Tuesday, September 25, 2018


Haida Wasgo, from a tattoo image.

Among the pantheon of mythical and legendary animals that populated the belief systems of the tribes of the Pacific Northwest was the Sea Wolf. On July 22, 2012, I published a column titled Native American Astronomy - The Constellation Gonakadet/Wasgo, about the beliefs of North American northwest coast tribes in this creature and concerning a constellation in the heavens that they identified with the sea wolf (Faris 2012). A powerful swimming creature with the head of a wolf and the body of a sea creature, some authors have relegated this creature to the realm of mythology, while others have argued it represents a sea serpent or some other crypto-zoological survivor. 

Cliff at Sproat Lake, British
Columbia. Sea Wolf at lower
left of picture.
Photo Peter Faris, 1995.

Sea Wolf from Sproat Lake,
Vancouver Island, British
Columbia, petroglyph.
Photo Peter Faris, 1995.

Gonakadet/Wasgo has the head of a wolf, and a body based upon that of the killer whale. Various other portrayals of him combine these themes, from showing a wolf with fins, to a sea animal with a wolf's head. The sea wolf is one image from the catalog of creatures commonly portrayed in the various media among the tribes of the North American Pacific Northwest. Gonakadet/Wasgo is carved on totem poles woven into basketry and fabrics, shown as tatoos and decoration on tools and utensils, and carved into the rocks as petroglyphs.

Swimming Sea Wolf, i.pinimg.com.

Well, it turns out that there actually are sea wolves and that a few fortunate zoologists (and of course the Native tribes) have always known about them. Known as Gonakadet by the Tlingit, and Wasgo by the Haida, this coastal sub-species of the gray wolf has adapted to a maritime lifestyle and lives predominately on seafood. "Unlike their inland counterparts that hunt deer and caribou, the sea wolves comb the beaches along B.C.'s iconic Great Bear Rainforest and, by and large feed off the ocean. They can swim for miles between coastal islands and eat whatever the sea serves up. They are known to prey on salmon for several months out of the year with fish making up 25 percent of their diet during the spawning season. They hunt seals and sea lions, chew on barnacles, turn up at the herring spawning grounds and feast on whale carcasses. Some even specialize in digging up clams and turning over rocks to look for crabs." (Talmazan 2016)

The sea wolves have been studied for years by British Columbian photdographer Ian McAllister. "We know from exhaustive DNA studies that these wolves are genetically distinct from their continental kin," says McAllister. "They are behaviorally distinct, swimming from island to island and preying on sea animals. They are also morphologically distinct - they are smaller in size and physically different from their mainland counterparts." (Talmazan 2016)

Sea Wolf petroglyphs at Nainamo
Petroglyph Park, Vancouver Island,
British Columbia.
Photo Peter Faris, 1995.

"Chris Darimont, science director at the Raincoast Conservation Foundation, has studied the carnivores' unusual lifestyle for nearly two decades. Coastal wolves live with two paws in the ocean and two paws on land, Darimont says. When hunting for food, sea wolves can swim miles between islands and rocky outcrops to feast on seals and animal carcasses found on the rocks. "Our farthest record [of their swimming abilities] is to an archipelago 7.5 miles [12 kilometers] from the nearest landmass," he says. They once roamed all the way down to California in its former temperate rain forests. Now they only go down to just north of Vancouver", he says." (Petri 2016)

The peoples of the Pacific Coast of North America had a maritime lifestyle, roaming the ocean in their large sea-going canoes. Many of the tribes included whaling in their hunting/gathering inventory and they were used to long ocean voyages. Imagine the experience of a canoe crew a few miles off shore meeting a sea-going wolf swimming by. This story would be told and re-told, perhaps getting embellished in the re-telling, until it became a tenet of their rich and creative mythology.  


Faris, Peter,
2012 Native American Astronomy - The Constellation Gonakadet/Wasgo, July 22, 2012, http://rockartblog.blogspot.com/2012/07/native-american-astronomy-constellation.html

Petri, Alexandra E.
2016 Meet the Rare Swimming Wolves That Eat Seafood, August 3, 2016, https://news.nationalgeographic.com/2016/08/sea-oceans-wolves-animals-science/

Talmazan, Yuliya,
2016 Update: Photo of B.C. Sea Wolf Honoured by National Geographic, Sept. 24, 2016, https://globalnews.ca/news/2239088/national-geographic-puts-spotlight-on-b-c-s-enigmatic-sea-wolves/

Saturday, September 15, 2018



 Halibut, La Pileta Cave, Spain.

