The ‘Trophy-Bird’ of Alto de Pitis

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This paper provides a few examples of petroglyphs that have drastically been transformed by later rock art manufacturers. However, it focuses on one specific petroglyph, which is found at Alto de Pitis in the Majes Valley of southern Peru; aptly called ‘The Death Valley of the Andes’. In this paper I tentatively argue that the unique ‘Trophy-Bird’ petroglyph of Alto de Pitis initially started off as a ‘trophy’ head, which was later intentionally transformed to symbolise the Supernatural Flight of the Dead towards Apu Coropuna, the Sacred Mountain of the area.

by Maarten van Hoek


The Supernatural Flight of the ‘Trophy-Bird’

of Alto de Pitis, Majes Valley, Peru


Maarten van Hoek –


COVER PHOTO: Petroglyph of a bird on Panel AP3-039E at Alto de Pitis, Majes, Peru. Notice the square body of the bird, the red colour of the rocks and the open view to Apu Coropuna, the impressive volcanic and snow-covered Sacred Mountain, which is located about 82 km to the NNW of Alto de Pitis. Importantly, on the other side of this boulder – on Panel AP3-039A – is a large Carcancha petroglyph with prominent and erect male organs (Van Hoek 2013: Fig. 113). Photograph © by Maarten van Hoek.


Dear reader,

It is possible that when you start reading the paper not all illustrations are visible. Unfortunately I have no control over this flaw in the TRACCE web site. However, you can read the paper with all illustrations in a PDF that can be downloaded at ResearchGate. I am sorry for any inconvenience.


Estimado lector,

Es posible que cuando usted comienza a leer el artículo no todas las ilustraciones son visibles. Desafortunadamente no tengo control sobre este defecto en el sitio web de TRACCE. Sin embargo, usted puede leer el artículo con todas las ilustraciones en un PDF que se puede descargar en ResearchGate. Disculpe la molestia.




It is a fact that many rock art sites all over the world have been visited by several generations of rock art manufacturers, often from different cultures. Some rock art sites even have been frequented for thousands of years. In several areas in Australia this even happened by the same culture. Then it makes sense that many rock art sites often comprise several layers of rock art production, especially as rock surfaces already adorned with images were habitually favoured over untouched rock surfaces. But it also makes sense that new generations of rock art manufacturers had different experiences and/or world-views and thus created different images, or even similar images with a dissimilar symbolism. New images were added onto the rock’s surface, while during that process some existing images may also have been indiscriminately superimposed without the specific intention to change anything of the content of the earlier image or to decline the symbolism or power of the images of the previous layer(s).

However, in some cases rock art images were intentionally (partially) obliterated in order to annul or to deny the power of the old symbols. This for instance definitely happened at many petroglyphs in the Majes Valley of southern Peru (Van Hoek 2005) and possibly at some petroglyph panels at Guelta Oukas in the Tamanart Valley of southern Morocco (Van Hoek 2015a). But besides ‘destructive’ obliteration there are other forms of transformation, some of which changed the subject matter and even the symbolism of the image.

This paper deals with (only) petroglyphs that have been intentionally and drastically transformed by later rock art manufacturers but focuses on one specific petroglyph. By this I mean that a subsequent manufacturer calculatedly transformed the content and thus possibly even the symbolism of the previous image. Transformation was not simply accomplished by – for instance – just adding a few simple elements – like three dots to a simple circle (two eyes and a nose) – in order to create anthropomorphic facials and consequently a head-image. No, transformation in this paper was achieved by transforming one image into a completely different image. Therefore, the anthropomorphic image on Boulder AP3-030 at Alto de Pitis in the Majes Valley of southern Peru, which – exceptionally – has got three hands/arms, is not an instance of drastic transformation as the anthropomorphic character of the petroglyph was not at all changed. The only purpose was apparently to change the attitude somewhat. A few cases of transformed petroglyphs will now be discussed before dealing with the main topic: the Supernatural Flight of the ‘Trophy-Bird’ of Alto de Pitis.


CASE 1: The Aït Ouazik Fish

Aït Ouazik is an extensive rock art site with several clusters of petroglyph boulders in the south of Morocco (Van Hoek 2015b). Unfortunately it is often said that Aït Ouazik is located ‘in the Draa Valley, incorrectly placing the Tazina-Style rock art site in a different (Libyan-Berber) rock art environment. In fact the site is found 40 km east and 35 NE of the central Draa Valley, across the watershed of Jebel Bani and thus definitely not in the Draa Valley and not even in the Draa drainage. Among the many high quality petroglyphs of this complex are several ‘strange’ petroglyphs composed of carefully polished grooves.

