Saturday, February 23, 2019


El Mėdano rock art panel,
Atacama Desert Chile,
Showing whale hunting.
Fig. 7D, Ballester, 2018.

El Mėdano rock art panel,
Atacama Desert Chile,
Showing whale hunting.
Fig. 7A, Ballester, 2018.

Remarkable recent reports of rock art panels from the Atacama Desert on the western coast of Chile have portrayed a seemingly improbably, and surprising, subsistence technology - whaling. While we have known that the early inhabitants of this region were culturally sophisticated, I never would have guessed that the inhabitants of one of the world's most arid deserts would have the resources to develop that technology.

El Mėdano rock art panel,
Atacama Desert Chile,
Showing whale hunting.
Fig. 1C, Ballester, 2018.

"El Mėdano-style rock art from the Atacama Desert Coast in Chile provides one of the most spectacular and expressive representations of ancient marine hunting and maritime traditions. These red pictographs comprise hundreds of hunting scenes and portray a complex marine hunter-gatherer society." (Ballester 2018)

Locations of El Mėdano rock art
panels, Atacama Desert Chile,
Fig. 2, Ballester, 2018.

Remarkably, in this area, the rock art preserves many scenes of men harpooning whales, other marine mammals, and large fish, from rafts, not ocean-going canoes mind you, from rafts. "The raft employed in pre-Hispanic times was similar to those described centuries later by Europeans. Such rafts comprised two large cylindrical floating sections made of sea lion skin, which when tied together measured almost 3m in length. The floating sections were carefully sewn together using hundreds of cactus spines and cotton thread in a zig-zag pattern. Finally, the floating sections were completely sealed and water proofed with a red ochre substance." (Ballester 2018)

El Mėdano rock art panel,
Atacama Desert Chile,
Showing whale hunting.
Fig. 1B, Ballester, 2018.

"In the Izcuña ravine, 328 different paintings were found on 24 differrent blocks of rock. Many have been degraded by moisture brought by camanchacas, or cloud bank that form over the Chilean coast and move inland. But enough of the art has been preserved to date it to the other El Mėdano art. The most common type of art shows the silhouettes of large fish. Other images show hunting scenes with rafts and weapons. The study's author, Benjamin Ballester, notes that the fish or whales are always drawn oversized to the hunters and their rafts, making the prey a daunting antagonist." (Gibbens 2018)

El Mėdano harpoons and heads,
Atacama Desert, Chile.
Ballester, 2018, Fig. 9. 

Dating of the rock art panels is still in question, but, based upon the techology pictured in the hunting scenes, has been loosely assumed to fall between 3000 BP and 1500 BP. "Archaeological evidence suggests that this technology was developed in the Atacama Desert during the Formative Period (c. 3000 BP) and became popular in coastal areas around 1500 cal BP." (Ballester 2018)

Sailing raft, El Mėdano,
Atacama Desert, Chile.
Ballester, 2018, Fig. 10.

This is also indicative of the differences in subsistence strategies between various cultural centers of the Atacama Desert at this time, and the cooperative dealings between them. Communities in the river valleys and around oasis' developed agricultural based subsistence, other groups, probably more into the foothills, relied on a pastoralist lifestyle, while groups along the coast looked to marine resources for subsistence and surplus to trade.

""Marine [hunts] were one of the most important elements of their subsistence, bult they were also great fishers and mollusk gatherers," he says. "From their coastal settlements, they actively participated in large-scale exchange networks with agro-pastoralist communities from the interior valleys and oasis of Atacama, specially circulating dried fish in exchange of manufactured goods."" (Gibbens 2018)

While we have to respect the efforts of all members of any successful society and give them credit for their contributions, I have to confess that the image of these prehistoric hunters with their handmade harpoons paddling out to sea on a raft made from marine-mammal-hide floats strikes me as remarkably courageous and ambitious. Even more so is the fact that most of the images show the rafts with lone occupants. ". . the hunting activity is represented as a single practice, mainly conducted by one raft. In most cases they exhibit only one seafarer inside the boat. Overall, hunting is represented as a specialized, solitary, individual social practice, led by a selected few people. As previously mentioned, in hunting scenes, rafts and prey are connected by lines that represent harpoon ropes." (Ballester 2018)

What a wonderful record of the life and times of these people. I am in awe.

