Saturday, December 31, 2011


"Manitou on a rock," Clark's journal, June 5, 1804.
The Lewis and Clark Corps of Discovery traversed regions of the continent that are now known to possess considerable amounts of Native American rock art. Among the instructions that Lewis and Clark had received from President Thomas Jefferson in June 1803 for their exploratory expedition was to gather information on the native peoples that they met along the way. They were to gather information on a number of points of native life and customs. President Thomas Jefferson had taken great pains to contact all available scholars and savants in the United States asking them to suggest things that such an expedition should try to ascertain.

Jefferson had delivered in January 1803 a confidential message to Congress that justified the expedition on the grounds of expanding trade with the Indians. Jefferson had also solicited suggestions from scientist and knowledgeable government officials for the types of information that should be sought. He could synthesize the resulting suggestions into a final draft of instructions for the expedition. Jefferson’s instructions concerning Native Americans covered everything from language and law to trade and technology. The explorers were to record Indian foods, what the Indians wore, their technology and handcrafts, and what they believed in. Jefferson told Lewis: “You will therefore endeavor to make yourself acquainted as far as diligent pursuit of your journey shall admit, with the names of the nations and their numbers”. The captains understood that they were to do more than count natives and list languages. From the beginning of the corps of discovery virtually every diarist in it diligently recorded all sorts of information about Indian life.

 "Manitou, buffalo, and Indian." Clark's journal, June 7, 1804.

We must remember however that Lewis and Clark were very much men of their times and that they were imbued with the belief that the culture they represented was much higher and more enlightened that the cultures of the native tribes. As avocational natural historians they certainly would have agreed with modern science’s need for accuracy, but would not have understood any need for impartiality.
Their questions and observations of Native Americans predominately were intended to gather information about the economic and military strength and potential of each tribe. Can they provide raw materials for our industry, can they provide a market for our merchants and traders, are we likely to become embroiled militarily in inter tribal squabbles? Such information goals would only distantly be affected by information on the arts of Native Americans. Therefore their journals contain few references to the arts of these peoples. Likewise, there were few examples of what we would call the visual arts in the items that they collected to send back to Jefferson. One such item was a buffalo robe that they sent back after the winter of 1805, at Fort Mandan. On a large buffalo skin a Mandan artist had portrayed in vivid detail a 1797 battle between Arikara-Sioux raiders and Mandan-Hidatsa warriors. Significantly, this piece of art was most likely included not for its artistic interest but for whatever intelligence could be gained from it concerning the military power of Indian tribes.

Petroglyph, Indian Cave State Park, Nebraska.

One petroglyph that they probably saw because it is right on their path is an engraved quadruped found at Indian Cave State Park, Nebraska. William Clark also recorded in his journal a few examples of rock art that the party of exploration observed (see illustrations above). He drew rough copies in the journals of a number of these. While not the earliest known records of North American rock art, they are very early and display a significant interest in the cultures of the Native Americans they encountered. Clark labeled these images as manitoux, illustrating his assumption that they were religious images.

Tsagaglalal (she who watches), The Dalles, Washington. Photo Peter Faris, 2000.

Interestingly, their eventual route down the Columbia river led past the site of the magnificent petroglyph now named Tsagaglalal (She Who Watches) but there is no hint in their records that they actually saw it. They visited a village of the Wishram people which was named Nixluidix by its residents. The Wishram were one of the Upper Chinook people and prospered in their location on trade, specifically in large quantities of dried salmon. Tsagaglalal was apparently near the site of Nixluidix and was one or two hundred feet above the river on the flat. With its location above and back from the original river bottom Lewis and Clark apparently passed within a few hundred yards of it on both their westward journey and their return trip, although they recorded in detail their visit to the Indian village at that site.

Wm. Clark's inscription. Pompey's Pillar,
Billings, MT. Photo Peter Faris, 2009.

One inscription that was created by the expedition is William Clark’s signature with the date July 25, 1806, inscribed on the rock pinnacle known as Pompey’s Pillar, just a little east of Billings, Montana.

On the whole it is not surprising that Lewis and Clark did not record more information about the Native American rock art that they passed on the way. Given the cultural biases of the time, and their mission from Thomas Jefferson, recording all rock art was just not generally thought worthwhile. We do have to wonder what other things we could have learned about Native American art had attitudes been different.

Monday, December 26, 2011


Ute pictographs, Shield Cave, Glenwood Canyon, Eagle
County, Colorado. Photograph: Peter Faris, 1991.

Humans have been using naturally occurring ochre as a pigment almost as long as we can trace the human lineage. Ochre has been found in Neandertal burials, and even earlier in hominid contexts.

In its use in rock art ochre is found in a range of colors from yellow to brownish red. Yellow ochre (Fe2O3H2O) is a hydrated iron oxide, and red ochre (Fe2O3) is the anhydrate of yellow ochre, which turns red when heated because heat drives off the water. This was described by Paul Bahn (1998): “the colour of ochre is modified by heat, and Palaeolithic people very clearly knew this, since even in the Chatelperronian of Arcy there were fragments at different stages of oxidation still in the hearths. Yellow ochre, when heated beyond 250° C, passes through different shades of red as it oxidizes into haematite.” (Bahn 1998:100)

Ute hearth with fragments of red and yellow ochre.
Shield Cave, Glenwood Canyon, Eagle County,
Colorado. Photograph: Peter Faris, 1991.

