Sunday, April 29, 2012


Insect-like humpbacked flute player. Mesa 
Prieta, NM. Photo Peter Faris, Sept. 2011.

The Humped-Back Flute Player of the pueblo people is generally considered to be a therianthropic figure with characteristics of a human and an insect. Sometimes the insect qualities displayed are those of the cicada, but often kokopelli is considered to be the manifestation of the Robber or Assassin Fly.

Kokopelli, Mesa Prieta, NM. 
Photo Peter Faris, Sept. 2011.

The robber or assassin fly, family Asilidae, is a blood-sucking insect with a humped back and long protuberant mouthparts. It is a predator that preys on other insects and animals. In his first edition of Hopi Kachina Dolls with a Key to Their Identification, Colton identified Kokopelli as a personification of the robber or assassin fly.

Assassin fly kachina.

Kokopelli is actually an anthropomorphic insect. Many of the earliest depictions of Kokopelli make him very insect-like in appearance. His case mask is dark on each side, separated by a line that runs up the front and over the top of the mask. These divided dark sides of the mask may represent the large compound eyes on each side of the insect’s head.

The name "Kokopelli" may be a combination of "Koko", another Hopi and Zuni deity, and "pelli", the Hopi and Zuni word for the desert robber fly, an insect with a prominent proboscis and a rounded back, which is also noted for its zealous sexual proclivities. The short, strong proboscis is used to stab and inject victims with saliva containing neurotoxic and proteolytic enzymes which paralyze and digest the insides; the fly then sucks the liquefied meal through the proboscis.

                                       Robber or Assassin fly.  

I have actually experienced the bite of an assassin fly. While on a rock art field trip in northern New Mexico many years ago I felt a large insect land on my back but since I was wearing my shirt I felt no apprehension. I should have for all of a sudden I felt something like a drill bit penetrate about ¼” into my back, and this drill bit was red-hot. I was instantly dancing around and yelling for my colleagues to brush it off. This Kokopelli was not the happy, cute, comfortable iconic figure that modern faddists and interior decorators collect. This Kokopelli was a painful and fearsome confrontation, and it has made me more sensitive to the mixture of respect or devotion, and apprehension, with which an Ancestral Puebloan farmer might contemplate this kachina. My original meeting with Kokopelli was not a happy one and I would rather not repeat it.


Colton, Harold S.
1949       Hopi Kachina Dolls With A Key To Their Identification, University of New Mexico Press, Albuquerque.

Saturday, April 21, 2012


Photo by Wil Roebroeks

An article written by Zach Zorich in the May/June 2012 (Vol. 65, No. 3) issue of Archaeology, Journal of the Archaeological Institute of America, and titled Neanderthals in Color, provides confirmation of the use of red ochre at a site in the Netherlands by Neandertals at least 200,000 years ago.

Zorich wrote: "In 1981, when Wil Roebroeks of Leiden University was beginning his archaeological career, he ran across some red stains in the grayish sediments on the floodplain of the Maas River where his team was excavating. The site, called Maastricht-Belvèdère, in The Netherlands, was occupied by Neanderthals at least 200,000 years ago. Roebroeks collected and stored samples of the red stains, and 30 years later he received funding to analyze them. It became apparent that he and his team had discovered the earliest evidence of hominins using the mineral iron oxide, also known as ocher. Until now, the use of ocher—as a red pigment in rock paintings, an ingredient in glue, and for tanning hides, among other things—was thought to be a hallmark of modern human behavior. While the manner in which the mineral was used at Maastricht-Belvèdère is something of a mystery, the find has had an impact on the question of whether ocher use represents modern behavior. "This whole debate is now to some degree a non-debate," Roebroeks says, "because Neanderthals were already doing this 200,000 years ago."

If these Neandertal people were using red ochre at that time they might have been creating images with it. At least they had the requisite materials to use the pigment as a paint or a crayon to create pictographs with. There is, of course, no proof of that in this report, but I think that we now have to at least allow for the speculation of its possibility and, if we accept it as possible, who is to say that Neandertal rock art may not be discovered too.

