Friday, May 29, 2015

"Long ago, in the time of our ancestors..."

I am amazed, and a little humbled, when I find primitive rock art that allows me to be in contact  with people of a vastly different time and culture. This last week we visited the "Valley of Fire" in southern Nevada - Here I could catch a glimpse into the life and mind of people who lived long ago in the harsh landscape of southern Nevada.   
Sage brush - Creosote brush...

Some rock art was created at least 10’s of thousands of years ago, some more recently.   Rock art is often found in only certain rock formations ( those places where the spirits dwelled, or the magic was strong...?).     Rock art is an opportunity to project into the thinking of those that created the art.  And this is tricky because our mindset and world views today and their's then  are so different.  What makes the places where rock art is found different from those that do not have it?  Were pieces in one location all produced in the same time period or over many years and generations?  

What was in the mind of the creator of this Rock art? Is it a mystical symbol?

Were the pieces idle ‘graffiti’ or were they religious statements, attempt to make magic and control their world?  Was rock art an attempt to say – “I was here – I existed and I mattered.”?  Many rock art sites display evidence of repeated use over long periods but punctuated by episodes of disuse…were ‘styles’ ‘classic’ or did they evolve over time? 
Some are easy: I see mountain goats, a snake, a row of humans, ...but many symbols are cryptic to me...
Scientific dating of petroglyphs is difficult because these is no organic material to ‘age date’.  A site's period of use can be estimated from the age of associated activities in the landscape – such as charcoal fragments if they can be located.

Perhaps this was a totem to 'control' good hunting of large deer
Petroglyphs are made by removing the outer dark surface of rocks, called rock varnish or ‘patina’, to reveal the lighter rock underneath.  But patina takes a long time to form.  It is created by bacteria living on the rock and attaching clay particles to the rock.  
Mythological figures - "lizard people?", snakes?

In the process they incorporate the element manganese, which gives a dark color.  As soon as patina is removed, bacteria start to create patina again on the new surface.  Roughly, we can say that darker petroglyphs are older, because they have been exposed longer to formation of patina. 

( This photo I copied from the internet - but it is similar in period and style to the Valley of Fire )
Visions? Drugs? My mind wants to make these humanoid.  What did the artist intend? Are those footprints?


 The people living in this harsh desert were mostly hunter gathers – but they had communal life and traditions.   If I attempt to project myself into that life – I had the natural human mysteries brought on by the human condition – life, death, sickness and healing, puberty, marriage, desire to find food (good hunting), war… rites of passage, desire to control the weather... 
The "Patina" dark  coating that can be scraped or hammered off to draw the figures

There were undoubtedly many unexplained mysteries in their world – the seasons, rain, the daily, monthly and annual cycles to be seen.   There were probably attempts to control the unexplained and unpredictable by means of shamanistic practices and magic – rock art was likely to be a part of all this.

Cryptic,  Cryptic,  Cryptic!

Puberty ceremonies; Vision quests; Prayers for rain; Hunting magic (hoping to ensure a good hunt); astronomical indicators of the seasons; elements of rituals and ceremonies; voices of nature to be 'heard' within the rocks); visions  “seen” from consuming psychoactive plants; copying  phenomena of the natural world.  The list goes on and on....
Deeply significant or idle drawing?

It is tricky to interpret the meaning  of symbols from another culture... our assumptions and knowledge are not the same as theirs.  Also the “interpretation” of rock art symbols, alone or in combination, remains very difficult.  Simply because a symbol looks like something to us, it may not have looked at all like that for the people who created the rock art using it.  Two symbols which we judge the “same” may have been very different symbols for some culture.  Anthropologists must constantly be alert to not imposing their interpretations onto the original 'Mind of the people'. We want to avoid over simplification or missing complex ideas carried by the symbols .

Paiutes in summer homes

The most recent native people in the region of "Valley of Fire"  are of the Paiute nation...they are not necessarily the people who created the images - migrations over the eons have  made this home to many different peoples.  Still a study of the Paiutes give a good image of life in this harsh desert environment.  Paiutes were hunter-gatherers, hunting rabbits, deer, snakes and lizards, insects, and mountain sheep, and gathering seeds, roots, berries, and nuts. They also practiced some flood plain gardening, historically. They raised corn, squash, melons, gourds, sunflowers, and, later, winter wheat. The lived close to the earth, moved with the seasons, and lived according to their own cultural mores to form a society that provided continuity from one generation to the next.
With people living in a primitive life style it is important to remember that they were as fully human as us, as capable of abstract thought and reasoning... they simply valued a different body of knowledge and skills than we "modern humans".

Designed for a dry climate - shelter from wind but open to the sky... cooking was done outside