Ellen Dissanayake

Author and Lecturer

Affiliate Professor
School of Music
University of Washington

Photograph by Ekkehart Malotki

Photograph by Ekkehart Malotki


Early Rock Art of the American West:
The Geometric Enigma

Early Rock Art of the American West: The Geometric Enigma

by Ekkehart Malotki and Ellen Dissanayake
University of Washington Press
2018, hardcover & paper, 314 pp., 200 illustrations.

The earliest rock art—in the Americas as elsewhere—is geometric or abstract. Until Early Rock Art in the American West, however, no book-length study has been devoted to the deep antiquity and amazing range of geometrics and the fascinating questions that arise from their ubiquity and variety. Why did they precede representational marks? What is known about their origins and functions? Why and how did humans begin to make marks, and what does this practice tell us about the early human mind?

With some two hundred striking color images and discussions of chronology, dating, sites, and styles, this pioneering investigation of abstract geometrics on stone (as well as bone, ivory, and shell) explores its wide-ranging subject from the perspectives of ethology, evolutionary biology, cognitive archaeology, and the psychology of art making. The authors' unique approach instills a greater respect for a largely unknown and underappreciated form of paleoart, suggesting that before humans became Homo symbolicus or even Homo religiosus, they were mark-makers - Homo aestheticus.



A CHOICE OUTSTANDING ACADEMIC TITLE. 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. . . . Essential. All readers.
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.
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.