The Rock Art Engravings of the Coso Range

Competing Models of Coso Rock Art

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There are two prominent explanations of Coso rock art. Both agree that the drawings functioned in a magico-religious context. Grant et al. (1968) argue that the depictions were associated with hunting magic and a sheep cult, while Whitley (1994a, 1994b) suggests they were made by individual shamans when engaged in vision quests. By way of definition, Grant’s use of the term cult was intended, in an anthropological context, to imply a particular system of religious worship, especially in reference to its external rites and ceremonies, one exhibiting an excessive devotion or dedication to a specific idea (cf. Bean and Vane, 1978).

Grant, Baird, and Pringle’s Model


Correlation of rock art sites with game trails, ambush locations, dummy hunters, hunting blinds, and the overwhelming depiction of sheep and hunting scenes led Grant et al. (1968) to pose sympathetic magic as the purpose of the drawings. The hunting magic model implies that the production of rock art helped to ensure a successful hunt of big game. Bighorn were depicted because they were some of the most difficult animals to hunt. Hunters who were successful gained great prestige (Grant et al., 1968; Hildebrandt and McGuire, 2002; McGuire and Hildebrandt, 2005).

This “hunting magic” model is not as facile as one might think. A common misunderstanding is that the model only implies the use of magic and rituals intended to facilitate the procurement of game and multiply the animal population. That is only partially correct. Significantly, in aboriginal societies, bighorn and other culturally important animals were believed to have supernatural powers and were immortals (Grant et al., 1968:34). Slain animals could rise again, reincarnated and reborn, reentering the human world in regenerated bodies. Bighorn came to be regarded as guardian spirits protecting the Coso folk both individually and as a group. Depiction of sheep demonstrated reverence and magically ensured an uninterrupted bounty in a broader sense than simply ensuring the adequate provisioning of meat (Grant et al., 1968:40-41). A complex of communal rituals placated the animal’s spirit, increased game and provisions in general, and facilitated continued success of the Coso way of life (Grant et al., 1968:34; cf. Miller, 1983:77-78). Rock art was a means of communicating with the resident Spirits and were concrete expressions on the landscape linking the areas with their intended activities for all eternity (cf. Miller, 1983:78). Enactment of associated rituals embodied transcendent realities and made them manifest in the everyday world (sensu Harrod, 2000).

Throughout the world various, culturally central, revered animal ancestors (e.g., bear, bison, caribou, deer, salmon, etc.) were the focus of ritual activity (Grant et al., 1968:34). Shamans and cult priests acted as intermediaries between the world of the supernatural and the human world. Such hunting cults were analogous to the sacred societies that venerated different immortal animal people such as the buffalo on the Plains, the salmon in the Northwest Coast, the deer in northwest California, and large sea mammals (whale, seal, or walrus) from the Arctic and Alaska to northwestern California (Marriott and Rachlin, 1968).

The associated religious activities were part of a ritual complex common to Native Americans, including those inhabiting the Great Basin, and shares elements of animal ceremonialism and the journey of ascent and descent typical of forager cosmology worldwide (Hultkrantz, 1987a, 1987b; Lee and Daly, 1999; McNeil, 2001, 2005; Rockwell, 1991; Sharp, 1988). The first half of that cycle emphasized death and post-mortem rites (see discussion below). It began with a fall festival, communal feast, pantomime dance and sing, ancestor worship, and animal funeral.

A second half of the ritual cycle was the spring revival rites or world renewal ceremonies. An annual ceremony of rejuvenation was timed to the new season of vegetation, normally in the spring, intended to bring humans back into harmony with the universe. As Hultkrantz identifies these ceremonies, “it is a reiteration of the cosmic drama through which the world was formed” (1987b:137). This was the occasion to affirm the common origin of the tribe and emphasized rebirth, magnification of game animals, and a reassurance of success in the coming years. Those rites would complete the journey of ascent with the re-emergence of animals into the human world (Sharp, 1988). The cosmic journey would finish as the game animals were led back into the world through emergence sites typically associated with underworld portals (springs, seeps, fumaroles, cracks in rocks, lakes, rivers, etc.).


Bradshaw Foundation - Introduction to Coso Rock Art
Dr. Alan P. Garfinkel - About the Author
Dr. Alan P. Garfinkel - Introduction to the Research Paper
| Coso Sheep Cult - Research Paper | Page |
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The Coso Range Rock Art Gallery
Coso Publications by Dr. Alan P. Garfinkel
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