that would not mean much if we’d pushed on through.
Fun fact: during the month or so at a time that I used to stay with a host family in a remote village in Borneo, they actually had a small lime tree. And it actually had thorns. To pick the limes, I had to climb through the brush, balance on the bank of the little creek that ran behind their house, and avoid the thorns. Most of the limes were small, dry and pulpy … but so worth it.
This post is the second in a series of posts based on chapters from this book:
As Rudgley writes in the Introduction:
In this book I will show … how great is the debt of historical societies to their prehistoric counterparts in all spheres of cultural life; and how civilised in many respects were those human cultures that have been reviled as savage.
Ibid, p. 1
What do you mean, “Stone Age”?
“Stone Age,” of course, sounds very ancient, and that is by design. But when Rudgley talks about the Stone Age, often the dates involved are “only” about 12,000 to 10,000 years ago (approximately the time we think that people were crossing the Land Bridge). This falls before the beginning of recorded history — we think — unless we are willing to accept local origin myths worldwide as inevitably garbled historical records. After the small amount of study I have done about the historicity of myths, of Genesis, and of the many amazing prehistoric engineering feats, I no longer think of Stone Age people as “cave men,” but rather as fully modern humans, certainly our intellectual equals and probably our superiors. For my disclaimer about the dating of archaeological sites and prehistoric events, see my last post about Rudgley, here.
The “Venuses” of Eurasia
Chapter 14 of Rudgley (pp 184 – 200) discusses the large number of small female figurines which have been found all over Europe and as far east as Siberia. These are called “Venuses,” though of course they would not have been called that by the original artists. They were being produced (if we take the dating at face value) over a period of many thousands of years.
The oldest one, according to Rudgley, dates to the Aurignacian age, about 31,000 years ago: “the Venus of Galgenburg [Austria].” It is 7 mm tall, made of a soft green stone, and is artistically sophisticated. The figure is posed as if dancing. She is bearing her weight on her left leg. The right leg is carved free of the left and braces on the base of the figure. The right arm is carved free of the body, with the hand bracing on the knee. Clearly the sculptor knew what he or she was doing when it came to posing the figure, carving free limbs that would not break off, and piercing through the material without breaking it. Since this is (by hypothesis) the oldest such figure that we have, it’s clear that we don’t have a case of an artistic tradition that started out crude and later became more advanced. (pp 192 – 194)
Probably the best-known of these figures is the Venus of Willendorf (also found in Austria).
When I was first exposed (pun not intended) to this little figurine, it was introduced to me simply as “the mother goddess.” Although shocking to modern eyes, it is certainly a work of art. As you can see, it has no face, but it has a considerable amount of detail in odd places such as the knees, private parts, and hairdo. The hair looks a bit like corn rows to me, but could also be braids wrapped around the head or even styled curls a la the Babylonian kings. “Alexander Marshack believes the coiffure of the Willendorf figurine may be one of the symbols of a mature and fertile woman” (198).
Not all of the Stone Age Venuses are fat or naked.
Bednarik is very skeptical about the usefulness of lumping all female figurines of the period together, noting that they are extremely diverse in numerous ways. Some are naked; others partly or fully clothed. Some are in pregnant condition; others are not. Some are fat to the point of obesity, whilst others are very slender. Beyond the fact that they all depict females and most come from the same period of the Upper Palaeolithic, they appear to have little in common.
Ibid, p. 197
The Meaning of the Venuses
Figures like the Willendorf Venus are very intriguing to some people, for obvious reasons. The explanation most ready to hand is that they are artifacts of some kind of fertility religion. This explanation is the more intuitive because of what we know about the importance that fertility often plays in pagan religions worldwide.