When I saw such a petroglyph for the first time (indeed at Aït Ouazik), my initial reaction was that those images represented fish, especially because of the large element at one end that looked like a fish-tail (Figure 1). Although previous rock art researchers interpreted the petroglyphs as ‘plants’, phallic representations, traps, gourds, hoop nets and even water animals, there also were rock art researchers who interpreted the images as fish (Masy 1998: 23 – 24). Although their true meaning remains still uncertain, it has now been generally accepted that those petroglyphs may represent hoop nets (‘nasses’ in French publications; Masy 1998) and not fish.

Figure 1. Petroglyph at Ait Ouazik, Southern Morocco. Photograph © by Maarten van Hoek.

Figure 2. Petroglyph at Ait Ouazik, Southern Morocco. Drawing © by Maarten van Hoek, based on a photograph by David Coulson (TARA – March 1998).

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Yet it proved that – much earlier (but how long ago?) – another visitor to the site also had interpreted one of those specific tail-shapes as part of a ‘fish’. He or she extended the tail-element by adding the rest of the fish-shape (now totalling 31 cm in length), complete with two triangular fins and an eye. The added fish-elements (Figure 2A) clearly differ from the older petroglyph (Figure 2B), as they have been more thinly incised and are not that deeply polished. It is therefore clearly a case of transformation based on a subjective and incorrect interpretation.


 CASE 2: The Stowlands Rhinos

Stowlands is a small but most interesting petroglyph site only 500 m SE of the River Vaal in Southern Africa. Transformed or hybrid animals are rather common in Southern African rock art (Van Hoek 2014a). Two petroglyphs at Stowlands indeed seem to involve deliberately transformed animals. One petroglyph clearly represents a fully laterally depicted hippopotamus (36 cm in length), which is fully but delicately pecked with a sharp eye for detail. Its head however has clearly been transformed by adding two crudely pecked rhinoceros horns (Figure 3). Apparently the hippo lost its power and its symbolism was overruled by the more imperative rhino power.

Figure 3. Petroglyph at Stowlands, South Africa. Photograph © by Maarten van Hoek.

At the same site is a similarly transformed petroglyph. It concerns the image of possibly a fully laterally depicted antelope – again fully and delicately pecked – that has also one big rhino horn added (Figure 4). It proves that – at least in this area – rhino symbolism and power became more important at a later stage.

Figure 4. Petroglyph at Stowlands, South Africa. Photograph © by Maarten van Hoek.


CASE 3: The Foum Chenna Camel

The practice of changing images also occurs in other parts of Africa. For instance, at Foum Chenna, an extensive complex of Libyan-Berber rock art sites in the central Draa Valley of southern Morocco, clearly has several layers of rock art production (Van Hoek 2014b). Several petroglyphs at Foum Chenna 1 seem to indicate the transformation from one cultural period to another. In the NW of Africa the Horse Period (roughly from 1000 B.C. to A.D. 0) is followed by the Camel Period (A.D. 0 to present day). The petroglyph discussed here (Figure 5) seems to represent a horse that was transformed into a camel by adding a large camelid ‘hump’ on to its back. Interestingly, the zoomorph also has a smaller, unexpected ‘hump’ at its belly area. This smaller hump may have served to obliterate the feet of a (possible!) rider, while simultaneously the camelid hump erased the rest of the purported rider. I realise that this rider-hypothesis cannot be proven anymore, but the transformation from horse to camel is quite acceptable.

Figure 5. Petroglyph at Foum Chenna, Morocco. Photograph © by Maarten van Hoek.


CASE 4: The Potash Archer

Across the Atlantic Ocean numerous rock art sites occur, both in North and in South America. NW of the town of Moab in Utah, North America, is a large concentration of rock art along the Colorado River. One panel at the Potash Site features a strange petroglyph that seems to depict an ‘archer’ disguised as a Bighorn sheep (Figure 6). I have argued earlier that – possibly – the original Bighorn petroglyph was transformed into an ‘archer-in-disguise’ at a later stage (Van Hoek 2015c).

Figure 6. Petroglyph at Potash, Utah, USA. Drawings © by Maarten van Hoek.


