Wednesday 7 March 2012

An Apology: The Lagoa Santa Petroglyph is Real

Earlier today Anonymous left a comment on my response to Neves et al.'s 'Rock Art at the Pleistocene/Holocene Boundary in Eastern South America,' published in PLoS ONE on February 22, 2012. Recall that it dealt with the dates from Lapa do Santo Rock shelter, in the Lagoa Santa karst, near  Belo Horizonte, in Central-Eastern Brazil. Specifically, it reported a very old date for what they reported as rock art. Unfortunately my 'take' on Neves et al. was based on the only illustration of their rock art that was to be found in the downloaded pdf that I saw. It's their Figure 1, and it's reproduced above. 
     I was not just skeptical of the claim that this was rock art--I was dismissive, and in a derogatory tone. To my eye this 'figure' looked like anything but a human male with an oversized phallus, as it's described in the paper. And I made a 'rush to judgement.' And, like OJ's prosecution, I come out smelling like a fart. It appears that I missed the fine print in the article that referred to other localities where such 'figures' are recorded--C-shaped heads and all.
     Here is the comment from Anonymous
An extremely negative piece that fails to mention the fundamental differences between pecked or hammered rock-art and non-anthropic markings created by natural processes. A cursory glance at the images strongly suggests a pecking or hammering process involved, though it would take an in-person visitation and examination to be absolutely sure. Given the similarity between the Lagoa Santa image and nearby stands to reason that the archaeologists have made an appropriate identification.
You offer no evidence at all for your position and it comes across as simply having go at both PLoS ONE and the archaeologists who worked at Lagoa Santa. The former may be fair enough, but the latter?
The mention of 'nearby rock-art' sent me scurrying back to the paper, and sure enough, there they were. I reproduce Neves et al.'s Figure S3 below, which depicts a selection of petroglyphs from Lapa do Santo, Lapa do Ballet and Lapa das Caieiras, also in the Lagoa Santa karst.
Clearly I was wrong. There is obviously a well-established pictorial tradition in that part of the world wherein humans have three fingers, C-shaped heads, and exposed and exaggerated (one would have to think) genitals, often tumescent. Mind you, the Lapa do Santo Rock shelter petroglyph that started all this is nowhere near as precise as these other examples in its depiction of the lower reaches of the body. The meandering peck marks that form the ?lower limbs and phallus? are, forgive me for saying so, rather coarse when compared with the figures from the other localities. I'm still wrong. But I hope I can be forgiven for treating the claim of an oversized phallus as 'a bit of a reach.'

At this time, I'd like to apologize to the authors for my original blog post, which I will not take down, but to which I've attached a note explaining where to go for the true story. 
     I'd also like to thank Anonymous for having the temerity to upbraid me for my failings. 
     I choose not, at this time, to let PLoS ONE and its referees off the hook. In my defense, images of the other, validating, petroglyphs were published only as supplementary material, and your's truly missed them. Given the very distant, unique, and regional tradition from which the Lagoa Santa petroglyph arose, they should never have let the authors publish the comparative material as supplementary material. For that matter, what is PLoS ONE doing publishing anything as supplementary? They're all electronic. Supplementary material is something that traditionally print-based journals do in addition to the print paper. On that basis I still maintain that the referees were asleep at the wheel, since they obviously didn't think the other examples of C-headed, three-fingered, pecked stick figures were important enough to be included in the paper, proper. 
     That's cold comfort for me, unfortunately. It's a bloody good thing I had no credibility in the discipline before I began this blog. Otherwise I might be worried that such gaffes as this one would erode my readers' confidence to such an extent that they'd stop visiting. It's my fervent hope that the possibility of such an outcome is just my own, personal, cauchemar.


  1. Congratulations for being so honest. Everybody makes mistakes. I read a lot of junk about the paper, very few people cared to read the original paper and figures.

  2. Thanks, Astolfo. Can you please answer a question? Why were the comparative images left out of the main document? I'm not looking for an excuse for my 'blindness,' but you can imagine that if I missed them, others must have missed them, too.

  3. Hi Rob. You are right, since the paper was intended to be online, we should have put the figures in the main text. Since we never published in an eletronic journal, we were used to leave almost all figures in the "supplementary material" section.


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