The Rock Art Engravings of the Coso Range

Evaluation of Alternative Models & Conclusions

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Aboriginal bighorn hunting was a precarious pursuit that would require strong religious rites and keen leadership (cf. Keyser, 1992). Communal hunts are complex and treacherous activities necessitating coordination of men, women, and dogs. It is reasonable that ritual, magic, and the supernatural would be closely correlated with such pursuits. James Teit (1928) relates a story shared by an Okanagan consultant illustrating the difficulties and some of the religious elements involved in a communal bighorn hunt:

A great many came . . . and proceeded to the hunting ground. Many women joined the part to act as drivers. . . . The hunting chief took off his cap, made of the skin of a ewe’s head and waving it toward the . . . sheep, prayed to them. . . . He then sent many men around to sit at the heads of the two gulches on top of the mountain and shot the sheep with arrows as they came up. The men picked were the best shots. . . . A woman . . . with shamanistic powers . . . approached the sheep . . . gave a sharp call . . . and (her) dog rushed off and drove the sheep fiercely. . . . The men in waiting killed a great number (Teit, 1928 as cited in Keyser, 1992:79).

It is remarkable that a small, now arid, and relatively isolated area of desert (the Coso Range) should be the home for such an extraordinary array of images. That the rocks are still animated and alive with images, many hundreds and even thousands of years in age, commemorate the will, fortitude, and passions of untold generations of Coso natives. I would argue that the Coso Range can best be understood as the center of a distinctive sheep cult, and a natural area to have functioned with prevalent “hunting magic” ceremonies. These ritual activities would have been exhibited as propitiation ceremonies and increase rites. They would have been expressed as a ritual complex with a set of beliefs that sheep and other game animals would be replenished through supernatural means facilitated by the ubiquitous imagery that the Coso artisans adorned the rocks. Success in hunting would have been derived, in part, from recurrent visits to the same sites by succeeding generations (cf. Miller, 1985:60). The Coso Range, through the success of prior ritual gatherings, became known as a powerful and sacred place, a shrine and ceremonial center, where people could come to carry out more successful religious rituals (cf. Stoffle, 2001).


Many people aided in the development of this research. Michael Moratto, Applied Earthworks, Inc., reviewed this article and provided important editorial comments and suggestions. Two of my most trusted colleagues and old friends, John Romani and Dan Larson, Compass Rose Archaeological, also provided valuable insights into general rock art interpretation. Carol Carroll, California Department of Transportation, read and edited drafts of this article. Ken Hedges, San Diego Museum of Man, was most helpful in providing an advance copy of his recent research into the meaning of Coso rock art. Lynda McNeil, University of Colorado, commented on various early versions of the study and offered helpful insights along the way. Carolyn Shepherd should be acknowledged for her profound role in managing the cultural resources of the Naval Air Weapons Station, China Lake. Russell Kaldenberg, Former Base Archaeologist, and Michael Baskerville, Current Chief Archaeologist, Naval Air Weapons Station, China Lake, must be recognized for their stewardship of the fragile prehistoric record on base and for their critical responsibilities in facilitating continuing access for scholarly research. Sandy Rogers, Curator of Prehistory, Maturango Museum, provided ongoing advice regarding the dating of archaeological sites in the Coso region. Ken and Anna Lu Pringle were a source of continuing perspective with decades of experience studying the Coso rock drawings. They graciously supplied their home as my satellite research facility when conducting studies on base. Kelly McGuire and William Hildebrandt, Far Western Anthropological Research Group, gave helpful direction and facilitated access to their research reports on Coso regional prehistory. Caroline Maddock offered much useful data from her unpublished research on the Coso patterned body anthropomorphs. Inspiration and insights into Coso rock art were also garnered from conversations with Amy Gilreath, Far Western Anthropological Research. Photographic documentation was generously supplied by Bill Wight, Don Austin, and Mike Bell. I am indebted to all of these individuals and greatly appreciate their assistance.
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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