Saturday, September 14, 2019



Front cover.

I have received another volume of rock art in the series published by the Oregon Archaeological Society; Visions for Life and Death: Pictographs of the Lower Columbia River, by Keyser, James D., David A. Kaiser, and David L. Minick, 2019, Oregon Archaeological Society Publication #26, Portland, Oregon. ( I have personal ties (family history) to the region, and have spent considerable time there, so I was pleased to be able to delve deeper into the rock art and customs of the aboriginal inhabitants of that (the Dalles/Deschutes) area. The bulk of the rock art there is found to be either Central Columbia Plateau Style, or Yakima Polychrome Style. I have some little familiarity with these as, back in August 1983, I had visited a large Yakima Polychrome style site on a cliff by the river at Yakima, Washington, and, in July 2000, I had the opportunity to spend a day with Jim Keyser examining rock art in this (the Dalles/Deschutes) area, including some of the Spedis Creek panels (I have had a few other opportunities to visit rock art around the Dalles as well). This is some of my favorite rock art and I am very happy to have this detailed book about it.
Map of the study area.
Fig. 2, p. 3.

"Painted at two sites in the lower Columbia River region are fascinating sets of pictographs detailing the ritual activities of the people who have lived along the Columbia and Deschutes rivers for thousands of years. Bright red and red-and-white polychrome pictographs found at Spedis Creek and Harris Canyon document the vision quests of shamans and laypersons and show the deeply held beliefs people had about the Supernatural world. Informed by ethnography and mythology, these paintings are a testament to generations of people practicing their customs and passing their traditions and knowledge on to others. 
With dozens of photographs and color plates, accompanied by other illustrations, as well as various maps and charts, the authors present the first detailed study of a Yakima Polychrome type site. In addition, they undertake a detailed comparison between that site and a much simpler group of pictographs at the nearby Harris Canyon site."  
This publisher's statement from the back cover of the book only begins to describe this volume. 

Columbia River canyon
in study area,
Fig. 3, p. 4.

With a wealth of photographs as well as comparative tables and charts, the imagery from this study area is integrated with rock art of the greater region. It should be noted that this is also the area that houses the great Tsagaglalal, "She Who Watches", but that is slightly outside the study area covered by this volume.

Black and white recording,
Fig. 5, p. 12.

As important as the results of such a comprehensive study are, there is another important aspect of this, the process itself. Because they were not allowed to do mylar tracings (by the Washington State Parks Department) the black and white images which look like marvelously detailed field drawings are actually photographs processed with D-stretch, Photoshopped, and then printed in black and white. "During the Spedis Creek/Harris Canyon project we made no direct tracings of the pictographs or petroglyphs at either site. Instead we based our recordings of the imagery entirely on color digital photography. This exclusive reliance on color photography results in some issues that must be discussed. The first is our production and use of what we term photo-tracings. There are two sorts of such images. The simplest is stipple tracing done directly from the photograph. This is much like a direct tracing of an image, but one cannot control for the parallax that occurs when the camera lens is not absolutely parallel to the painted or carved surface, or when the surface itself has irregularities.
Other photo-tracings are made using the "color-replacer" tool in the Paintshop Pro or Photoshop programs. This technical operation involves selecting the color of the parts of an image one wishes to save and removing all other color from the photograph.
Using photographs already manipulated by the DStretch enhancement often means that the image of the pictograph one wishes to preserve  is shown in the photograph as some combination of strange pink, white, orange, or even grey-black colors. Clearly making such a photo-tracing with the use of the color-replacer tool is a complex technical process that must be carefully orchestrated to eventually produce a two-color, black-and-white version of the image in the photograph." (pages 14-15) This will undoubtedly prove an important technique for many rock art recording projects in the future.

Spedis Creek panel,
enhanced with DStretch.
Plate 27.

One problem I have found in the past in recording rock art with team members who have artistic training is that they often cannot resist the urge to make small changes to improve it - "to make it look better."  That is changing the image, not recording it. In one recording project that I led a number of the field sketches by "artists" (self-identified, not academically trained) had to be discarded. Normally I would say that there is a danger in using such photo manipulation to produce the final record, that decisions might be made on the basis of creating an attractive result, not the most accurate one, but with this team, and knowing Jim Keyser, I am fully confident that the final record is as accurate as it can possibly be. 