Marija Gimbutas has taken these figures and other evidence to posit a wide-ranging “civilization of the goddess” in Old Europe. (She published a book with that title in 1991.) She deduces (or speculates) quite a lot about this religion from Venus artifacts and from other sources. Her thesis is that the gentle, goddess-worshipping Old Europeans were overrun by warlike worshippers of a sky god coming from the Eurasian steppes (i.e. the Indo-Europeans). Gimbutas’ work had quite a strong influence on one of my high school literature teachers, who emphasized to us that worshipers of a male sky god “always” come to rape, pillage and plunder, steal, kill, and destroy. (At this point, the neo-pagans in the class would give the Christians the side eye.) We will deal with Gimbutas in another post, probably later this year.
In Jean M. Auel’s Clan of the Cave Bear books, the venuses are definitely symbols of a goddess of fertility and sexuality. Her male lead Jondalar comes from a matriarchal society in western Europe where the figurines are referred to as doni. Jondalar, when distressed, will even exclaim, “Oh, Doni!” The female lead Ayla, meanwhile, was raised by Neanderthals, who in Auel’s books severely oppress their women (because, of course, they fear their procreative power).
Moving even farther along the continuum of being obsessed with sex, Rudgley’s chapter includes a hilarious discussion of how some archaeologists have gotten over-excited and begun to interpret nearly all Palaeolithic art as porn.
It has been suggested that another important aspect of Aurignacian art was their liberal and frequent use of sexual imagery, particularly … female genitalia. This theory was first developed by l’Abbe Breuil … The idea soon caught on among French prehistorians and became something of a dogma, and various shapes engraved in stone … that looked vaguely like a vulva were automatically perceived as such by scholars eager to discover further proof of the prehistoric obsession with sexual matters. … Perhaps the most absurd example of all is a description of a simple straight line as a representation of the vaginal opening.
Ibid, pp. 194 – 195
It just cracks me up that these were French prehistorians. Of course they were. Of course.
Rudgley sums up in a way that I think is quite reasonable and balanced:
[T]he fact that the figurines are found across a huge geographical area and a period of thousands and thousands of years means that it would be ridiculous to think that they all symbolised the same thing to their extremely diverse makers. It is quite apparent that the female body was used to express numerous concerns in Palaeolithic times. 
We can now see how any crude explanation of the Willendorf figurine as simply a fertility figure or an object of sexual desire is entirely inadequate. The representation of the female body during the Upper Palaeolithic period … was a symbol of cosmological significance that was able to express all aspects of Palaeolithic human concerns. 
If the female body was one of the most widespread and elaborate images of the Old Stone Age, and a symbol for the various forces of nature and the various aspects of culture, would it really be so far from the mark to believe that the figurines actually embody aspects of the Palaeolithic worship of a goddess? 
Rudgley, Lost Civilizations, chapter 14
… So, Why Are They Affirming Again?
Well, obviously, on the most superficial level, the Willendorf Venus is an implied affirmation to any modern woman who is pregnant, aging, or concerned about her weight. Somebody worked very hard to portray this lady.
On a slightly deeper level, our modern culture is one that really hates the idea of motherhood. We don’t like the idea that potential motherhood is a defining characteristic of being a woman, or that it might be a worthy or even glorious goal. Unfortunately for our tidy little minds, though, motherhood (besides being a kind of superpower) is in fact a built-in goal in the design of women. Which means that knocking it as a role and calling is pretty hard on women, even those who don’t realize it, because we, as a culture, are constantly asking them, in a thousand ways large and small, if for the sake of decency they could please not exist.
In this kind of environment, it’s a tonic to know that it was not always thus. There could exist – there apparently did exist – a culture that greatly valued, perhaps even worshiped, mothers. You don’t have to be an acolyte of the goddess to appreciate the boost this gives women.
Worshiping a good thing, rather than its creator, is idolatry and idols always turn on their followers. Thus, a religion of motherhood certainly would have come with its own distortions and injustices (such as devaluing infertile women, as we see in the Old Testament). But still … it’s nice to know that at one time a mature, even obese woman was considered a thing so good that she could possibly be worshiped.