The question of the meaning of images in rock art has been perennially discussed. It usually reflects one of two positions; animals in rock art represent spiritual powers that the people perform rites to, or animals in rock art represent groceries for the people producing it. If we visualize these two theses as opposite ends of a spectrum, then most rock art students fall somewhere in between in their own understanding of what they might represent. My position is more toward the groceries end of the scale. (I wrote on this in my May 2, 2011 column; Bighorn Sheep Petroglyphs - Groceries, or Metaphor?) While I cannot deny that people may have had spiritual feelings that involve the animals (in much the same way that the Native Americans revered the bison that they subsisted on), my intuition is that they were more focused on acquiring food than worshiping it.

Close-up, Halibut, La Pileta
Cave, Spain.

I certainly feel that this is the case with the painting of a halibut found in La Pileta Cave, in Spain. La Pileta, in the Province of Malaga, Andalucia, in southern Spain, is currently 34 km. (approx. 21 miles) from the ocean, although with the lowered sea levels during the glacial Paleolithic it would have been farther then. It was certainly not too far for a hunter to have traveled before returning home to picture the remarkable sight he had seen.

"At the end of the longest gallery in the deepest part of the cave, is the "Fish Chamber", which is dominated by La Pileta's most famous drawing: a large black fish (thought to be a halibut), about 5 feet (1.5m) in length." (www.visual-arts-cork.com)

Halibut, wpclipart.com.
Public domain.

The Atlantic halibut "is the largest flatfish in the world, reaching lengths of up to 4.7 m (15 ft) and weights of 320 kg (710 lb). Its lifespan can reach 50 years."(Wikipedia)

The halibut is "not only the largest of flatfishes, but is one of the best characterized; its most obvious distinctive characters, apart from its size, being that fact that it lies on the left side, that its mouth gapes back as far as the eyes, and is armed with sharp curved teeth; that the rear edge of its tail fin is concave, not rounded; that its two ventral fins are alike; and that its lateral line is arched abreast of the pectoral fin. Furthermore it is a narrower fish, relatively, than most of our flatfishes (only about one-third as broad as it is long) but is very thick through, and its eyes are farther apart than they are in most of the other flounders. In the eastern Atlantic, halibut have been reported doubtfully from the Gulf of Cadiz, and definitely from the Bay of Biscay." (http://www.gma.org/fogm/Hippoglossus-hippoglossus.htm)

As to the date of this picture, "one recent radiocarbon test of charcoal taken from a drawing of one of the aurochs in The Sanctuary (of La Pileta), gave a date of 18,130 BCE. Relying on this analysis, archeologists believe that the earliest art in the cave was created during the era of Solutrean art (20,000 - 15,000 BCE), though some of it might belong to the preceding period of Gravettian art (25,000 - 20,000 BCE). The remaining Upper Paleolithic works are assigned to Magdalenian art, created during the period 15,000 - 10,000 BCE." (www.visual-arts-cork.com)

Whether the artist of this picture had been personally involved in hunting for this giant fish, or perhaps, saw it while visiting people who lived along the shore and who possessed more of a maritime culture we cannot know. I can conjecture, however, the impression such a fish would have made on the artist, and understand the desire to record such an experience for the rest of the group.

NOTE: Some 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.





Saturday, September 8, 2018


View of Drinking Reindeer in Les Combarelles,
donsmaps.com, public domain.

I LOVE this one. Carved into the grotto of Les Combarelles, in Les Eyzies de Tayac, Dordogne, France. It was officially discovered by pre-historians Denis Peyrony, Abbe Breull, and Louis Capitan in September, 1901 (although it had been used as a stable by local peasants for years).(Wikipedia) The engraved "Drinking Reindeer" reaches and delicately extends his tongue to lap at water that once seeped from a crack in the wall of the cave.

Drawing of Drinking Reindeer,
Les Combarelles. Peter Faris.

"The long corridor of Les Combarelles extends for 240 m (790 ft) into the heart of the rock - with most of the art only appearing more than 160 m (525 ft) from the entrance - and 14,000 to 12,000 years ago during the late Magdalenian times much of it would have been accessed on hands and knees, or lying flat along the narrowest sections (today the floor level has been deepened, enlarging the height from floor to ceiling to allow easier access for tourists). Although some of the artworks can be clearly seen, such as the reindeer with lowered head drinking water that once emanated from a crack in the rock, the only way of finding much of the more than 600 artworks would have been to carefully look on the walls, oil lamp in hand, one person at a time and face almost pressed against the rock in the narrow space." (David 2017: 181-2)

Drinking Reindeer in Les Combarelles
donsmaps.com, public domain.

Students of rock art love to identify examples of incorporation of natural features into the images, has another example of incorporation ever been so beautifully done? If the measure of art is the emotional response it elicits from the viewer, this is great art - primitive man, who's kidding who?

NOTE: Some 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.


David, Bruno
2017 Cave Art, Thames and Hudson, London.

Hitchcock, Don
2015 Combarelles, http://www.donsmaps.com/combarelles.html