The Desert Archaic Indians

The Spiritual Quest

by Jay W. Sharp

Desert Archaic Indians lived from 8,000-1,600 years ago. They lived primarily in caves or rock shelters, storing hides, tools, and food, while moving from place to place to hunt game.

Panther petroglyph located in Panther Cave jointly managed with Seminole Canyon State Park and Historic Site[11]
By Maekju - Own work, Public Domain

The Desert Archaic Indians left numerous tangible clues which indicate how they fed, clothed, housed and even adorned themselves over time. They left some symbols – representational and abstract images painted or scribed on stone – that suggest how they nurtured their souls and communicated their thoughts. We can, however, infer with reasonable confidence that the Desert Archaic Indians led a profound and complex spiritual life. That is a common thread woven through hunting, gathering and early farming traditions across the earth.

Wellsprings of Spiritualism

Our more technologically advanced cultures have often been reluctant to recognize and appreciate the wellsprings for that spirituality because of an egocentric faith in their own superiority. They have underestimated its intellectual underpinnings. Until recently, they have known nothing of our universal biological predisposition for spiritualism. Cloistered by community and technology, they lost sight of nature’s own inducements to spirituality.

Desert Archaic Abstract

In The Savage Mind, published in 1962, famed French anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss pointed out that, "A primitive people is not a backward or retarded people; indeed it may possess a genius for invention or action that leaves the achievements of civilized peoples far behind.

"Several thousand Coahuila Indians," he observed, "never exhausted the natural resources of a desert region in South California, in which today only a handful of white families manage to subsist. They lived in a land of plenty, for in this apparently completely barren territory, they were familiar with no less than sixty kinds of edible plants and twenty-eight others of narcotic, stimulant or medicinal properties… Three hundred and fifty plants known to the Hopi Indians and more than five hundred to the Navaho have been recorded."

Among the Tewa-speaking Pueblos, "…there are distinct terms for all or almost all the parts of birds and mammals…" Levi-Strauss said. "Forty terms are employed in the morphological description of the leaves of trees or plants, and there are fifteen distinct terms for the different parts of a maize plant."

We know that the Desert Archaic Indians possessed the intellect to develop elaborate spiritual lifestyles, and we now know that their brains, like even those of twenty-first-century computer geniuses, came "pre-wired" with the circuitry for spiritual experience. In the emerging science of "neurotheology," researchers are using new brain imaging data "to identify what seems to be the brain’s spirituality circuit, and to explain how it is that religious rituals have the power to move believers and nonbelievers alike," according to Newsweek Magazine (May 7, 2001).

"Drumming, dancing, incantations—all rivet attention on a single intense source of sensory stimulation... They also evoke powerful emotional responses…

"Slow chanting, elegiac liturgical melodies and whispered ritualistic prayer all seem to work their magic in much the same way…"

Some people, for instance, Tibetan Buddhists, appear to have the ability to switch on their spirituality circuit, generating a sense of visions, transcendent events and supernatural beings. Reasonably, we might conclude that a Desert Archaic shaman – by definition, a person who could enter the realm of spirits – might have developed a similar ability.

Rock art in the Franklin Moutains, Texas State Parks

Early Americans treasured spirituality, which was often connected to myths that migrated across cultures for thousands of miles over thousands of years. For instance, in about 400 B.C. (contemporaneous with the Late Desert Archaic period), the myth of the Hero Twins arose in the Maya culture, in MesoAmerica. According to the story, the twins, Xbalanque and Hunahpu, defeated monster enemies of the Mayas to make the world fit for mankind. They then ascended into the heavens to become the sun and the moon. In the desert Southwest, Hero Twins defeated monster enemies to make the world fit for both the Pueblos and the Navajos and Apaches. As far north as the Yellowstone region, thousands of miles from the heartland of the Mayas, the twins defeated monster enemies to make the world fit for the Kiowa Indians, who would become a tribe of the Great Plains late in the second millennium.

