Saturday, November 28, 2015


Bison in South Park, Colorado.
Photograph Peter Faris, 1990.

In the paper cited below the authors (Agenbroad and Hesse 2004) argue that the belief that Paleo-hunters did not live on the Colorado Plateau because the megafauna that they depended upon were absent is just a myth. They point to fossil remains located throughout the area in question, as well as rock art that they identify as representations of the megafauna in question, as proof that both the animals and the hunters occupied the Colorado Plateau from 12,000 to 6,000 BP. (Agenbroad and Hesse 2004:189-195)

Fig. 16.8 - Bison illustrations from
the Colorado Plateau. Agenbroad
and Hesse, 2004, p. 194.

If this is indeed the case, then the rock art that they show as evidence toward their claims must be illustrations of the extinct megafauna species (mammoth and bison) that existed during that period. We thus have numerous examples of rock art portraying the extinct species Bison antiquus. The actual existence of rock art illustrating mammoths is somewhat more problematical although opinions in the field are not as closed against it as before.

"Twenty-seven radiocarbon dates are available for bison localities. These dates range from more than 40,000 to 355 B.P. (the former date is the approximate upper limit of radiocarbon technology). Six dates are from the protohistoric period, three are from the Archaic period, and 18 are from the late Pleistocene. This information suggests that bison were more abundant on the Colorado Plateau during the late Pleistocene than during most of the Holocene." (Agenbroad and Hesse 2004:195)

"Maps of paleontological locales and artifacts show that megafauna and Paleoindians were present on the Colorado Plateau. When combined with rock art and a radiocarbon chronology, they provide convincing evidence to dispel the myth that human hunters and their major prey species did not live on the plateau from 13,000 to 6,000 B.P. Because of the dearth of preceramic studies in this region, at least 9,000 years of plateau prehistory is not being adequately researched." (Agenbroad and Hesse 2004:195)

Fig. 16.6 - Map of locations of bison
and mammoth rock art on the
Colorado Plateau. Agenbroad
and Hesse, 2004, p. 192.

"Bison remains, Folsom and Plano artifacts, and bison rock art are also found on the plateau, and some areas contain all of these. Although some Folsom and Plano artifacts are found in areas of the plateau with no recorded paleontological Pleistocene than in the Holocene. The number of bison remains from Folsom and Plano (Paleoindian) sites nearly equals the number from late Archaic and protohistoric sites.
Prehistoric rock art, especially petroglyphs, also lends credence to the presence of Paleoindian hunters on the plateau from 12,000 to 6,000 B.P. These people were the "Pleistocene pioneers." It is unfortunate that their presence has been denied, overlooked, and unresearched for so long."  (Agenbroad and Hesse 2004:195)

Large bison petroglyph overlapping
a mammoth petroglyph,  San Juan
river, near Bluff, Utah. Malotki
and Wallace, 2011, p.147

Drawing of the large bison petroglyph
overlapping the mammoth petroglyph, 
San Juan river, near Bluff, Utah.
Malotki and Wallace, 2011, p.147.

The illustration (Fig. 16.8) as well as the map of locations of bison and mammoth rock art (Fig. 16.6) both include an example from the San Juan river near Bluff, Utah. Malotki and Wallace have identified this as the figure of a Columbian mammoth with the overlapping image of a large bison.(Malotki and Wallace 2011:147)  This would pretty much have to represent Bison antiquus, or one of his cousins. 

The Clovis culture is a prehistoric Paleoindian culture, named after distinct stone tools found at Clovis, New Mexico, in the 1920s and 1930s. The Clovis culture appeared around 13,200 - 12,900 years before present, at the end of the last glacial period. Clovis is characterized by the manufacture of Clovis points and distinctive bone and ivory tools. Clovis peoples are considered to be the ancestors of most of the indigenous cultures of the Americas. (Wikipedia)

In the Great Plains of the United States the following peoples ranging from 10,000 to 7,000 B.P. are designated as Plano, distinguished by long, lanceolate, projectile points; Agate Basin complex, named for the Agate Basin site; Cody Complex, named for the Horner site near Cody, Wyoming, and including the Olsen-Chubbuck Bison Kill site and the Jurgens site; Hell Gap complex named for the Hell Gap, Wyoming site and the Jones-Miller Bison Kill site; and the Foothills/Mountain complex. (Wikipedia)

The Folsom Complex dates to between 9000 B.C., and 8000 B.C., and is thought to have derived from the earlier Clovis culture. (Wikipedia)

Fremont (ca. AD 100 to 1300)
bison from 9-Mile Canyon,
Utah. Photograph by P. Heiple.

