When archeologists came to Coso in the 1960s, they had little hope of deciphering the meaning of the thousands of petroglyphs here. Stung by the outlandish claims of amateur rock art aficionados and faced with the difficulty of teasing meaning out of these mysterious symbols, archeologists focused more on discovering the extent of the main rock art areas. They also found numerous well preserved work and habitation sites.
Nonetheless, these astonishing petroglyphs intrigued archeologists, who eventually began to debate possible interpretations.
Standard archeological theory held that rock art, a hallmark of hunting and gathering societies the world over, was a form of sympathetic magic meant to ease the capture of the hunted. Coso's petroglyphs—especially those featuring bighorns and hunters—are often situated close by hunting stations and stone corrals, supporting the hunting magic theory.
The earliest hunting scenes predate the bow and arrow, and show hunters with atlatls and spears. Later scenes depict men with the newer technologies, and hunting dogs, too. Archeologists speculated that the efficiency of the new techniques combined with the increasingly drier climate and the possible impact of grass-seed exploitation may have stressed the bighorn populations, resulting in their decline.
Faced with the decreasing supply of game, Coso's people tried hard to rebuild of sheep populations with magical practices associated with rock art. Despite their best efforts, the sheep only dwindled further.
Fortunately, Coso's people found food supplies to survive. Their increasing reliance on hard seeds and other processing-intensive resources made the hunting of large game animals less and less essential. Nevertheless, they continued to chip hunting scenes—and bighorns—into the stone around them. With the effort to influence sheep populations proving futile, the question becomes, why continue making petroglyphs?