CASE 5: The Quadruped at Alto de Pitis

Alto de Pitis is an extensive petroglyph site stretching for about 4 km along the east bank of the River Majes in southern Peru. During several surveys I have documented about 500 boulders with petroglyphs of different eras at this site. One of those petroglyphs on Boulder AP3-064 is most confusing. At first sight it seems to be a badly executed, ill-shaped zoomorph (Figure 7). However, after careful scanning it appears to represent a transformed petroglyph. I tentatively would like to suggest that the first petroglyph represented a somewhat ill-formed profile bird of the Elongated Bird Type (Van Hoek 2018). Later the front legs were added and the back legs extended Figure 8). Seemingly dangling from its beak is a box-shaped extension that could represent an unfinished mask or perhaps a ‘trophy’ head, as especially in this area some rare petroglyphs of zoomorphs with a ‘trophy’ head dangling from the beak or mouth have been recorded (Van Hoek 2010). ‘Trophy’ heads are relatively rare in Andean rock art but occur repeatedly in the Majes Valley. Therefore it is even rarer to find petroglyphs of masks or ‘trophy’ heads that have been transformed. So far I know of only three possible cases.

Figure 7. Petroglyph on Boulder AP3-064 at Alto de Pitis, Majes, Peru. Photograph © by Maarten van Hoek.

Figure 8. Petroglyph on Boulder AP3-064 at Alto de Pitis, Majes, Peru. Drawing © by Maarten van Hoek.


CASE 6A: The Funerary-Being of the Nasca Valley

The first instance of a possible transformed mask concerns a petroglyph at Site X12 in the Nasca Valley of southern Peru, which is said to represent the image of an important Paracas Mythical Icon, the Oculate Being. However, Ana Nieves suggested (Nieves 2007: 93) that – possibly- the (snake-like) body of the figure was added at a later date to the petroglyph depicting the head of the Oculate Being (Figure 9). In that case the original head-element could well represent a (funerary?) mask.

Figure 9. Petroglyph on a boulder at Site X12 in the Nasca Valley, Peru. Drawing © by Maarten van Hoek, based on a drawing by Ana Nieves (2007: Fig. 6.21).


CASE 6B: The Feline-Mask of Toro Muerto

The second example is more clearly a transformed petroglyph. It is found on Boulder TM-Aa-030 at Toro Muerto in the Central Majes Valley of Southern Peru. On the almost vertical panel of this boulder is the image of a ‘feline’, the body of which actually is a (funerary?) mask or a head. It is very clear that the mask or head was manufactured first (possibly inspired by Paracas imagery) and that later the mask was transformed – incorporated rather – into a ‘feline’ (Figure 10).

Figure 10. Petroglyph on Boulder TM-Aa-030 at Toro Muerto, Majes, Peru. The mask-element has been drastically enhanced to show up better (see also Van Hoek 2018: Figs 50 and 51). Photograph © by Maarten van Hoek.


CASE 6C: The ‘Trophy-Bird’ of Alto de Pitis

The final example concerns an even more spectacular transformation, which will be discussed in more detail. I already discussed the bird to quadruped-transformation on Boulder AP3-064 at Alto de Pitis, a huge site opposite Toro Muerto in the Majes Valley. At the same site is a large boulder (AP3-171) with a collection of most interesting petroglyphs on two almost vertical panels.

The north facing Panel A of Boulder AP3-171 has several zoomorphic images (including only one ‘bird’), but also a most remarkable collection of square petroglyphs, one of which (Petroglyph 2 in Figures 11 and 12) clearly represents the completely finished image of a ‘trophy’ head, inclusive of a hanging cord (which was commonly attached to a hole in the skull) and hair (not a beard) hanging from the chin-area. A similar ‘trophy’ head petroglyph is found further north at Alto de Pitis, while two square ‘trophy’ head petroglyphs have been recorded by me at Toro Muerto on the opposite side of the valley (Figure 13).

Figure 11. Petroglyphs on Panel AP3-171A at Alto de Pitis, Majes, Peru. Photograph and drawing © by Maarten van Hoek.

Figure 12. Petroglyphs 1 to 5 on Panel AP3-171A at Alto de Pitis, Majes, Peru. Photograph © by Maarten van Hoek.

Figure 13. Petroglyphs on Boulder TM-Nw-013 at Toro Muerto, Majes, Peru. Drawing © by Maarten van Hoek.

Petroglyph 3 (also with hair) and Petroglyph 4 may represent unfinished ‘trophy’ heads, while the nature of Petroglyph 5 is uncertain. The much smaller and circular Petroglyph 6 is a different type of ‘trophy’ head. Square and circular petroglyphs of ‘trophy’ heads occur on other boulders at both Alto de Pitis and Toro Muerto in Majes, but also at other sites in southern Peru (Van Hoek 2010).

