Early Rock Art of the American West: The Geometric Enigma


Editorial Comments


“In this welcome book a long-neglected rock art tradition is examined at length. The work is so wide-ranging that any reader will also learn about many important anthropological concepts. Last but certainly not least, splendid photographs accompany the texts throughout.”—Jean Clottes, author of What Is Paleolithic Art?


“Definitely the best book on the subject of rock art ever written. Full of fascinating images and ideas, it tackles hard questions and discusses them in a balanced, objective manner.”—Desmond Morris, author of The Biology of Art and The Naked Ape


“A tribute to the artistic and intellectual achievements of Paleoamericans.  Scholarly and innovative, sophisticated yet accessible, and with a wealth of breathtaking pictures.”—Tilman Lenssen-Erz, African Archaeology, Institute of Prehistoric Archaeology, University of Köln


“It is the hardest thing in the world to escape the grip of our own prejudices. Early Rock Art is important because it tries to distance ourselves from our modern obsession with explicit symbols and stories and to free our theories of art from the iron grip of literate culture. I applaud the authors’ efforts to dig deeper, to find the ancient roots of our aesthetic sensibilities.”—Merlin Donald, emeritus professor of psychology at Queen’s University and author of Origins of the Modern Mind


“Malotki’s fascinating photographs and Dissanayake’s pathbreaking ideas make this book a must for all research on American rock art and the roots of human creativity.”—Christian Züchner, director emeritus, Institute of Prehistory and Early History, University of Erlangen-Nürnberg


“A fascinating and thought-provoking volume that explores the enigma of geometric rock art in the American West with great insight and authority. Lavishly illustrated with Malotki’s incredible photography, this work is as much a feast for the eyes as for the mind.”—Ben Watson, paleoart specialist


“Malotki and Dissanayake’s intriguing concept of ‘artification’ gives researchers another tool to use when examining ancient rock art. . . . The photos alone warrant purchasing this book.”—Dw. Clark Wernecke, executive director, Gault School of Archaeological Research


“There is no previous book on this type of rock art—usually it is given only cursory treatment, largely because geometric imagery defies conventional approaches to interpretation. Malotki and Dissanayake address what we know and what we can know about early geometric rock art.”—James D. Keyser, author of Indian Rock Art of the Columbia Plateau

“Presents new ideas on the origin and importance of art to all human cultures and shows that the neglected geometric rock art of the American West has an intriguing and essential story to tell.”—Paul Taçon, chair in Rock Art Research, Griffith University




August 2018 Barbara Kiser Review from Nature. VOL 560 | NATURE | 27


Early Rock Art of the American West.  Ekkehart Malotki and Ellen Dissanayake Univ. Washington Press (2018).  The ancient geometric petroglyphs and pictographs of the American West — pecked into or painted on boulders and canyon walls — are beautiful enigmas. In this fascinating volume, linguist Ekkehart Malotki and scholar Ellen Dissanayake parse images created up to 15,000 years ago by Palaeoamericans from Arizona to Idaho, speculating about their origins and functions. Alongside Malotki’s stunning photographs of some 200 examples, the authors recontextualize the relics as products of ritualistic activity (‘artification’) rather than symbolic artworks. Barbara Kiser



November 9, 2018 R. Bednarik in Journal of Evolutionary Studies in Imaginative Culture


Review by: Robert G. Bednarik

Source: Evolutionary Studies in Imaginative Culture, Vol. 3, No. 1, Symposium on

Evolution and Narrative Identity (Spring 2019), pp. 133-134

Published by: Academic Studies Press


Book review of Early rock art of the American West: the geometric enigma, by E. Malotki and E. Dissanayake