All in all "Visions for Life and Death" is a marvelously detailed book by a highly professional team, of an area rich in important rock art. And, another important publication by the Oregon Archaeological Society. I am grateful to all of them for this contribution to the record of Northwestern rock art, and at an almost giveaway price.

The book is:

Keyser, James D., David A. Kaiser, and David L. Minick
2019 Visions for Life and Death: Pictographs of the Lower Columbia River, Oregon Archaeological Society Publication #26, Portland, Oregon. 
8.5″X11″ 112 pages, 59 illustrations, 6 pages of color photos
ISBN #: 978-0-9915200-4-6
OAS publication #26
Price $16.00 plus $4.00 Shipping and Handling.

Saturday, September 7, 2019

HERE THEY COME AGAIN: Decoding European Palaeolithic Art: Extremely Ancient Knowledge of Precession of the Equinoxes.

Pillar 43 at Gobekli Tepe, Turkey.
Photo from the Internet,
Public domain.

On December 1, 2018, I posted a column titled Astronomy in Rock Art – Decoding Gobekli Tepe? about wild speculation that carvings at Gobekli Tepe can be read, and encode the date of a comet strike on earth that caused the Younger Dryas. This claim was published by Martin B. Sweatman and Dimitrios Tsikritsis of the Engineering Department of the of Edinburgh in a paper titled Decoding Gobekli Tepe With Archaeoastronomy: What Does The Fox Say?, (see References below for complete citation). Now, Sweatman is back with even more sweeping and far-fetched claims. He and new partner Alistair Coombs have published Decoding European Palaeolithic Art: Extremely Ancient knowledge of Precession of the Equinoxes.

To try to prove their case statistically they go through a complicated chain of logic that states that their interpretation has only “around 1 in 100 million” chance of being wrong, or from their Appendix B, “Multiplying all these probabilities together gives a chance of 1 in 300 thousand that Göbekli Tepe does not implicate the Taurid meteor stream in the Younger Dryas impact event.” (Sweatman and Coombs 2019:12) Now I am not a statistician, and if I was really good at mathematics I would probably not be an art historian, but to me this is actually ridiculous. It depends on their having been correct in their suppositions in identifying 12 star constellations/asterisms with carved animals at Gobekli Tepe. I have said before that we do not even know if all of these ancient cultures identified constellations/asterisms in the sky, and if they did we cannot begin to guess what they saw. Yet, this whole construct is built on guessing that their 12 identifications are correct. This is one of those logic chains that starts with a whole bunch of maybes and then uses them to supposedly definitely prove something – you cannot do that.

In my December 1, 2018, column Astronomy in Rock Art – Decoding Gobekli Tepe? I presented Sweatman’s theory that the vulture pillar at Gobekli Tepe is a record of a comet that struck the earth and caused the Younger Dryas climate event (see Sweatman and Tsikritsis 2017). They matched images from the carvings on pillar 43 with constellations (all assumed on their part, there are no records proving any connection). They then used their relative positions to calculate a date which they presented as the date of the cosmic catastrophe.

Shaft scene at Lascaux cave,
France. Photo from the
Internet, Public domain.

Now, using the same logic(?), they have expanded their studies to Paleolithic Europe. “The final piece of the logic puzzle is provided by the famous Shaft Scene at Lascaux which has an almost identical interpretation to the Vulture Stone at Gobekli Tepe. They differ only in the date of the catastrophe memorialized and the recorded radiant of the cometary strike.” (Sweatman and Coombs 2019:6)

“Another clue to the meaning of the shaft scene is provided by the fact that only four different animal symbols are displayed here; a bison/aurochs, duck/goose, and rhinoceros (to the left of the falling/dying man) on the main wall with a horse on the rear wall. -  The horse on the back wall is not often described as being part of this scene, but it is central to the interpretation described next.