However, of special interest is Petroglyph 1; the ‘Trophy-Bird’ of Alto de Pitis. At first sight it seems to be the image of a fully frontally depicted bird, as it has two curved wings and two straight legs with three digits; all at the anatomical correct positions. Between the two legs six long, parallel lines seem to depict the tail of the bird. The square body is filled with small dots, which, however, is not unusual for zoomorphic petroglyphs in the Central Majes Valley. Interestingly, it is the only ‘bird’ petroglyph on this panel.

However, in view of the remarkable collection of square images on Panel A, it was the square body of the Petroglyph 1 bird (Figure 14B) that triggered my curiosity, as square-bodied bird petroglyphs are extremely rare in Desert Andes rock art. Could it be that this square-bodied bird petroglyph originally started off as a ‘trophy’ head? Important in the following discussion is the fact that in Andean world view a ‘trophy’ head is both a life and a death symbol (Van Hoek 2013: 101).

In that case the two legs and the six thin tail-lines could have represented the hair of the ‘trophy’ head (comparable with Petroglyphs 2 and 3), while the two curved wings could have easily been added. More importantly, when scanning the dots inside the body I noticed that one dot was larger and longer than the others. Moreover, it was placed at the anatomically correct position to represent a mouth. The same was true for two slightly larger dots at the correct position for the eyes. The profile head of the bird was rather amorphous and because of the mottled character of the panel and weathering a true bird’s head could not be recognised (hence the ‘?’). The pecked area representing the bird’s head could have been superimposed onto a short hanging chord, but beware, not all petroglyphs of a ‘trophy’ head have a hanging cord. Based on all those convincing indications, it seems to be justified to accept that Petroglyph 1 started off as a ‘trophy’ head (Figure 14A) that was transformed into a bird (Figure 14B). But why?

Figure 14. Petroglyph 1 on Panel AP3-171A at Alto de Pitis, Majes, Peru. Drawings © by Maarten van Hoek.

To find a possible answer one will have to look at the other side of the boulder. On Panel AP3-171B, are three well preserved petroglyphs of fully frontally depicted birds; all filled with dots. One of those birds is remarkable as it is the only example that has a rectangular body. It also has legs (again with three digits each), a tail comprising five parallel lines and two curved wings, all at the same position as at Petroglyph 1 on Panel A (Figure 15). However, none of the internal dots is distinctly larger and none of the dots resembles a mouth or an eye, while the exceptionally small, but still outlined profile head of the bird is clearly defined as a bird’s head. It therefore clearly is not a transformed image.

Figure 15. Petroglyph on Panel AP3-171B at Alto de Pitis, Majes, Peru. Photograph © by Maarten van Hoek.

Fully frontally depicted bird petroglyphs with square (or rectangular) bodies are extremely rare in this part of the Majes Valley and in the Desert Andes, but especially at Alto de Pitis several examples have been recorded by me. In addition, the ‘Trophy-Bird’ of Alto de Pitis is so far the only transformed ‘trophy’ head in the area and beyond. Therefore the bird petroglyph on Panel B most likely was the inspiration to transform the ‘trophy’ head on Panel A into a similarly looking bird. In my opinion it is less likely that the transformed ‘trophy’-bird on Panel A triggered the manufacture of the bird on Panel B and the other examples in the area.

Whatever the sequence, it is clear that bird symbolism was important at this site and at many other sites in the Desert Andes (see my video about bird petroglyphs in Peru). This is also demonstrated by the fact that the large anthropomorphic figure on Panel B – an exceptional example of a Carcancha (Figure 16) – also has two wings (or external ribs?) attached to its body (added later?), while on its thorax sits a design possibly symbolising a pair of wings (or ribs?). Notice that one of the purported wings superimposes a much smaller Carcancha petroglyph at its right (left for the observer). Importantly, I do not know of Carcancha petroglyphs with similarly, downward-curved ribs in this area.

It is important to know that – in general – the Carcancha icon symbolises both death (it is a skeleton) and life (it often has sexual organs), while – simultaneously – it symbolises the supernatural flight from the world of the living people to the realm of the dead, which – in this area  – was located at the top of the Sacred Mountain of Apu Coropuna; a most impressive volcano that is only visible from Alto de Pitis (but also from Toran; a small rock art site that is in fact a southward extension of Alto de Pitis) but from no other rock art site in the valley (Van Hoek 2013).

