Tribal Graffiti

North American Rock Art

Beginning with the Americas, Eye will focus on a series of commentaries and links about some of the world’s most powerful archetypes. The urge to record our presence among earthly life forms seems to be a universal and permanent human trait. The oldest rock art found in the world so far dates back to 30,000 BC. Following human migrations to the Americas, the oldest rock art on this continent was made as early as 10,000 years ago. Images on rock walls and in caves have been found in 41 of the 50 states, as well as in Canada and Mexico.

Today, ancient rock art imagery is more accessible to artists, researchers, and the culturally curious layman than ever before in books and in online image collections. The special experience of confronting such images first hand is available to the more adventurous through guidebooks and guided tours.

Forms. Two types of rock art can be found at many sites, in caves and on cliffs or boulders: designs pecked or incised into the surface (petroglyphs), and painted images in one or more colors using mineral pigments and plant dyes (pictographs). Some images that now appear as petroglyphs may have originally combined both techniques, though the paint material has faded. Ancient artists often chose naturally darkened wall surfaces, and sometimes even blackened cave ceilings with smoke to make their pecked images show the light-colored stone beneath the smoked surface.

Rock art images include animals and objects, humans, hybrid human-animal forms, symbols, calendars and star markers, and celestial beings. There are also many abstract symbols: line and dot patterns, crosshatching, circles, ovals, stars, and rectilinear shapes. Animals depicted in American rock painting included bighorn sheep, grizzly bears, rattlesnakes, deer, elk, owls, birds in flight, turkeys, scorpions, lizards, coyotes (or wolves), and dogs. Among the humanoid shapes are hand prints, hunters, fertility images, and various mythic beings often created by a local shaman in altered states of consciousness from dreaming, fasting, drumming, or drugs. Of these, the humpbacked flute player has become an international cultural icon. See Kokopelli’s Seed.

Function. Rock art is a form of tribal communication—with each other, with future generations, and with the world of spirits beyond man’s normal realm of consciousness. Rock art can be a scribe’s journal of community events, or a shamanic code for portents, treatments, and transformations. The images function as signs and posters about tribal identity, local geography, and cosmic phenomenon. In many places, generations of artists placed new rock art images over or beside the older ones to create a many-layered record of their existence in that area.

These images are early man’s best reach for immortality. They have survived thousands of years to intrigue us with their amazing power to haunt all who stand before them. There is even a medieval quest-like aspect in earning the privilege to commune directly with rock art today. Getting to those hidden places in the world where the most awesome of these images are wont to dwell can require at least some strenuous hiking and climbing. Except in those areas where there are commercial guides to lead us, even finding rock art sites requires some dedicated planning and navigational skills. Once there, to ponder on their significance requires some artistic empathy, if not spiritual fortitude, and some knowledge of the area’s early cultures. TOP^

Resources. Happily, there are now resources aplenty to satisfy the curiosity of armchair travelers and the needs of project-driven artists or researchers without trekking off to rock art sites.