The Rock Art Engravings of the Coso Range

Evaluation of Alternative Models & Conclusions

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Coso glyph makers appear then to have taught succeeding generations of new initiates the elements of Coso symbolism. The transmission of this specialized knowledge and the rules for the rendition of Coso images argues for an association of glyph production and a communal “sheep cult.” It is the consistency and regularity of the imagery, its continuity over time, the specialized context, and spatially restricted nature that are most persuasive in positing a corporate, community-based, religious system (cf. Coulam and Schroedl, 2004:43). Consistency in execution, continuity in context, and locational patterning appears to best be understood as an artifact of important ceremonial activities for propitiation, increase, renewal, and perhaps initiation.

In contrast, shamanic trance experiences produce entoptic imagery that is unstructured and conforms to the liminal (in-between) states of life-crisis rituals. The vision quest experience transforms the everyday world into the spirit world and new structures (essentially “antistructures”) are created and used (cf. Sundstrom, 1990). Abstract elements, fragmentation, superimposition, and replication characterize the neuropsychological model of shamanic art. If rock art sites exhibit wide diversity in site location, then this pattern would suggest that the images were made as individual ritual elements rather than through communal activities. The concentrated nature of most Coso art is largely inconsistent with such a pattern.

A critical archaeological test implication, proposed by Keyser and Whitley (2006:16) as diagnostic of hunting magic rock art, is that hunting scenes and motifs would occur that were contemporaneous and would be produced in multiple arrays by a single artisan. Shamanistic visionary art, in contrast, would consist of individual scenes or motifs and not repeated acts of identical art produced at the same location. Of course a single shaman could produce, multiple, similar images but these might normally be more varied in subject matter and not as reiterative.

I would argue that there are many Coso petroglyph panels that would support the predicted hunting magic art analog as espoused by Keyser and Whitley (2006). One especially representative panel is located east of Carricut Lake in the Coso Range and is replete with over two dozen (n = 25) sheep figures (Figure 11). The sheep panel includes examples of the same nearly identical element repeated again and again within the composition. Most of these figures appear to have been produced at the same time. There is no superimposition or overlap of the individual element and all but three of the figures face the same direction and have strikingly similar forms. Also the entire panel is arrayed as a single narrative composition with similar levels of rock varnish and repatination. Another powerfully persuasive characteristic of the panel is that most every sheep depicted in the panel is rendered in an unusual, idiosyncratic style. The similarities in the style of the sheep drawings are almost certainly indicative of repeated renderings by the same Coso artist. Each of the sheep has an especially fancy, “cork screw,” or curly cue type horn. The sheep body forms are nearly identical with an unusual, roughly rectangular shape, with concave, upturned back, and slightly excurvate belly. Therefore, this panel appears to represent the intentional manufacture of multiple images by a single artist to foster hunting magic rather than shamanic visionary art or sorcery (cf. Keyser and Whitley, 2006:16).

Given the remarkable abundance and range of realistic bighorn sheep depictions (contra Whitley, 2005:196-199) and the plethora of hunting scenes, it seems incongruous to identify most of the Coso rock art images as the product of individual shamanic visions. The hunting scene rock art of the Cosos reveals a “sophisticated understanding of biological and cultural reality unencumbered by metaphor” (sensu Hildebrandt and McGuire, 2002; cf. Matheny et al., 1997). If the rock art was merely metaphorical - as Whitley and others have suggested - we would predict that the images would be more isolated, more abstract, less detailed, less naturalistic, and certainly less realistic (cf. Keyser and Klassen, 2001:91). Some Coso rock art does contain abstract iconography and images placed in secluded contexts, hidden from public view, and these elements and panels could be reasonably accounted for as shamanic vision quest sites. However I do not believe that most of the Coso petroglyph rock art can be explained with such a model (cf. Hildebrandt and McGuire, 2002; Matheny et al., 1997; contra Keyser and Whitley, 2006). Later dating painted images (historic and protohistoric era) are commonly identified as Numic paintings (or Coso Style pictographs) and do occur in contexts most likely indicative of shamanistic associations (Garfinkel et al., 2007; Gold, 2005; Greer, 1995). These late prehistoric and historic paintings are always found in rock shelters, crevices, caves, and hidden defiles not readily apparent to the casual eye. Such differences in their environmental context and the characteristics of their subject matter argue for a more shamanistic and individualistic origin (cf. Garfinkel, 1978, 1982; Garfinkel et al., 2007; Gold, 2005; Schiffman and Andrews, 1982).
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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