An excellent example of this can be found at Shield Cave, in Glenwood Canyon, Colorado. In the back of shield cave is a vein of yellow ochre which gives every indication of having been extensively mined. In roughly the middle of the floor of the cave is a stone hearth which includes samples of not only the original yellow ochre, but deep red colored ochre apparently produced by roasting the mined yellow ochre in the fire. At the mouth of the cave are painted a number of red pictographs of shields, as well as figures on horseback produced by Ute artists. (see my 1991 photograph above of samples of ochre on one of the rocks around the fire place).

All of the natural materials for producing pictographs is present at this site. Inside the cave is the pigment and the fire pit for preparing it. At the mouth of the cave the vertical cave walls provide the surface for painting upon, and outside the cave on the slopes can be found not only the wood for the fire pit, but yucca plants to provide yucca juice for the vehicle and binder of a paint, and yucca leaves for brushes.

Fremont/Barrier Canyon style pictograph, Westwater Canyon,
Grand County, UT. Photograph: Peter Faris, Oct. 2001.

Ochre nodule in cliff face. Westwater Canyon, Grand
County, UT. Photograph: Peter Faris, Oct. 2001.

In other locations I have noticed the presence of ochre naturally in the vicinity of painted images that may have been done with the local pigment. In Westwater Canyon, Grand County, Utah, captivating painted figures can be found on the canyon walls. Ochre nodules may also be discovered in areas of the cliff face with careful search and the talus at the bottom of the cliffs might have been mined for ochre nodules already weathered from the rock.

Probable Fremont pictographs in Wild Horse Draw,
 Canyon Pintado, Rio Blanco County, CO.
 Photograph: Peter Faris, July 2005

Ochre nodule in cliff face. Wild Horse Draw,
Canyon Pintado, Rio Blanco County, CO.
Photograph: Peter Faris, July 2005.

This is also the case in Wild Horse Draw off of Canyon Pintado, in Rio Blanco County, northwestern Colorado, where painted images may be found on cliff faces that also contain ochre nodules which would serve as the pigment. They also may have been prehistorically recovered by searching the talus at the cliff bottoms for nodules which had weathered out of the rock.

In both these instances the other materials for creating the paintings are available locally as well with yucca cactus readily procured. Yucca sap or juice would make an excellent paint vehicle and binder as it contains natural latexes which would polymerize upon drying, and the leaves of the yucca can be made into effective brushes.


Bahn, Paul G., and Jean Vertut
1998    Images of the Ice Age, Facts on File, New York., p. 100

Sunday, December 18, 2011


Spotted horses, cave of Pech-Merle, France.

The panel of painted horses from the cave of Pech-Merle in France has caused considerable speculation as to its accuracy and intention. The approximately 25,000-year-old painting of The Dappled Horses of Pech-Merle depicts spotted horses on the walls of a cave in France remarkably similar to a pattern of overall spot markings known as "leopard" in modern horses such as Appaloosas.

An article in by Charles Choi, and dated Tuesday, 8 November 2011, reported the discovery of genetic evidence that the Paleolithic horses of Europe had the potentiality of overall “leopard” spotting indeed. “Scientists investigated the differences in genes for coat color of 31 ancient horse fossils from Siberia, Eastern and Western Europe and the Iberian Peninsula.” To study the genetics of equine coat color, the international research team analyzed DNA from fossilized bones and teeth from 31 prehistoric horses representing over a dozen different archaeological sites.

Genetic analysis indicated that eighteen of the horses had been brown and seven were black. In six of the horses researchers found the LP genetic variant that corresponds to leopard like spotting in the coats of modern horses. Additionally, among ten 14,000 year old Western European horses, four had the LP genetic marker. These results suggest that at the time of the creation of the ancient cave paintings spotted horses could well have been observed in nature and copied in the cave paintings.

Contemporary spotted horses - Appaloosas.

In the past some researchers have found the spotting of the Pech-Merle horses to be perhaps unrealistic and have suggested that these horses represented fantastic imagined horses or spiritual creatures rather than realistic animals. This genetic study proves that the beautiful spotted horses of Pech-Merle could indeed have been painted from life.


Charles Choi,  Tue, Nov 8, 2011.

Sunday, December 11, 2011


Painted horse, Grotte de Niaux, Ariege, France.

Painted horse, Lascaux cave, France.

With the discovery of the magnificent painted caves of Europe people began to learn what had been lost from nature in the spread of civilization. These painted panels pictured animals that had been plentiful but were now extinct or extremely rare. Among these were the prehistoric wild horses seen painted in full color on cave walls.

