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Coso Rock Art | setting the scene / the landscape / the people / rock art
setting the scene Rock art

Coso rock art is extraordinary for many reasons, but what first strikes the eye is the number and concentration of images. In an otherwise barren area only ten miles long by five to seven miles wide, thousands of individual carvings lie atop and beside one another, covering entire canyon walls and the surfaces of large outcroppings. The overall effect underscores the incredible longevity of the local cultures.

A closer look reveals another remarkable fact: about half the carvings depict bighorn sheep.

Once fairly common throughout the surrounding mountains, bighorn populations crashed shortly after the adoption of the bow and arrow, a probable casualty of climate-related stress and the efficiency of new hunting techniques. Obviously, these increasingly rare beasts left a durable impression in the minds of local peoples as that inscribed on the rock.

Bighorns are not the only frequent feature of Coso rock art. Also prevalent are anthropomorphic figures, some wildly dressed in elaborate patterns and strange headgear, while others seem to be hunting or dancing.

Sometimes entire panels are inscribed with elaborate geometric patterns. Often, variations on the patterns occur within circular "shields" or fringed "medicine bags." More rarely, bighorns are decorated with geometric shapes. more >>


(photo) Beautifully drawn bighorn sheep panel.  Far Western Anthropological Research Group, Inc.


Undeniably, a rock art panel like this one demonstrates a sophisticated visual aesthetic. To an artist, this panel could be a case study in the principles of design. In fact, its craftsmanship is such that it could easily fit into a contemporary piece of graphic art—like this Web page!

But is it art?

Many Indians reject the term “art” and prefer to use “image” instead. They recognize that to many westerners, “art” is a value-laden word that has been misused to disparage these images. In the past, anthropologists and other writers have described these works as being “child-like” or “primitive,” clearly offensive terms that are not only inaccurate but in fact miss the point of the images entirely.

Unlike some western art, rock art was not made for decoration, but for both practical and religious purposes. Local Indians applied various symbols to baskets, bows, and other manufactured items to acknowledge and enhance spiritual aspects of the objects. In many cases, the beauty and craftsmanship of these objects are apparent to anyone.

It is not unusual to find examples of rock art that are visually stunning, while others seem less so. Differences may be the result of various levels of ability and skill.

At any rate, rock art probably was never intended to be viewed as exhibitions of artistic skill, but as records of spiritual events. The fact that they do evoke a sense of the "artistic" in western viewers says as much about Native American spiritual aesthetics as it does about the cultural values we bring as viewers.

(photo) Rock art panel with several anthropomorphic figures. By TOMOL.


Second in prominence only to bighorn sheep, anthropomorphic creatures cover Coso's basalt walls. Hovering high above the canyon floors or slipping stealthily from cracks in the stone, the eerie beings seem to beckon—or do they warn?

Scientists say that no two Coso anthropomorphs are alike. Adorned in swirling or jagged patterns and elaborate headdresses, their variety and numbers are staggering.

(photo) Petroglyph panel with abstract retangular designs.  Far Western Anthropological Research Group, Inc.


Rock art panels often feature abstract elements as individual designs or as components of representative renderings. Abstract petroglyphs generally fall into one of two types, rectilinear or curvilinear.

Other petroglyphs seem abstract, but because they recur and demonstrate regularity of design, it becomes apparent that they actually represent objects in the real world. Rake-shaped designs, for example, eventually were recognized as a glyph for rain.

(photo) Centipede petroglyph with atlatl elements.  By TOMOL.


Coso's petroglyph makers share with other Numics a unique representational style, which, while not entirely realistic, depicts animals and people in a recognizable form. Bighorn sheep are only the most prominent example, but other animals abound. These include centipedes, lizards, snakes, tortoises, and coyotes.

Rock artists also engraved pictures of people engaged in such activities as group dances and hunts. Hunting scenes often featured men with dogs.

(photo) Painted rock art panel with anthropomorphic and animal images.  By TOMOL.


Coso's people also made painted pictographs. Few survive, since their pigments weather quickly. One remaining example is Ayers Rock. Even more rare are geoglyphs, or images made by scraping clean the desert floor and bordering the design with contrasting stone. This shooting star is the only know geoglyph in the District.