Similarities with Gobekli Tepe’s Vulture Stone are striking. Both display a man, possibly dead or dying and both display four prominent animal symbols. At Gobekli Tepe the four animals are the vulture/eagle, bear, ibex/gazelle and tall bending bird corresponding to the four solstices and equinoxes at the date of the Younger Dryas event. It is therefore sensible to enquire whether the Shaft Scene at Lascaux is equivalent to the Vulture Stone of Gobekli Tepe and can therefore be decoded using the same method.” (Sweatman and Coombs 2019:6)

“Noting the bison/aurochs and duck/goose symbols in the Shaft Scene, and using Table 1 and Stellarium we immediately find the following;

  • Bison/aurochs = Capricornus = summer solstice between 15,350 and 13,000 BC
  • Duck/goose = Libra = spring equinox between 15,700 and 14,100 BC
Therefore, this scene might represent a date anywhere between 15,350 and 14,100 BC. To narrow down this range we need to consider the other two animal symbols. Unfortunately, neither of these symbols has previously been decoded. But logically, they are unlikely to correspond to constellations that have already been decoded. When we consider this date range we see the following possibilities;

  • Autumn equinox: Taurus 15,350 to 14, 950 BC, or Aries 14,950 to 14,100 BC
  • Winter solstice: Leo 15,350 to 14,800  BC, or Cancer 14,800 to 14,100 BC
Given that in Tables 1 and 2, Aries is represented by the ram and Cancer is represented by a large feline, and that rams and felines are recorded in Palaeolithic art, it is likely the date range is limited to between 15,350 and 14,950 BC, and therefore the rhinoceros and horse likely represent Taurus and Leo. When we consider these constellations at sunset (see Table 3), which is the convention for this system (1), we find that the rhinoceros and horse are good fits to their respective constellations (Taurus and Leo), which provides further confidence in this interpretation. We therefore suggest that the Shaft Scene encodes the date 15,150 ± 200 BC, and we have now completed our ancient zodiac.” (Sweatman and Coombs 2019:6-7)

They have identified 12 constellations in this ancient zodiac. Perhaps a natural assumption considering that our zodiac has 12 constellations in it, we are pre-programmed to think that is the correct number (and please don’t come back to me with comments about how the phases of the moon in a lunar year determine the number and it’s rising month by month mark the constellations). But, we have no way of actually knowing what constellations the ancient Europeans who painted Lascaux, or the ancient Anatolians of Gobekli Tepe, thought they saw in the sky, let alone the number (if any) that they identified.

“Now that we have a date, we can try to interpret the scene. What should we make of the falling/dying man and the speared/dying bison. Given that the Vulture Stone at Gobekli Tepe very likely refers to the Younger Dryas event and, according to Napier and Clube’s theory of coherent catastrophism, this is unlikely to be an isolated incident, could the Shaft Scene represent another encounter with the Taurid meteor stream? At Gobekli Tepe, the fox featured on the largest central pillars of the largest enclosure yet uncovered, indicating the event dated by the Vulture Stone refers to a cosmic event from the direction of northern Aquarius. Instead, the Shaft Scene displays an injured aurochs, representing Capricornus, not a fox. Is the aurochs here equivalent to the fox at Gobekli Tepe? To answer this we need to consider the precession of the Taurid meteor stream.

As described earlier, the longitude of the ascending node of the Taurid meteor stream is expected to precess at the rate of one zodiacal sign every six thousand years. Today the Taurid meteor stream radiant is centered (and hence maximal) over Aries. Therefore, at the time of the Younger Dryas event, around 13 thousand years ago, it would have been certered over Aquarius, described at Gobekli Tepe in terms of the fox. On the date depicted by the Shaft Scene, around 17 thousand years ago, its center would have been over Capricornus. Therefore, the injured aurochs in the Shaft Scene is consistent with its interpretation as a Taurid meteor strike from the direction of Capricornus. Hence the injured or dying man might indicate a catastrophic encounter with the Taurids, as for the Vulture Stone of Gobekli Tepe.”  (Sweatman and Coombs 2019:7)

Remember, above I quoted their claim that their interpretation has only “around 1 in 100 million” chance of being wrong.” Looking at all of their suppositions and the maybes/mights/possibly/perhapses it took them to reach their conclusion, how realistic do you think this claim sounds now?