Konik horses.
On December 4, 2011, I published a posting about 20th  century attempts to back breed from modern cattle to recreate the magnificent aurochs bulls illustrated on the walls of caves in Europe. Also, in the 20th century there were attempts recreate the horses illustrated in the painted caves of Europe through breeding. One attempt resulted in the horse known as the konik. In Polish, konik is used to refer to a horse showing primitive coloration and characteristics. Koniks show many primitive markings including a dun coat and dorsal stripe.
Konik horses grazing in winter.

Photo of the last remaining Tarpan, 1884.
In 1936, Professor Tadeusz Vetulani of Poznań University began attempts to breed the recently extinct tarpan back to its original state. To achieve this he used horses from the Biłgoraj area descended from wild tarpans captured in 1780 in Białowieża Forest and kept until 1808 in Zamoyski zoo. These had later been given to local peasants and crossbred with domestic horses. The Polish government commandeered all the koniks that displayed tarpan-like features. The result of this selective breeding program is that semi-wild herds of koniks can be seen today in many nature reserves and parks, and can also be seen in the last refugium in Bialowieza Forest.
Heck horses in Austria. Public domain.

Another program resulted in the Heck horse. This breed was created by the German zoologist brothers Heinz Heck and Lutz Heck, director of the Berlin Zoo, at the Tierpark Hellabrunn (Munich Zoo) in Germany in their attempt to breed back to the tarpan (equus ferus ferus), and as was the case with their attempts to breed back to the extinct aurochs from modern cattle their efforts attempting to recreate the Tarpan was supported by the Nazi party. The first foal born from the program was a colt born on May 22, 1933 at the Tierpark Hellabrunn.
The Heck brothers bred together several European small horse and pony breeds hypothesized to be descended from the tarpan. They used mares of the Konik, Icelandic horse, and Gotland breeds. These mares were bred to stallions of a wild horse type known as Przewalski's horse. The Hecks believed that the wild Przewalski blood would "help to draw out the wild characteristics" that they felt lay dormant in the domesticated pony breed mares.

Heck Horse.

Heck horses are dun or grullo (a dun variant) in color, with no white markings. The breed has primitive markings, including a dorsal stripe and sometimes zebra markings on the legs. Heck horses generally stand between 12.2 and 13.2 hands (50 and 54 inches, 127 and 137 cm) tall. The head is large, the withers low, and the legs, hindquarters, and hooves are strong.
As with the attempts by the same Heck brothers to breed back to the aurochs, we have another case where the original animal had inspired our ancestors to create their images in cave art, and the cave art later inspired modern attempts to recreate the extinct original animal. Another case of life imitating art.

Levy, Sharon, Once and Future Giants, Oxford University Press, New York, 2011.

Sunday, December 4, 2011


Extinct Aurochs, painting, Lascaux Cave,
France. This photo is in public domain.

One of the most impressive of the animals painted on the walls of certain caves in Europe is the image of bos primigenius, the aurochs. This distant ancestor of the cow was awesome in both size and strength.

Extinct Aurochs, painting, Lascaux Cave, France.
 This photo is in public domain.

During the early years of the 20th century attempts were made to recreate the magnificent extinct wild bulls of ancient Europe, the Aurochs, by breeding. The theory was that by selecting for the traits that can be identified in the painted panels in cave art the animal could be reverse engineered as it were, also known as breeding back. The bulk of the early work in this was done by the Heck brothers in Germany. Heinz Heck working at the Hellabrun Zoological Gardens in Munich began creating the Heck breed in about 1920. Lutz Heck, director of the Berlin Zoological Gardens, began breeding programs supported by the Nazis during World War II to bring back the aurochs. The reconstructed aurochs fitted into the Nazi goal of recreating an ancient imagined Aryan nation. The Berlin breed was lost in the aftermath of World War II so modern Heck cattle are descended from the Munich breed. At the end of the 20th century, other so-called primitive breeds were crossbred with Heck cattle to come closer to the aim of creating a cattle breed that resembles the extinct aurochs in external appearance.

Skull of extinct Aurochs.

Heck's cattle, public domain.

Although there was a measure of success with matching the appearance there has been much less success to date in reaching the awesome size of the Aurochs. A typical Heck bull should be at least 1.4 m (4'5") high and a cow 1.3 m (4'3"), with weight up to 600 kg (1,300 lb). Heck cattle are twenty to thirty centimeters shorter than the aurochs they were bred to resemble. The Heck bulls were not much larger than the bull of most breeds of domestic cattle, while wild aurochs bulls are believed to have often exceeded 1000 kilograms (2,200 lb), half the size of a rhinoceros.  However, cross-breeding efforts continue to increase the size and weight of the breed, particularly in Germany.

Heck cattle. Wikipedia.

Modern efforts have been driven more by attempts to manage wild lands naturally with a full ecosystem of animals and predators. Ancient Europe had evolved with forests and steppes housing these animals and it is thought that they (or similar substitutes) would be valuable in natural management of the land.

Herd of Heck cattle in a park.

What strikes me as remarkable about this situation is that first there were the actual animals that our ancestors painted on the walls of caves, and then the rock art was used as the guide in an attempt to recreate the animals again - a marvelous example of life imitating art.



Sharon Levy, Once and Future Giants,Oxford University Press, New York, 2011.