Saturday, March 31, 2018


Public domain.

Mammoth, Public domain.

From the very beginning of cave art studies we have assumed that all cave paintings were made by Paleolithic Homo Sapiens. The splendid paintings of horses, aurochs, deer, and mammoths must have all been made by our ancestors living back at that time. But no one seems to have asked the question "could these have been painted by someone other than us?" Now, in his 2012 book Survival of the Beautiful: Art, Science, and Evolution, David Rothenberg has given us a direct - and unexpected - answer. It turns out that very presentable pictures of elephants can be painted by elephants, and I must therefore assume that very presentable pictures of mammoths and mastodons could have been painted by mammoths and mastodons.

Elephant painting.
Public domain.

Elephant painting.
Public domain.

No less an investigator than Desmond Morris, the great naturalist, has delved into this subject for the Daily Mail. Morris visited an elephant sanctuary in Thailand where he observed elephants painting pictures of elephants, flowers, and trees. These pictures are eagerly snatched up by tourists and the proceeds of the sale help support the elephant sanctuary. These elephants hold a paintbrush in their trunk and, dipping it into paint, then create the image on paper held on a heavy easel, but it could just as easily be painted onto a rock surface.

Paya painting and elephant.
Public domain.
Public domain.

Now it may be that many of the images of mammoths and mastodons found in caves are in locations that elephants could not have gotten to because of small, narrow passages, low ceilings, etc., and in those instances we can credit homo sapiens with the images. However, if the access was otherwise unimpeded I believe that we have to allow for the possibility of non-human creativity in these cave paintings, at least on April Fool's Day. 

NOTE: Images in this posting were retrieved from the internet with 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.


Morris, Desmond,
2009    Can Jumbo Elephants Really Paint?, 21 February 2009,

Rothenberg, David
2012    Survival of the Beautiful: Art, Science, and Evolution, Bloomsbury Pub., London.

Sunday, March 25, 2018


Lascaux cave, France.,
Public domain.

The old idea that rock art was produced in places influenced by the presence of echoes has resurfaced in a new manifestation. "For years, researchers have known that rock artists didn't paint their bison, bears, lions and other images in random locations. Art tends to show up on places where echoes in rocky grottos and caves bounce back to listening human ears. That suggests there's something about the acoustical landscape of caves that may have inspired or focused ancient artists. Archaeologists have even used the pattern as a way to find new cave art" (Fessenden 2018)

"Inspired by this pattern, MIT linguistics professor Shigeru Miyagawa and a team of researchers from Tokyo and Brazil came up with an idea. What if cave art represented a way that early humans tried to communicate about the sounds they heard by visually representing what the echoes sounded like." (Fessenden 2018)

I have written elsewhere (March 10, 2010, Echoes at Rock Art Sites, and October 14, 2012, Echoes at Rock Art Sites - Revisited) about my skepticism toward this theory. Rock art is generally produced on the smoothest,flattest, surfaces available, exactly the same surfaces that produce the best echoes. Yes, rock art and echoes often go together, but that is a coincidence, not evidence of an intentional relationship. Many years ago, at the Grand Gallery in Horseshoe Canyon, Utah, I observed a strange young man running around tapping on the rocks in front of the rock art panel and recording the resulting echoes (he was inordinately proud of his mallet which he explained was made from elk antler). Indeed, I have been at rock art sites which produce marvelous echoes, the Grand Gallery being one, but I am still skeptical about there being an intentional correlation. How many wonderful rock art sites do not produce strong echoes?

Perhaps, as Miyagawa posited, there are some cave paintings meant to visually represent what echoes sound like. (Fessenden 2018) But that is certainly not what most of them are about.

Chauvet cave, France.,
Public domain.

"Some specific features of cave art may provide clues about how our symbolic, multifaceted language capabilities evolved, according to a new paper co-authored by MIT linguist Shigeru Miyagawa." (Dizikes 2018)

"A key to this idea is that cave art is often located in acoustic "hot spots," where sound echoes strongly, as some scholars have observed. Those drawings are located in deeper, harder-to-access parts of caves, indicating that acoustics was a principal reason for the placement of drawings whithin caves. The drawings, in turn, may represent the sounds that early humans generated in those spots." (Dizikes 2018)

"In the new paper, this convergence of sound and drawing is what the authors call a "cross-modality information transfer," a convergence of auditory information and visual art that, the authors write, "allowed early humans to enhance their ability to convey symbolic thinking." The combination of sounds and images is one of the things that characterizes human language today, along with its symbolic aspect and its ability to generate infinite new sentences."  (Dizikes 2018)

Rouffignac cave, France.
Public domain.