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 this I refer you to the report by Benjamin Ballester (2018) listed below.


Ballester, Benjamin
2018   El Mėdano rock art style: Izcuña paintings and the marine hunter-gatherers of the Atacama Desert, Antiquity, Vol. 92, Issue 361, pages 132 -148,

Gibbens, Sara
2018 Dramatic Whale Hunts Depicted in Ancient Rock Art, National Geographic,

Saturday, February 16, 2019


Quadruped from Viracocha
statue, Semi-subterranean
Temple, (head to upper
right, tail to lower left),
Tiahuanaco, Bolivia.
Magicians of the Gods,
Gaham Hancock, p. 389.

In the past I have presented a number of columns on RockArtBlog about extinct animals portrayed in rock art, both real and imagined, even including one on April 1, 2015 about extinct giraffes pictured in Utah that was meant as an April Fool's Day joke (it did, however, succeed in detecting a few April Fools).

Viracocha statue,
Semi-subterranean Temple,
Tiahuanaco, Bolivia.,
Public Domain.

There are many real examples of animals that are no longer extant that are pictured on caves walls and cliffs. The most famous examples that come to mind are the mammoths and aurochs of European Paleolithic cave art. Examples that are not accurate include all of the so-called dinosaurs found by fringies in rock art. Another example of an extinct animal that I consider to be unwarranted is represented by nebbish-looking quadrupeds at Tiahuanaco that the fringies have declared to be pictures of Toxodons.

Toxodon platensis,
Public Domain.

"Toxodontidae, is an extinct family of notoungulate mammals known from the Oligocene to the Holocene (5,000 BP) of South America, with one genus, Mixotoxodon, also known from the Pleistocene of Central America and southwestern North America (Texas). They somewhat resembles rhinoceroses, and had teeth with high crowns and open roots, suggesting that they most often fed on tough pampas grass. However, isotopic analyses have led to the conclusion that the most recent forms were grazing and browsing generalists." (Wikipedia)

Close-up of Viracocha statue
head, the quadrupeds can be faintly
seen on the right side of the head.
Photograph Graham Hancock. 

Well, if the Toxodon survived until 5,000 BP isn't it possible that someone in early Tiahuanaco saw one to picture on stone? No, it is not. The earliest date estimates for Tiahuanaco were Posnansky's 11,000 - 17,000 years BP were based upon geological estimates and archaeoastronomy. "Beginning in the 1970s Carlos Ponce Sangines proposed the site was first occupied around 1580 BC, the sites oldest radiocarbon date. This date is still seen in some publications and museums in Bolivia. Since the 1980s, researchers have recognized this as unreliable, leading to the consensus that the site is no older than 200 or 300 BC." (Wikipedia) Perhaps some of these cryptozoology enthusiasts are genuinely fooled by the original improbably early dating of the ruins. I suspect, however, that most of them are just cynically publishing these stories for financial gain or career notoriety.

Quadrupeds on right side of
head. Drawing of Viracocha

Indeed, in reading various reports of the Tiahuanaco Toxodon, it is difficult to even determine where he is supposedly pictured. Some reports imply that the image(s) are carved on the gateway of the sun. In his book Magicians of the Gods, Graham Hancock (p. 389) correctly states that the figures are carved on the sides of the head of a humanoid statue. This figure was found in a structure known as the Semi-subterranean Temple and is assumed to represent the deity Viracocha. Many sculptures of the figure of Viracocha have been found but this is the only one with these particular quadrupeds carved on the sides of the head, and what these represent is a mystery, but I am confident that they do not represent the poor Toxodon, long dead and gone.

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.


Hancock, Graham
2015 Magicians of the Gods, St. Martin's Press, New York.

