The Rock Art Engravings of the Coso Range

Diet of the Coso Artisans

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Scholars debate whether animals depicted in rock art were the ones included most often in the diet or were rather informed with symbolic and religious significance as well as socioeconomic importance. Large artiodactyls, while central game animals, still tend for practical reasons not to be hunted very often. Therefore, plant foods and smaller game normally dominate the diet of hunter-gatherers. The desert bighorn sheep is a big game animal par excellence and of striking appearance (Figure 10).
rock art coso mountain lions

Desert Bighorn Sheep

It is massive in size (rams weigh from 119-127 kg), has dramatic qualities in terms of its agility, movement, strength, and in the shape of its horns (Meloy, 2005). The deep religious significance given the animal as a dominant symbol belies the animal’s functionality as an exceptionally aesthetic and cognitive focus. The presence of animal motifs in Coso art reflects a pervasive sense of sympathy, affinity, and kinship between animals and people (sensu Harrod, 2000). Nevertheless, we know for certain that the Coso people hunted bighorn sheep and relied heavily on this big game for a significant part of their animal food.

Holanda and Delacorte (1999) produced a synthesis of archaeofaunal data from the general Coso region (Table 1). Their data include a summary of archaeofaunal remains from Inyo, Mono, and San Bernardino counties and tally 150,000 faunal elements from more than 140 archaeological contexts. In the immediate vicinity of the Cosos are the data from Inyo and San Bernardino counties that include nearly 20,000 pieces of bone identifiable to the family level or better and tally materials from more than 75 prehistoric sites.

Table 1. Terrestrial Fauna from Southeastern California *
3500-1350 B.P.
No. % No. % No. %
Artiodactyl 6083 64.3 1313 51.7 162 4.0
Bighorn 510 5.4 28 1.1 16 0.4
Deer 8 0.1 2 0.1 1 0.1
Pronghorn 8 0.1 2 0.1 3 0.1
Subtotal 6606 69.8 1348 53.1 194 4.8
Marmot 1357 14.3 1 0 0 0
Lagomorph 1241 13.1 1128 44.4 752 18.8
Subtotal 2598 27.4 1129 44.4 752 18.8
Herpetofauna 103 1.1 26 1.0 238 5.9
Tortoise 159 1.7 36 1.4 2826 70.5
Subtotal 262 1.8 62 2.4 3064 76.4
Total 9466 2539 4010
* Adapted from Hildebrandt and McGuire, 2002.
Notes: Artiodactyl remains include those fragments of animal bone that could not be classified as to species but would include taxa identified as bighorn, deer, and pronghorn.

The highly fragmented artiodactyl bones recovered from eastern California archaeological sites are often difficult to differentiate as to species. Of the artiodactyl remains that were identified to species, bighorn sheep are dominant (510 of 523 or 97 %). Therefore, the pro rata share of the entire faunal assemblage identified by class is most likely dominated by bighorn sheep bone dating to the Newberry era (2000 B.C.-A.D. 600). Furthermore 70% of the entire faunal assemblage for this temporal period is composed of ungulate remains with small mammals, lizards, and desert tortoise making up the remainder.

The bighorn sheep focus for hunting activity appears to have been almost as important during the following Haiwee interval (A.D. 600-1300) dropping to 53% of the total faunal inventory. Again bighorn sheep make up the lion’s share of the taxa classified to species (28 of 35 or 80%). However only 5% of the total faunal assemblage during the Marana Period (A.D. 1300-1850) is artiodactyl remains. Ungulate bone (the bulk being bighorn sheep) is then over 10 times more prevalent in the Newberry and Haiwee periods, when Coso rock art appears to have been at its height, than during the later prehistoric era. Bighorn hunting appears to have been a predominant focus during chronological periods synchronous with the hypothesized Coso rock art fluorescence (cf. Yohe, 1991; Yohe and Sutton, 1999, 2000; contra Keyser and Whitley, 2006). Hildebrandt and McGuire (2002) emphasize the importance of this intensive big game hunting, during the Middle to Late Archaic, in the larger region of the Great Basin.
Bradshaw Foundation - Introduction to Coso Rock Art
Dr. Alan P. Garfinkel - About the Author
Dr. Alan P. Garfinkel - Introduction to the Research Paper
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