Until we can adequately date the bison images in question we will not be 100% certain, but logic suggests that some of the images portrayed do, in fact, represent the extinct species Bison antiquus, and, assuming that Agenbroad and Hesse are correct in their claims, then we also have examples of rock art from the Clovis, Plano, and Folsom peoples. The only real problem would seemingly be to discriminate it from the later examples.


Agenbroad, Larry D., and India S. Hesse,
2004    Megafauna, Paleoindians, Petroglyphs, and Pictographs of the Colorado Plateau, pages 189-195, in The Settlement of the American Continent: A Multidisciplinary Approach to Human Biogeography, edited by C. Michael Barton, Geoffrey A. Clark, David R. Yesner, and Georges A. Pearson, University of Arizona Press, Tucson.

Malotki, Ekkehart, and Henry D. Wallace
2011    Columbian Mammoth Petroglyphs From The San Juan River Near Bluff, Utah, United States, pp. 143-152, in Rock Art Research 2011 - Volume 28, Number 2. 


Saturday, November 21, 2015


Pictograph showing painted dinosaur
footprint at Flag Point east of Kanab, Utah. Photograph By John Foster and Alden
Hamblin, Survey Notes, January, 2001,
Utah Geological Survey.

A pictograph (painted rather than pecked) on a rock art panel at the Flag Point track site near Kanab, Utah, appears to represent a tridactyl dinosaur footprint (Eubrontes); these are the most obvious prints at the site, though there are also Grallator tracks. The footprints are in the Kayenta Formation of the Lower Jurassic in the Grand Staircase – Escalante National Monument. The pictograph dates to the Formation Period of the Ancestral Puebloan (Anasazi) culture, between AD 1000 and 1200 (Mayor and Serjeant. 2001:151).

Dinosaur track at Flag Point, East of Kanab
Utah. Photograph By John Foster and
Alden Hamblin, Survey Notes, January,
2001, Utah Geological Survey.

These pictographs are found at a location known as Flag Point in the Grand Staircase – Escalante National Monument in southern Utah. There are a number of dinosaur footprints in the rock there and nearby in a rock shelter is a red-painted pictograph panel. It clearly includes a tridactyl form that very closely imitates one of the dinosaur footprints found nearby. A number of other images in the pictograph panel represent bird-man figures with outspread arms. Most viewers assume that the bird-man figures were suggested by the presumed resemblance of a dinosaur footprint to the footprint of a very large bird. This may in fact be the case but it must be remembered that there are also fundamental differences between the track of a bird’s foot and that of a theropod dinosaur other than size.

Most tracks left by a bird’s foot, whether new or fossilized, show the fourth or posterior toe that the bird uses to grasp with extending backwards from the foot. The tridactyl track of a theropod dinosaur does not show that fourth toe extending backwards. The painting of the large track at Flag Point in Grand Staircase – Escalante National Monument lacks that projecting fourth toe of a bird’s footprint which suggests that it does in fact represent the nearby dinosaur footprints instead of a bird track. Also, the angle of spread on the toes is quite different for bird and dinosaur tracks. The angle of spread between the outer toes of a bird is about ninety degrees, and the same angle on a therapod dinosaur's track will be nearer forty-five degrees. Although the Flag Point pictograph does not exhibit the fourth toe on the back like many bird tracks, the angle of spread between the outer toes definitely indicates that it is a bird track. But perhaps we are over-thinking this.