Here at RockArtBlog, I really do not like to write attacks on people’s beliefs. I would much rather act as a cheerleader for a wonderful new theory or project. But, since these authors have academic credentials they get away with this, and this kind of nonsense needs to be called out. Go back and read their papers for yourselves. I could not find a single conclusion of theirs that is actually based upon provable fact. My own calculation on this says that they have about a 1 in 50,000 chance of being correct, but like I said, I am not a mathematician. If they had only learned the use of the words “maybe” and “perhaps” I could accept their work as interesting speculation, but never as proven fact. I do, however, invite you to check and decide for yourself.

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 original reports at the sites listed below.


Faris, Peter
2018 Astronomy in Rock Art – Decoding Gobekli Tepe?, December 1, 2018,

Sweatman, Martin B., and Dimitrios Tsikritsis,
2017 Decoding Gobekli Tepe With Archaeoastronomy: What Does The Fox Say?, p. 233-50, Mediterranean Archaeology and Archaeometry (open access), Vol. 17, No. 1.

Sweatman, Martin B., and Alistair Coombs,
2019 Decoding European Palaeolithic Art: Extremely Ancient Knowledge of Precession of the Equinoxes, Athens Journal of History, Vol. 5, No. 1, pages 1-30.

Friday, August 30, 2019


Claviforms, Chauvet Cave, France.
Internet, Public Domain.

Horizontal claviforms, Altamira
Cave, Spain. ca. 35,600 BP. 
Bruno, Cave Art, fig. 144, p. 166.

One of the common symbols in Paleolithic European art is designated a claviform. "Derived from the Latin word for "club-shaped", a standard claviform is defined as a vertical "P-sign", ( and is sometimes described by archaeologists as a stylized female figure."Although the earliest claviforms come from Altamira Cave in Spain (34,000 BCE), they are found in approximately 17% of the decorated caves in France, earliest in the French Alps (ca. 20,000 BCE), and later in the southwest (ca. 15,000 - 10,000 BCE)." (

"Such stylized depictions of women are believed to fall in a category somewhere between a drawing and a sign. In fact many signs found in caves can be considered further abstractions of the female drawings. The French call such symbols claviform signs. Claviform signs are female - because they are an abstraction of the form of a woman's body." (Aczel 2009:78)

Roche de Lalinde Cave, France.
Internet, Public Domain.

Combarelles Cave, France.
Internet, Public Domain.

The first thing to notice is that they are not all the same, indeed, if we take the claviform as an abstracted female form, they represent two different philosophies; in the commonly accepted breakdown there are men who are more interested in the upper torso and men who are more interested in the posterior. Yes, they might all represent the female form, but they seem to focus on two different aspects of that form. Some of the depictions place the bulge on the upper portion of the torso, others place it on the lower portion, implying a focus on either the upper or lower attributes of the female anatomy.

Gonnersdorf Cave, Germany.
Internet, Public Domain.

Petersfels Cave, Germany.
Internet, Public Domain.

Many small portable examples are also found, carved out of bone or ivory.


Pech Merle, stylized female figure.
Aczel, Amir D., The Cave and the
Cathedral, 2009.

These signs also seem, as one would expect, to have developed over the passage of time, with a progressive abstraction of the shape of the female torso "in caves in the department of Lot, that is Pech Merle and Cougnac, which lie east of Les Eyzies, there is an abundance of claviform signs. At Pech Merle, which was dated to several periods that spanned thousands of years of artistic work, one finds realistic depictions of the entire female form in its early period of around 20,000 years ago." (Aczel 2009:184)

This process of abstraction, from realism to a symbol or sign, is a commonly recognized phenomenon in Art History. As Aczel described it: "such stylized depictions of women are believed to fall into a category somewhere between a drawing and a sign. In fact, many signs found in caves can be considered further abstractions of the female drawings of Pech Merle." (Aczel 2009:78)

I have pointed out before that the normal progression of a subject in art is to begin with realism and evolve through steps into abstraction. Then a cultural change makes the previous imagery/style irrelevant to the artist and the process starts over again with new examples of realism. I can think of few examples that illustrate that principle better than the case of the claviform signs.

NOTE: I find it ironic that the obviously feminine-shaped symbol was named for a weapon instead (I think Freud might have had something to say about this).

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 original reports at the sites listed below.


