Chips off the old block: Coso Petroglyph Tour

Coso Range, CA
Coso Range. (click for larger version)

Little Petroglyph Canyon represents one of the most outstanding and best preserved displays of Native American rock art in the country. This area, located in the Coso Range west of Death Valley, has been occupied for millennia by Native Americans; current groups are of Paiute-Shoshone descent.

Paiute-Shoshone peoples have been in this area at least 600–800 years, practicing a hunter-gatherer lifeway. They would seasonally move to harvest resources by a carefully planned schedule that required constant monitoring of potential resource areas as well as knowledge of which resources were useful. (source: Maturango Museum)

Atomic age petroglyph. Since it's now more than 50 years old, it's generally considered historic.
Atomic Age petroglyph. Since it’s now more than 50 years old, it’s generally considered historic.

Pre-tour activities (I am not making this up)

The US Navy assumed management of the area in 1943, and the site lies within the Naval Air Weapons Station (NAWS) China Lake. The Navy’s presence has helped ensure the excellent preservation of the petroglyphs as we see them today, but has added some interesting complications to visiting the site.

Tours are organized by tireless volunteers at the Maturango Museum in Ridgecrest, CA. After reserving our spots well in advance and filling out mountains of Navy-required forms, we received a fairly lengthy briefing.

Dried water tank for wandering animals. This canyon appeared to have plenty of water.
Dried water tank for wandering animals willing to dig for it. This canyon appeared to have plenty of water.

During this briefing our vehicles were searched and we were warned about the following, including but not limited to:

  • rattlesnakes,
  • the heat,
  • not missing the turnoff,
  • drinking enough water but not peeing in the canyon,
  • not stowing 60mm mortar shells under your front seat (this happened last year),
  • herds of tarantulas migrating across the desert (yes, really),
  • mustangs, burros, and sundry wildlife,
  • tripping on things,
  • not climbing on boulders to get closer to the art,
  • not driving faster than the speed limit,
  • flat tires and horrendously expensive helo rescues with the potential of one’s car ending up as a bombing target,
  • not touching the art, and
  • the possible existence of unexploded ordnance from mistakes made during bombing runs.
Wee foot.
Wee foot.

Finally, escorted by guides, our group of about 20 people drove 40 miles up through healthy groves of Joshua Trees to the 5000′ plateau at the head of the gently sloping canyon. We walked down-canyon about 2 miles, turning back at a 75-foot dry waterfall.

This petroglyph site is one of more than 400 documented in the area. Here is a tiny fraction of the staggering amount of rock art we found in this canyon.

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There is no agreement about who actually created the rock art in Little Petroglyph Canyon, and the art is almost impossible to exactly date.
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Significance and interpretation of the art have been the subject of much speculation.
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The canyon started as a sandy wash whose walls gradually closed in. In this canyon alone, there are thousands of petroglyphs chipped into the volcanic basalt, as well as a few pictographs (paintings on rock).
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Hunting was done with atlatls (upper left) and bow-and-arrow, which is also depicted on other panels.
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There were many images of sheep, and some of deer.
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It appears fairly clear what is going on here!
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There were many images of elaborately decorated people, which are thought to be shamans.
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Shaman, or bad hair day?
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Many rocks had “layers” of older art with newer art chipped on top.
It is unlikely we will ever fully understand the complex cognitive world of these people, whose culture was so unlike our own. 
“It is unlikely we will ever fully understand the complex cognitive world of these people, whose culture was so unlike our own.” (source: Maturango Museum)

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