"Big Horn Sheep and Lichen"


Note: Text is courtesy the book, "Following the Shaman's Path", by David S . Whitley


The Coso Petroglyphs

Little Petroglyph Canyon is a national treasure. Located in the Coso Mountains of eastern California, it is part of one of the largest concentrations of rock art in North America, and it stands as a permanent testimony of the artistry, symbolism and religious beliefs of our Native American forebears. The geographical remoteness of Little Petroglyph Canyon, in the high reaches of rugged volcanic badlands, has for many years helped separate this rock art from our modern lives. Distant from our everyday activities, the art has also seemed far removed from us intellectually and culturally. Hard to see, and harder still to know and understand, the petroglyphs are a remote enigma that, like a lost city, can only be reached and understood with great effort.

In recent years archaeologists have begun to unravel the mystery of the Coso Petroglyphs. New and sophisticated scientific techniques have allowed the dating of these rock engravings for the first time, giving us information about the antiquity of this art. Using historical records and accounts of the Native American inhabitants of this region, archaeologists have also begun to reconstruct the rituals and symbolism of the Petroglyphs, showing that they were tied to the human mind, they are now identifying the universal aspects of these petrogylphs, finding the characteristics that are common to all humans and showing that, instead of being enigmatic, the petroglyphs are part of a wider phenomenon reflecting the origins of human creativity and religious beliefs...


"Shaman and his worlds"


Petroglyphs were made with a stone cobble, using this to hammer through the dark coating of rock varnish on the outside of the rock, to create a design in the lighter heart rock exposed below. The rock art in the Cosos is primarily petroglyphs.



During the historical period, the Coso region was occupied by peoples speaking one of three different Numic languages: Shoshone, Southern Paiute, and Northern Paiute. The Coso Shoshone were the primary occupants of the Coso Mountains but the Southern Paiute-speaking Kawaiisu lived along its southern edge and the Northern Paiute occupied Owens Valley, immediately to the north. Historical accounts indicate that all three of these different groups used the Cosos for ritual, and we believe that all three were responsible for making it rock art.





Our historical record indicate that petroglyphs were made by one particular group: Shamans or medicine men. These were healer and religious and political leaders who were believed to be able to go into the supernatural world by entering an trance. They did this primarily to acquire supernatural power, which they usually obtained in the form of an animal spirit helper. But they also entered the supernatural and used its powers to cure, make rain, control animals, find lost objects, predict the future and sometimes bewitch their enemies.

Supernatural power was called poha. A shaman was known as a pohagunt, or "man having power". Rock art sites were among the most powerful of the ritual locations used b shamans. They were called pohaghani, or "house of power".

Petroglyphs were made at the conclusion of the shaman's vision quest, immediately after he came out of his trance. This vision quest involved isolation from other people, fasting, meditation and sometimes, the use of tobacco. All of these activities can result in hallucinations, which were considered to be sacred visions.



The most common petroglyph in the Cosos is the Bighorn Sheep. Vision of bighorn sheep spirits were believed to yield rainmaking power because Bighorns were the special spirit helpers of Rain-shaman. The large numbers of bighorn petroglyphs in the Cosos reflect the belief that it was the best location throughout the Numic speaking region to obtain rainmaking power. Historical accounts indicate that shamans came from as far as northeastern Utah to the Cosos for these rituals.



Because the association of a shaman with his spirit helper was so great, he was belived to sometimes transform into his animal spirit when he went into the supernatural. Some Bighorns are shown as combinations of human and animal features, and some of the Bighorn motifs portray the internal body design that its also seen in many of the human figures.

"morphed shaman" and bighorns


Various depictions of the "Atlatl" or throwing board and dart

Petroglyphs are dated in three ways; some may be over 16,000 years old.

First, items depicted in the art are sometimes specific to particular time period, and thereby give us information about chronology. Horses were only introduced into the region during the last 200 years. Archaeological research has shown that, about 1500 years ago, the bow and arrow were introduced into the region, quickly replacing the atlatl, or throwing board and dart. Bow and arrow motifs, or humans holding bows, are then less that 1500 years in age. Motifs that are believed to portray large animals that went extinct during the Ice Age, more than 11,00 years ago, have been identified at a few other Mojave Desert sites.



A second way of determining age involves the examination of a motif's relative condition. Petroglyphs were made by pecking away the dark rock varnish coating to reveal the lighter heart rock below. This rock varnish is made of very small particles of wind-borne dust that, over time, are cemented by microbes on the rock surface. Once a petroglyph has been made, this varnishing process starts over again within the engraved out lines or areas of the motif. All things being equal, we can compare the relative degrees of revarnishing between two or more motifs to determine which is the oldest; this would be the motif that is darkest or most heavily revarnished.

Chronometric techniques have been developed and are now being used to date the Coso Petroglyphs, the final way of determining their age. These are complicated chemical, morphological and nuclear analyses of the rock varnish coating the petroglyphs. The allow archaeologists to assign specific ages to individual motifs. Our chronometric petroglyph dates suggest that the first Coso petroglyphs were made over 16,000 years ago, and that they continued to be engraved into the last few hundred years...


Click to View Additional China Lake Petroglyphs


Links to other Petroglyph web-sites

Maturango Museum Home Page

WEB SITES ABOUT Prehistoric Petroglyphs Pictographs and Cave Paintings