"Cave art was part of the package deal in terms of how homo sapiens came to have this very high-level cognitive processing," says Miyagawa, a professor of linguistics and the Kochi-Manjiro Professor of Japanese Language and Culture at MIT. "You have this very concrete cognitive process that converts an acoustic signal into some mental representation and externalizes it as a visual" Cave artists were not just early-day Monets, drawing impressions of the outdoors at their leisure. Rather, they may have been engaged in a process of communication." (Dizikes 2018)

The last couple of sentences above shows how dangerous it can be for someone to make statements about something that he knows nothing about. The idea that Monet was not aware that he was engaged in the process of communication displays a depth of ignorance about art in general, and Monet's impressionism in particular, that throws all of the other assumptions about art's role in this theory into doubt. Monet approached his Impressionism in very much the same way that a scientist approaches his subject. Monet was studying, and trying to reproduce, the effects of light on various surfaces, and then convey that effect to the viewer. That cave art was "part of the package deal in terms of how homo sapiens came to have this very high-level cognitive processing" is obvious, and should not have to be spelled out.

Chauvet cave, France.,
Public domain.

On May 21, 2016, I wrote on RockArtBlog, in Rock Art, and the Development of Intelligence, that "the creation of this rock art not only signaled a certain level of cognitive development, it actually contributed to that development, and the different types of creations made different contributions to that development." (Faris 2016) A recent study had proven that the process of making stone tools actually led to changes in the brain that could be seen in brain circuitry scans, and I postulated that the same process would be found in the creation of rock art. Indeed, as the creation of different types of tools caused different changes in the brain, so too would the creation of different types of art.
"The results of our own imaging studies on stone toolmaking led us recently to propose that neural circuits, including the inferior frontal gyrus, underwent changes to adapt to the demands of Paleolithic toolmaking and then were co-opted to support primitive forms of communication using gestures and, perhaps, vocalizations. This protolinguistic communication would then have been subjected to selection, ultimately producing the specific adaptations that support modern human language." (Stout 2016:35)
In other words, like any muscle in the human body, these abilities would be improved by using them. The process of doing so actually enhanced the brain in a way that increased these abilities. Some of the assumptions in Miyagawa's theory would seem to bear this out, that producing cave art was a vital step in the cognitive development of homo sapiens. In this, I agree that Miyagawa got some of this right, but notice that Stout's study did not mention echoes.

So to cut to the chase, did the selection of sites for rock art have anything to do with echoes heard in caves? Probably - in some cases. Did the production of rock art have anything to do with cognitive development in early homo sapiens? Definitely. Is all rock art dependent upon the acoustic properties of its location for meaning? Definitely not.

NOTE: Images in this posting were retrieved from the internet with 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.


Dizikes, Peter,
2018 New Study Links Ancient Cave Art Drawings and the Emergence of Language, February 22, 2018, -language.

Faris, Peter,
2016 Rock Art, and the Development of Intelligence, May 21, 2016,

Fessenden, Marissa
2018 Did Cave Acoustics Play a Role in the Development of Language? February 26, 2018,

Stout, Dietrich
2016    Cognitive Psychology: Tales of a Stone Age Neuroscientist, pages 28-35, Scientific American, Volume 314, Number 4, April, 2016.

Saturday, March 17, 2018


Orca geoglyph, Palpa, Peru.
public domain. 

A wonderful geoglyph of what what has been identified as an orca has been found and restored in the Palpa region of southern Peru, near the famous Nazca Lines.
"Archaeologists rediscovered a giant geoglyph of a killer whale, etched into a desert hillside in the remote Palpa region of southern Peru, after it had been lost to science for more than 50 years. The 230-foot-long (70 meters) figure of an orca - considered a powerful, semi-mythical creature in ancient Peruvian lore - may be more than 2,000 years old, according to the researchers. They said it may be one of the oldest geoglyphs in the Palpa region, and older than those in the nearby Nazca region, which is famous for its vast collection of ancient ground markings - the Nazca Lines - that include animal figures, straight lines and geometrical shapes." (Metcalfe 2017)

However, in a strange and ironic twist, its discoverer first located it in Bonn, Germany, and then later relocated it on the ground in Peru. "Archaeologist Johny Isla, the head of Peru's Ministry of Culture in Ica province, which includes the Palpa and Nazca valleys, explained that he saw a single photograph of the orca pattern for the first time about four years ago. He'd seen it while researching studies of geoglyphs at the German Archaeological Institute in Bonn." (Metcalfe 2017)

Nazca pottery orca stirrup
- public domain.