A bird track above, a theropod
dinosaur track below.

Having drawn that distinction, I then have to ask myself if the Native Americans who painted the Flag Point panel knew of the difference between bird and dinosaur tracks. Since I am assuming that they had no knowledge of dinosaurs as our modern science has revealed them, the question must be rephrased to "did they know the difference between bird tracks and the tracks of something else?" These people certainly knew their tracks so they would have recognized them as such, but tracks of what? These large tracks in solid stone would undoubtedly have been attributed to mythological monsters, indeed these tracks may well have prompted the origins of such beliefs.

NOTE: This is really only the beginning. We have yet to look at the question of lizard tracks.


Mayor, Adrienne and William A. S. Serjeant
2001    The Folklore of Footprints in Stone: From Classical Antiquity to the Present, Ichnos, Vol. 8, No. 2, 143-163.

Saturday, November 14, 2015


Cavates at the Mortandad ruin, Los Alamos,
NM. Photograph Peter Faris, Aug. 30, 2003.

In 2003 we visited the Mortandad Ruin with our friends Bill and Jeanne Gibson. This is on the Pajarito Plateau at Los Alamos, New Mexico, and features rock art as well as cavates and other features. One of the most exciting features there is a painted cavate kiva, in pristine condition and virtually as good as new.

Mortandad ruin, cavates and viga holes
in the cliff. Johnson and Hoagland,
2010, Fig. 3, p. 3.

"The Pajarito Plateau was formed by a series of large volcanic ash flows erupting from the Jemez Mountains about one million years ago. The ash consolidated into a soft rock resulting into what is referred to as Bandelier tuff, which through erosion, gradually dissected into the thirteen canyons upon which LANL (Los Alamos National Laboratory) and the Los Alamos townsite reside. The south-facing sides of the canyons frequently erode and fracture into vertical cliff faces. Between the twelfth through sixteenth centuries, people living on the Pajarito Plateau carved chambers into the tuff face, these referred to by archaeologists as cavates. By definition, a cavate or rock cut feature exhibits evidence of human modification (Figure 3). This evidence includes excavation marks, a shaped or modified entryway, floor or wall plaster, internal features including grooves, niches, sooting, or external features (e.g.,viga holes, hand/footholds, or staircases). Cavates, rock cut features, and other associated architectural features are carved into the soft tuff and are subject to degradation, resulting primarily from erosion. The Mortandad cavates, compared with others on the Pajarito Plateau, are relatively stable, as the tuff in this area is less friable than other tuff outcrops. Although the floors, walls, and roofs remain relatively stable, some of the Mortandad Canyon cavates are eroded and plaster and sooting that may have been present is now gone. The existing cavate deterioration indicates that the outer layer of tuff can crumble and/or spall off when touched or walked on." (Johnson and Hoagland 2010:2-3)

Cave kiva at the Mortandad ruin,
Los Alamos, NM. Photograph
Peter Faris, Aug. 30, 2003.
 Of particular interest at Mortandad, is a decorated cave kiva. It is extremely well preserved and the walls inside are covered with images.

"The interior of the cave is elaborately decorated with a series of bold, well-executed petroglyphs carved into the soot-blackened ceiling and walls. A dado of tan plaster extends from the floor to a height of approximately 30 in. above the floor. Figures represented by the petroglyphs include the hunchbacked flute player, the plumed serpent, masked dancing figures, birds and other animals. Apparently either there were few fires in the kiva after the figures were carved, or they were periodically cleaned, as the incised areas have little or no soot remaining in them." (Steen 1977:62)

"Arrow swallower" and club swinger at the
Mortandad ruin, Los Alamos, NM.
Photograph Peter Faris, Aug. 30, 2003.