Friday, February 8, 2019


Cambodian Mine Action Center
sign at Laang Spean
Cave, Cambodia.

While we are almost always opposed to modern paint being sprayed on the rocks (tagging) there is a picture in Archaeology Magazine (Jan.-Feb. 2019) that we have to applaud. It is a photograph of red initials CMAC painted on the cliff at the mouth of a cave in Cambodia. CMAC stands for Cambodian Mine Action Centre, the organization tasked with locating and neutralizing land mines left over from the wars of the 1960s and 1970s in southeast Asia. This is only a small part of the story in their article Cambodia's Cave of Bridges, by Karen Coates, and well worth reading. It chronicles new research in a cave named Laang Spean (Cave of Bridges) which has opened new windows on Cambodia's past. This CMAC inscription tells the local people, and the archaeologists working in the cave, that they have cleared nearby mines and it is safe to go there. RockArtBlog has to applaud this particular tagging. I do not know how much rock art can be assigned a life-saving function, but I think it is a wonderful idea - and I wonder what other examples might be found.

NOTE: The image in this posting was retrieved from the internet with a search for public domain photographs. If any of 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 these reports you should read the original at the site listed below.


Coates, Karen
2019 Cambodia's Cave of Bridges, Archaeology, pages 48 - 52, January-February, 2019, Vol. 72, No 1.

Saturday, February 2, 2019


Upper Sand Island petroglyph panel,
Utah. Ekkehart Malotki. Bison and
mammoth are seen at the far right.

On November 6, 2011, I posted a column titled The Upper Sand Island Mammoth Petroglyph, Utah, about Ekkehart Malotki's identification of a petroglyph there as representing a Paleolithic mammoth. Malotki is incredibly knowledgeable about rock art of the American west and southwest, and I would personally give his interpretation of any rock art panel a great deal of credence. Now he is back with a paper that proposes the identification of another quadruped on the same panel as a Bison antiquus of the Paleolithic period.


Closeup of bison and mammoth,
Photograph Ekkehart Malotki.

"The bison motif clearly dominates the scene not only due to its size but also because its more deeply scored silhouette partially cuts into the dorsal ridge of the underlying pachyderm. Anatomically inaccurate, the bison's legs are engraved all the way to its back: however, they do correctly end in split or cloven hooves. Taphonomically, the mammoth's more smoothly worn engraved lines and overall softer rock wear indicate that it must have experienced considerably more weathering than the bison, consistent with an earlier date of creation. Determining the precise temporal difference between the two manufacturing episodes is impossible; based on the bison's grooving depth, however, the likelihood is small that it was made by contemporaries of the mammoth artist. Bison did not die out in the final Pleistocene but eventually evolved into the living species American bison (Bison bison) - popularly but inaccurately called buffalo. Nevertheless, a comparison with historic bison petroglyphs (see Fig. 37.13) makes a strong case that the over-printed animal with its massive shoulder hump actually represents a Late-Pleistocene or Early Holocene Ancient Bison or Bison antiquus (Fig. 37.12)." (Malotki 2019:572)

Closeup of bison and mammoth,
mammoth, digital enhancement
(mammoth white, bison brown)
by Julia Andratschke,
Photograph Ekkehart Malotki.

Malotki generously also mentions an alternative identification proposed by archaeologist Winston Hurst, that this image illustrates an extinct musk ox, based on the observation that the creature's legs do not extend below the line of its belly, much as the long winter fur of a musk ox obscuring its legs and dragging on the ground. (Malotki 2019:573) My personal observation is that the horns are too unlike a musk ox to give this idea any credence.