"The photograph appeared in an archaeological catalog of geoglyphs printed in the 1970s, which was based on research carried out in Palpa and Nazca by German archaeologists in the 1960s, Isla said. But the location and size of the orca geoglyph were not well-described in the catalog, Isla told Live Science in an email. As a result, he said, the glyph's whereabouts in the desert hills of the Palpa Valley, about 250 miles (400 kilometers) south of Lima, were by then unknown to local people or scientists." (Metcalfe 2017)

"After returning to Peru, Isla looked for the orca geoglyph on Google Earth and then on foot. "It was not easy to find it, because the [location and description] data were not correct, and I almost lost hope," he said. "However, I expanded the search area and finally found it a few months later," in January 2015." (Metcalfe 2017)

Nazca pottery orca stirrup
jar, Larco Museum, Lima,
Peru - public domain.

This orca is therianthropic, with a human arm under the lower jaw on the left side. This is a symbol that is common on Nazca pottery. It turns out that many Nazca representations of killer whales possess these humanoid arms, often clutching trophy heads. The number of its fins is also a discrepancy. An actual killer whale has one dorsal and two ventral fins, as well as a tail that ends in a horizontal triangular shape. The geoglyph has five fins showing, three dorsal and two ventral (and there should be a matching pair of ventral fins on the opposite side). Additionally, its tail is notched as if somewhat divided. What these differences might have represented mythologically to the people of that time we probably cannot know.

NOTE: Images in this posting were retrieved from the internet with 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.


Larco Museum, Lima, Peru.

Metcalfe, Tom
2017   2,000 Year Old Killer Whale Geoglyph Found in Peru Desert, November 28, 2017,

Saturday, March 10, 2018


Two camels, The Camel Site,
Saudi Arabia. Public domain,

In university art departments there is a common practice known as the artist-in-residence. This is usually a working artist brought in from outside the university for a term to provide the students a good example of a working artist as well as broaden their range of experience.

The Camel Site, Saudi 
Arabia. Public domain,

"In 2016, archaeologists discovered a site in what appears, at first glance, to be the middle of nowhere. There isn't much else around for miles: the surrounding desert is bleak and inhospitable. Which is why archaeologists were surprised to find at least 11 carved dromedary camels protruding from stones at what they call 'the camel site.' The international team of archaeologists has now published their analysis of the site in the Cambridge journal Antiquity." (Hugo 2018) At first glance, these relief carvings, apparently done by someone who came from somewhere else, reminded me of artists-in-residence.

Map of location,

"The archaeologists studying the weather-beaten "Camel Site in Al Jawf, a province in northwest Saudi Arabia near Jordan, suggest the sculptures are a facet of broader Arabian tradition that was probably influenced by the Parthians (ancient Iranians) and nomadic Nabateans from preceding centuries." (Schuster 2018) Because of the location most of the severe erosion of the images would have been caused by the abrasion of wind-blown sand. This style of relief carving was certainly common in parts of the Middle East at this time, but such reliefs were not common in Saudi Arabia, making the possibility that they originated with foreign travelers more likely.

The Camel Site, Saudi
Arabia. Public domain,

"The somewhat eroded statues are tentatively dated at around 2,000 old, give or take a century or more, according to a collaboration between the French National Center for Scientific Research and the Saudi Commission for Tourism and National Heritage reported this week in the Cambridge journal of Antiquity." (Schuster 2018)

The Camel Site, Saudi
Arabia. Public domain,

Given the facts that the style of carving is uncommon in the Saudi Arabia of the time, that the location of the carvings is a likely rest stop along a caravan route, and that the subjects (beasts of burden) would be most common among caravans, the conclusion that they source of the carvings was caravaneers is inescapable. Two other animals that are portrayed may be horses or donkeys, other beasts of burden that may have accompanied caravans.