A book on the earliest known rock art of North America has long been overdue. The expectation that geometric or non-iconic traditions will be shown to be the oldest in that continent has long been around, at least since the early 1960s. The “pit-and-groove” petroglyphs and the “pitted boulders” of the western States have been recognized as the first rock art by Heizer and Baumhoff (1962) and Grant (1967), and later by Parkman (1992), among others. More complex but always non-figurative petroglyphs seem to follow these cupule-dominated traditions. The pattern is repeated in South America, as would be expected. But what is particularly perplexing about it is the similarity between these early American conventions and those of the Old World, and particularly Australia. These traditions are far more ancient, especially in Asia and Africa, so there is not likely to be a direct connection. But there are distinct similarities in chronological developments. To some extent these can be explained by taphonomy: simple geometrics and cupules tend to outlast more complex motifs as they tend to be more deeply engraved. However, this alone does not seem to explain the global pattern, which has been misinterpreted through the focus on the southwestern European traditions of final Pleistocene cave art and its over-emphasized iconic content. In reality, as Bednarik has pointed out, an estimated more than three-quarters of the two-dimensional Pleistocene paleoart is non-figurative, an estimate supported by Bahn. Somehow commentators have convinced themselves that this European rock art of animal imagery is easier to relate to than the enigmatic ‘signs’ and finger flutings in the caves—or, for that matter, the early rock art of the United States.

Here, finally, is a book that presents the remarkable first paleoart of North America comprehensively and in all its glory. Malotki’s marvelous ability to capture rock art photographically has been noted before as being without equal, and this book is no exception. Many of its images are without question masterworks in their own right, in addition to being valuable documentation for the book’s topic. But what makes this volume so precious is the most propitious combination of Malotki’s encyclopedic knowledge of the Southwest’s rock art with Dissanayake’s sophisticated understanding of the nature of art-like production. Dissanayake has long espoused the idea that art is ‘artification’, i.e. making something special, a concept she explains in detail here (pp. 27–45). In this elegant solution to an old chestnut she has demonstrated that the discussion of the nature of art is superfluous; that there is no evidence that any paleoart, including any rock art, is “art” in the modern, Western sense; or that any of it is necessarily symbolic. Her solution to the issue of what art is, like so many answers to intricate research clichés, is both ingenious and compelling.

The history of paleoart production illustrates amply that Dissanayake is on the right track, spanning as it does from the first manuports to the artification of objects by edge notches, by engraved lines responding to their edges or surfaces, eventually becoming ever more intricate. As graphic conventions emerge, so do recognizable motif templates, and this is well expressed in the near-global distribution of the archaic linear traditions. This book documents numerous incredible parallels between the continents. There are the often dense, incredible accumulations of cupules, from the Kalahari to Arizona, and the close resemblances of intricate reticulate patterns to those of the early petroglyphs of Australia. Many of the photographs in this book could have almost been taken at Australian archaic linear petroglyph sites of the final Pleistocene and early Holocene, some of which are likely matched in age by the American traditions. This is suggested by the dated tufa site at Winnemucca Dry Lake, Nevada (p. 138), and by the extensive series of engraved limestone and chert plaques from the Clovis site of Gault in Texas (p. 62). Other portable objects from the United States are less effective in defining traditions, or lack evidence placing them in the early human history of the continent.

Notwithstanding any of this, it needs to be clarified that this book presents a valuable cross-section of early non-figurative rock art, nearly all of which is undated. Since aniconic petroglyphs were also made in the late Holocene, in North America as well as elsewhere, there can be no expectation that all of the examples listed here are necessarily “very early” (say, final Pleistocene to early Holocene). There can be little doubt that some of the continent’s earliest rock art is included on the pages in this book; but equally, there are many much more recent examples also. Now comes the tricky part: facilitating the establishment of a chronological framework for this incredible wealth of aniconic petroglyphs, and placing individual expressions of the various traditions within it. Malotki and Dissanayake have most competently identified the “geometric enigma”. Let us see if archaeometry can rise to the challenge of undoing this veritable Gordian Knot.


January 15, 2019 Dean Falk


Early Rock Art of the American West: Move Over Banksy!


by Dean Falk

Hale G. Smith Professor of Anthropology

Distinguished Research Professor

Department of Anthropology

Florida State University

Tallahassee, FL 32310-3700


Senior Scholar

School for Advanced Research

Santa Fe, NM 87505



Because of its lush photographs, I knew even before reading a word of Early Rock Art of the American West that it would be a gorgeous addition to my coffee table. But thanks to its authors, Ekkehart Malotki and Ellen Dissanayake, it also turned out to be an elegant scholarly read. Clearly written, with (as far as I could tell) nary a typo, the book introduces the reader to the beauty and mystery of geometric images that were etched, chiseled, grooved, painted, or pounded on the surfaces of large stationary or smaller portable rock surfaces in the United States (Chapter 1). Some of these images may be as old as 13,000-14,000 years, perhaps not too long after people first arrived in the New World (although experts disagree on when, exactly, that was). As Malotki details in Chapter 2, dating rock art is tricky, so the dates for most images are not secure. Many of the images appear to be not only ancient, but also weathered, faded from sunlight, or covered with geologic residue or lichen.

