Saturday, May 4, 2013


On June 3, 2009, I posted the following column under the title Charles Darwin's Bear

"Don't Deface the Bear", 5BN651, Picketwire canyon, Bent 
County, CO., Photograph, Peter Faris, June, 1991.

"At the time of his death Charles Darwin had in his correspondence files a letter that had accompanied a photograph of a Colorado pictograph. According to the on-line database of the Darwin Correspondence Project at the University of Cambridge, England, they (the letter and accompanying photo) were sent on May 24, 1874, by Lieut. George J. Anderson, of Fort Lyon, Colorado. The database entry refers to the letter, which describes the image as a “photograph of a ‘natural curiosity’, a bear apparently ‘painted’ with red iron on the face of a soft rock”. The letter itself forms part of the Darwin Archive at Cambridge University Library, but the photograph has not been found.

I had found mention of this a number of years ago and was interested enough to pursue a search in an attempt to identify which bear image from southern Colorado this might be. During a subsequent conversation with Larry Loendorf we agreed that it might be the large Picketwire bear. This figure was prominent, had been discovered and publicized early on - its photograph had been printed in newspapers. Loendorf also pointed out that it was originally known as the “cinnamon bear” because rain runoff from the canyon rim had dyed it red with the red dust of the soil. This seems to match the description of it being “apparently ‘painted’ with red iron on the face of a soft rock”.

On May 13, 2009, I received from the Darwin Correspondence Project a transcription of the letter, which described the picture and its location. “The image is painted – as it were – on a perpendicular face of a very soft grey sandstone rock, about 40 feet from its base & 38 feet from its top, but may be easily reached – to the level of the bottom of the picture – by climbing over the dèbris at the foot of the bluff. . . . The coloring matter appears to be iron (probably Fe3O4) and penetrates the rock to a depth of more than ½ inch. . . . The image is in length, from nose to tail, about 8½ feet”. (This preliminary transcription has yet to be published in the Correspondence of Charles Darwin.)
Anderson’s description of the image size seems to fit that of the large Picketwire Bear and I know of no other bear pictograph in southeastern Colorado of that size, but its location is nothing like that described in the letter. The location of the large Picketwire Bear is basically just a little above the present ground surface on a slight slope. Unless we can be assured by a geomorphologist that the canyon bottom has been raised by nearly 40 feet (unlikely since the canyon bottom can be demonstrated to have been eroding deeper) since the creation of the pictograph, then I see no way to reconcile the present location of this bear with the described location. If we are lucky the original picture may some day be located in the Darwin archives: meanwhile the identity of the southeast Colorado bear pictograph sent to Charles Darwin remains a mystery.

(I wish to extend an extra thank you to Rosemary Clarkson of the Darwin Correspondence Project for her generous assistance with my inquiry.)"

At that time I had not yet read Paul Bahn's 2010 book Prehistoric Rock Art: Problems and Polemics. In that book Bahn takes up the question of trying to determine the oldest existing rock art photograph.

Bahn wrote “One interesting question which was not answered in my earlier book is that of when the first photograph was taken of rock art; two examples were given (Bahn 1998a : 30, 69) of photos of rock art in the United States taken in the 1890s, and it was also stated (ibid.: 69) that the first known photograph of an African rock painting was taken by von Bonde in 1885. Recently, however, two earlier examples have come to light.” (p. 7)

“On the Carrizo Plain of California is the (now much damaged) Chumash painted site known as Painted Rock. Four photographs of this, taken by R. A. Holmes, were published in a fanciful book by Myron Angel called The Legend of Painted Rock (Angel 1920), which claims that the pictures were taken in 1876. The photograph reprinted here (Fig. 3) is now housed in the collections of the San Luis Obispo Historical Society (W. Hyder, personal communication).

If that 1876 date is accurate, this may be the earliest known rock art photo, and on present evidence it is probably the earliest to have survived. There is at least one other claimant, however, which has not survived as far as is known. In France in 1878, Leopold Chiron, a schoolteacher, noticed deep engravings in the cave of Chabot (Gard); he published a note about hem, although he could not know their date of origin. He mistakenly thought he could see birds and people among the lines; unfortunately, the Chabot engravings are difficult to decipher, and the figures are far from clear. In May 1879, Chiron wrote to the eminent Gabriel de Mortillet to tell him of the discovery of a cave with Paleolithic flint tools and with engravings on the walls – Chiron had no doubt the drawings were ancient because they were covered in calcite. De Mortillet, however, who was certain that no parietal art could exist in Palaeolithic times, did not deign to reply – or to present the information in the journal he published (Bahn and Vertut 1997: 16).

In the 1890s Chiron exchanged letters with Francois Daleau, another pioneer who had excavated the decorated cave of Pair-non-Pair near Bordeaux, and had seen its art in 1883, although he did not make the discovery of the art public until 1896. It is from this correspondence that we know Chiron had the Chabot engravings photographed in 1878.” (p. 8)"

In this we see that Bahn's oldest example so far seems to be the 1876 photograph of Chumash rock art on the Carrizo plain in California. Until Charles Darwin's bear photograph is relocated by the good folks at the Darwin Correspondence Project it is likely to remain so. However, from the correspondence we know that Darwin's Bear photograph existed in 1874 so it would be the oldest known example. How about you, what other early rock art photos can you suggest to Paul Bahn?

Bahn, Paul G.
2010    Prehistoric Rock Art: Problems and Polemics, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.
Faris, Peter
2009     Charles Darwin's Bear,, June 3, 2009.

1 comment:

  1. This is the same bear that made headines in the 1870's. Although this may be a different photo than the one Darwin received, a stereoview by Guernsey, "Photograph of a Bear on the Rock," which dates from that time. It's mentioned in the British Journal of Photography, and having seen an original copy, I can attest that the rock features nearby are identical. Let me know if you would like me to send you a copy.