Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Coso Rock Art

A recent hunting trip led to an intriguing discovery.  My dad and I left our house at 4 am to start hunting by daybreak.  Sometime around 630am.  On a mission to kill some chukar.  A chukar is a game bird halfway between a partridge and a pheasant and like to live in the most inaccessible areas imaginable.  Hence why our destination was someplace near Ridgecrest, Ca.  Ridgrecrest lies off HWY 395 at the western portion of the Mojave Desert.  It is rugged terrain characterized by Joshua trees, steep rocky hills and mountain ranges, and an endless array of desert plants that cannot wait to prick and poke you.  

After enduring an hours worth of rugged, ass numbing dirt roads, we parked the car and began to hike.  Hiking to find chukar is not an easy endeavor.  There's no trails and if your not equipped with padded hiking boots, good luck, but you are not making it far.  
Focusing on how tired and sore I was, my dad shouted from down a wash.

"Chris, come here take a look at this"

Not knowing what to expect, throwing cation to the wind I bolted down the wash.  Stopped, turned my gun's safety on.  Kept running.

"Woah, thats awesome"

Pictographs we stumbled upon, courtesy of iphone 4.
In front of me, painted images of what appeared to be big horn sheep and deer, posed staring back at me. Petroglyphs.  I was immediately intrigued.  Ever since taking a course on Native American history in college, I have been fascinated with it.  Questions instantly popped into my head.  Who, what, where, when why, I wanted to know. Briskly, I snapped a picture.  Hoping to explore all about the rock art at a later time.  

Zero chukar and some research later, I arrived at some answers.  Kind of.  The answers proved to be more questions, but at least it puts the pictographs in context.

First off, their is no agreement among scholars on who made the rock art.  Some argue that the primary production of the petroglyphs predates the arrival of the Paiute-Shoshone, and was made by their predecessors.  Others claim that the art was made by the Paiute-Shoshone and their ancestors.  Since present-day Paiute-Shoshone elders are reticent about the matter, since it involves esoteric tribal traditions, rock art academia does not permit distinguishing between the views.  

Side note:  The Coso area has been occupied for millennia by Native American groups, and archaeological sites abound. In prehistoric times the region was inhabited by the Panamint (or Koso) Shoshone, and the current Native American groups are of Paiute-Shoshone
descent. Petroglyphs are mages created by chiseling and engraving.  Pictographs are made using colored dyes.  Both are referred to as rock art.  

Whatever their origin or where they came from, It is certain that the earliest inhabitants were hunter-gatherers, who practiced a mobile lifeway.  Family groups would live in winter villages in low-lying areas near permanent water, living on stored foods; these winter villages were often inhabited year after year. In late spring or early summer the families would leave the village and move to higher country to harvest early-ripening seeds and greens,eventually moving into the forest zone to harvest pinyon in the late summer or early fall. After the pinyon
harvest, the families would return to the winter villages, carrying the pinyon nuts for winter food. The people also hunted animals as food – bighorn sheep, deer, rabbit, and rodents –and insects were harvested at times as well. Large animals were hunted with the atlatl and dart before 1,500 BP, and with the bow and arrow after that time; smaller animals were trapped or hunted with nets. However, the bulk of dietary calories probably came from plant foods. 

And too what the pictographs mean.  Up to debate as well.  Leading Great Basin scholars have narrowed it down to two possible meanings.  First, is the hunting magic hypothesis.  According to archeological experts, such as Alan Garfinkel, the rock art images are associated with hunting large game and intended to supernaturally increase success in the hunt.  The counter opposition considers the rock art as an expression of individual shamanistic endeavor.  If I have to choose, I go with the hunting magic hypothesis because multiple rock art sites in the Coso area contain the same pictographs.  Demonstrating a sort of standardization to coincidental for individualistic expression.

The series of pictographs are spread out along a vast area in the high desert plateau of the Coso district.  Many of the rock art sites lie within the China Lake Air force Base and are off limits to the public.  Tours can be arranged through the base.  The pictographs reside largely in sandy washes and areas of exposed slabs of rock.  Supposedly, they are diffused around the migration trails of large mammals.

Again, debate ensues the subject of when they were created.  The age of the petroglyphs is subject to on-going debate among scholars. Many images of atlatls (devices to give mechanical advantage when throwing a dart) are present. The bow and arrow is known to have arrived in this area about 1,500 BP, and rapidly became a popular weapon, but whether the atlatl was fully supplanted is not known (it is known that the atlatl was never entirely supplanted by the bow in the Northern Great Basin, but continued in use until Euro-American contact). Thus, any image showing a bow and arrow cannot predate 1,500 BP, but the converse argument cannot be applied to the atlatl images. A small number of petroglyphs in the Coso area have been dated by cation ratio dating, and have yielded dates around 10,000 BP; although the cation ratio technique has many issues with it and is no longer used, it at least gives a suggestion of an Early Archaic date. It is probably fair to say the rock art tradition began in the Early Archaic, peaked sometime around 1,500 BP, and continued into historic times.  Basically, all this technical mumbo jumbo screams "No one knows".  Its all assumed.

Personally, we will never find out what our ancient ancestors meant by the rock art they left for us.  Was it indeed a spiritual plea for successful hunting?  Or was it a shamans interpretation of life when he was high off of a plant containing euphoric powers?  Or better yet, were the rock art creators just bored.  There had to have been a lot of down time for the average person back then.  For instance, its mid winter.  There's no game around.  Snow everywhere.  All plant life has died.  What to do?  How about painting?  Seems like a great way to pass some time.  Some jocose teenagers are probably cracking up in the afterlife watching  "scholars" trying to figure out what it all means.  One can assume and make educational guests, but the real meaning of the Coso pictographs have been lost to time.  Only left to intrigue and inspire the imagination.

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