The Great Mural
Phenomenon consists of thousands of prehistoric rock paintings
found at hundreds of sites located in the middle of the Baja California
peninsula. Although the geology and morphology of these sites vary widely, most of the painted places are caves or rock shelters situated at elevations of 1,000 or more feet in the three ranges of mountains listed here from north to south. (Note: The Sierra de San Juan has been omitted because its small showings of art are indistinguishable from those of the Sierra de San Francisco
Who were the Painters?
The merger archaeology of the mid-peninsula suggests an occupancy of many thousands of years. San Dieguito Man left his telltale artefacts on his way to the Cape. La Jolla-like tools suggest the passing of that people as well. Early splinters of Yuman folk followed at some undetermined time and added to the growing assemblage of human discards. Europeans found the area populated by a single, far-flung, loosely organised group. These first historic people were still working stone and contributing to the archaeological record, but hey had no bent for painting. Sometime during the latter part of this long human presence, a culture with organized, even institutionalized artists invaded this ground or evolved from its occupants. They painted as few on this globe have done, decorating hundreds of locations with thousands of images, great and small. They left no other obvious clues to distinguish themselves in the parade of peoples. Who were the Painters, How, what, why, and when did they paint?
Traditions Define the Great Murals
The Painters invented their own skwed perspective. The hoofs of most animals were painted in a curious four-digit pattern that gives their feet the appearance of hands. This photograph of the hoof of a peninsular mule deer shows the reason: The Painters depicted not only the cloven hoof, but also the dewclaws splayed to the sides to make them appear in the outline. This spatial rotation was consistent with their treatment of human feet and women's breasts. Every aspect of anatomy was portrayed as part of the outline - or not portrayed at all.
Paleolithic rock art depicting humans and animals survives on every inhabited continent. Apparently all peoples, as they passed through the hunting and gathering phase of their cultural development, responded to a common impulse to create long-lasting art and to celebrate some now-forgotten sense of relationship to their fellow creatures and their deities. The rock art paintings of central Baja California are very much a part of this ancient tradition. Much about them - subject matter, materials, and locations - hauntingly resembles artworks found on other continents, paintings separated from them by thousands of miles and thousands of years. Although the creation of art on the Baja California peninsula has no history and the painted sites have been subject to little archaeology, I have no hesitation in associating them with religious practices. This connection has been assumed by most scholars of ancient rock art in general and, in Baja California, it is supported by a by a persuasive argument: All evidence suggests that the Painters were organised into small bands that occupied discrete territories. Their art, however, adheres to overriding principles; it seems to celebrate something greater than the power of a tribal leader or a band. If that sort of petty aggrandisement were its main objective, we would expect to see many truly individual statements. Instead, the artworks of all bands seem designed to make more universal statements. I cannot imagine a unifying force more likely than religion.
Despite its marked resemblance to ancient rock art in Europe and Africa, the rock art paintings in central Baja California constitute a separate, distinct art form with its own unique set of characteristics. After viewing, photographing, and studying hundreds of sites and thousands of painted figures, I coined the term 'Great Murals' as a collective title to distinguish art that meets the following criteria:
- Artistic images painted on the walls or ceilings of caves or rock shelters, or even on unprotected rock surfaces, at elevations above 600 feet, on the Baja California peninsula between 26° 20 and 29° north latitude.
- Images derived from observations of creatures in the natural world - humans, deer, mountain sheep, antelope, rabbits, hares, mountain lions, bobcats, various birds, fish, turtles, snakes, whales or pinnipeds.
- Painted figures, life-sized or greater (and placed high when painted on a surface displaying figures in a range of sizes).
- Painted figures, smaller than life-sized (and placed low when painted on a surface displaying figures in a range of sizes).
- Outer boundaries of painted figures rendered as recognizable but formalized line drawings of the subjects; the formality demanded that the prospective be altered to allow the representation of features in the outline that would be invisible in a completely realistic silhouette.
- Internal of field area of painted figures rendered as devoid of natural details, but filled in with arbitrary artistic devices: I.e., the entire field in a single color; the field divided into two areas with two colours of paint; the field filled with stripes, a grid, a checkerboard pattern etc.
As the table shows, these ancient artworks adhere consistently to certain formal artistic conventions, but they also have characteristics peculiar to their own regions. The table forms a map of the entire geographic range of the Great Murals, with the most northerly style – that of the Sierra de San Borja - at top and the most southerly – the Southern Semiabstract – at the bottom.
Sierra de San Borja
Sierra de San Francisco
Sierra de Guadalupe
Rock Art Links