Saturday, October 14, 2017


Vulva symbols? Winnemucca Lake,
Nevada, Larry Benson, used with

The symbol of the "vulva", originally found in Paleolithic art, has long been assumed to represent fertility. This identification was originally made, I assume, by the early students of the cave art in France, who were French. Leave it to the French!

This is now the automatic assumption worldwide when we see these symbols carved or painted onto the rock. What I wonder is if there was ever any attempt to analyze these symbols to see if they could represent anything else? They have been found literally all over the world, representations by diverse and widespread ancient cultures have used this theme. Of course, human fertility is found all over the world, but what else might it represent? What else do all of these cultures have in common? Well, the first thing that comes to my mind is cowrie shells. Perhaps most commonly used in adornment; i.e. necklaces, bracelets, or decorating clothing, the cowrie shell was known and prized by many diverse cultures, all over the world, and down through time.

Early Chinese shell money,
3,000 BCE, June 20, 2017,

Writing on, Chapurukha Kusimba posited that "Objects that occurred rarely in nature and whose circulation could be efficiently controlled emerged as units of value for interactions and exchange. These included shells such as mother-of-pearl that were widely circulated in the Americas and cowry shells that were used in Africa, Europe, Asia and Australia." (Kusimba 2017) So for so many ancient cultures the cowrie shell represents wealth, wealth that is to be displayed for personal aggrandizement. What better way to symbolically display your wealth than to carve it into, or paint it on, the rock, on a cliff, a boulder, or the walls of a cave?

Deer cowrie shells,,
Public domain.

Midewiwin shell symbols,
Rajnovich, Reading Rock Art,
p. 53, Fig. 41.

There are examples of this symbol that can be documented as representing something other than vulvas. A very different aspect of the shell, at least here in North America, was found in the Midewiwin Society of the Algonkians.Writing on the Midewiwin Society of the Algonkians, Rajnovich stated: "The Midewiwin was widespread among the Algonkians, practised by the Ojibway, Odawa, Miami, Menominee, Illinois, Shawnees, and others. Archaeologist Charles Callender suggested we cannot rule out the possibility that aspects of the Midewiwin go back 2,500 years among the Indians of Ohio. The symbol of the society and of the power of the medicine itself is a tiny white seashell, often a marginella originating on the southeast coast of the United States. These shells, called megis by the Mides, are shown in Midewiwin picture writing in various forms (Fig. 41), including a small oval figure with radiating power lines, and it may be on the rock paintings as well, possibly at Burnt Bluff (Figure 39). The people of the Shield travelled great distances to obtain the shells. The Odawa(the word means "trader") journeyed throughout the Great Lakes and surrounding areas, covering vast distances in their bark canoes, exchanging goods including the shells among the many Algonkian groups." (Rajnovich 1994:52-3)

Vulva Symbols, Patterson, p. 203,
A Field Guide To Rock Art Symbols,
Petersborough, Ontario.

Linnea Sundstrom apparently agrees that on the Great Plains this symbol originated with the Algonkians, although she also assumes that it may represent fertility as she ascribes its creation to girl's puberty rituals. "Track-Vulva-Groove style rock art clearly had its origins in the Algonkian and Siouan territories east and southeast of the plains (figure 8.13). It is more difficult to determine who made this rock art in the Black Hills country and why. Perhaps some was made by girls as part of a puberty ritual. In other parts of the West, girls sometimes made abraded grooves for other kinds of petroglyphs as part of their puberty rites." (Sundstrom 2004:88) This suggests an Algonkian influence in inland North America that could have brought ideas about the shell to the middle part of the country.

Do these images represent shells, or vulvas? Well, I don't really know but it seems to me that we owe it to ourselves to thoroughly analyze all the possibilities before we blindly relegate a whole category of rock art symbolism to definition by a French assumption. Fertility, display, or wealth, you tell me?

NOTE: Images in this posting were retrieved from the internet after a search for public domain photographs. If any of these images are not intended to be public domain, I apologize, and will happily provide the picture credits if the owner will contact me with them. For further information on these reports you should read the originals at the sites listed below.


Kusimba, Chapurukha
2017 Making Cents of Currency's Ancient Rise, June 20, 2017,

Patterson, Alex
1992 A Field Guide To Rock Art Symbols of the Greater Southwest, Johnson Books, Boulder, Colorado

Rajnovich, Grace
1994 Reading Rock Art: Interpreting the Indian Rock Art of the Canadian Shield, Natural Heritage/Natural History Inc., Toronto, Ontario

Sundstrom, Linea
2004 Storied Stone: Indian Rock Art In The Black Hills Country, University of Oklahoma Press, Norman.

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