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Coso Rock Art | finding meaning / the sheep cult / the shaman's art
finding meaning The sheep cult

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?


(photo) Petroglyph panel with several small, stick-figure sheep.  Far Western Anthropological Research Group, Inc.


More than half the petroglyphs at Coso depict bighorn sheep. Archeologists have identified a number of different types of sheep images that seem to have evolved to become more stylized and more skillfully executed over time.

So-called "simple" sheep generally appear in groups, are relatively small, and may be the oldest of the sheep types.

"Segmented" sheep begin to show the stylization that becomes the hallmark of Coso bighorns. Interestingly, some anthropomorphic petroglyphs are drawn with similarly segmented bodies.

Classic boat-shaped bighorns are highly stylized and often beautifully drawn. In a notable departure from earlier styles, the heads of boat-shaped sheep are almost always turned toward the viewer.

Some boat-shaped sheep show further stylistic refinement, including more accurate proportions, gracefully curving lines, and a sense of activity that suggests dancing or flying.

Giant bighorns can be much larger than life-size, and are thought to be the most recently made. They often overlie such designs as curvilinear and rectilinear abstracts, medicine bags, shields, and even anthropomorphs.

Finally, many sheep exhibit such mysterious traits as protruding atlatl darts and human features, in this case, human feet. These traits, along with more common ones like exaggerated, erect tails, have led archeologists to suspect that Shoshonean artists were actually depicting "symbolic" sheep, rather than literal sheep.

(photo) Petroglyph panel showing sheep horn-wearing spearman and his dog facing down an oversized bighorn.  Far Western Anthropological Research Group, Inc.


Hunting scenes were the primary evidence for the sheep cult theory. But given the scarcity of sheep remains in archeological sites, it seems that hunting sheep was less productive than might be expected. What was behind the obsession?

Perhaps it was that sheep are notoriously difficult game to take. They spend much of the year in very high, steep, and rocky areas that are inhospitable to humans. Their sure-footedness allows them to easily escape hunters. They have astonishingly acute eyesight, which helps them to see and flee from predators long before the hunters see them. Naturally, then, a hunter who takes a sheep with an atlatl and dart is one with exceptional skill and luck.

Or maybe the hunting scenes were less literal than symbolic.

For example, the sheep at the center of this panel is remarkably oversized and uncharacteristically turned to face his attackers. A hunting dog is poised next to the hunter who shares sheep characteristics—big horns. Numic hunters could not have worn such heavy, cumbersome headgear while chasing their quarry.

On the other hand, Coso shamans could: shamans were known to have worn headdresses made of sheepskin and horns as they symbolically hunted their spiritual prey.


Rock-filled stone rings are believed to be deflated pinyon-pine cone caches. Usually located near upland villages, pinyon caches stored mounds of ripening cones for later processing.

Archeologists consider pinyon caches evidence for the development of a foraging style marked by the intensive use of nearly every available food source. For example, while other people may have gathered ripened pinyon nuts that had fallen to the ground, Coso's Numics extended their reach by using long hooks to pull greener cones from the tops of trees.

They also turned the pinyon nut harvest into a festival, with whole villages gathering at upland sites. Everyone participated in the activities, including kids, who climbed the lower limbs and picked cones while adults hooked those up top. In ways like these Numic gathering methods were more thorough, albeit more labor intensive.


Coso's people used stone manos and metates to grind hard seeds or to pound fibrous roots into flour. Though foods such as small, hard seeds required more work to gather and process, they also allowed for larger populations, less travel, and more secure provision. Some archeologists believe this gave Numic peoples an advantage over other hunters and gatherers, and even over agriculturalists, as they moved into the Great Basin. Numics intensively exploited foods that supplemented the diets of local peoples, while also consuming resources locals didn't use. By adapting this technique to new landscapes, Numics survived where others didn't.