Sunday, October 20, 2013

California's Old Stone Face, pareidolia, and Carl Sagan's demon-haunted world

Located along the California coastline, roughly halfway between San Francisco and Los Angeles, near the town of Los Osos, is a rugged boulder known as the "Old Stone Face."  As you can see from the image above, it clearly resembles a human profile, staring silently off in the direction of the Pacific Ocean, towering above the other boulders nearby.

If we ask ourselves how this boulder came to resemble so closely the profile of a human face, the first and most likely explanation is that we are simply "reading into" the natural shape of a rocky outcropping and finding a human face.  The ability to see forms in the random patterns of nature, such as in clouds, is called "pareidolia," and some have suggested that the ability to find faces among random shapes and figures is an evolutionary trait which has become "hardwired" into the human brain.  

For example, in his book the Demon-Haunted World (1997), Carl Sagan wrote:
Humans, like other primates, are a gregarious lot.  We enjoy one another's company.  We're mammals, and parental care of the young is essential for the continuance of the hereditary lines.  The parent smiles at the child, the child smiles back, and a bond is forged or strengthened.  As soon as the infant can see, it recognizes faces, and we now know that this skill is hardwired in our brains.  Those infants who a million years ago were unable to recognize a face smiled back less, were less likely to win the hearts of their parents, and less likely to prosper.  These days, nearly every infant is quick to recognize a human face, and to respond with a goony grin.  
As an inadvertent side effect, the pattern-recognition machinery in our faces is so efficient in extracting a face from a clutter of other detail that we sometimes see faces where there are none. 45.
Note that Sagan here is pawning off his explanation for the origin of our "pattern-recognition machinery" as the only possible explanation -- he is declaring authoritatively that this skill is a byproduct of the need for parental attention in mammals in order to survive.  One wonders whether whales and dolphins (who are also mammals and nurse their young) evolved their own "inadvertent side effect" similar to ours, and now see the faces of their own species in random groupings of waves or drifting seaweed.  

Sagan's fable about babies who respond with "a goony grin" having better odds of survival is just that: a fable.  One might still believe in evolution but argue that the ability to recognize a face in the jungle could help save you from an ambush, and that therefore early humans who could spot a face hiding among the rocks or the leaves (even if camouflaged) would be more likely to survive and reproduce.   But no -- Sagan authoritatively declares that his smiling infant explanation is the reason for our ability to  see faces, and that is the end of the matter.  It is, of course, also possible that our amazing "pattern-recognition machinery" is something that did not come about by evolutionary pressures at all (here is a link to a series of posts on the topic of evolution and alternative possibilities).

In any case, whether you agree with Sagan's explanation above or not, one possible explanation for the Old Stone Face shown in the (un-retouched, un-altered) photograph above is that it is simply another example of our incredible ability in "extracting a face from a clutter of other detail."  This is certainly the simplest explanation, and therefore has much to commend it.  In fact, using the principle of "Occam's razor," it must be considered the reigning hypothesis unless and until enough other pieces of evidence can be found which indicate that a different explanation should be entertained.

However, just because humans do have a remarkable ability to "extract a face" from random clutter does not necessarily mean that the boulder above was not subtly altered to more closely suggest a human head.  In fact, there are several examples from around the world of stone profiles which were altered by ancient humans -- indicating that the practice of shaping stony prominences into human faces was a deliberate activity that marked many different cultures, or perhaps one culture that traveled to many different locations on our globe.

For example, in the post entitled "Aligned stones, V-shaped notches, and massive but subtle sculptures found in India, New Zealand, and Peru," we examined evidence from three widely separated places where ancient sky-watchers created stone circles with astronomical alignments, as well as sight-lines to surrounding terrain features (some of which have conspicuous V-shaped notches aligned to important solar and lunar rising and setting points), and -- in each case -- the ancient stone builders of these complexes seem to have done some additional manipulation of large stones nearby in order to create monumental sculptures, often of craggy bearded faces.

At the important site of Ollantaytambo, in modern-day Peru, for example, there is a massive stone face measuring over 300 feet in height (see below).  Its profile features frowning brows, an angular jawline, and a nose very similar in shape to the Old Stone Face on the California coastline shown above.

