Dating the Pictographs in Horseshoe Canyon, Utah

By A.R. Williams [1]

Using new techniques to gauge how long rocks have been exposed to sunlight, researchers have significantly narrowed the period in which [the surreal-sized pictographs in Horseshoe Canyon, Canyonlands National Park, Utah] must have been painted.

Great Gallery in Horseshoe Canyon, Canyonlands National Park

Great Gallery in Horseshoe Canyon, Canyonlands National Park

Their reconstruction of events:  2,000 years ago a sheet of rock fell from the cliff.  Artists then used the fresh surface as their canvas.  About 900 years ago another sheet fell, taking a few painted figures with it.

Pictographs in Horseshoe Canyon, Canyonlands National Park, Utah

Pictographs in Horseshoe Canyon, Canyonlands National Park, Utah

Steven Simms, a Utah State University archaeologist involved in the research, thinks the paintings may have been made within a few hundred years of the first rockfall, during a time of major transformation as corn farmers from the south moved into a region peopled by hunter-gatherers.

In Simm’s scenario “the farmers come in large numbers.  they take over the land, hunt all the game.  The hunter-gatherers are pushed to the margins.”

Note:  The Horseshoe Canyon pictographs are located in an adjunct to Canyonlands National Park.


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What Do Giraffes and Michelangelo’s Moses Have in Common?

Neither has real HORNS.  The giraffe is a wonderfully regal animal with a long neck and stubby horns.

The Horns on a Giraffe

The Horns on a Giraffe

The giraffe’s horns remind me of the short “horns” on Michelangelo’s statue of Moses (talk about a bad segue).

The "Horns" on Michelangelo's Statue of Moses

The “Horns” on Michelangelo’s Statue of Moses

Which brings up the question:  Why does Michelangelo’s Moses have horns?  Inquiring minds want to know.

According to one early Latin Vulgate translation of the Book of Exodus, “when Moses came down from the mount Sinai, he held the two tablets of the testimony, and he knew not that his face was horned from the conversation of the Lord.”  This image of Moses was common throughout the Middle Ages and persisted into and through the Renaissance, and Michelangelo was a Renaissance artist.  But it is now believed that the early Latin translation used “horned” and as euphemism for “glorified.”

And another bad segue.  Maybe giraffes have stubby horns as possible symbol of their glorification?

Actually, giraffe stubs are not called horns but ossicones.  They are formed from ossified cartilage and covered with skin.  Both sexes have a pair, however the females’ are thin and tufted, while males’ are thicker and bald on top.  The latter result from frequent sparring over time.  Fatal combat is rare but can occur.

For more about giraffes click here.

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Exact Minute French Impressionism Was Born

by Jeremy Berlin [1]

At 7:35 am on November 13, 1872, in the port city of Le Havre, France, the art world changed forever.  Claude Monet gazed out his hotel window and began to paint what he saw.  The result was “Impression, Soleil Levant”–and the birth of a movement.

"Impression, Soleil Levant" by Claude Monet

“Impression, Soleil Levant” by Claude Monet

How do we know exactly when [French] Impressionism began?  Because of Donald Olson, a Texas State University astrophysicist who uses astronomy to solve art and literary mysteries.  When art historian Geraldine Lefebvre and Marmottan Monet Museum deputy director Marianne Mathieu asked Olson to help determine the painting’s provenance, the self-styled “celestial sleuth” began by poring over maps and photos to identify Monet’s hotel and room.  Then he turned to astronomy–using the rising sun and the moon to determine the tide, season, and time of day–and consulted digitized 19th-century weather observations.  The final clues were the smoke plumes in the painting, showing the wind blowing east to west.

Those findings–plus the “72” by Monet’s signature–closed the case and put a precise time stamp on a timeless work of art.


[1]  Jeremy Berlin, “Dawn of Impressionism,” National Geographic, April 2015.

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Giraffes: Saving the Long-Legged Beauties

During my many trips to Muchison Falls National Park in northwestern Uganda, I’ve enjoyed watching the giraffes.  These gentle herbivores are gangling when they walk and have an awkward stance when they drink.  Yet they are wonderfully regal.