© 2012, by the Archaeological Institute of America

Sunday, April 15, 2012


Vermillion Canyon, Brown's Park, Moffat
County, CO. Photo Peter Faris, 1995.

 We find in some locations images that are generally identified as groups of dancing figures. Some of these are lines of figures holding hands, or all facing the same way in a line, each with a hand on the shoulder of the person in front of them. Other variations of the theme are groups of figures, perhaps facing inward in a circle, or apparently in a line all moving together.

Vermillion Canyon, Brown's Park, Moffat
County, CO. Photo Peter Faris, 1975.
Inevitably we speculate on the meaning of these figures being some sort of celebration or ceremonial activity. In his 2002 book Landscape of the Spirits: Rock Art at South Mountain Park, Todd Bostwick discussed dancing scenes in rock art. “Characteristically, several anthropomorphs in a row will be holding hands and sometimes one or more hold a cane or staff”. He also mentioned examples of “figures in lively postures suggesting rhythmic movement”. Bostwick cited an Akimel O’odham informant, Archie Russell, who identified dancers in several rock art panels.

Salt Creek, Canyonlands, Utah.
Photo Don Campbell, 1985.

If we accept that much rock art has a spiritual significance and includes spiritual components, then we must also expect to find references to spiritual ceremonies and celebrations. As we know that many (perhaps most) spiritual ceremonies and celebrations of tribal peoples involve group dancing, we may justifiably guess that such scenes are illustrations of such ceremonies and celebrations.

Village of the Great Kivas, Zuni, New
Mexico. Photo Teresa Weedin.
“The most common event centered pictographs and petroglyphs at Zuni portray ritual dancers and dances. A number of Zunis told me that Figure 3.7 (the panel from the Village of the Great Kivas) represents a group of Zuni “clowns” dancing around a pole during the winter solstice ceremony. Although I have never witnessed this ceremony, I have often seen clowns during the summer rain dances move around the plaza with their arms on each other’s waists in a manner similar to that portrayed in this rock carving. Still, one could hardly refer to this as unambiguous evidence that this particular petroglyph actually depicts part of a specific ceremony. The figures are amorphous enough that one cannot say definitively that they form a distinctive clown group. Moreover, there are only ten clowns who participate in Zuni rituals, yet there are perhaps eleven or twelve in this petroglyph. Finally, the date of the carving is highly uncertain; it could have been carved before the formation of the Zuni tribe in the southwest. In fact, the extreme difficulty in dating rock art images renders most interpretations hypothetical at best.” (Young 2004: 93)

If we accept that much rock art has a spiritual significance and includes spiritual components, then we must also expect to find references to spiritual ceremonies and celebrations. As we know that many (perhaps most) spiritual ceremonies and celebrations of tribal peoples involve group dancing, we may justifiably argue that such scenes may be illustrations of such ceremonies and celebrations. Indeed, Colorado State Archaeologist Richard Wilshusen has argued that many of these portrayals are definitely processions to ceremonial events – enter dancing!


Patterson, Alex
1992    A Field Guide To Rock Art Symbols Of The Greater Southwest, Johnson Books, Boulder.

Young, M. Jane
2004    Ethnographic Analogies in Southwestern Rock Art, p. 80-102, in New Dimensions In Rock Art Studies, edited by Ray T. Matheny, Museum of Peoples and Cultures Occasional Papers No. 9, Brigham Young University, Provo.

Saturday, April 7, 2012


I would hazard the guess that nine out of any ten rock art enthusiasts have tried to enhance faint pictographs by software manipulation of the image in their computer. I will also hazard the guess that for at least 8 of that 9 the results were less than satisfying. There is now new software that seems to provide amazing results.

An article by Renata d’Aliesio in the Toronto Globe and Mail, Thursday, March 15, 2012, describes this apparently miraculous new tool which its developer Jon Harman has named DStretch. D’Aliesio described the circumstances leading up to its development like this: "Rock art had long fascinated Jon Harman. The American mathematician sought out pictographs on vacations, snapping pictures of stones and caves even when all that remained were indecipherable red blotches. Photo-editing programs improved the images, but not by much. A friend pointed Mr. Harman to an image-enhancement technique known as decorrelation stretch. Developed by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, it has been used to enhance photos of Mars. Perhaps the technique would work for faded pictographs. Mr. Harman took up the challenge and, with a few modifications, DStretch was created in late 2005. He provides the plug-in at no cost through his website ( . It’s designed to work with the ImageJ program, on PCs and Macs.”
A couple of photographs from the article in the Globe and Mail can illustrate the results.