Due to the other obvious signs of advanced stoneworking present in the area, as well as the very obvious shape of the eye and the nose, I would venture to state that even Carl Sagan would not argue that the face at Ollantaytambo is the product of our "hardwired" human ability to "see faces where there are none."  It was certainly sculpted by ancient artisans, perhaps because the cliff already had some natural resemblance to a human face, for reasons of which today we can only speculate: possibly for fun, and possibly for much more serious purposes.

The previous post linked above also made reference to a massive craggy bearded face found in a rock cliff at Whangape, on the north end of the North Island of New Zealand (Aotearoa).  This enormous face is discussed by Martin Doutre in his excellent Ancient Celtic New Zealand website, where it can be seen in two photographs at the very bottom of this page in his "articles" section.

Of that stone face, Mr. Doutre writes:
The clearly carved face is huge, and gazes towards the general positions of the Summer Solstice and Equinox rise points of the sun.  The face itself was carved to be very deliberately fluted or channeled, causing a high degree of shadow play across the face between the time of the Summer Solstice to the Winter Solstice and throughout each day of the year.  The Winter Sun would leave very long shadows on the face and an adept reader of the interplay between light and shadow would be able to fairly accurately determine both the time of year and the time of day.  The pyramidal marker stone atop the head would have served the function as an observatory position for solar rises and sets.  Accurate fixes on the Solstices (Summer & Winter) and Equinoxes (Vernal & Autumn) would have been calculated from that position and the calendar kept accurate accordingly.

Like the face of the old bearded man of Tokatoka, Ruawai, mentioned in Waitaha oral traditions, the face at Whangape sits adjacent to a deep navigable channel to the sea. These huge carvings obviously represented Tangaroa, god of the sea and ocean migrations.  It seems reasonable to assume that mariners heading to the open sea would say prayers to Tangaroa and, upon a safe return, express their thanks.
Interestingly enough, the Old Stone Face on the California coast is also found very close to a deep harbor with a channel leading to the Pacific Ocean.  Is it at least possible that, given its apparent similarities to the faces at Whangape and Ollantaytambo, it is the product of an ancient practice of subtly altering large stone outcroppings?

It is important to note that it is very possible that people in all parts of the world altered stone outcroppings independent of one another to create sculptures.  However, there are certain strong similarities in these faces which suggests the possibility that the people who created them were in some way connected (we can entertain this possibility for the cultures that produced the faces at Ollantaytambo and Whangape, whether or not we believe the Old Stone Face in California was manipulated by humans in the past).

As mentioned in the previous blog post linked above, the practice of subtly altering stone formations to resemble profiles is found in many other parts of the world as well.   This page from the website of Subhashis Das contains outstanding photographs of some of the wealth of ancient megalithic sites still surviving today in India.  If you scroll far down through the page, you will see boulders which have been subtly altered to resemble a huge iguana and the flukes of a diving whale.  On a different page, entitled "Did India and Britain have a contact in the deep past?" Mr. Das presents numerous photographs of dolmens, holed-stones, and labyrinth-patterned carvings in both India and the British Isles which strongly suggests that they are all the products of a single ancient culture, or at least of cultures which had fairly close contact with one another.

The evidence from around the world clearly seems to suggest that there was in fact an ancient culture which left its imprint at points far removed across our entire planet, from the British Isles, to the Americas, to the South Pacific, and that this ancient culture for whatever reason enjoyed creating massive stone sculptures in such a way that their art looked almost as if it was the product of nature and not of a human artist.  Based on this evidence, the many stone faces which can be seen around the world (often near a waterway or a navigable coastline) should be carefully examined to see if there is any evidence to suggest that there are also deliberate astronomical alignments marked into the terrain nearby, or other evidence to connect them to sites such as Ollantaytambo and Whangape and some of the megalithic ruins in India.

Because of the evidence from other parts of the world, these stone faces should not be immediately dismissed as products of "pareidolia," or Carl Sagan's "hardwired pattern-recognition machinery."