I am dealing with this topic not because I feel a particular affinity for it. I don’t enjoy looking at the Venus of Willendorf, and despite the paragraph above I would not want to look like her. I tackled these figurines because my area of interest is prehistory, and durned if they don’t show up in it. Finding out how affirming they are to women was just an unexpected bonus. And if they do feel really weird even as they are affirming, I think the weirdness comes because they are from such a different culture.
Sometimes you want to see something with your own eyes.
My Dinosaurs in History post includes a link to a web site that discusses an Anasazi petroglyph that looks an awful lot like a dinosaur. Even on the web site, you can tell that the original petroglyph is very, very faint.
It’s on Kachina Bridge, which is in Natural Bridges National Park in southern Utah. So when I learned I would be passing through southern Utah, I thought I had better go and look at the thing myself. Do my due diligence. How could I live near this thing, drive right by it, and not try to get a glimpse?
Getting to Kachina Bridge
Here’s how to get to Kachina Bridge. First you drive to Natural Bridges National Park, which is about 35 miles from the main highway. The road is very good, but it is so twisty, with so much climbing, that the 35 mile drive took us about an hour.
We checked in at the Visitors’ Center and showed our national parks pass. From there, you drive your car around a one-way loop that takes you past all the major overlooks in the park. From the loop, you can park your car and access the trail heads. Kachina Bridge is down in a rocky canyon. The trail is about 1.5 miles round trip, but it’s basically vertical. It’s a combination of stone steps, scrambling over red rock following a trail marked by little cairns, scrambling down red rock faces aided by handrails the park has installed, and, in one case, a short climb down a wooden ladder.
It’s a beautiful hike, but despite what the Defending Genesis web site says, this trail would not be easy to navigate while carrying something bulky such as a ladder. In our case, it was made more beautiful and more perilous by the presence of snow and icy patches.
(By the way, could I just pause here and express how grateful I am for our national parks. Someone has created and maintained a fantastic road to get out to this place, then a driving loop and parking places, and then a trail with carved steps, handholds, etc. Because of all this, I (and even my kids!) are able to access this remote and beautiful spot. Without all this, we would have no reason to go there, no way to get there, and probably no idea that the place existed.)
Anyway, finally we were on the canyon bottom. We followed a gravel path beside a stream, and eventually we emerged and – ta-da! – there was the bridge before us.
When you first get to the bridge, your natural instinct is to approach it and then walk under it. Consequently, I at first walked right past all the petroglyphs without even noticing them. Or actually, I walked right under them.
The biggest group of petroglyphs is on the side of Kachina Bridge that faces you as you approach it. They are on a relatively flat, vertical strip of canyon wall, about 10 or 15 feet up, with a ledge protruding below them. To get a close look at them, you would need to scale the ledge using rock climbing equipment or a ladder. If you stand right underneath them, the ledge partially blocks your view. So if, like me, all you have is a stupid cell phone camera, you have to back way up and then use the zoom to get grainy “close ups” of the petroglyphs.
Some of these petroglyphs are really famous, but some of the most famous ones are the hardest to see. They are made up of dibbles in the rock which itself has an irregular surface. I imagine that the best time to photograph them would be morning or evening when the slanting light would help pick them out. (We were there at noon.) And to use a professional camera with a good zoom lens maybe.
Me, Trying to Photograph Them Anyway
So I wandered around in the snow and took about a million photos of the different sections of the wall with my cell phone, hoping that I might photograph the dinosaur by accident and be able to find it later. There were so many petroglyphs, and many of them overlapping each other, and I had no idea where in this composite mural the supposed dinosaur might be.
I also took some photographs of the whole scene from a distance to give a sense of context of the petroglyphs.
As I stumped around in the frozen red mud, I thought to myself. These are so hard to get to and photograph. How hard must they have been to make? What would motivate anyone to make all this art (or language) in this hard-to-get-to spot? It’s a similar question to cave paintings. Of course, there is lots of good information out there about what these spirals and zigzags and blocky figures tell us about probable Anasazi cosmology. The only thing I could undeniably tell that the original artists must have been saying, though, was,
“We were here!”
