The Rock Art Engravings of the Coso Range

Imagery Standardization & Level of Effort Required

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The Coso Representational Petroglyph Style (Schaafsma, 1986) appears to be indicative of a shared belief system. Distinctive icons are regularly repeated from site to site and include: horned figures, realistic bighorns, “medecine bags,” pattern bodied anthropomorphs, etc. The form of the Coso bighorn is quite standardized - to a larger degree than any other representation. Bighorn were frequently depicted with a flat back, boat-shaped body, full front-facing, bifurcating horns, with ears and hooves sometimes added for a final flourish (Grant et al., 1968). This level of detail and conventionalization implies some definite cultural conditioning as to how the motif is represented. The size of some of these sheep (some larger than seven feet in length) and the attention to detail reflect a great deal of investment in time and energy.

coso rock art bighorn sheep petroglyph canyon

The larger of these two bighorn sheep
in Petroglyph Canyon is greater than
7 feet from tip of horn to tip of tail.
Photo by D. Austin

Replicative experiments testify that at least one hour of time was needed to complete the manufacture of some of the simplest glyph elements (Bard and Busby, 1974). Larger more complex compositions would take much more time (even days). One should consider that possibly 50 to 75% of all the Coso glyphs were made in less than 1,000 years. Our most conservative estimates indicate that there are 100,000 individual glyphs arrayed in the Coso Complex area.

Hence no less than 100,000 hours of labor are represented in a fantastic display of Coso artistry and ceremonial elaboration. This suggests a very localized and intensive occurrence. Such large scale and most likely communal effort would probably signify cult activity and not individualistic shamanic vision quest episodes (cf. Hildebrandt and McGuire, 2002:245-246).

I must admit that with such an enormous number of Coso glyphs (n = >100,000 elements) it would seem rather silly to try and posit a singular purpose and an absolutist perspective covering all of these images. Various sets of glyphs might have been produced for a variety of reasons including shamanism, vision quests, sympathetic hunting magic, pilgrimages, initiation rights, and even bragging rights (keeping score). Also the reasons for creating the images must have changed from time to time. Yet I would argue that the bulk of the current evidence supports hunting magic and increase rites as the primary purpose for the majority of the imagery within this vast iconographic record.

This emphasis on magico-religious ritual activity associated with the hunting of bighorn can also be seen in the Desert West split-twig figurine complex. This cultural expression has been interpreted as part of totemic increase rites focusing on the manufacture of a series of magical and ceremonial objects representing bighorn (Coulam and Schroedl, 2004). These community symbols appear to have been used in rituals of imitative and contagious magic. At Newberry Cave in the central Mojave Desert, pictographs, a cache of largely complete Elko and Gypsum points, 11 whole and over 1,000 fragmentary split twig animal figurines, quartz crystals, painted stone palettes, and sheep dung pendants date from about 3000 BP. These items have been argued to represent the hunting magic rituals of a men’s hunting society that used the cave environs (Coulam and Schroedl, 2004; Davis and Smith, 1981; Smith et al., 1957; Warren and Crabtree, 1986).
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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The Coso Range Rock Art Gallery
Coso Publications by Dr. Alan P. Garfinkel
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