Friday, January 18, 2013


Willamette Meteorite, From Let's Investigate Meteorites, by Madelyn Carlisle.

A couple of months ago while driving home after dark I was lucky enough to observe the breakup and burning of a good sized fireball in the sky. Instead of being just the little streak of light of most meteors this one was large enough to have shape and to see burning pieces splitting off it and burning up. Any part of this that survived to reach the ground would be designated a meteorite.

Photograph of a Navajo star ceiling from the Internet.

With astronomical phenomenon known to have been of importance in Native American culture, are there any indications of representations of meteorites in rock art? On May 6, 2009 I published a post titled “When the Stars Fell” about the November 12-13, 1833, Leonid meteor storm. I suggested that the multitude of star representations in later (post-1833) Navajo star ceilings might have been influenced by this meteor storm. That was about a phenomenon that was essentially worldwide. Here I am speculating about any rock art records of a local meteorite fall, something that would have greatly impressed the local people.

The largest meteorite found in the United States is named the Willamette, because it was found in Oregon’s Willamette Valley. The Willamette is an iron-nickel meteorite and weighs 28,000 pounds, the sixth largest in the world. The local tribe of Native Americans, the Clackamas Indians called it “Tomanowos” (Visitor from the Moon) and believed it has spiritual powers. “Before going into battle, the warriors dipped their arrows and washed their faces in the rainwater that collected in hollows in the huge stone from the sky”. (Carlisle 1992:13)

"Since there was no impact crater at the discovery site; geologists believe the meteorite landed in what is now Canada or Montana, and was transported as a glacial erratic to the Willamette Valley during the Missoula Floods at the end of the last Ice Age (~13,000 years ago). The meteorite is currently on display at the American Museum of Natural History, which acquired the meteorite in 1906." (Wikipedia 2010)

"The meteorite was apparently venerated by the Native American tribe inhabiting the area where it was found. The Confederated Tribes of the Grand Ronde Community of Oregon, a confederation of Native American  tribes, used the meteorite in ceremonies and have demanded that it be returned. They filed a NAGPRA action (Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act) against the American Museum of Natural History in 1999 to this end. In response, the Museum filed a federal lawsuit seeking a declaratory judgment against the Grand Ronde in 2000. An agreement with the Museum was reached later that year in which the meteorite would remain at the museum with tribal members being able to conduct a private ceremony around the meteorite once a year, and that ownership will be transferred to Grand Ronde should the museum cease to have the meteorite on display." (Wikipedia)

A name like “Visitor from the Moon” suggests to me that the fall of the meteorite was witnessed and that its track had seemed to originate near the moon in the sky. At least that seems to be the most logical reason for an association with the moon, of course it is possible that the Clackamas people generally associate anything that seems out of place or different from the norm with an origin from the moon, but that seems unrealistically imprecise. So here is the problem, if it fell in Montana or Canada, and not in the Willamette Valley why would it have been given a name that associated it with the moon?

An inquiry with D. Russell Micnhimer of elicited the fact that there are no known examples of rock art in the Willamette valley that would seem to portray a meteorite fall, so where did the designation of “Visitor from the Moon” come from? 

Another example of a meteorite that was associated with ancient peoples in North America is known as the Mesa Verde meteorite which was found in the Sun Shrine ruin at Mesa Verde in Colorado (Matthews 2000:30). Found in 1922, it weighs 3.52 kilograms and is classified as octahedrite in composition. The location in the Sun Temple ruin suggests that it had been placed there by Ancestral Puebloan people who lived at Mesa Verde.

Paquime meteorite in the Smithsonian Institution.

Another meteorite was found carefully preserved in the ruins of Paquime. “Paquime is famous among astronomers for its 1,500-kilogram meteorite, discovered by looters in a “temple” at the ruin, in the 1860s. The extraterrestrial omen is now in the Smithsonian. Does the Spanish retelling of obscure Native tales describe some aspect of the founding of Paquime and of the migrations of the Chichimec tribes out of the north?” (Lekson 2008:214) “Many Hopis think that Paquime was their Red City, Palatkwapi. The Red City was overthrown by earthquake and flood (according to Courlander), or by strife among the clans, ending in siege, destruction, and escape (according to Waters) – or by other means, not known to these two often discredited chroniclers of Hopi History. But it seems that the Red City died hard, with calamity and violence.” (Lekson 2008:214)

“When Onate’s conquistadors marched to New Mexico through Chihuahua in 1598, they recorded stories of Native peoples – tribes unknown today and languages perhaps gone. One of those stories told of two large groups of people – warriors, women, children – marching boldly out of the north from the Pueblo region, led by two brothers. On their journey to the south, they encountered an immense “mass of solid ore . . . so smooth and polished and free from rust as though it were the finest Capella silver.” A terrible hag carried this huge rock, which she “hurled . . . through the air with the speed of a lightning bolt.” After that she vanished. “No sooner had this missile struck the ground than the whole earth trembled.” One brother took this portent as a sign to found a city (or, in another version, to turn around and head back north!), which the Spaniards later saw on their march north as “the ruins of a great capital.” The second brother led his group southward into central Mexico, and they were lost from memory.” (Lekson 2008:214)

I would like to suggest that rock art enthusiasts might wish to look over their body of rock art images with an eye toward anything that might imply connection with falling from the moon or sky, and let me know if you find anything.


Carlisle, Madelyn Wood
1992    Let’s Investigate Magical, Mysterious Meteorites, Barron’s Inc., Hauppauge, NY.

Lekson, Stephen H.
2008    A History of the Ancient Southwest, School for Advanced Research, Santa Fe, NM.

Morgan, Matthew L.
2000    The Handbook of Colorado Meteorites, Colorado Geological Survey, Denver.

1 comment:

  1. Chris Cokinos's excellent book The Fallen Sky (2009) has a detailed narrative history of the Willamette meteor and its journey. If you can't get to New York, the Museum of Natural and Cultural History in Eugene OR has a full-size replica (casting) near its entrance.