Code of the Rocks

What Were the Ancient Indigenous People Trying to Say About Life in This World and the Next?

Travelers to the American Southwest are often intrigued and perplexed by the profusion of Indian rock art spread throughout the desert regions of Utah or New Mexico. Known as petroglyphs—from the Greek petros for “stone” and glyphein, “to engrave”—these Native American images are actually found around the globe in places as far afield as China, Polynesia, Scandinavia, and South Africa. In fact, petroglyphs represent the most numerous art form on Earth. In Utah alone, there are more than 7,500 of them. Within a four-state area (Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado and Utah), some 30,000 petroglyphs have been identified. Only a few thousand are protected by state parks, however; for the rest, only their anonymity can save them from vandalism.

Visitors to Jeffers’ Petroglyph State Park, near the southwestern corner of Minnesota will find one of the world’s greatest collections of Indian rock art, with specimens numbering in the hundreds. We know how they are made— removing part of a rock surface by incising, pecking, carving, and abrading it to create a specific image. Not a written language, petroglyphs may be more properly understood as ideograms—graphic symbols representing objects or ide­as without expressing, as in a phonetic system, the sounds supposed to identify them. Petroglyphs are not picto­graphs, or images drawn and sometimes painted on a rock face, though many petroglyphs have been chalked in or even painted during modern times for purposes of clearer delineation.

How old are petroglyphs? Who made them? What do they mean? These are questions that have bedeviled profes­sional archaeologists and curious tourists for generations. As long ago as 1853, Ronald Morris, a leading archaeolo­gist of the time, summarized no less than 104 theories then current to explain Scotland’s rock art alone. While an­swers may be debatable, we do know what the petrolgyphs are not: They are not graffiti, doodles, or mostly hieroglyphs. Petroglyphs may not be “read” in the same sense we understand Egyptian or Mayan hieroglyphs as signi­fying words or sounds in a language. Instead, petroglyphs may be symbolic representations of whole scenes or con­cepts.

Determining their age is far less certain, because they are only rarely found in the company of contemporary ma­terial, such as organic substances that may be submitted to carbon-dating processes. Even so, investigators believe the oldest known petroglyphs were created by Neolithic Europeans around the Upper Paleolithic Boundary, at the close of the last Ice Age, between 12,000 and 10,000 years ago. Sometimes, petroglyphs give away their own age. Im­ages of horses or human figures wielding rifles were obviously engraved after the arrival of modern Europeans, begin­ning in the 16th Century. A few petroglyphs at the Jeffers’ site have been confidently dated to circa 3,000 B.C., making them some of the oldest specimens on our continent, because they represent men wielding atl-atls, a kind of spear-thrower archaeologists know was introduced to the Minnesota region about 5,000 years ago. These images may com­memorate a particularly successful hunt, as suggested by their close proximity to images of bison or buffalo, a double line extending from their open mouths to their hearts.

In an effort to make sense of such a great variety of so many petroglyphs, archaeologists have systematized them into five, separate categories.

The Archaic Style groups the oldest known specimens, all of them in the American Southwest, from approximate­ly 5000 B.C. to 1200 B.C. Many of them are serpentine or circular and at least a few surprisingly resemble Chinese let­ters known as kanji. I copied a particularly Asian-looking glyph on the side of a canyon wall in New Mexico on my way to Japan in 1996. While there, I showed my faithful rendering of the New Mexico character to Professor Nobuhiro Yo­shida, President of The Japan Petroglyph Society, in Kyushu. He recognized it immediately: “That is kanji for ‘king’.” Other investigators have found similarly close comparisons between Chinese letters and Archaic petroglyphs in North America, suggesting early visitors from the other side of the Pacific Ocean during the remote past.

A later group is known as the Anasazi Style, ranging from 300 A.D. to 1300 A.D., and largely confined to the Four Corners Region. Anasazi petroglyphs are commonly identified by interconnecting spirals and palm prints. Their con­temporary is the Hohokam Style of squares and swastikas; the later—both leftward- and rightward-oriented—signify solar and lunar movement, respectively, and/or ancestral migrations into central and southern Arizona, according to Hopi tradition.

Beginning some two-hundred years after the Anasazi and Hohokam, the Fremont Style was typified by anthropo­morphic figures attired in ceremonial dress and holding shields. These continued to appear until shortly before the arrival of modern Europeans in central and southeastern Utah, where they were most often pecked into cliff faces fol­lowing the Green River, or caves near the Colorado River. Their warlike appearance coincides with the mass-murder that engulfed the entire Southwest and put an end to civilization there beginning in the late 13th Century.

The most recent of the “classical” petroglyphs, as embodied in the Rio Grande Style, feature warlike themes ac­companied by avian motifs, mostly found in central and northern New Mexico, beginning around 1300 A.D., and con­tinuing into the present.

But why were all these petroglyphs made? Anthropologists believe their artists intended seven, different functions: historical, astronomical, spiritual, narrative, visionary, directional, or economic.

Historic petroglyphs are often obvious enough when they portray men on horseback or warriors carrying weap­ons.