"Mortandad Style. The almost perfectly preserved room at LA 12609 is the type site for the Mortandad Style of kiva art. To create figures in this style, the artist first blackened the cave with a dense, black coat of sooty smoke (see Fig. 18). Then, with a hard point of some sort, quite possibly a sharpened stick, he cut through the soot to the light gray tuff beneath. The resultant figures are large, rather stiff and roughly done. The Kokopellis and the club swinger - are the only figures in which any action is portrayed. This style was found from Ancho canyon to Pueblo Canyon." (Steen 1977:22)

"In an unusual, perhaps unique, representation of magic, Kokopelli is shown swallowing and arrow. It is not known whether the club swinger is aiming at the hunchback, but these are rare portrayals of action. "'Sword" swallowing is a practice of a curing society at Zuni (Stevenson 1904).'" (Steen 1977, Fig. 19, p. 25)

I am uncomfortable with the identification of this particular figure as a "Sword-swallower" or arrow-swallower. If that is actually the case, the arrow is being inserted into the throat nock end first. This means that the fletching of the arrow is going against the grain. It may be, in fact, that this was a real practice observed by Stevenson (1904) and my problem with the concept is only personal squeamishness, but I would like to know that a thorough search of Ancestral Pueblo references and pueblo mythology has been conducted to eliminate a concept such as a mythological  hero coughing up a sacred arrow. Another possibility is that the fletching of the arrow is purposely being inserted in the throat to induce vomiting. In the American southwest certain cleansing ceremonies included drinking a tea or infusion of certain herbs to induce vomiting that cleaned out the interior. Ethnographic mention of this sometimes also include the detail of using a chicken feather to tickle the throat if the onset of the purging was too slow. This might, in fact, be a portrayal of such a ceremony.

"Fig. 21. Masked figures and, at
the right, two quadrupeds kissing.
Kissing quadrupeds and birds
occur frequently in this style of kiva
art. (Meter stick shown.)"
(Steen 1977:27)

"Few geometric figures were seen in any of the kivas; the style seems to run almost exclusively to life forms. Anthropomorphic figures, either masked men or gods, are common (see de Peso's letter below), but Kokopellis are seldom seen. The most common single figure is probably the Awanyu. Birds and quadrupeds are the other figures carved on the walls, and frequently they are shown in pairs in kissing position (Figs. 20 and 21)." (Steen 1977: 22-3)

"Some of the figures seem to have a Mexican accent, so a set of photographs (Figs. 19-22) of the art work at the kiva at LA 12609 was sent to Charles di Peso of the Amerind Foundation, Dragoon, Arizona. His reply was:

"Fig. 22. On the left is a possible
representation of a Mesoamerican
Sun god and, on the right a
Kokopelli." (Steen 1977:28)

"What a lot of wonderful decoration - exciting as hell and twice as much fun! Starting at the 'sunburst' kid, who occupies the area between the two entries - isn't he something! His sun body with the center cross is an iconographic form used by the Mesoamericans to represent Tonatiuh (Beyer 1965, pp. 147 and 169). In his left hand is a perfectly good 'horned serpent' and in his right, a T-shaped club. By the 14th century, when the kiva was in use, it is believed that Tonatiuh was submerged by the Huitzilopochtli complex (Nicholson in Wauchope's Handbook of Middle American Indians, 10, pp. 424-426) in Mexico. If so, the Anasazi snake-in-hand portrait would resemble that of Huitzilopochtli, as depicted in the Codex Borbonicus 34 (Fig. 39).

Horned serpents and spotted animals
at the Mortandad ruin, Los Alamos, NM.
Photograph Peter Faris, Aug. 30, 2003.

The Kokopellis - hunched, ithyphallic flute player, and sundry sword swallowers, etc. - the 'rainbow' Plumed Serpent, which was laid out as a design over the wall niche, suggests some affinity with Quetzalcoatl. Below it are the two long-tailed, spotted, kissing characters. They are a far cry from 'tigers', but they are spotted and have long tails. Whether or not the one with the ears or 'horns' is a male and the other a female is open to one's imagination. Further, there is a relationship between this pair and the Plumed Serpent with the bifurcated tail - it remains and interesting supposition. - - Not much I can say about the kissing animals noted over the last niche and over the first niche where the horned helmet stands." (Steen 1977:23-4)

Elsewhere I have speculated that the two spotted quadrupeds may be canines, given the straight tails, lack of claws, and also the lack of feline pointed ears. Canines or jaguars ("tigers"), I really do not know.