But all is not well with the giraffe population.  According to Catherine Zuckerman (NG, Apr 2015):

With their striking coat patterns and towering height, giraffes are iconic African creatures–yet they haven’t been the subject of much scientific study.  Now researchers who track the animals report a disturbing trend:  Across the continent populations have dwindled from 140,000 to fewer than 80,000 over the past 15 years, according to the Giraffe Conservation Foundation (GCF).

Slow-moving and enormous, “giraffes offer an easy target and lots of meat” for poachers, particularly in the war-torn Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), says GCF Executive Director Julian Fennessy.  Herds also are diminished by habitat loss and by hunters who cater to the superstition among some tribes that eating giraffe brains wards off HIV.  Still, says Fennessy, there is hope for the future.  We wouldn’t be doing this work if we thought it was too late.”

When I took my granddaughter to Uganda 2 years ago (2013), giraffes were the animals that she most wanted to see.  They are a hit because of their gentle nature, comical appearance, magical spots, big expressive ears, short horns, and long necks and eyelashes.  Because of their dwindling numbers, a recent report by the International Union of the Conservation of Nature suggested that giraffes may need to be listed as a threatened species because in some areas–like DRC and West Africa–their populations are being decimated.  They are already thought to be extinct in Angola, Mali, and Nigeria.

Giraffe Foraging for Leaves in Murchison Falls NP

Giraffe Foraging on Leaves in Murchison Falls NP

Some people enjoy hunting giraffes and are willing to pay as much as $15,000 for the “pleasure” of killing one.  According to Fennessy this may not be all bad (although I personally find it disgusting); populations in countries where it is legal–South Africa, Namibia, and Zimbabwe–can cope with the killing.  “In countries where [giraffes] are hunted legally, the populations are increasing, but across Africa the overall numbers are dropping alarmingly.”

Proud Trophy Hunters

Proud Trophy Hunters

Legal hunting can actually help local communities by bringing in money and providing meat.  “Many guides, trackers, and skinners who assist the giraffe hunters are paid in meat from the kills,” states Fennessey.

After one proud hunter posted a photograph of her trophy dead giraffe and her on Facebook, she was roundly harassed and had was forced to remove the image.  Since shooting a giraffe is a little like “shooting fish in a barrel,” it is hard for me to see any pleasure in the accomplishment.

Note:  For more photographs of the animals in Murchison Falls NP click here.

Posted in Africa, Environment, other animals, Travel | Tagged , , | 2 Comments

Is the Ethiopian Village of Awra Amba Really a Utopia?

My Ethiopian guide had mentioned a possible visit to the village of Awra Amba.  I had never heard of the place, so I looked it up on the Internet.  When I learned that it was a “utopian” community in northern Ethiopia, I decided I to pay a visit.  I had previously traveled to a similar “utopian” enterprise–Gaviotas–in Colombia in 2010.

So in early February 2015, my Ethiopian guide Derebe and I stopped briefly at Awra Amba, located just off the northwestern end of the Addis Abba-to-Lake Tana highway.

Ethiopian Zumra Nuru founded Awra Amba over 40 years ago as an alternative developmental model to what then existed in northern Ethiopia.  He wanted his community to be based on:

  • gender and social equality,
  • absence of organized religion,
  • emphasizing hard work,
  • highly valuing education, and
  • caring for the elderly.

Eager to get the “inside scoop,” representatives from organizations like the Ethiopian government, the World Bank, developmental organizations like Oxfam International, and the new’s media (particularly European) frequently visit the village in an effort to discover its secrets to success.

Derebe and I arrived at Awra Amba just after lunch, and were immediately ushered to the visitor’s center.  Yes, this community of approximately 460 has a visitor’s center.  We were charged a very modest tour fee and then assigned Asnake–a young man in his twenties–as our tour guide.  On the wall of the visitor center were the sayings of  Zumra Nuru.

The Wisdom of Zumra Nuru, Founder of Awra Amba

The Wisdom of Zumra Nuru, Founder of Awra Amba

We started our tour by peeking in on their nursery school.  The facility was nice and clean, and students were happy and friendly.  Outdoors was a small playground facility.

Friently Nursery Students at Awra Amba.

Friendly Nursery Students at Awra Amba.

