The Rock Art Engravings of the Coso Range

Whitley’s Model

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David Whitley is part of a small but dedicated band of scholars who are, at long last, bringing the exciting potential of rock art research to a world-wide audience. He has been very prolific publishing in many scholarly journals and authoring a number of books on the subject of rock art centering on method and theory and geographical syntheses. He and his colleagues of course recognize the fact that rock art was created for many purposes (cf. Keyser and Whitley, 2006:4-22). Nonetheless, Whitley has championed a hypothesis for the Coso Range based on neuropsychological principles developed by Lewis-Williams and Dowson (1988). He believes that both abstract and representational Coso images were made by individual shamans recording the visions they experienced during altered states of consciousness (Keyser and Whitley, 2006; Whitley, 1982, 1987, 1994a, 1994b, 1997, 1998a, 1998b, 1998c, 2000, 2005; Whitley et al., 1993, 1999). The geometric motifs are entoptic phenomena - the product of our optical system. The more naturalistic or traditional images are culturally determined symbols that were used in vision quests.

Whitley contends that most Coso drawings were produced after A.D. 1000 when a shift from mobile foraging to more sedentary seed gathering occurred. That change threatened social relationships when female gathering became more central than male hunting. A response was the growth of male weather-control shamanism. Accordingly, when a shaman depicted the killing of a desert bighorn he believed rain fell. Hence it was a Numic belief that killing a bighorn was a source of power and weather control.

american rock art coso petroglyphs

Panel containing many bighorn sheep

american rock art coso petroglyphs

Bighorn sheep and geometric symbols

Coso shamans acquired weather-control powers, particularly power over rain. The bighorn was the central motif identified as a rain shaman’s spirit helper. Whitley argues that glyph production in the Coso Range began as much as 19,000 years ago (Whitley, 2005). However, he posits that most Coso rock art was made less then 1000 years ago and was the work of the historic Numic (Great Basin Shoshone) and their ancestors.

“Hunting Magic” and Increase Rites

I would argue that increase rituals are, in anthropological parlance, roughly equivalent to what was intended and implied by the “hunting magic” metaphor (sensu Grant et al., 1968; contra Keyser and Whitley, 2006; Whitley, 2005). Such models were, and in some camps continue to be, a reasonable explanation for the animal scenes featured in rock art worldwide (cf. Gilreath, 2003; Grant et al., 1968; Guenther, 1988:194; Heizer and Baumhoff, 1962; Hildebrandt and McGuire, 2002; McGuire and Hildebrandt, 2005; Schaafsma, 1986). This model fell into disfavor (cf. Bahn, 1991; Pearson, 2002; Rector, 1985) and was largely replaced by shamanism based on several purported weaknesses:

The ethnographic record failed to support analogs for “hunting magic” among foraging cultures worldwide.
The subject matter portrayed few animals as “wounded”. Animals were shown escaping hunters. Dance scenes, rituals, ceremonial artifacts, and patterned-bodied “shamans” had little to do with hunting success per se.
Most locations did not provide evidence for communal kills of game. Rock art sites lacked associated hunting blinds, butchery sites, and other hunting features.
The animals depicted played only a small part in the diet of the artisans.

Bradshaw Foundation - Introduction to Coso Rock Art
Dr. Alan P. Garfinkel - About the Author
Dr. Alan P. Garfinkel - Introduction to the Research Paper
→ | Coso Sheep Cult - Research Paper | Page |
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The Coso Range Rock Art Gallery
Coso Publications by Dr. Alan P. Garfinkel
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Talking Stone - Rock Art of the Cosos - Documentary Film
American Rock Art Archive
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