About 16,000 years ago, while Australian aborigines were painting sacred art in hidden caves, Native American shamans were creating visionary petroglyphs for all the world to see.
That is, all the world who happened to pass by a remote canyon hidden amid the Cosos Mountains in California’s Mojave Desert. Over thousands of years, the shamans created one of the largest concentrations of rock art in North America.
Remote in Place and Time
Petroglyphs differ from pictographs (rock paintings) in that they are a sort of intaglio incised into the rock. Countless eons of wind, rain, sand, dust, and sunlight built a dark veneer on the cliffs. The shamans created their art by pecking away the dark veneer to reveal the light-colored virgin rock beneath.
The images in Little Petroglyph Canyon owe their survival to the remoteness of these volcanic badlands. They are now within the restricted China Lake Naval Air Weapons Station. China Lake has been dry for thousands of years. Permission to enter the area is granted only occasionally through the Maturango Museum in nearby Ridgecrest.
There are thousands of petroglyphs in the canyon. The meanings behind the images have been deduced by research, consultation with Native Americans, and even studies of the neuropsychology of trance. The petroglyphs were created by shamans who pursued altered states of awareness. Hallucinatory experiences tend to produce the same “mind pictures” regardless of race, culture, or time period. Most frequent are geometric light patterns known as entoptics. These consist of spirals, zigzags, dots, nested curves, parallel lines, and similar forms. Also frequently occurring in the Cosos petroglyphs are human figures and animals-especially bighorn sheep.
The Cosos shamans were primarily Shoshone and Paiute, usually the tribal elders and wise men, who were believed to have powers to heal, make rain, control animals, and predict the future. They carved their visions in stone immediately after emerging from the trance, because these mind pictures, like dreams, tend to be easily forgotten. This not only preserved the vision for future reference but also was a tribute to their powers, since some of the figures represented spiritual helpers.
The prevalence of bighorn sheep in the petroglyphs is largely due to the belief that visions of them gave rainmaking and other powers. Some of the bighorns have human as well as animal features, indicating an integration of the shaman with his spiritual helper. Other animals also conferred powers. The rattlesnake, indicated by a zigzag line to portray its path, was a spiritual helper of shamans who could cure snakebites. Coyotes, however, were believed to be evil spirits who could be sent from the supernatural to harm an enemy.
The oldest petroglyphs portray a variety of animals. They were created when there actually was a lake in the area and game was plentiful. Not only did “the deer and the antelope play,” but there were also bison, bears, and small game. Horses were Johnny-come-latelies, having arrived on the scene only a few hundred years ago, so any depictions of horses are relatively recent. Most of the large animals became extinct during the Ice Age, more than l l ,000 years ago.
As the lake gradually dried up, the game disappeared except for a few sheep. Hunters searched for coyotes, turtles, lizards, or anything else that moved. The weapons used by the hunters also help to date the petroglyphs. For example, spears were replaced by bows and arrows about 1,500 years ago.
The clarity of the petroglyphs gives another clue to their age. Once it is carved, the slow but inevitable revarnishing of the rock begins. A 1,000-year-old petroglyph has sharper detail than a 10,000-year-old one. It is estimated that the first petroglyphs were made over 16,500 years ago. The canyon was a sacred site and attracted shamans from near and far. While some of the Coso art is very ancient, most of it was engraved in the past 2,000 years.
Spirits in the Stones
The petroglyphs fall into two categories, geometric and iconic. The geometric are, of course, all the swirls, concentrics, spirals, zigzags, and other forms. The iconic are representations of humans, sheep, and other animals. The swirls, concentrics, and spirals are said to symbolize the whirlwind-the concentration of supernatural powers. Sometimes the shaman portrayed himself with his spiritual helper, most often a bighorn. If he showed several spiritual helpers, it indicated that he had developed great power. Animal helpers were usually ones that had power-you won’t find anything representing a rabbit helper.
It was believed that spirits resided within the rocks, and that when the shamans went into the supernatural realm, cracks in the rock face opened to permit the shaman to enter the sacred region.
