Ancient Artists of the Desert
The Coso Mountains
The Coso Mountains of eastern California contain the greatest concentration of aboriginal rock art in the western hemisphere. The images represent a variety of abstract forms and patterns, naturalistic or stylized animals, prehistoric weapons and human forms (called "anthropomorphs'' by rock art specialists). The most prevalent image pecked on the basalt cliffs throughout these desert canyons is the desert bighorn sheep, represented in various styles and forms, quite often being slain.
Standing in Little Petroglyph Canyon, overwhelmed by the thousands of ancient, mysterious images carved into the vertical walls, three obvious questions immediately come to mind:
- Who created these images?
- Why were they created?
- When were they created?
Mystery of the Artists
The answer to these questions, unfortunately, is neither obvious nor certain. But in trying to determine who these ancient rock artists were, we will likely learn when and why they created these images.
Similar styles and motifs can be seen in thousands of other sites throughout the Great Basin Desert, extending eastward across Nevada, through Utah all the way to Colorado. Most anthropologists agree that the succession of different rock art styles in the Cosos represents a continuous cultural tradition that started some time after the end of the last Ice Age.
In 1970, the primary authorities on the Cosos petroglyphs were Campbell Grant, James W. Baird and J. Kenneth Pringle, who had conducted the first systematic survey of the sites in the previous decade. They theorized that the first petroglyphs were created by the ancestors of the Numic Shoshoneans at least 3,000 years ago as a form of hunting magic. The idea was that a shaman drawing the hunted animal would bring success to the hunter.
These anthropologists maintained that this Shoshonean population, which shared linguistic roots with the Hopi and Pima of the Southwest and the Aztecs of Mexico, existed in the region for thousands of years before branching off into the three distinct Shoshonean groups we know today.
Other scholars dispute this idea, suggesting instead, that Numic-speaking groups like the Shoshone didn't enter the Great Basin before 1250 AD, long after most of the Coso rock art was completed. They attribute the rock art to a much earlier culture, perhaps Pinto Basin.
Improvements in dating techniques over the past 30 years now indicate that the drawings may actually be 10,000 to 19,000 years old. If so, the petroglyphs could have been created by Paleo-Indians, perhaps Proto-Shoshoneans, not long after they entered North America across the Bering land bridge from Asia at the end of the last ice age. It might also mean that the prehistoric Coso people originated the artistic style which later spread to the rest of the Great Basin
Before the Desert
Geologists say that about 10,000 years ago, when the last ice age ended and glaciers receded into the Sierras, constant rains created a series of lakes in four basins of eastern California -- from Owens Lake along the Sierra, to Lake Manley near Nevada (called Death Valley today).
These prehistoric lake shores can still be seen in many places that are not covered with erosional detritus, including the China Lake basin. Embedded in the eroding surface of the ancient lake shores are the fossilized remains of Pleistocene grazing animals -- horses, camels, bison and sloths, and the carnivores that hunted them -- saber-toothed tigers and jackal-like dogs.
For the next few thousand years, this region of eastern California was a broad savanna with willows and cottonwood lining its streams. Pollen evidence for early plant and tree forms indicates that the familiar pine-oak woodlands of the Sierra's western slopes once extended well into the China Lake basin.
This was a region of abundant vegetation where only arid desert remains today. Food was plentiful and the climate was mild. Archaeologists have evidence that a small population of Paleo-Indians lived along the shores of these lakes. Trails and villages of an aboriginal people who left a variety of stone tools, including a distinctive type of crescent-shaped scraper found in only a few other Great Basin sites, have been unearthed.
Between 9,000 and 7,000 years ago, the climate changed; the region became progressively hotter and drier. Eventually, the chain of inland lakes dried up, resulting in the extinction of the big game by about 6,000 years ago.
This required the earliest Indian bands living along these lake shores to move from one area to another, gradually adapting to a desert-oriented culture. Artifacts and petroglyphs of the atlatl (spear thrower), milling stones and basketry indicate a culture based on seed-gathering and hunting.
For centuries, the most highly prized (and one of the most difficult) animals to hunt was the bighorn sheep. But the advent of the bow and arrow about 3,000 years ago revolutionized the killing of game, including the bighorn. As the population increased and the climate became ever drier, the once plentiful bighorn was greatly diminished.
Many of the symbols which appear in the Coso petroglyphs are common in rock art throughout the Great Basin Desert and the Southwest.
The Sun symbol appears in many forms, including a circle rays, as concentric circles or as a circle surrounded by dots. Variations of this common design are numerous, and common to many cultures.
The Snake is a symbol of water and fertility in many Native American mythologies. It sometimes appears realistically, with head and tail. It also appears as a simple wavy line, perhaps symbolizing a river.
In some cultures, a concentric spiral has special significance as the Place Of Emergence, symbolic of the center of the cosmos or the Mother Earth navel from which the earliest people emerged.
The Rake or Comb is a rain motif used from California to West Texas. Lizards, frogs, toads and turtles are all bringers of rain.
The most prevalent images throughout the Cosos are the Bighorn Sheep, which seem to appear everywhere and in many forms. They include sheep horns, sheep heads, sheep hooves, men spearing sheep, men killing sheep with bows and arrows, dogs attacking sheep, two-headed sheep and sheep-within-sheep (pregnant sheep).
Art and Magic
Dr. David Whitley has proposed a new bighorn interpretation that is gaining favor among anthropologists: "As is quite clear in the ethnographic record, the Coso petroglyphs were made by shamans; the sites themselves were shamans' vision quest locales; and the petroglyph motifs depicted the hallucinatory images seen by shamans when in the supernatural realm."
Dr. Whitley maintains that the ancient petroglyph artists believed that rain falls when a mountain sheep is killed. He says this interpretation is confirmed both in the art itself and by ethnographic studies of later cultures which revealed that "the Coso region and its inhabitants were renowned as rain shamans."
"These were a people without written language or everyday acquaintance with graphic forms of expression," writes Don Moore, long-time Cosos petroglyph guide. "To them, the image on stone must have been the embodiment of magic itself. The connection between the artist's rendering of a sheep and the objective (of invoking rain) was not trivial, and the meandering abstractions laboriously engraved on basalt must have conveyed an awesome significance to the aboriginal eye."
Other interpretations have been proposed that do not limit these ancient images to shamanistic magic. Some anthropologists suggest the rock art represents symbols associated with astronomy, origin myths or migrations of various clans. A forthcoming book, to be published by the Maturango Museum in Ridgecrest, California, will hopefully elaborate on these various interpretations of the Coso Mountain petroglyphs.
By A.R. Royo
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