I Did Photograph It! But You Can’t See It
When I got home, I tracked down the web site and tried to identify which section of the wall the dino petroglyph occupied. Turns out I did photograph that section of wall! Here it is.
Of course, you can’t see the dino at all. So I cannot verify that the thing is there. Certainly you can’t see it with the naked eye, from a distance, at noon on a winter day. But then, that goes for many of the petroglyphs.
Further evidence that the dino glyph is actually there: Senter and Cole went out of their way to analyze it and disprove it. They seem to be able to see it, I guess. Enough that it bothers them.
My Kids Trying to Help Me Find the Dinosaur
Sometimes another pair of eyes helps, so before we left I asked my kids (who had spent the previous hour scrambling over red boulders and breaking ice in the stream) to see if they could spot any dinosaur.
They didn’t spot the dinosaur, but they did point out a number of glyphs that could have been dinosaurs (or, from that distance, anything).
Here are some clearer ones on the other side of Kachina Bridge. I don’t know what the situation was like when these were first made, but now, they are on a sheer wall that looms directly over the deepest part of the icy stream.
This one, which a dispassionate observer has called “Chicken Man,” could be a large bird. Or (just a thought here), it could be a T-Rex if we are assuming there are multiple glyphs of dinosaurs. At any rate, the 3-toed, bird-like foot, long neck, and fat body on 2 legs are clearly visible.
This one, which my son suggested as a possible dino, looks more like a giraffe to me, but who knows. Or it could be pure symbol, not meant to represent an animal at all. As you can see, it’s near the giant chicken.
So that’s my fail. I can tell you that there is not, on Kachina Bridge, a dinosaur petroglyph that you can’t miss and that unmistakably leaps out at the lay person.
I can tell you that there are many interesting symbols which are hard to discern and need to be (and have been) photographed and analyzed by experts who are familiar with Southwestern archeaology and anthropology.
And that, like everything having to do with ancient man and with dinosaurs, the process of interpretation is more art than science and is hugely influenced by our assumptions.
I was always sort of attracted to you. My husband and I camped our way through you right after we got married, and it was interesting, but I didn’t commit myself because I didn’t think I’d be back. I thought the two of us were going to move to Indonesia. And indeed we did, and we learned its languages (a few of them) and explored its tropical, Southeast Asian landscapes and cultures, a world away from your deserts. But we didn’t, as I had expected, end up raising our kids there. Ultimately we ended up coming back to North America. American Southwest, I was getting pulled into your orbit.
Things only got worse when I discovered Thunderhead by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child, and then the Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee novels of Tony Hillerman. (The first Hillerman novel I read was so sad, I swore I’d never read him again. But eventually, inevitably, I picked up another one, and then it was all over for me.)
Yes, I know there is plenty of terrific nonfiction about you. But I always tend to reach for fiction.
And then, the final blow: We moved to the Intermountain West. Within driving distance of … you. And this last week, I got the opportunity to explore you with my children by my side. I got to drive through Navajo country, Dinetah, the land of my book friends Chee and Leaphorn, seeing the places and hearing the language that I had read about in their adventures. I can’t describe how this felt. It was like getting to visit Middle Earth or something.
So, after this trip, you win, American Southwest. You have conquered me. I am hooked. It is not possible to learn everything about you … not even in one lifetime, and I am getting started late. But whenever possible, I will be back. I promise you that.
I know I’m not the first outsider to fall for you. In fact, that’s another thing that I sort of like about the tourist and transplant culture surrounding you: you seem to attract people who are into art. I look forward to doing some paintings of you that are exactly like the bajillions of other paintings done by your other adoring fans.
And I promise, I won’t steal or “acquire” any priceless artifacts. I don’t want your relics or your pots, American Southwest. They wouldn’t look good in my house. They look best exactly where they belong: right in the middle of you.