Curiously, the early record of graphic expression in North America consists almost exclusively of nonrepresentational images composed of geometric marks such as straight lines in various orientations and arrangements (including zig-zags), arcs, circles, ovals, dots, meandering squiggles, and hollowed-out cupules (which the authors speculate may be the forerunner of the other kinds of marks, Chapter 3). Markings like these have been found in many parts of the globe. However, well before people got to America and started to produce geometric images, artists in parts of the Old World were creating not only geometric images, but also representational art, such as the well-known painting of animals in Lascaux Cave of southwestern France. For some reason, Native Americans declined (and I think that is the right word) to make realistic images of people and animals for thousands of years after their arrival on this continent. Why this was so is a fascinating mystery, which the authors call the geometric enigma. Significantly, and despite some distinctive regional imagery in the American West, Malotki notes that, “overall…the design reservoir…is strikingly homogeneous and marked by broad pan-Western if not pan-continental similarities. These similarities clearly point to widespread social interaction among human groups that probably included the sharing of both symbolic systems and ideological beliefs in their struggle for survival” (Chapter 5, p. 148).


Dissanayake is not so sure that all of these images incorporated symbolism, however (Chapter 4). What was important, she suggests in Chapter 1 and elsewhere, was the process of making the images—i.e. the artifying itself, rather than the end product (the art): “Although it is sometimes difficult to recognize symbolically mediated behavior, it is not difficult to recognize artification. And artifying something that one cares about is a unique human activity in its own right, concomitant with the psychobiology of hunter-gatherer societies” (Chapter 4, p. 125).

Indeed, Malotki thinks that the long duration of abstract-geometric rock art in North America was associated with separate small bands of hunter-gatherers who were not in competition with each other. However, he also notes that trends toward naturalistic art that depicted people and animals eventually appeared in various regions of America (perhaps by mid-Holocene), which may have been associated with, among other factors, increased populations sizes, less mobility, changes in climate, an increase in the number of permanent settlements, and competition for resources between different groups. For the latter part of the Holocene, naturalistic and geometric images were frequently combined, as illustrated in stunning examples reproduced on pages 153 and 154. Significantly, Malotki notes that certain elements such as animal and bird tracks and human handprints and footprints began to appear in these combined images, which he views as “protoiconic precursors to full-fledged iconicity” (Chapter 5, p. 154).


It is important to keep in mind that the first known graphic marks in other parts of the globe were also abstract rather than representational images. In Chapter 6, the authors discuss eleven hypotheses that address whether such images were intended to communicate symbolic ideas or, alternatively, to express emotional states, a few of which are noted in this review. One of the best-known ideas is that image-making may have been associated with magical rituals intended to promote successful hunting, although this explanation was associated mostly with depictions of animals rather than geometric markings. Another, to me less convincing, generalization (although it may be true to some extent) is that the geometric marks were intended to represent male and female symbols. An alternative idea that the earliest geometric markings may have represented systems for keeping track of objects, events in time, or lunar phases (Marshack, 1976) is also reviewed. Although Malotki and Dissanayake suggest this explanation might be a bit too analytical (left-brained), it is interesting and may be worth considering, at least in some instances.

