Susan Morris, historical researcher, discusses rock art on the Channel Islands.
Caves are found on all eight of California’s Channel Islands. They can range from caves that are hundreds of feet long and extend into total darkness to caves that are shallow rock shelters. Shallow caves might be created when sandstone is eroded by wind, but most caves on the Channel Islands are littoral, or sea caves, that are formed by the erosive action of waves along narrow fractures in the rock.
Sea caves sound like they would be wet, but sometimes they are completely dry. This happens when land rises above the active tidal zone over time. These caves then become known as “relict sea caves.” An example of a relict sea cave is Daisy Cave on San Miguel Island.
Native peoples of the Channel Islands used caves for a variety of purposes. Caves often served as a place of shelter. Deep caves like the Lone Woman’s cave on San Nicolas Island provided a place to live, while shallow rock shelters offered short-term protection from wind and hot or rainy weather. Island caves were also used as locations for making tools, processing and cooking food, and engaging in other daily tasks. Evidence of human activities in island caves, rock shelters, or sea caves is present on at least six of the eight Channel Islands.
Channel Islands caves and rock shelters also served as canvasses where early inhabitants expressed themselves by creating rock art. Indigenous people painted, carved, abraded (scraped), or pecked artwork onto stone walls and rock surfaces.
Charcoal, red ochre, or other powdered material was mixed with a liquid binder and used as paint. Hand-held rocks were used as tools to carve or peck lines to make shapes on stone surfaces. Native people created representational (that is, realistic) and abstract images on cave walls.
One Channel Islands cave that contains unusual rock art is Cave of the Whales on the south side of San Nicolas Island. The rock art found in Cave of the Whales depicts the marine animals that the Nicoleños encountered: whales, dolphins, and fish. Caves with rock art may have been sacred or religious sites. They were not usually used as living spaces. The Lone Woman would certainly have known about, and visited, Cave of the Whales.