Sinclair Creek in Kootenay National Park,
B.C. Photograph Toronto Globe and Mail

The person on the left is dancing within a rayed arc, "depicting a shamanistic activity. This was a common image among central Columbia Plateau aboriginal groups, but less so in eastern British Columbia, where this pictograph is located. The triangular-shaped figure on the right is of a different rock art tradition and may have been painted at a different time. In the figure’s hand is a circle or drum, indicating a ceremonial activity."

Washout Creek along the shore of Kootenay Lake,
B.C. Photograph Toronto Globe and Mail.
Multiple figures were painted at the Washout Creek site, "often overlapping, indicating these pictographs were created over a long period of time – likely hundreds or even thousands of years. Drawings of a human figure with a drum and fir boughs suggest ceremonial activities took place here. Fir boughs were used in cleansing ceremonies of young females who had completed a vision quest. Vision quests marked the transition from childhood to adulthood for many Columbia Plateau groups. Also shown is a person hunting for sturgeon with a long spear, illustrating this was a good fishing spot."

Parks Canada has been photographically recording rock art sites to preserve the images. A spokesman for Parks Canada, a Mr. Himour said that for them DStretch proved to be a real game changer. They first used the software in the summer of 2010, applying it to photos taken at Sinclair Creek in British Columbia’s Kootenay National Park. Unlike the cross-polarization technique, pictures could be taken during the day. No special filter or flashes were required. They have taken about 2,500 photos at 30 rock art sites in Kootenay and Banff National Parks and in the foothills of Alberta as part of its Pictograph Project. Many of the known pictograph sites have faded so badly that they cannot see images that had already been recorded at the sites. With DStretch, however, these images can be retrieved and seem to jump out at the viewer. While the article in the Globe and Mail only mentions pictographs I also wonder if this software might be sensitive enough to bring out those repatinated petroglyphs that can be so hard to photograph under many lighting conditions. Perhaps those of us with a technical bent can make use of this software in our own photo collections to preserve the precious images that are inexorably fading.

Sunday, April 1, 2012


Cave drawing of an old man (A) and a modern artist's
rendition, La Marche, France. From Guthrie,
The Nature of Paleolithic Art, p.443.

The largest number of human portraits in Paleolithic art (a rare enough occurrence) have been found in the cave of La Marche, in France. Some of these are on flat slabs of stone called plaques that are covered with a veritable nest of scratched lines. Jean Airvaux teased this image of a bearded face out of the lines on one plaque. Guthrie (2005:90) likened it in his sketch to a Greek portrait of Socrates which he found on display in the Vatican museum. While I like his whimsy, and admire his courage in making this connection at all, I must disagree.

 Charles Darwin by Julia Margaret Cameron, from Wikipedia.

After studying this drawing I believe that I have uncovered the truth of this Paleolithic portrait. The image was obviously made by a shaman (there it is, the “S” word again) who had foreseen this face while in a trance and in communication with the timeless spirit world. When the shaman returns from this trance he is empowered to make predictions of future events and happenings. In this case the shaman has foreseen the future coming of Charles Darwin who was destined to explain the development of human cultures (and that other thing – what was it? Oh yes, the origin of the species) through the process of evolution to the descendants of those Paleolithic people who were unlearned enough to believe that they had been created just as they were.
Old Man from La Marche, From Guthrie,
The Nature of Paleolithic Art, p. 90.        

Charles Darwin,

We know indeed that this all must be true because of the prevalence of the current theory espoused by David Lewis-Williams and others that pretty much links all rock art to the S-word (shamanism). Oh yes, what day is it again - April 1?


Guthrie, R. Dale
2005    The Nature of Paleolithic Art, University of Chicago Press, Chicago.