Another explanation discussed more favorably by the authors is the possibility that early art may have been produced by shamans in altered states of consciousness induced by various methods such as ingestion of psychoactive substances or activities like chanting, drumming, etc. What is particularly interesting about this hypothesis is that altered states and hallucinations are known to be accompanied by visual experiences similar to the geometric images that appear on rock art (Bressloff et al., 2002). In fact, scratches on petroglyphs have been interpreted by at least one investigator as depictions of hallucinatory images (Patterson, 1992). Nonetheless, one may experience similar images from bumps on the head (i.e., seeing stars), pressing on the eyelids, standing up too quickly, intense physical exercise, or optical migraine headaches. In other words, as Malotki and Dissanayake note, the fact that human visual systems are wired to generate geometric flashes of light known as phosphene images may be related to their propensity for creating geometric images (Bednarik, 2006). The authors present a related neurovisual resonance theory as a preferred alternative to the phosphine theory, although both are premised on the fact that human visual cortices are wired to perceive and/or process simple and repetitive geometric figures.


More specifically, as initial responses to visual stimuli, geometric visual experiences are generated within the brain by neurons in the primary visual cortex that are specialized to process form constants, which correspond to tunnels and funnels, spirals, lattices (including triangles and honeycombs), and cobwebs “all of which contain repeated geometric structures” (Bressloff et al., 2002: 473). These initial perceptions are projected laterally in the visual cortex and forward to other parts of the brain that process them to interpret (see) broader, more realistic images of what’s actually out there in the world. Geometric images are not only the first art in the archaeological record of people everywhere, they comprise the first visual information to be extracted and processed in the brain, and the first kind of art that children produce (unless one considers scribbles to be art). The stunning photographs in this book, thus, show something extremely fundamental in early rock art.

In Chapter 7, Dissanyake takes a geographically broader perspective and explores possible reasons why early human ancestors around the world evolved the ability to artify. She describes two predecessors from our animal past that paved the way—play and ritualized behaviors. In previous work, Dissanayake reasoned that strong mother-infant bonds were critically important for prehistoric infant survival, and that this led to the evolution of ritualized mechanisms that enabled mothers and infants “to enter the temporal world and feeling state of the other” (Dissanayake, 2000:391). She expands on these observations in the present book to explain how basic evolutionary substrates first emerged and eventually gave rise to the predisposition to artify:

Drawing upon their innate sensitivity to proto-aesthetic operations in vocal, visual, and gestural modalities present from infancy, early humans “invented” ritual ceremonies, packages of salient multimodal artifications that we as scholars (unlike they as participants) can classify or separate into various genres: chant, song, literary language, mime, dramatic performance, dance, visual enhancement—that is, the arts. (Chapter 7, p. 206-207)


Dissanayake’s research inspired my own putting-the-baby-down hypothesis, which addresses the origins of baby talk (motherese) and how it seeded the emergence of protolanguage (Falk, 2009:97-98). Whereas Malotki and Dissanayake define language narrowly as “something that is spoken” (p. 176), I define language more broadly as incorporating posterior-brain sensory aspects (listening, reading, seeing [sign language]) and anterior-brain motor functions (speaking, writing, and signing). Neither definition is right or wrong, of course, and I agree with the authors that spoken language emerged before written forms during prehistory. I also accept their hypothesis that artifying, which draws heavily on the right side of the brain, was facilitated by evolutionary changes in hominin mother-infant interactions. For reasons detailed elsewhere, however, I think that prolonged natural selection for left-hemisphere dominated language was probably the prime mover for the evolution of advanced human cognition more generally (Falk, 2009; Falk and Schofield, 2018). In any event, the two hemispheres of the brain evolved together and, despite their main hemispheric underpinnings and activations of specific neurological regions, the visual arts, music, and language share, to some extent, overlapping use of the same widely distributed highly evolved neurological networks. These behaviors and their neurological substrates are, in fact, what make us human.


Although Malotki and Dissanyake reject a protowriting hypothesis as an explanation for the markings on early rock art, the idea that these markings might bear some relationship to the later emergence of the world’s first full-fledged writing system (currently thought to have occurred around 5,000-6,000 years ago) is worth considering (Falk and Schofield, 2018). Brain scans show that written words in any language are first perceived as individually meaningless visual fragments of letters or characters (such as lines with certain orientations) in the primary visual cortex. After processing there, the information is sent forward to a universally specific region in the left hemisphere, which has been dubbed the brain’s letter box (Dehaene, 2013), where the elements are assembled into words. According to Dehaene’s recycling hypothesis, the emergence of reading was facilitated by preexisting brain circuits that were initially adapted for language and vision and later repurposed. Malotki and Dissanayake’s research suggests that the most basic elements that form the smallest components of the geometric images seen in rock art may well be the same fundamental components that are initially stimulated in the primary visual cortex when one observes print or writing. If so, the universal appearance of geometric abstract artifying prior to representational artifying may indicate that human brains were not only fully lateralized for spoken and gestural language by the time recorded art emerged, but were also preadapted for reading long before reading and writing came on the scene.


