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Rock Spirits at the Portals to Afterlife

The final day of the 2010 IFRAO conference on Pleistocene Art of the World continued to present innovative approaches and fascinating discoveries about the well-known but little understood world of prehistoric rock art. Tarascon-sur-Ariège, France–Anderzej Rozwadowski gave some enlightenment about the significance of rock itself to Siberian shaman culture, showing how parts of it may...

The final day of the 2010 IFRAO conference on Pleistocene Art of the World continued to present innovative approaches and fascinating discoveries about the well-known but little understood world of prehistoric rock art.

Tarascon-sur-Ariège, France–Anderzej Rozwadowski gave some enlightenment about the significance of rock itself to Siberian shaman culture, showing how parts of it may match up well with Paleolithic rock art traditions. Among some of these groups, when people die, they are seen as going to an afterlife that exists within the Earth’s rock. Cracks and caves are then powerful places that can serve as passages between our world and theirs.

Rozwadowski also pointed out that often in Siberian rock art, images of a drummer (presumably a shaman) are paired with a wounded or hunted animal. If ethnographic evidence can identify this as a current symbol of human death, we may be one step closer to understanding similar images from elsewhere, including the famously mysterious scene of an aggressive wounded bison facing a human-like figure who could be falling backward, in a deep shaft at Lascaux.

Point of Maximum Resonance

Literally echoing the idea of the importance of rock as a place where spirits can communicate to people, Iegor Reznikoff presented his findings about the acoustic properties of caves, and the function that paintings can have in marking points of interesting sound.

Telling stories and playing audio of his journeys through tunnels making “harrumph” sounds like a bison, Reznikoff said that often there is a point at which the tunnel ahead opens up, and the sound resonates startlingly loud and clear. In five separate locations, he then discovered a small red dot above, apparently marking this point of “maximum resonance.”

In addition, he said there are times when the point from which an echo seems to emanate is the one spot decorated on a much larger area.

While animal noises are his preferred sound for checking for these phenomena, he pointed out that for the ancient people, it would likely have been drumming (which would sound like thunder and hoofbeats, as reported earlier in the week by Steve Waller) or flute music, played on bone flutes, like the one on display at Bédeilhac, a site we visited Wednesday and mentioned in that day’s post.

A 14,000-year-old bone flute found inside Bédeilhac cave. (Photo by Andrew Howley)

Finally, at the closing ceremony, the chair for each symposium at the conference gave a run-down of the week from his or her point of view.

Africa went first and said that while everyone hoped there would be more papers from that area, the papers that were presented were good, and revealed new developments from sites in sub-Saharan and North Africa, including a site from upper Egypt dated to 19,000 years ago (see related: Egypt’s Oldest Known Art Identified, Is 15,000 Years Old). There is also expectation of new finds to come in Algeria, Morocco, and other locations, filling out the blank parts in the history of Africa’s rock art.

Rock Art 200,000 Years Old

The Asia contingent celebrated new finds in Azerbaijan and Borneo (see related: Stone Age Cave Art, Artifacts Found in Borneo; Hands Across Time: Exploring the Rock Art of Borneo) and in particular in India, where various dating techniques have shown that round features hammered into rocks are the oldest known rock art in the world, going back some 200,000 years.

Here too, they expect more finds in India (and Africa as well) that will date from this same early time, when fully modern Homo sapiens were just starting to appear.

As director Robert Bednarik put it, the last 20-30 years in Europe have outdone the previous century in terms of the discoveries made, but in Asia, that revolution has yet to happen.

In the Americas, finds have continued to appear from around 12,000 years ago, consistent with other data for the arrival of humans in the western hemisphere. But looking forward, researchers want to broaden their expectations, and keep their eyes open for possibly even older evidence of our arrival in these continents.

Australia’s presentations were said to have been full of good debates, and while research has been done all over the continent, not much attention has been paid towards finding Pleistocene-era art. The long-term continuity of culture among traditional Australian aboriginees has provided much inspiration and guidance for interpreting existing rock art, and connecting that to the earliest art could have a positive effect on interpreting similar art around the world as well.

As for the host continent, Europe was happy to have had some great last-minute additions, and to have covered a wide area both geographically and thematically. Europe symposium head, event organizer, and beloved champion of all things rock art, Jean Clottes also praised the several young researchers particularly for doing new work with a high level of understanding. It was a great bridge to the future of the field.

Author of many of the best books about rock art, and author of the preface to most of the rest, Jean Clottes has a passion for and understanding of the topic that is noticeable any time he speaks of it. (Photo by Andrew Howley)

The Mobiliary Art symposium was the first of its kind in 10 years, and its organizer was thrilled to be able to update the fied and start pushing forward, mentioning how these portable objects can be used to help date other sites as well. Portable art and rock art, she emphasized, are interdependent.

Finally, the director of the Signs, Symbols, and Myths symposium perhaps summed up the entire week best. He was happy to have had a “heretical” conference, where people of several disciplines were thrown together, taken out of their comfort zones, and stirred up in a mix of topics and approaches that all came from high-quality presentations.

A replica Paleolithic tent at the Parc de l’Art Préhistorique stands with doorflap open, as it may have appeared to visitors and traders, countless generations ago. (Photo by Andrew Howley)

There was a great “full-circle” aspect to this entire conference. One of the few things we know about humans throughout their history is that they have moved around a lot and come together with others from far away to share tools, meals, and information. Maybe cave decorating was part of that same experience for them. It certainly is what brought this group of nearly 400 researchers, explorers, enthusiasts, one daily news blogger, and everyone who’s been following these posts, together for an unforgettable celebration of new connections, old bonds, and a passion for learning.

More Blog Posts in This Series

Mysteries of Prehistoric Rock Art Probed

Finding Pictures and Meaning in Rock Art

Walking Into the Stone Age

Cracking the Code in the Rocks

Rock Spirits at the Portals to Afterlife

70th Anniversary of the Discovery of Lascaux

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Meet the Author

Author Photo Andrew Howley
Andrew Howley is a longtime contributor to the National Geographic blog, with a particular focus on archaeology and paleoanthropology generally, and ancient rock art in particular. Over 11 years at the National Geographic Society, Andrew worked in various ways to share the stories of NG explorers and grantees online. He also produced the Home Page of for several years, and helped manage the Society's Facebook page during its breakout year of 2010. He studied Anthropology with a focus on Archaeology from the College of William & Mary in Virginia. He has covered expeditions with NG Explorers-in-Residence Mike Fay, Enric Sala, and Lee Berger. His personal interests include painting, running, and reading about history. You can follow him on Twitter @anderhowl and on Instagram @andrewjhowley. Learn more at