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14 September 2008
Pursuing US Southwest's prehistoric rock art

In his mid-60s, Ekkehart Malotki, a retired linguistics professor, willingly dangled from a rope tied to a car that was backed to the edge of a cliff. He was documenting a rock art panel a quarter-mile long in northern Arizona (USA). Dr. Malotki fell in love with America's desert Southwest as a 20-something graduate student of languages at the University of California, San Diego. There, he debunked the longstanding notion that the Hopi tribe of northern Arizona did not talk about time. As a linguist at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff, Dr. Malotki spent decades chronicling the nuanced Hopi tongue.
     Dr. Malotki began roaming the desert in pursuit of Kokopelli, the southwestern deity depicted as a man playing a flute, which had been incorrectly linked with a Hopi kachina, or spirit. He found much evidence to dispel the association. And everywhere he went, he found art: pot shards, carved petroglyphs and painted pictographs. He has published three books about rock art, including 'The Rock Art of Arizona: Art for Life's Sake,' which is the first to document rock art through the ages, across the entire state. He has taken thousands of photographs, and he keeps his secret GPS coordinates in files that line his office walls. "It's a disease that is incurable," he said. "This is my bliss, going out in search of rock art."
     Dr. Malotki's latest focus is on designs called phosphenes, which are as fundamental to art as time is to language. He said the same 15 abstract geometric constants appear globally in art created as early as 300,000 years ago. They are grids, zigzags and patterns of dots. They are the first objects drawn by children; we doodle them when we talk on the phone. "Phosphenes have been defined as a kind of test pattern of the visual system," said Robert Bednarik, a rock art expert in Australia. He said he had determined three decades ago that all prefigurative art consisted entirely of phosphene motifs. "This hypothesis has never been falsified, and it stands nearly 30 years later," he said.
     Many archaeologists have neglected these ancient symbols in recent decades, Dr. Malotki said, because of a view that "they didn't allow insight into the minds of the creators." He disagrees. Dr. Malotki has brought rock art to the attention of Ellen Dissanayake, an independent evolutionary psychologist affiliated with the University of Washington. She has argued that art, especially music, is part of our biology, as expressed through the mode and filter of culture. Dr. Malotki, Ms. Dissanayake and Henry Wallace of the Center for Desert Archaeology, a conservation group, have embarked on a book project to show that the earliest rock art was linked with human survival.

Source: The New York Times (8 September 2008)

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