Figure 16. Carcancha petroglyph on Panel AP3-171B at Alto de Pitis, Majes, Peru. Photograph and drawing © by Maarten van Hoek.

Importantly, also two decisive Andean colours (red and white) are visible from (near) Boulder AP3-171. First, the snow-capped, white summit of the Sacred Mountain Apu Coropona itself is visible (82 km to the NNW across the valley), but the equally important Red Spot (an area with some very conspicuous patches of red coloured outcrops, boulders and sands) across the valley, 1.5 km to the SW from Boulder AP3-171, at the village of Punta Colorada (a name which translates as ‘Red Spot’), is simultaneously clearly visible (Figure 17). Therefore, in this specific context the transformation of the ‘trophy’ head on Panel A into a bird seems to be very logical act, as the bird elements may indeed have been added to add the power of the supernatural flight of the ‘living dead’ to the realm of the ancestors and deities, the summit of Apu Coropuna.

Figure 17. Boulder AP3-171 at Alto de Pitis, Majes, Peru, looking SW across the Majes Valley towards the Red Spot above Punta Colorado (drastically enhanced to show up in the photo). The bottle is 22 cm. Photograph © by Maarten van Hoek.



This study offers some convincing examples in which, very occasionally, a petroglyph was intentionally transformed at some time into a completely different image with often an entirely dissimilar symbolism. This was apparently done for several reasons. The Aït Ouazik ‘fish’ transformation was based on a subjective and incorrect interpretation of a very old image. Another reason was often to annul the power or magic of the previous image. An additional reason clearly was to change the symbolism of one biomorphic image (hippo, mask) by adding body parts of a different, possibly more powerful or more essential animal species (rhino, bird).

This was also the case with the ‘trophy’ head at Alto de Pitis, which – in my opinion based on the geographical and cultural context of the rock art in the area – was intentionally transformed into a bird in order to charge the ‘trophy’ head with the supernatural power to ascend as a ‘Trophy-Bird’ to the realm of the ancestors and the deceased, Apu Coropuna. For the same reason bird-power may have been assigned to the Carcancha on Panel AP3-171B and possibly to zoomorph-‘trophy’-head (?) configuration on Boulder AP3-064 as well.


Call for More Examples

When some-one reads this paper and knows of similar examples in which petroglyphs clearly have been transformed, I would be grateful if they would contact me and supply me with information about such petroglyphs (location, context, suggested reason for the transformation etc). A high quality photograph of the petroglyph would be enormously helpful, as I intend to amend this paper with any suitable addition, duly acknowledged, of course. Therefore I invite the subscriber to write his or her own comments about the petroglyph she or he would like to be added to this paper. I am looking forward to receiving some examples. I also value comments on the content of the current paper, which, if appropriate, will be added as well.


The ‘Trophy-Bird’ of Toro Muerto


Updated by Maarten van Hoek (21-June-2018).


Although it is not really an instance of transformation, there is possibly another petroglyph that may symbolise the supernatural flight of the ‘trophy’ head. It concerns a vandalised (quarried) boulder at the very south end of the Toro Muerto boulder field (Figure 18). A drawing of this boulder – labelled TM-Fa-017 by me – was made by Dr. Percy Murillo Garaycochea as early as 1953 (in: Linares Málaga 2011: 235; Petroglifo No. 8).

Figure 18: Petroglyphs on a boulder at Toro Muerto, Majes, Peru. Photograph © by the Proyecto Arqueológico Toro Muerto.

Among the many images a petroglyph of a ‘trophy’ head just escaped being quarried. The head is square and it is filled with some short grooves and dots (facial features?). It has eight short, parallel grooves emerging from the lower part of the head (representing hair; not a beard). From the top of the head emerges a short groove that represents the hanging cord that is topped by the often present short horizontal bar. So far the image on Boulder TM-Fa-017 is similar to ‘trophy’ head ‘2’ on Panel AP3-171A at Alto de Pitis (see Figure 12-2).

However, it proves that the vertical groove representing the hanging cord has been extended upwards. It has two remarkable features. Firstly, there is a wing-extension at both sides, and secondly, the groove seems to end in a bird’s head. Both features give the impression as if the ‘trophy’ head is lifted upwards by a bird. In other words, the image may represent a second but different graphical configuration of an image that may symbolise the supernatural flight of a ‘trophy-bird’. The salient difference with the example at Alto de Pitis is that from the boulder at Toro Muerto there are no views of Apu Coropuna, the Sacred Mountain of the area.




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