Aczel, Amir D.
2009 The Cave and the Cathedral: How a Real-Life Indiana Jones and a Renegade Scholar Decoded the Ancient Art of Man, John Wiley & Sons, Inc., Hoboken, NJ.

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

Sunday, August 25, 2019


Symmetrical animation, 
implied motion - running
horses. Lascaux cave, France.
Image from the Internet,
Public domain.

Back in April of this year, I wrote two columns about animation effects in rock art, on April 20, 2019, Prehistoric Animation – Paleolithic Thaumatropes?, and on April 12, 2019, Animation in Paleolithic Cave Painting – The Flicker Effect. These both speculated about Paleolithic artists’ attempts to produce the illusion of motion in works of art. There is, however, another interpretation of animation in art. That is creating images of animals (or other objects) that are in implied motion. A 2009 paper by Luis and Fernandez reminded me of this (see References below).

Symmetrical animation, 
Côa Valley, Portugal. Ibex with
multiple legs, implied running
or leaping. Luis and Fernandez,
Fig.17, p. 1311.

Many, if not most, of the images of animals on the rocks of the Côa Valley in Portugal (and elsewhere as well) are shown as if they are in the process of moving. Legs may be shown in a walking position, heads might be raised or lowered, the animals might be looking around, any pose that implies a motion can be referred to as animated. Indeed, in Art History, one of the attributes that we look for in art is whether it is animated or static. Whether figures in the picture seem to have been captured in motion or are standing still.

Segmentary animation,
Côa valley, Portugal, Horse with
vertical head motion, Luis and
Fernandez, Fig. 15, p. 1311.

Luis and Fernandez (2009) compared this to the image on a single frame in a strip of motion picture film. “We should also note that the “static” depiction of movement (in a single frame) is the essential component of any motion picture creation process. More than being just one in the long succession of images that synchronized together create a “movie”, each single frame alone suggests movement of the (afterwards “moving”) pictured object, as static as it might appear in just one frame. A simple pose or privileged instant can already convey movement.” (Luís and Fernandes 2009:1304)
In other words, they are saying that a single picture in a pose can still be thought of as one split-second in a sequence of movement.

Symmetrical animation, 
implied motion - running
horses. Lascaux cave, France.
Image from the Internet,
Public domain.

The authors classify their “animation” into a number of categories. Among these are: Symmetrical animation – “the flying gallop”; Asymmetrical animation – limbs having different lengths with the forelegs shorter and the hind legs frequently depicted moving backwards, as if the animal is jumping; Segmentary animation – one part shown moving, i.e. the head, tail, etc.; Coordinated animation – complex coordinated movements involving primarily the positions of the legs and legs and head, or tail; Multiple contours; Movement decomposition – a distortion in voluntary movement in which motion occurs in a distinct sequence of isolated steps rather than in a smooth, flowing pattern; and Animation by Pose – snapshot moments (from Leroi-Gourhan). These fit nicely into the traditional definition of animation in art history.

Symmetrical animation, 
implied motion - running
reindeer. Lascaux cave, France.
Image from the Internet,
Public domain.

“Right from the first publications on the Côa Valley Upper Palaeolithic motifs, animation through representation of figures with multiple heads was considered as one of the originalities of this rock art complex. Albeit this form of representation of movement by means of decomposition was regarded as meaningful, the Côa rock art possesses great variety of techniques in movement depiction. If fact, the vast majority of movement portrayal in the Côa belongs to the category that Leroi-Gourhan defines in this typology as the representation of significant attitudes: poses, privileged moments or “snapshots.”” (Luís and Fernandes 2009:1307)

Now, I wish they had not gone there because I have never been comfortable with Leroi-Gourhan. While obviously a pioneer in the field of rock art, his interpretations have a whole lot more to do with his own feelings, his prejudices, and philosophies, than they ever had with the lives and motives of Paleolithic artists. Be that as it may, they look back on him for part of their inspiration.

Symmetrical animation, 
implied motion - Aurochs.
Lascaux cave, France.
Image from the Internet,
Public domain.