As discussed elsewhere (Falk and Schofield, 2018), this raises the fascinating question of what the letterbox and related networks were doing before the evolution of reading and writing. Reasonable hypotheses are that these parts of the brain were activated during recognition of faces (areas of the brain that recognize faces shifted to some extent after reading emerged) and, more interestingly, during “reading” animal tracks and other natural phenomena. This is significant because our ancestors everywhere (not just in the relatively recently inhabited American West) made their livings as hunters and gatherers during the vast majority of hominin prehistory.


As Malotki and Dissanayake point out, the origins and functions of abstract-geometric rock markings may have been multi-faceted and complex. In other words, the proximal motivations for creating rock art likely varied. Certainly, the activity may have been emotionally satisfying in and of itself, as Dissanayake suggests, at least to some producers. Perhaps some images were meant to convey information (if only as simple as Kilroy was here), or were produced during ritualized performances intended to influence future events. Maybe some early ancestors simply wanted to make their mark, as some people wish today. Or perhaps some of the images were simply graffiti that foreshadowed the anonymous stealth markings of contemporary graffiti artists, such as the famous England-based street artist, Banksy.


One thing that should not be concluded, however, is that the first rock artists in America were incapable of producing representational art. The neurological findings discussed above suggest that they would have had the same potential for creating images of people and animals as humans had in other parts of the world, but deliberately chose to confine their representations to abstractions, possibly for religious reasons. It, thus, seems reasonable to speculate that producing realistic images may have been culturally prohibited during the first part of human habitation in the New World.

The authors end their book by noting that, to date, no prehistoric American rock art location has been recognized as a United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) World Heritage site, and with a recommendation of several sites that they think would qualify for such an honor. Hopefully, their suggestion will bear fruit. Meanwhile, I suggest you read this fascinating and thought-provoking book before you (proudly) show it off on your coffee table.


February 19, 2019 Helmbrecht Breinig


This splendid volume is an excellent bargain because it contains three books in one. First, it is a collection of gorgeous photographs of rock art against the landscapes of the greater American West, with supplementary pictorial material from other parts of the world. Malotki, a retired professor of languages and well-known Hopi expert from Northern Arizona University is not only a rock art scholar of international reputation but also an accomplished photographer. In this book he continues the photographic work he has presented in previous volumes like Stone Chisel and Yucca Brush or The Rock Art of Arizona, revealing the aesthetic attractiveness of many of the prehistoric rock art designs in their natural environment.


But this book is, second, also an investigation into the origins of prehistoric cultural vestiges in North America. Although popularly written and accessible, nay, fascinating, for the common reader, this is also, in its essence, a scholarly study. Human rock art in the Americas, as elsewhere in the world, did not begin with figurative depictions of people and animals, notably of the megafauna these societies depended on (as we might expect from our knowledge of the cave paintings in Spain and southern France). Rather, the fact that the earliest rock art everywhere consisted of abstract marks, raises tantalizing questions as to the meaning and function of these signs. Such questions have to be approached in the context of problems of dating and the settling of the Americas by Homo sapiens, a hot issue after the demise of the Clovis First theory. Malotki gives a succinct survey of the current debate concerning human migration and the dating issue that forms an essential backdrop for what is to follow. Later in the book he, or both authors, describe forms (such as cupules), sites and styles of Western American rock art and reflect upon their functions.


And here, third, it needs to be mentioned that the volume is also, and perhaps foremost, a study of artification. Dissanayake, an independent scholar and cultural theoretician introduced this term and concept in her previous books such as Homo Aestheticus and Art and Intimacy: How the Arts Began. In view of the impossibility of giving a universally valid definition of the term “art” she shifted her focus to the making of art rather than on the artwork as product. She defines artification as making an ordinary site, situation or object extraordinary or “special” – for the creator and/or her/his cultural group. Her idea that artification precedes art in its later and well-known functions (notably as symbol) makes her theory an ideal tool to approach paleoart such as that presented in this volume. The authors do not pretend to have solved the “geometric enigma” (the subtitle of their book) once and for all but present and apply a theory that may go further than any we have yet encountered.