Sheep pictograph Even without rock art images which suggest ritual and magic, we could safely assume that the Desert Archaic peoples looked to the supernatural to help ensure their survival and their future. They looked for ways to soothe their anxieties about the abundance and location of the game animals, success in the hunt, the annual yield of wild food plants, the availability of raw materials, the accessibility of shelter, the craft of shaping stone, the coming and going of the seasons, the bite of a diamondback, the sting of a scorpion, the relationships with other bands, the birth of a child, the health of their families, the anguish of death, the spirits beyond death or life. As children of the desert, they felt the spiritual stir induced by night skies awash in stars, the daily arc of a blindingly brilliant sun, the waxing and waning of the moon, the grace of a soaring eagle, the elegance of a bull elk, the incessant winds of spring, the violent thunderstorms and gentle rainbows of summer, the golden sunlight of fall days, the fierce and biting cold of winter.

Likely, with their shamans serving as conduits, the Desert Archaic Indians petitioned benevolent supernatural forces to intervene in their lives, calling down nourishing rains from the clouds to the desert landscape, bringing fat game into the range of their spears and into the folds of their trap nets, enriching plant harvests for the baskets of their women, healing the wounds and sicknesses of their hunters and camp makers and children. Led by shamans, they celebrated their good fortunes, mourned their misfortunes and marked the passage of the seasons in dance and song and chant, possibly performed to the beat of the drum.

I know a grotto, formed by fallen boulders in a mountain range of western Texas, where an image painted on stone portrays a Desert Archaic hunter, who is dancing to celebrate his success in driving his spear home, killing a mountain sheep. Each year, during the morning of the summer solstice, sunlight steals through a shaft to illuminate that image.

Symbols on Stone

The Desert Archaic Indians left both representational and abstract figures on stone – the oldest known rock art in western North American – including many which pointed to a now enigmatic spiritual quest. They painted some of the images onto stone, rendering them with colored minerals and liquid binding agents applied, for example, with yucca-leaf brushes or their fingertips and hands. Painted images are often called "pictographs" or simply "rock paintings." The Indians pecked, chiseled or incised other images into stone, producing them with blunt and with flaked stone tools. These are called "petroglyphs," and they are far more common than pictographs.


Typically, the Desert Archaic artists produced rock art near encampments, springs, streams, playas, trade routes, game feeding ranges and watering sites, and isolated, presumably sacred, sites. They seem to have preferred light-colored surfaces in secreted caves, alcoves, protected overhangs and rock shelters for pictographs, typically painted with red, yellow, black or white pigments. They favored darkly patinated basalt or sandstone rock outcrops or boulders for petroglyphs, often fully exposed, occasionally sequestered.

They produced representational images of such subjects as hunting scenes, hunters, game, weapons, shamans (presumably), horned masks, mythological figures, hand prints, foot prints, and reptiles and insects. "Obviously," says Kay Sutherland, a knowledgeable researcher in the rock art of the deserts of the Southwest and northern Mexico, "we have no direct oral or written records of the desert hunter/gather’s [sic] world view, but we can see shadowy vestiges of their beliefs?

"…we see hunting scenes of men wearing horned headdresses and carrying spears, mountain sheep and deer wounded by spears… We see, at Alamo Canyon in western Texas and Frying Pan Canyon in southwestern New Mexico, for instance, an anthropomorphization of spear, or dart, points, suggesting a spiritual relationship between the hunter and his weapon. We see associations between the death of an animal and the life of the hunter; the spear as a weapon and abundance for the hunters; the horns of big game animals and abundance for the hunters."


Abstracted pictographs and petroglyphs, produced by Desert Archaic artists from southern Utah to northern Mexico and southern California to western Texas, comprised stylistically similar curvilinear lines, single and parallel zigzags, single and parallel wavy lines, single meandering lines, triangles, single and concentric circles, diamond shapes, rectangles and crossing hatching. Some artists, perhaps shamans with minds bent by the ingestion of one of the many hallucinogenic plants of the desert, produced assemblages of lines and shapes which suggest spectral visions and defy classification.

"The impulse behind Indian images has little concern for particularization and appearance," said Jamake Highwater, author and Native American descendant. "…the imagery is visionary rather than decorative or representational. …the imagery remains spiritual in the purest sense of the term."