“We consider (as others have pointed out) that rock art, as any other product (of) human activity, anywhere and at any given moment, has manifold overlapping meanings. In today’s world of “Homo globalis”, it is common sense, perhaps a truism, to state that explanations are complex before they become simple and vice-versa. Nevertheless, many times in science, new (or “recycled”) theories are presented as the “new-all-explaining mantra” since they were produced (also) with the intent of disproving older ones. Rock art studies are no exception and often competing interpretation proposals may be used together (depending on the specific circumstances of each case, evidently) to try to build and enhance our contemporary understanding of prehistoric rock art, since precise original meaning is forever lost in the depths of time.” (Luís and Fernandes 2009:1313)

The idea that the Art Historian’s concept of “animated” can be applied to the rock art of the Côa valley seems to be wholly sound. Moreover, it need not stop there. These concepts can be applied to rock and cave art from around the world as can be seen in the examples from Lascaux I have included..

Luís and Fernandes also go farther, at the end of their paper they propose a new motivation for the creation of rock art – entertainment.

“At this point, we will draw on the depiction of movement phenomena to suggest another interpretation model for rock art that might complement and combine existing ones: that rock art can also be just a pure form of entertainment.  Entertainment in a similar manner as today we understand the concept, but also beyond, as an ontological, cultural, socio-economic tool to indoctrinate society or individuals within a society: an appealing way of conveying meaning is the most effective fashion to assure its deliverance and comprehension. Our argument is that human beings, regardless of precise circumstances, always had need for ways of alleviating the harsh truth about existence (in an escapist fashion, if you will), the finite nature of life. Thus religious or spiritual beliefs, with all the attached paraphernalia of all explaining myths, coded signs or magical rites, can also be seen as a form of entertainment. The use of entertainment devices will assure that the intended, but not always transparent or entirely conscious, social cohesion message or “command” is delivered and complied with in a more successful way.” (Luís & Fernandes 2009:1313-14)

I want to congratulate, and thank, Luis and Fernandes for their original and creative thinking, as well as for giving us more to think about ourselves.

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 original reports at the sites listed below.


Faris, Peter,
2019 Prehistoric Animation – Paleolithic Thaumatropes?, April 20, 2019.
2019 Animation in Paleolithic Cave Painting – The Flicker Effect, April 13, 2019,

Luís, L., & Fernandes, A. P. B.
2009 On endless motion: depiction of movement in the Upper Palaeolithic Côa Valley rock art (Portugal), In Congresso Internacional da IFRAO 2009, Piauí, Brasil. IFRAO, p. 1304-1318.

Saturday, August 17, 2019


Last week I began a two-report on a recent paper from the Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports titled “Identifying the Bird Figures of the Nasca Pampas: An Ornithological Perspective” by Masaki Eda, Takeshi Yamasaki and Masato Sakai. Now we will look at some more of their conclusions.

BG-4c, Fig. 4c, identified as a parrot
hatchling. Internet, Public Domain.

Parrot hatchling,

“Geoglyph BG-4c (Fig. 4c) was listed as a duck (Lumbreras, 2000). The bill is short and thick, and almost as thick as the head. There is a raised portion on the forehead and an irregular circle at the center of the body trunk. If this feature represents a wing, the birds’ upper limbs are quite short. One short leg is recognizable; it is attached to a wide foot with three toes. The tail is short and equal in length to the bill. The small, wing-like feature of the geoglyph suggests that the bird is a flightless bird or a hatchling. When we assume that the bird was standing or walking, we considered that it may represent a precocial species that is able to stand and walk soon after hatching. Ducks (Anatinae, Anatidae) have bills much thinner than the bill depicted in the geoglyph. Ratites have short wings, although their long legs are completely different from the legs in the geoglyph. Assuming the bird is lying (down), it would be a hatchling of the altricial
species. The short and thick bill, rump-like feature on the forehead, short wings, legs, and tails are recognizable in parrot (Psittacidae) hatchlings (personal communications with Dr. Scott Echols). Although exclusive studies involving parrot hatchlings are required to make this assertion, the geoglyph appears to depict one of these birds.”
(Masaki et. al. 2019:4)

 BG-5b, Aveni's Frigate Bird,
Identified by Masaki as a pelican.
Illustration from Aveni, Fig. 8a, p. 31.
BG-5b, Fig. 5b, Identified as a pelican,
Masaki et. al., 2019,
used with permission.