Next we toured the senior living facility.  At the time, there were 7 seniors living in what would be considered a very modest assisted living center.  In this small building, each had their own enclosed place to bunk.  I asked about the ages of the seniors, and Asnake said he didn’t know.  Because of limited records, estimating the age of seniors in Ethiopia is not always an exact science.  The guide mentioned that 5 of the seniors were from Awra Amba, and 2 were from nearby communities.

Awra Amba's Seniors

Awra Amba’s Seniors

Since I’m almost 70, I asked if I could move into the Awra Amba assisted-living center.  The guide indicated that since I looked reasonably healthy that I would be required to work.  I told him I was tired and just needed a place to live out the remainder of my life.  His smiling response was:  “We don’t have room for the lazy.”

Awra Amba’s model is highly egalitarian.  Most of the village’s labor force–which in the early days concentrated on agriculture–works communally, money is reinvested back into village projects and the profits split evenly.  The village is run through a series of committees which determine bylaws and make village decisions.

After visiting one of the homes, which was equipped with a very environmentally friendly stove/oven, we walked over to the community’s hostel and cafe which is provides board and room for visitors.  The cost to stay in Awra Amba is quite modest.

The communities major industry is weaving.  We were shown various components of the operation and then escorted to a store, where the community’s woven products can be purchased.  Adjacent to the store was a computer center.  But the village only has a slow-speed internet hookup.  So the computers are of limited use.

I asked Asnake about the problems and needs of the community.  He indicated that they needed to diversify their economy further, beyond agriculture and weaving; he specifically mentioned improved shops (repair, metal, and wood).

My Guide and Asnake Discussing the Needs of Awra Amba Community

My Guide Asnake and I Discussing the Needs of the Awra Amba Community

One of Awra Amba’s major innovations (or trouble areas) is their disconnecting of community and religion.  The community does not have a mosque or a church; it has no organized religion.  In neighboring Christian and Muslim villages, the residents respect the Sabbath and holidays.  And Ethiopia has frequent religious holidays.  But on those days, in Awra Amba, the villagers work.

The traditional religions and culture in Ethiopia segregate gender roles.  But Awra Amba embraces gender equality.  You can see women plowing the fields, a job traditionally considered men’s work, and men running the weaving machines.

The lack of religion is not the only competitive advantage for Awra Amba.  The village invests a lot of energy into educating its children and diversifying the economy.  The village has a mill, where grain is ground into flour.  There is the previously mentioned textile factory where villagers make clothes and bedding for themselves and to sell.  There is also the tourist hostel and cafe.  With all of these businesses, Awra Amba has managed to pull itself out of poverty.  The average income in the village is twice that of the surrounding region.

By ignoring the region’s customs, Awra Amba has found itself occasionally under attack.  Some neighbors view the residents as heathens, and in the past the animosity has turned violent.  But reports are that relations between the village and its neighbors have recently improved.

But has all this come at too high a price?  Gerebe, my Ethiopian guide, thinks it has.  Ethiopia has a very venerable form of Orthodox Christianity.  It is a colorful, and to many, an important part of daily life.  Islam also has deep roots.  Ideally, it would be great to see Awra Amba’s innovations integrated into the more traditional culture, particularly for those who want or need religion.

I wonder also about the “cult of personality” that has developed around the founder Zumra Nuru.  What will happen when he passes away?  I’m a little uncomfortable having his sayings posted all over the walls in the visitors centers.   I’m not a real slogan-type guy.

So is Awra Amba a potential utopia?  One definition of utopia is:  “a community or society possessing highly desirable or near perfect qualities.”  In many context, these communities are imaged as a sort of static perfection.  For this reason, libertarian transhumanists developed the idea of an “extropia,” an open, evolving society allowing individual and voluntary groupings to establish the institutions and social forms they prefer.  The keyword in this definition is “evolving.”

It is impossible to make any real observations after a two-hour visit, but it would appear that Awra Amba is on to something, and perhaps it is more of an extropia than a utopia.  It would be interesting and beneficial to further assist the community and its neighbors with the diversification of their economies.  Particularly, investing in improved technology.  This could be accomplished at a fairly low cost.  This would make for an interesting, evolving, and continuing social experiment.