The belief that the rock had spiritual power gave rise to another form of rock art, known as cupules. These were a series of indentations made by young girls during puberty rituals signaling the arrival of womanhood. One aspect of the ritual related to the traditional role of Native American women as the gatherers and preparers of plant food. This involved the use of mortars and pestles. Making the cupules was symbolic of the mortars and pestles in the role the young women were about to assume. By grinding into the rock surface, they were accessing the spiritual realm. By putting some of the rock powder on themselves they were, to a small degree, acquiring spiritual powers that would help to insure their success in life.
A deeper meaning for the cupules was the sexual symbolism of using a pestle (phallus) to make a depression (vagina). This was ritual intercourse indicating that the young girl had reached the age of menarche and was ready for marriage and procreation.
Since the cupules were not shamanic art, they were made on the outer edge of the canyon near the campsite. This was just a matter of convenience, not of sacredness, because Native Americans believed that sacredness was present everywhere. This belief in universal sacredness is shared by the Australian aborigines. Was there a common thread, or is it just a case of tuning in to universal intelligence?
For his trance session the shaman sought a natural cave or shelter formed by fallen rocks. Sometimes it would be a low wall of stones against the rocks or a pit-like depression in the talus. Here he would go on his vision quest, which might last for days while he fasted, smoked tobacco, and waited for a vision to appear. Archaeologists first interpreted these vision-quest structures as hunting blinds, but most of them are in secluded areas with only limited view of the terrain. A good hunter would not choose such a site, nor would he station himself at ground level where the quarry could easily see him. Frequently the shaman would emerge from his trance and recreate his vision nearby. But this was not always the case, since the whole canyon is emblazoned with petroglyphs.
Some of the depictions of human figures terminate in bird heads. Birds were associated with shamans, and many of the figures combine bird and human characteristics. It was believed that the shaman, in his trance state, had the ability to fly, but this might have been part of his hallucination distorting his vision and perspective. Flight was a metaphor for entering the supernatural realm. Today we might call this an “out-of-body experience.” Nevertheless, birds were common spirit helpers and the shaman’s ceremonial costume was largely made of bird parts. A typical headgear for a rain shaman was a bighorn skin cap ornamented with quail topknot feathers. Feathers were also used in the ritual accessories.
In addition to the zigzag indicating a snake helper, (mimicking the trail of a sidewinder in the sand), the shamans also used a sort of cartouche filled with Xs or diamonds representative of the diamondback. Visions of snakes were said to give special powers to the shaman, enabling him to transform into a snake spirit while in the trance. Out of the trance, he was able to handle rattlesnakes without harm, and to cure snakebites. Interestingly, while the zigzag pattern represented a snake here, the Plains Indians interpreted it as lightning, and related it to the thunderbird.
The figures representing humans don’t look like humans, because the shaman was portraying what he was, or appeared to be, in his vision. The body usually contained geometric designs that may have indicated his ceremonial robe, a sort of long shirt or gown with sacred images adorning it. The head was often a series of circles denoting the whirlwind that occurred during his journey into the supernatural. What looks like a “bad hair day” is actually the quail topknot feathers on his sheepskin hat. The feet were talons because the shaman had become part bird. This gave him the ability to fly. Some of the petroglyphs are found at the top of seemingly inaccessible peaks, making one wonder whether there was some truth to this notion.
To explain all of the types of petroglyphs and their nuances would take a book. Much of what is depicted has to be taken metaphorically rather than literally because it represents a vision that cannot always be portrayed in normal terms.
When archaeologists asked modern Native Americans who made the petroglyphs, the answer was “spirits.” The archaeologists thought the Indians were confessing their ignorance, or a belief in something like elves or fairies. However, it is taboo to mention the name of one who is deceased, and since the shamans who created the petroglyphs had gone into a spirit state, it seemed a logical answer.
We are indebted to the Shoshone and Paiute shamans for leaving us a “history book” in stone.