Helmbrecht Breinig, Professor emeritus of American Studies, University of Erlangen


March 2019 R. G. Mendoza review for Choice:


“The widespread body of early rock art and abstract geometrics identified with the American West has long eluded interpretation. Though ubiquitous and ancient, this art has stymied the efforts of generations of archaeologists, art historians, epigraphists, and iconographers who have tried to elicit meaning from that range of abstract geometrics that transcend representational or naturalistic definitions. But despite the Herculean challenges entailed in recording the ubiquity and diversity of such works, Malotki (Northern Arizona Univ.) and Dissanayake (an independent scholar) have succeeded in producing a comprehensive, studied, and beautifully illustrated treatment of the most ancient and widespread abstract geometrics rendered in petroglyphic (pecked) and pictographic (painted) media throughout the American West. Their studied approach to this esoteric art form is both compelling and innovative, and constitutes one of the most thoroughgoing treatments currently available for interrogating this long-neglected and otherwise arcane medium of human expression. Drawing on the insights of ethology, cognitive archaeology, evolutionary biology, and the psychology of art and art-making, the authors succeed in building a brilliant, substantive case for the antiquity of the early geometric enigmas that span the American West, and for the psychology behind their creation.”


Summing Up: Essential. All readers.”


Readers’ Comments


August 13, 2018 François L. Gohier


Those of us interested in Native American rock art are familiar with the geometric images found in profusion in the Western States. Familiar but also baffled by the abstract petroglyphs engraved on boulders or on cliffsides, by the occasional abstract painted images, and the collections of “cupules” carved in the rocks sometimes by the dozen or even the hundreds.

Why are there so many of these carvings, why did the makers choose to make these abstract designs instead of, for example, representing animals found in the real world around them ? And... what do these abstract images mean ?

As in his previous publications on rupestrian art, Ekkehart Malotki offers us a collection of beautiful images, no mean feat considering the subject matter. But in addition to the photographs, the text is what makes this book so captivating. Ekkehart Malotki gives a wide overview of the study or rock art and discusses selected sites representative of geometric styles, the subject of this book.


January 21, 2019 Dennis DeVore


I just finished reading this book. I had to read it twice, the first time with my usual skepticism, the second time with a yellow marker. The authors have written a great book on a very difficult subject. There is so much here, so much I now understand. I highly recommend as a "must read" for anyone who is serious about the origins of rock art in the American West.


February 4, 2019 Katherine Wells


I have been captivated by Archaic Period rock art for decades. Until now there has been no comprehensive and satisfying volume of this magnitude on the subject. Malotki's stunning "eye-candy" photos show him to be the very best rock art photographer around. His images and ideas paired with Dissanayake's profound thinking about art make the book a treasure.


May 3, 2019 Jane York


This is a most interesting book written on archeology, specifically on native american rock art from the perspective of a linguist in native american languages and an art professor. Their interest and thesis is that it is an innate part of being human to make marks for artistic expression , for communication, for commemoration. All of these purposes are part of the human culture. They review the literature of these fields and analyze rock art from that perspective. A provocative and illuminating book.


August 13, 2020 Michael E. Yeaman


As a geoscientist and abstract stone sculptor, I found this book to combine both science and art with beautiful photos of American rock carvings. I have read many works on the origin of art, including the mid-20th century seminal works of Herbert Read, but this recent volume by Malotki and Dissanayake brings modern anthropological studies to bear on this topic in a holistic way. Although "American West" is in the title and are where the geometric rock carving photos are taken, the book provides a much broader overview of paleoart development as seen through its earliest extant examples; rock art. Add this book to your collection on Art and its origins, today!


November 28, 2020 Jan Mueller-Szeraws


This book is a true treasure. Not only is it beautifully written, absolutely fascinating and rich in deep and precious insights into the essence and origins of humanness, but its marvelous photography makes its powerful insights truly palpable.