself. First of all, I must admit that it is completely unlike any other rock art in that immediate area (and there is A LOT), which to me suggested that it was earlier or at least made by a different group. It seems completely atypical of the rock art in that area to draw a bear with a fish in its mouth, but it's possible.

    However, it is worth mentioning to anyone who has been to the Colorado River country near Moab, UT and can't imagine a bear living there- directly across the river from the Moab Mastadon glyph is an extremely well preserved and blatantly obvious life-size petroglyph of a bear (albeit in a rather different style).

    My personal opinion: It's legit

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  3. I have a different perspective on this art. Is it an elephantid? Yes, because of both the trunk and the tail, as well as the overall shape. I also think it is a baby because of the lack of tusks. In addition, it appears to be a dead baby because of the "fingers" on the feet, which represent bones. Check out any skeletal elephantid pictures. Also, the vertebral spines along the back are exagerated to a point, perhaps indicating a dessicated or decomposing animal. The blob on the trunk can be explained if you look at the whole picture. See the short lines that seem to be coming from the neck area? I believe the blob on the trunk is the animal's lower jaw, and the short lines are representative of the blood spilled from a predator tearing out the animal's throat.

    In my opinion the artist has depicted a dead baby mastadon that was killed by a predator who ripped out its throat. The body had decomposed somewhat, exposing the foot bones and spinal column, and the blood spatter remained or was added by the artist. That's what it looks like to me anyway. The artist was probably familiar with all aspects of these animals' lives from birth to death and decomposition.

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