Displaying frigate bird,
- Public Domain. 

Peruvian pelican, resting with
head and neck down,
(note small feather crest)
- Public Domain.

Their most controversial identifications is the image that they list as BG-5b.

“The crest depicted in the geoglyph (BG-5b) appears in a wide range of taxonomic groups. In Peru, it is found in pelicans, guans and curassows (Cracidae), hawks and eagles (Accipitridae), antbirds (hamnophilidae), and flycatchers (Muscicapidae). Among these birds, only pelicans have long, hooked bills. Assuming that the protruding portion under the head represents the breast, this geoglyph closely resembles a pelican resting on a reef.” (Masaki et. al. 2019:4)

“Geoglyph BG-5b was listed as a guano bird by Lumbreras (2000), but was also identified as a frigatebird exhibiting display behavior based on the presence of a long, hooked bill and the pouch-like throat feature under the bill (Aveni 2000). In Peru and other South American countries, the term “guano bird” is not taxonomically specific, but includes pelicans (Pelecanidae), boobies (Sulidae), and cormorants (Phalacrocoracidae); these birds breed on islands and produce guano, which is a substance composed of deposited excrement and bird carcasses and used as fertilizer [for its nitrates which were also valuable in the production of black gunpowder]. The geoglyph depicts the head and neck or protruding breast of a bird seen from the side. It is characterized by a distinctive crest and an extremely long bill that is hooked at the tip.” (Masaki et. al. 2019:4)

Although Aveni (2000:31) identified this as a displaying frigate bird (and it certainly has the outline of the head and breast of a displaying frigate bird) the frigate bird does not possess the crest shown on the head of the geoglyph. Masaki et. al. have concluded that this is most likely a pelican. Indeed, I can imagine that a pelican with its head and neck tucked back and its breast protruding could look a lot like that. None of the pelican pictures I have seen showed it with such a prominent crest, but there were raised feathers in many of them that could be called a crest.

BG-5c, Fig. 5c, identified as a flying
pelican by Masaki et. al. Internet
photograph, Public domain.

Flying Pelican, BG-5c, Fig. 5c,
Illustration Masaki et. al.
Used by permission.

Flying pelican, Internet
photograph, Public domain.

The next example is also listed as a pelican. “BG-5c was listed as a bird (Lumbreras 2000); the geoglyph depicts a bird with a crest and a long, thin bill that is hooked. Its short tail is fan-shaped, and the legs are not drawn. As stated above, pelicans are the only birds in Peru with crests and long, hooked bills. Although pelicans have long necks, they become folded when the bird is in flight. This makes the neck appear shorter and the throat pouch less conspicuous, as is the case with the bird depicted in the geoglyph. In addition, pelicans completely conceal their legs during. For these reasons we have concluded that geoglyphs BG-5b and BG-5c depict pelicans.” (Masaki et. al. 2019:4)

So, are they correct in their assumptions? I certainly have no reason to question their conclusion about the hermit (hummingbird), but does that mean that the other Nazca hummingbird geoglyphs are hummingbirds (Trochilinae), not hermits (Phaethornithinae), or are they just not classified?

The parrot hatchling seems convincing although there is always the possibility that it is just a generic bird geoglyph, only coincidentally possessing the characteristics that the researchers identified. I am the least confident about the pelicans, especially the apparent lack of the large throat pouch that pelicans possess, and which is not apparent in these geoglyphs, but I am not an ornithologist, so I will bow to their expertise on these.

What I find really fascinating is their observation that none of these birds live anywhere near Nazca today. Although the people would have seen pelicans on trips to the coast, the hermits and parrots live a long way away from Nazca, in the Amazon across the Andes to the east. How do we interpret that? And how far did Masaki et. al. go in looking for matches? There might be a better match just a county farther away. All in all though, these are fascinating questions, and a real contribution to our understanding of some of the Nazca geoglyphs.

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 original publications listed below.


Aveni, A. F.
2000 Between the Lines: The Mystery of the Giant Ground Drawings of Ancient Nasca, Peru, University of Texas Press, Austin.