Astronomical examples are composed of starbursts, crescent moons, or rayed circles.

Spiritual petroglyphs feature horned figures with outstretched arms, or musicians, most famously, the shamanis­tic Kokopelli flue player of the Hopi. A large, if precisely unknown percentage of this genre were created by shamans themselves; so-called “medicine men,” who entered a deep trance to bring back guidance and healing for their people from the Otherworld.

For his June 2000 Fate article, “16,000-Year-Old Visions” (vol. 53, No. 6, issue 603), Dr. V. Fred Rayser found that the prehistoric artists at Little Petroglyph Canyon in the Cocos Mountains of California’s Mojave Desert were Sho­shone and Paiute shamans. He described them as “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.”

Their images were often expressed in repetitive geometric designs recognized by modern medical practitioners as “form constants.” These are the same patterns produced by drugs, severe headaches (i.e., “migraine auras”), and simi­lar stimuli. Shamans routinely used mind-bending hallucinogens to achieve profoundly altered states of conscious­ness. The medicineman’s favored spiritual inducement was Datura stramonium, from the Hindu word for the plant, and the Greek, (“nightshade”) and manikos (“mad”), more commonly known in North America as jimson weed or loco weed.

Datura stramonium contains tropane alkaloids, among the few substances, which cause true hallucinations indis­tinguishable from reality. The active ingredients are atropine, hyoscyamine, and scopolamine, all classified as deliri­ants, or anticholinergics, that generate visionary experiences. The user is entirely awake during their effects, but be­lieves he is in a living dream on the flip side of reality. Accounts of mental telepathy, conversing with ghosts, bi­location, seeing gods and demons, reading auras and particularly tele-transportation into realms of the dead or the gods—the famous “flight of the shaman”—are common. Ingesting Datura stramonium is extremely hazardous, how­ever, and its so-called “recreational use” often ends in death. Only trained experts familiar with the drug generally survive its potential. A Navajo folk tradition admonishes anyone taking loco weed, “Eat a little, and go to sleep. Eat some more, and have a dream. Eat too much, and don’t wake up.”

Shamanistic encounters with Datura stramonium are often expressed in the swirling or geometric designs that typify abstract rock art. Sometimes, the mind-altering flower itself is depicted as a trumpet-shaped figure. Other pe­troglyphs are an oval, its outline covered with spikes, the interior split into four spaces, each containing a few images resembling kidneys. These illustrations portray the Datura stramonium’s egg-shaped, prickle-covered fruit. The size of a walnut, it is divided into four chambers in which the hallucinogenic seeds are found. Good examples of drug-induced shamanism may be seen at an archaeological site known as Painted Cave, north of Santa Barbara, on the Pa­cific coast. Until 400 years ago, the Chumash Indians brilliantly adorned its walls and ceiling with spirals, sunbursts, serpentine figures, rainbows, and similarly expressionistic designs accompanied by representations of flowers and fruits of the Datura stramonium.

Petroglyphs such as those at Painted Cave indicate that the shaman encountered his visions here—Mother Earth’s womb and tomb, where his soul flew beyond this life to the Otherworld, but returned with guidance for his tribe; hence his “flight” and its hallucinogenic imagery depicted inside the underground sanctorum. As an indication of his fundamentally human experience, some of the same symbols inside California’s Painted Cave occur at Hal Saflieni’s hypogeum, a subsurface temple on the island of Malta dated to the Mediterranean Neolithic, circa 2800 B.C., more than three millennia before Chumash shamans decorated their cave with identical illustrations.

Narrative petroglyphs tell stories by illustrating characters or events, and may have been used as mnemonic devic­es to assist the storyteller. A well-known example shows a waterfowl using its long beak to grasp a frog. Other petro­glyphs symbolically narrate seminal myths for preliterate peoples who must otherwise rely entirely upon oral tradi­tion for the preservation of their folkish memories. As a representative example, we return once more to Minnesota’s Jeffers’ Petroglyphs, where visitors may notice three, strange figures: a man wearing a horned helmet between a cir­cle and a turtle. Combined, the trio signifies the Flood familiar to every Native American tribe. The circle represents an ancestral “lodge” far to the East, where the forefathers of all Indians were created by the Great Spirit, with whom they lived in harmony for many generations.

Over time, however, these early humans became arrogant, and grew to believe they could dispense with God alto­gether. Angered by their ingratitude, he pushed the lodge under the Sunrise Sea, drowning most of them. Only a few, virtuous persons escaped the Deluge, and these the Great Spirit saved by scooping them up in his arms. There were too many of them to carry, however, so he conjured a giant turtle from the ocean bottom. As soon as remaining sur­vivors climbed on the animal’s back, it began swimming westward with the Great Spirit wading behind through the water. At length, they arrived at an unfamiliar shore, where the people made a new home for themselves. Hencefor­ward, they called it “Turtle Island,” the name by which tribal Indians still refer to North America. Visionary petro­glyphs most commonly depict persons changing into animals, or surrounded by so-called “energy lines.”