 The Camel Site, Saudi
Arabia. Public domain,

My artist-in-residence analogy above is not really applicable for there were probably no permanent residences, or art departments. Based upon what can be seen today the location was probably a temporary stop along a caravan route.  However, the fact that it would have taken considerable time and effort for some of the carvings suggests that something more was involved.
"Some of the sculptures were so high up the rock that they must have required ropes or scaffolding. They had journeyed for miles and carved deep lines in the rock to depict their traveling companions. However, as (the) rocky spot is along a caravan route, the camel site could have been a resting place where travelers created images and reliefs of their four-legged friends (which) carried them and their goods from place to place." (Hugo 2018)

Perhaps the caravans left a cache of water and/or other supplies at this spot for their return trip, and one or more attendants may have stayed behind to safeguard it. To pass the time they may have done the carving. In any case, the images now provide clues to aspects of life in this part of the world 2,000 years ago.

NOTE: Images in this posting were retrieved from the internet with 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.


Hugo, Kristin
2018 Ancient Rock Carvings Discovered in Saudi Arabia Hint at Artists From Faraway Lands, February 14, 2018,

Schuster, Ruth
2018 2,000 Year Old Life-Size Camel Art Found In Heart of Saudi Arabian Desert, Feb. 13, 2018,

Saturday, March 3, 2018


Woolsthorpe Manor, Lincolnshire,
Great Britain, home of
Sir Isaac Newton.
Recent investigations have found evidence that the famous 17th century scientist, Sir Isaac Newton, created rock art, drawings scratched into the interior surface of stone blocks his home was constricted from. "Using a photographic technique to survey interior surfaces of Sir Isaac Newton's childhood home, Woolsthorpe Manor, in Lincolnshire, England, conservator Chris Pickup has discovered a doodle of a windmill drawn by the scientist as a young man." (Brown 2018)

Woolsthorpe Manor is not only where Newton famously observed the apple falling from a tree which led him to theories on gravitation, but also where he conducted his experiments with a prism that gave him his understanding of light. "Newton was born in 1642 and grew up in the house, returning in 1665 when he left Cambridge during an outbreak of the plague." (Brown 2018)

Windmill, by Sir Isaac Newton,

"' Paper was expensive, and the walls of the house would have been repainted regularly, so using them as a sketchpad as he explored the world around him would have made sense," said Jim Grevatte, a program manager at Woolsthorpe Manor, in a press release." (Traverso 2017)

This practice was recorded in 1752 by Sir Isaac's friend and visitor William Stukeley. "After visiting Woolsthorpe Manor, William Stukeley, biographer of the great scientist remarked: 'The walls, & ceelings were full of drawings, which he had made with charcole. There were birds, beasts, men, ships, plants, mathematical figures, circles & triangles.'" (Collins 2018) In a wonderful coincidence, William Stukeley was one of our earliest archaeologists. "He pioneered the archaeological investigation of the prehistoric monuments of Stonehenge and Avebury." (Wikipedia)

            Windmill in black, other lines
              in red, by Sir Isaac Newton,

Conservator Chris Pickup discovered the new drawing during a careful study of the interior surfaces. "Previous sketches had been found in the 1920s and 1930s by tenants moving into the home, which is now owned by the National Trust, the largest conservations organization in England. Pickup and his team are currently studying the building, which is where Newton undertook his prism experiment and allegedly observed the famous apple falling from a tree, in order to understand more about the scientist's early investigations." (Traverso 2017)

"The technology, called reflectance transformation imaging (RTI), creates a synthesis of multiple digital images, allowing researchers to identify features invisible to the naked eye. "Each RTI requires over 24 photographs, so each small section is time consuming," Pickup explains." (Brown 2018)

Now I totally regret scolding our granddaughter for scribbling on our wall, I might have nipped another great genius in the bud.

Memorial plaque with sundial
plate, cut with a penknife by
Sir Isaac Newton in 1651, in
St John the Baptist's church,
Colsterworth, Lincolnshire,
Great Britain. Wikipedia.

PS: Another stone carving by Sir Isaac Newton is this sundial that he reportedly carved with a penknife in 1651 at the age of 9, in St. John the Baptist's church, Colsterworth, Lincolnshire, Great Britain. The inscription reads ""Newton: aged 9 years cut with his penknife this dial: the stone was given by C. Turnor Esqre, and placed here at the cost of the Rt. Hon. Sir William Erle, a collateral descendent of Newton. 1877."


Brown, Marley
2018 Newtonian Whiteboard, Archaeology Magazine, March-April 2018, p. 21

Collins, Tim
2018 Hidden Drawing by Sir Isaac Newton is Found Carved Into a Well of His Childhood Home Using a Revolutionary Light Trick Inspired by the Scientist,

Traverso, Vittoria
2017 Found: A Hidden Drawing in Sir Isaac Newton's Childhood Home,, December 8, 2017.