Lumbreras, L. G.,
2000 Contexto Arqueologico de las Lineas y Geoglifos de Nasca, UNESCO-INC.

Masaki Eda, Takeshi Yamasaki and Masato Sakai,
2019 Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports, Identifying the Bird Figures of the Nasca Pampas: An Ornithological Perspective,

Saturday, August 10, 2019


Hummingbird geoglyph, Nazca, Peru.
Photo Masaki Eda, used with

A favorite pastime of rock art researchers has long been trying to identify animal or plant images portrayed in rock art as to species or breed. This can have productive results in learning the appearance and physical characteristics of extinct species, or in gaining information as to the range of animals or plants during certain prehistoric periods, or give insight into the technology and cultural practices of the peoples who created the images. Now, a paper by non-rock art specialists has provided the identities of some of the birds portrayed in the geoglyphs of the Nazca desert of Peru. Masaki Eda, a Zoo-archaeologist, and self-described Archeo-ornithologist, from the University of Hokkaido in Japan, and his colleagues have applied their knowledge to analyze details in some of the bird geoglyphs and identify these with some degree of certainty and the results are somewhat surprising.

Hummingbird geoglyph, Nazca, Peru.
Photo Masaki Eda, used with permission.
Contrast enhanced by Peter Faris. 

In their report in the Journal of Archaeological Science they said “in this study, we identified bird geoglyphs in Nasca and Pampas de Jumana by noting any recognizable morphological traits. We then categorized the geoglyphs from an ornithological perspective and compared the identified characteristics with those of modern birds in Peru. In addition, we compared our identification results with those of other studies.” (p. 2)

“20 bird geoglyphs comprise the largest number of all geoglyphs that depict plants and animals at the Nasca and Palpa pampas. These geoglyphs are mainly considered to have been created during the late Paracas and the Nasca Period (c. 2400 to 1300 years ago).” (p. 1) Some of the figures previously listed as bird figures were virtually unrecognizable, either too distorted, incomplete, or too damaged to classify, but the researchers attempted to identify 16 of them. 

Koepcke's hermit hummingbird, Peru.,
Public Domain.

The most commonly identified birds at Nazca are the hummingbirds. The first bird listed by Masaki et. al. is one of them. Lumbreras (2000) listed two bird geoglyphs as hummingbirds. “The bird geoglyph “3a” (BG-3a; Fig. 3a) was listed as a hummingbird (Lumbreras 2000) Its bill is notably long (almost as long as the rest of the body) and relatively thin compared to the width of the head. Short legs extend from either side of the body trunk, and each foot has three toes. The tail (with an elongated middle section) is almost as long as the body trunk. In the geoglyph, the bill is extremely long, and appears to be depicted in an exaggerated way. While hummingbirds (Trochilidae) have long bills, long tails, and short legs, these traits are also found in hacamars (Galbulidae). The feet of hummingbirds are anisodactyl (i.e., three toes face forward, and one faces backward), while those of the jacamars are zygodactyls (i.e., two toes face forward and two face backward). We, therefore, consider that geoglyph BF-3a more closely resembles hummingbirds. The family Trochilidae consist of typical brightly-colored hummingbirds (Trochilinae) and dull-colored hermits (Phaethornithinae). In Peru, long and pointed tails only occur in hermits (Fig. 3d), whereas the tails of typical hummingbirds are forked or fanshaped. We, therefore, consider that geoglyph BG-3a depicts hermits.” (Masaki et. al. 2019:2)

If this identification is correct it leaves us with an interesting question to answer. Why, of all the varieties of hummingbird to be found in the same area as Phaethornithidae, would the ancient Nazcans  choose to portray the drab hermit instead of one of the brightly colored “flying jewels” that hummingbirds are usually considered to be? A question of the habitat that this bird is found in will be brought up in Part 2.

NOTE: One image in this posting was retrieved from the internet with a search for public domain photographs. If this image is 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 this subject you should read the original reports listed below.


Lumbreras, L. G.,
2000 Contexto Arqueologico de las Lineas y Geoglifos de Nasca, UNESCO-INC.

Masaki Eda, Takeshi Yamasaki and Masato Sakai,
2019 Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports, Identifying the Bird Figures of the Nasca Pampas: An Ornithological Perspective,