A little known sacred site at the very tip of southern Illinois not far from the Ohio River, near the little town of Gorham, features a sequence of petroglyphs incised on the sandstone wall of a rock shelter at the base of a high bluff.

It was not by accident that the Gorham Bluff was chosen for the permanent display of the sacred petroglyphs. The gargantuan earth-energies which pushed it in a molten, semi-solid condition out of the planet’s bowels are so potent that they radiate from the massive formation. For persons in tune with these signals, the bluff is irresistible. Its theatrical milieu, complete with a natural stage setting, as though crafted by some divine agency, was the muse en scene for wonderful spiritual dramas, shamanistic initiations.

Here the tribal adepts gathered to inspire the vision quests of manhood, to conjure and cure and to deliberately al­ter the consciousness of men and women seeking personal contact with the Great Spirit. The petroglyphs are well-preserved and easily read from left to right, from north (the Spirit Direction for most Native American tribes) to south (the traditional “Direction of Becoming”). They begin at stage-left, as it were, with a cross inside a circle beside a crescent moon and star. This is an archetype, a universal human symbol found around the world and signifying the “sacred center.” The moon in relation to a “star” (probably the planet Venus) marks the time for the beginning of the ritual.

Human figures incised into the rock face walk toward the main body of the petroglyphs. The images of birds in flight merge with palm prints—some child-sized—implying human striving to attain the divine. In front of them lies a boulder decorated with circle-cross and a figure kneeling before a half-man, half-bird creature. This is the Rock of the Shaman, the bird-man symbol of spiritual transformation, and before whom reverence is shown at his place of power. Back at the cliff wall, the largest circle-cross is faced on either side by a pair of deer, one white, the other black. They define the sacred center mysteries practiced here as a power directing and harmonizing the resident ener­gies, a psychic fulcrum positioned mid-point between day and night, the Sacred Balance, the Special Duality. Deer are additionally symbolic of transformation, because of their ability to stealthily appear and vanish in the woodlands, and of regeneration by way of their rejuvenating antlers.

A single palm print appears beside a bird-man, implying the initiate’s growing identification with the shaman spir­it. In order for him to properly see the penultimate glyphs, he had to climb to the top of another boulder before the cliff face. There he would behold the mingling of human and bird shapes pictured among the stars, as though the ele­vated soul were being lifted into the higher realms of consciousness. Back down on ground level, the crescent moon reappears, but the Venus-star is further to the right, indicating the passage of time and the end of the ceremony. Sure enough, the final images belong to a bird flying away from the sacred-center cross, symbolizing the transubstantia­tion of human mortality into the soul’s immortality.

Just beyond the theater of petroglyphs, to the right (south), is a small, circular mound with a depression in the center. It is identical to ancient burial mounds found throughout Wisconsin. In the depression of this donut-like structure the initiate experienced or completed his or her vision quest. The confines of Gorham’s sacred precinct sug­gest only a few individuals at a time were shepherded through their initiation by the shaman. To better appreciate the life-changing effect of their spiritual adventure, it is important to realize that all the participants were part of a cul­ture in which nature-mysticism was accepted as a common fact of their existence. They therefore entered upon their psychic exercises already deeply convinced in the efficacy of what they were about to do. Preparatory to their initia­tion, they fasted in silence and alone at some remote spot. Their consciousness was further altered by mild narcotics administered by the shaman to achieve the desired receptivity. They doubtless never saw the petroglyphs before the moment of their prepared viewing. As indicated by the drawings themselves, empowerment ceremonies took place at night. Hence, the high drama of the scenes—staged under torch light to the Otherworldly music of pipes and drums, together with a ferociously attired shaman chanting in a spirit-voice—must have been impressive, to say the least. For those who long ago experienced such initiation, they undoubtedly felt that they had touched the face of God. A di­rectional genre is evident in Norwegian petroglyphs during the Early Bronze Age (circa 2100 B.C.), when they defined territorial boundaries between tribes or families in the Bergen and Trondheim areas. Other petroglyphs are self-evident maps indicating rivers, lakes, mountains and forests. Economic petroglyphs depict hunting scenes, especially quadrupeds stuck with arrows. Identifying petroglyph types and their interpretation are often problematical, because they are not universally recognizable signs, but symbols that arose from and were meant to be understood by a specif­ic people and culture removed from our own.

Nonetheless, some human common denominators may be found throughout rock art everywhere. These more dis­cernible images are happily among the most interesting, because they transcend the relatively mundane meanings of territorial delineation, directions to water holes, memorializing a hunt, celebrating a military victory, or tribal identi­fication. For example, the depiction of a macaw or parrot from Mexico was associated in the American Southwest with ceremonial life, and a zig-zag line terminating with a horned head was synonymous for the presence of or direc­tion to water, while a trio of bows with their arrows signified the New Mexico region myth of Monster Slayer.

But the best way to understand the petroglyphs is by approaching them with respect and a sense of awe. Like all mysteries, if greeted with an open heart, they will speak to you in time—perhaps not in words, but more probably in dreams and in the imagery of our own spiritual lives.

By Frank Joseph

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