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Inoculating Mormons Against Creationism

In a recent discussion on the origins of Mormon polygamy, rameumptom made the following comment on

[More pressing than the issue] of Joseph [Smith’s] polygamy [is the] need to inoculate against 6-day Creationism and the like.  Too many kids are raised on Creationism in the LDS Church, then go to college, where they learn it doesn’t match the evidence of science.  I’ve seen more kids leave the Church over that than over the Meadow Mountain massacre, polygamy, etc.

Tim responds:

I think there has been some good progress with those issues in the BYU religion department, especially as some of the old guard have passed on.  But I think it’s going to take a lot longer to see much progress at the CES/seminary level.

When I taught high school biology, my students would go to release time seminary and tell their seminary teacher who dissed evolution that their BYU-educated biology teacher was teaching it.  The seminary teachers would respond, “Well, he doesn’t really believe it.  He’s teaching it because he has to.”

I’m guessing the vast majority of professional seminary teachers and CES types are going to remain anti-evolution for a very long time.  I’m sure they don’t consider the negative impact it can have on their students down the road.

juliathepoet comments:

I’m always completely dumbfounded when I hear that creationism is taught by anyone who is LDS.  I guess I was lucky to have a release time seminary teacher who didn’t go the traditional route.

Where the heck does Creationism come in?

Ben S. responds:

Those who do [believe in Creationism] have to rely on Genesis, and statements like Joseph Fielding Smith’s:  “I will state frankly and positively that I am opposed to the present biological theories and the doctrine that man has been on the earth for millions of years.”

Allen replies:

People don’t have to rely on McConkie or JFS in order to support their views on Creationism.  [Apostle] Russell M. Nelson has been saying ridiculous things about organic evolution and cosmology for the bulk of his tenure.

TRW (this blog) has consistently encouraged LDS Church leaders to deal with the issue of science and religion in a forthright manner.  Certainly expunging Creationism from the BYU Religion Department and CES programs would be a great start.  But there should also be articles in the Ensign magazine by respected leaders like President Henry B. Eyring that encourage a more thoughtful and respectful view of science.


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Chauvet Cave: 36,000-Year-Old Movies?

by Chip Walker [1]

In his book La Prehistoire du Cinema, filmmaker and archaeologist Marc Azema argues that some the Chauvet Cave artists (recently discovered cave in southern France) were the world’s first animators, and the artists’ superimposed images combined with flickering firelight in the pitch-black cave to create the illusion that the paintings were moving.  “They wanted to make these images lifelike,” says Azema.  He has recreated digital version of some cave images to illustrate the effect.

The Lion Panel in Chauvet’s deepest chamber is a good example.  It features the heads of ten lions, all seemingly intent on their prey.  But in the light of a strategically positioned torch or stone lamp, these ten lions might be successive characterizations of just one lion, or perhaps two or three, moving through a story, much like the frames of a flip-book or animated film.

Pride of Lions' Artwork from Chauvet Cave, France

Pre-historic Lion(s) Appear to be Moving in Chauvet Cave, France

Beyond the lions stands a cluster of rhinoceroses.  The head and horn of the top one are repeated staccato-like six times, one image above the other, as if thrusting upward, its whole body shuddering with multiple outlines.

Animating the Sense of Motion in Chauvet Cave

Animating the Sense of Motion in Chauvet Cave

Azema’s interpretation fits with that of eminent pre-historian Jean Clottes–the first scientist to enter Chauvet, only days after its discovery.  Clottes believes the images in the cave were intended to be experienced much the way we view movies, theater, or even religious ceremonies today–a departure from the real world that transfixed its audience and bound it in a powerful shared experience.  “It was a show!” say Clottes.

Thousands of years later, you can still feel the power of that show as you walk the chambers of the cave, the sound of your own breath heavy in your ear, the constant drip, drip of the water falling from the walls and ceilings.  In its rhythm you can almost make out the thrum of ancient music, the beat of the dance, as a storyteller casts the light of a torch upon a floating image, and enthralls the audience of the tale.

Note:  Chauvet Cave is closed to the public.  To get a better idea about the cave’s hidden treasures, view the flawed documentary, “Cave of Forgotten Dreams.”


Chip Walker, “The First Artist,” National Geographic, Jan 2015, page 57

Posted in Art, Books, Movies, prehistoric | Tagged , | 1 Comment