"If my interpretation of a Bison antiquus depiction is accepted, its creator may have been a Paleoindian hunter-gatherer of Folsom cultural affiliation." (Malotki 2019: 574)

"While an ars-gratia-artis explanation that the bison would have been chiseled into the rock divorced of any specific function can probably be ruled out, more reasonable is the idea that it represented the totem animal with which members of a group felt a strong affinity. Carefully executed, the bison shows no sign that it was intended to desecrate or disfigure the underlying image. In the context of the universal phenomenon of sympathetic or compulsive magic which, based on the principle that "like affects like" and, in the case of rock art, that an image can stand as a substitute for its subject, the mere act of depicting it would have meant gaining control over the represented animal, both in the form of facilitating hunting success or assuring fecundity of the envisaged prey. Also by placing the bison over the mammoth, the former could have co-opted the assumed supernatural potency of the latter. Perhaps the mammoth as a mythical beast, imbued with powerful magic, was still alive in the traditional narratives of the later Folsom hunters." (Malotki 2019:575)

Bison antiquus skeleton, - Public Domain,
photo reversed digitally.

While I am personally skeptical about its role as being a participant in hunting magic per se, I feel much more comfortable with Malotki's suggestion that it represented a totem animal for a specific group. I can imagine a representative of that group creating a picture of their totem bison to share in its mystical power and to provide a visual reminder of the group's identity, in the same way that a crucifix in the front of a Christian church endows the members of the congregation with feeling blessed, and identifies them as a specific group.

Unfortunately, to my way of thinking, Malotki then explains that position by invoking the S-word - shaman. "From a shamanistic point of view, the bison could be regarded as symbolic of an auxiliary spirit with whose assistance the shaman, as a broker between this reality and that of a perceived other world, would have brought about blessings for his group. Ultimately, of course, we will never fathom what motivated the creation of the bison image. Still, it is hard to explain it depiction from a natural or functional perspective, its raison d'être is most credibly linked with the realm of ritual and spirituality." (Malotki 2019: 575)

I questioned Ekkehart on this reference to shamanism because, if I have not made it clear before, I will go on record again now as decrying the over-use of the S-word (shamanism) in explaining rock art. Not that some examples might not actually represent activities that can be attributed to shamanism, I am sure there are some - somewhere. My problem with it is that it has become the fallback position for every example of rock art that cannot be explained in some other way, the same way that the term "ceremonial" was used by archeologists and students of rock art to explain everything that they could not otherwise explain a few decades ago. If it cannot be identified as something else it is identified as shamanistic. Ekkehart told me that this paper was originally written for a conference with a focus on religion and he felt he should emphasize all religious possibilities, and it is  ". . . an interpretation that - he no longer subscribes to.” (Malotki and Dissanayake 2019, pp. 169-176).

Malotki goes on - "While the precise identification of the overlying zoomorph - bison or musk ox - will have to remain undetermined, neither Winston Hurst nor I concur with rock art specialist Polly Schaafsma's claim that the quadruped stylistically echoes historic Ute bison renderings. As Schaafsma correctly remarks, most known bison represented in the parietal art of the region, apart from a few recent examples attributable to Navajo artists, are Ute in origin." (Malotki 2019:576) I have to agree with Malotki and Hurst here, this figure does not seem to fit well with most of the Ute renderings of Bison bison from that region, although with the caveat that if we include Ute renderings from other parts of their historically occupied region we do find some wondrously strange depictions of bison. So, Ekkehart,  once again you might have something here, something wondrous. Thank you for your work - and for sharing.

NOTE: Most of the illustrations here are used with permission of Ekkehart Malotki. The photograph of the Bison antiquus skeleton was retrieved from the internet with a search for public domain pictures. I urge anyone interested in this subject to read Ekkehart Malotki's complete paper listed below, and also the new book by Malotki and Dissanayake. Enjoy the wonderful photographs.


Malotki, Ekkehart,
2019 Columbian Mammoth and Ancient Bison: Paleoindian Petroglyphs Along the San Juan River Near Bluff, Utah, USA, in A. Klostergaard Petersen, e.s. Gilhus, L.H. Martin, J. Sinding Jensen, and J. Sorensen (eds.), Evolution, Cognition, and the History of Religion: A New Synthesis, Festschrift in Honour of Armin W. Geertz, 562-599, Leiden, Brill.

Malotki, Ekkehart, and Ellen Dissanayake,
2018  Early Rock Art of the American West, the Geometric Enigma, University of Washington Press, Seattle.