One must not get the impression that ll the cave kivas from Ancho to Pueblo Canyon werre decorated in this manner. From more than half the hundreds of cavate ceremonial rooms, the inner surface has exfoliated so that all trace of any former designs has disappeared. At other sites, the rooms were blackened but not decorated. Where the Mortandad style figures were cut into the walls, normally only one or two figures were made. We are fortunate that the best preserved kiva also contains the most figures." (Steen 1977:24)

All in all, this is a fascinating site with an amazing array of extremely well preserved art, including a number of unique themes and images. 


Johnson, Alexander F. and Stephen R. Hoagland
2010    Mortandad Cavate Complex Baseline Study, Los Alamos National Laboratory, Los Alamos, NM.

Steen, Charlie R.

1977    Pajarito Plateau Archaeological Survey and Excavations, Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory of the University of California, Los Alamos.

Saturday, November 7, 2015


Caption:  "Fig. 23. LA 12612. The deer
trap at the rim of the mesa. Note the
easy access to the pit from Mortandad
Canyon at the right." (Steen 1977:29)

The subject of this posting is not technically rock art, but it is a piece of stone work, impressive in its own way. This hole, carved into the bedrock, is believed to have been used as a pitfall trap for deer. In his 1977 report on " Pajarito Plateau Archaeological Survey and Excavations", Charlie Steen described it as follows:

Deer trap on trail to Mortandad ruin,
Los Alamos County, NM. Photograph
Aug. 2003, Peter Faris.

"Deer pits were dug on low saddles between canyons. They were probably hidden with a covering of light brush and given wing walls of juniper and pińon branches, so that a deer could be driven from a canyon up a slope to the saddle and forced to the pit where, hopefully, it would step on the cover, fall through, and break a leg or its neck.
Sometime during the late 1940s, I visited the game pit near Navawi ruin, and at that time there were vestiges of heavy brush wing walls on either side of the pit.
The only game pit in the survey area which can safely be called a deer trap is that at LA 12612. It is located on a low saddle between two mesas, at the head of a rather gently slope out of Mortandad Canyon. It could easily have made the apex of two brush wing walls and have been used to trap game driven from the canyon." (Steen 1977: 29-30)

Cavates,  Mortendad ruin, Los
Alamos County, NM. Photograph
Aug. 2003, Peter Faris.

This feature is relatively near the large prehistoric pueblo in Mortandad Canyon at Los Alamos, New Mexico. Judging from what remains at the Mortandad ruins is was a fairly large pueblo built against the cliff face. As at Long House in Bandeliere, cavate rooms were then excavated into the soft volcanic tuff to add additional space behind the constructed rooms. About all that remains to be seen now is a number of cavates illustrating various degrees of erosion. A few seem to be complete, while many provide evidence of how far the cliff face has eroded in intervening centuries. We were led to this site in 2003 by our friends Bill and Jeanne Gibson from nearby Los Alamos.

Deer trap on trail to Mortandad ruin,
Los Alamos County, NM. Photograph
Aug. 2003, Peter Faris.

Although the excavation of the hole would have been fairly easy for these Ancestral Pueblo people, it is after all not as large as the cavate rooms they excavated into the canyon walls, it is still an impressive feature. What I find interesting is that the easiest access, and the assumed drive lines, come out of Mortandad Canyon which was, as mentioned above, well occupied by people. How many wild deer would have felt comfortable enough around that many people to be in place to be driven. Perhaps the situation then was the same as the situation in many suburbs today, where suburban deer have gotten comfortable enough around people to be seen virtually daily. But then, would not the easy hunting have led to a heavy predation on the deer by hunters eliminating any of the animals that were not fully wild? I will have to leave this question to those who know deer behavior better than I do.


Steen, Charlie R.
1977    Pajarito Plateau Archaeological Survey and Excavations, Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory of the University of California, Los Alamos.