The Meaning of the Symbols

Unfortunately, we have no Rosetta Stone to use as a guide for interpreting either the Desert Archaic Indians’ representational or their abstract figures and symbols. We can discover, examine, measure, record and classify images, but our interpretations of the messages, especially those involving the spiritual realm, will always be laced with uncertainty. We could, after all, scarcely imagine the meaning of a crucifix, a Star of David or a crescent moon if we knew virtually nothing of the Christian, Jewish or Islamic religions.

checking a petroglyph"The baffling nature of the content of rock drawings," Polly Schaafsma – the foremost authority on the rock art of our desert Indians – has said, "continues to spark the imagination of the uninitiated, providing a kind of Rorschach test in which the observer projects onto the drawings meanings that coincide with cultural biases and personal and popular fantasies." (These include, as you might expect, such illusions as Phoenician explorers, buried treasure, sunken continents and extraterrestrial visitors—all patently erroneous interpretations.)

Schaafsma says that some scholars think that Desert Archaic petroglyph sites, for example, in the Great Basin of Nevada and California, may be associated with hunting magic – an effort to enlist supernatural forces in the hunt – because they are often located near promising game sites. Others think the sites may be associated with magical efforts to assure abundant wild plant harvests. Others dispute both views. They point out that the sites, for instance, in the Sonoran Desert of northern Sonora and southern Arizona, seem somehow to be associated with water because they are located near springs, streams and playa lakes. Several researchers suggest that some small rock art sites, located near trails, could have been shrines for the traveler. Still others have suggested that the images may represent records of significant events, simple markers for water, rudimentary maps of trails or representations of important figures (for instance, "storytellers"—the keepers of tribal history and mythology). At least one investigator thinks that rock art may have served as a portal, or gateway, for shamans to enter the spirit world.

Sutherland believes that the stylistic changes in Late Desert Archaic rock art point to Mesoamerican contacts which "triggered a prolonged fusion of two world views and a gradual shift from a foraging to an agricultural-based subsistence," as least in the northern Chihuahuan Desert. She sees a merging of design motifs, for instance, in images of masks which feature the horns possibly associated with Desert Archaic hunting magic with the goggle eyes and snarling mouth associated with Tlaloc, the Mesoamerican storm god. In Sutherland’s view, the synthesis implies significant cultural evolution.

In spite of the uncertainties, Schaafsma says, "In many regions of the Southwest, the rock art is a major component of the Archaic archaeological record, and a study of this art contributes significantly to our knowledge of the period."

Regional Connections

Investigators have found, for example, that the geographic distribution of rock art across the desert suggests regional band relationships through time.

For instance, according to Schaafsma, representational rock art in the Barrier Canyon region of eastern Utah and that as far away as the Pecos River region of western Texas appear to be related. In the Barrier Canyon rock art, Schaafsma said, "The dominant motif…is the dark, tapering, immobile anthropomorphic form, painted in a dark red pigment. These figures are frequently ghostly in appearance, hovering in rows against a sandstone backdrop within arched alcoves and rock-shelters…


"In other instances, a number of these figures may be painted together as a group or arranged in long lines across the cliff. Large staring eyes, bulging heads, and the absence or near absence of arms and legs serve to emphasize the spectral aspect of these beings…

"The two art complexes [Barrier Canyon and Pecos River] share certain stylistic emphases as well as some very specific and unusual details. Considering the distances involved, the significance of these similarities is puzzling."

Schaafsma has found other possible relationships between representational Desert Archaic art styles in southern Utah’s Glen Canyon area and in eastern California’s Great Basin Coso Range area. She has found still other stylistic similarities in representative art at sites in western Texas and northern Chihuahua.

However, as Schaafsma points out, "The oldest and most widespread rock art configuration in the Southwest attributable to the [Desert Archaic peoples] consists of elemental abstract designs, both curvilinear and rectilinear, similar or even identical to those found in the Great Basin of western Utah, Nevada, and eastern California… I believe that this general style is the material manifestation of an interrelated ideographic system formerly shared throughout by hunt-and-gathering groups in the Archaic."

We can see the tantalizing images which the Desert Archaic peoples painted or chiseled on stone, but perhaps we shall never understand their full purpose as a part of the prehistoric quest for a higher meaning in life. It is as though we could do no more than see the musical notes set down by a composer on paper. We could follow the symbols rising and falling as they march on lines across a page. We could imagine the sounds they might represent. But we can never see the band. We can never hear the melody.

Rock Art Sites

Rock art sites are scattered throughout the deserts of the southwestern United States and northern Mexico. While many are on private land, many others are located on federal and state lands, including monuments and parks, and they are open to visitors. A number of them include, not only Desert Archaic images, but Pueblo, Navajo and Apache rock art as well. Native American peoples of different cultures have often been drawn to the same locations over time. (In fact, the Navajos still use ancient rock art sites in northwestern New Mexico for healing ceremonies.)

A few of the better known, reasonably accessible sites include Hueco Tanks in western Texas, Three Rivers in south central New Mexico, Chaco Canyon in northwest New Mexico, Canyon de Chelly in northeastern Arizona, several national parks in Utah’s canyonlands region, the Mule Tank Petroglyphs and the Surprise Tank Petroglyphs in southern California, the Candelaria Peaks in northern Chihuahua, or the Caborca site in northern Sonora. In most of the locations, even in the state or national parks, you would need a guide to find the sites and the most interesting images, especially if it is your first visit.

If rock art holds a particular fascination for you, as it does many people, consider joining the

American Rock Art Association (ARARA):
ARARA Membership
Arizona State Museum
University of Arizona
Tucson, AZ 85721-0026
Telephone: 1-520-621-3999
FAX: 1-520-621-2976

You can find the association on the internet simply by searching for American Rock Art Association.

Unfortunately, vandals appear to take an especially perverse delight in defacing rock art, and they have destroyed many priceless images over the years, often using spray paint to memorialize their "accomplishments." It is like desecrating a church, a synagogue or a mosque.


Polly Schaafsma’s Indian Rock Art of the Southwest, published by the School of American Research and the University of New Mexico Press in 1980, is the best single book on the rock art of our desert region. I have drawn liberally from her book in the development of this article. Her Rock Art in New Mexico is another valuable source.

F. A. Barnes’ Canyon Country Prehistoric Rock Art is a good basic book, especially for those new to rock art, and Kay Sutherland’s "Spirits From the South," published in the El Paso Archaeological Society’s The Artifact, Volume 34, Nos. 1&2, 1996 (available to the society members and in university libraries), is an interesting and provocative paper. W. W. Newcomb, Jr.’s and Forrest Kirkland’s The Rock Art of Texas Indians has beautiful illustrations of pictographs in western Texas.

Claude Levi-Strauss’ The Savage Mind is an eye-opening view of the "primitive" intellect, although it is tedious to read. Jamake Highwater’s The Primal Mind offers some insights into the Native American world view. Mercifully, it is much easier to read.

Jay W. Sharp

Native American History

"Paleo-Indians" (Part 1)
Desert Archaic peoples( Part 2)
Desert Archaic peoples - Spritual Quest (Part 3)This Page
Native Americans - The Formative Period (Part 4)
Voices from the South (Part 5)
The Mogollon Basin and Range Region (Part 6)
The Mogollon - Their Magic (Part7)
Hohokam the Farmers (Part 8)
The Hohokam Signature (Part 9 )
The Anasazi (Part 10)
The Anasazi 2 (Part 11)
The Great Puebloan Abandonments (Part 12)
Paquime (Part 13)
When The Spanish Came (Part 14)
Life on the Margin (Part 15)
Life on the Margin (2) (Part 16)
The Athapaskan Speakers Part 1 (Part 17)
The Athapaskan Speakers Part 2 (Part 18)
The Outside Raiders (Part 19)
The Enduring Mysteries (Part 20)
Some Sites to Visit (Final Part)

Related Pages

Pueblo Rebellion
Profile Of An Apache Woman
Cochise and the Bascom Affair
Geronimo's Last Hurrah
Books on Native American healing



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