Little Petroglyph Canyon contains many petroglyphs of animals which is appropriate I suppose since it was likely a hunting camp in the fall. The canyon was an ideal site since the infrequent rain storms flood the canyon leaving water in concave bedrock pools covered by the loose sand and gravel of the canyon floor. Deer, antelope, and desert or mountain bighorn sheep were hunted with spears, bow and arrows. Rabbit was the most common game. Other small animals such as marmots, ground squirrels, and porcupines were also caught using noose snares and nets. Birds such as grouse, ducks, and other waterfowl were hunted by the Northern Paiute, who also collected duck eggs for eating. The Owens Valley Paiute did not do as much bird hunting. This is a remarkable collection of Native American art, encapsulating centuries of knowledge into simple drawings. Northern Paiute people call those writings on the rock etsatubono, which means, literally, “Coyote writings.” But this suggests not so much that the people believe that Coyote wrote them, as it is reference to their age. In Paiute traditions and legends, the animal people were put into this world before human beings. So the reference to Coyote writings is intended to suggest that those writings and images are ancient, and were made by the first creation. Like all great art, they are approachable in terms of content but each image is intertwined with myths, stories and culture extending back for millennia. There is no simple answer to what they mean, only endless variations on the names and stories.
I stumbled on a really great blog on places in and around Death Valley by a guy named Steve Hall, aptly named “Death Valley Adventures”. His blog is particularly great because there are few maps and/or information on most of the area surrounding Death Valley. It encouraged me to do a little exploring on my own. I decided to drive home from Los Angeles to Las Vegas on the Fourth of July through the Searles Valley, Panamint Valley, Death Valley to Furnace Creek Inn and then on home. These valleys are between the Argus, Slate, and Panamint Ranges which are oriented north-south, or toward the north-northwest. The El Paso Mountains, Spangler Hills, Straw Peak in the Slate Range, and Quail Mountains are oriented east-west, and the Owlshead Mountains are arranged in a semi-circular pattern south of the valleys. Aside from the geology, there are some interesting places to see along this little drive and of course some of our beautiful desert flora. Admittedly it extended the trip home by a few hours but the scenery was worth the lost time.
The process of creating useful and visually pleasing petroglyphs is one of the more difficult art forms, related more to creating a stone statue than painting. Unlike cave paintings that are added to the rock, petroglyphs involve removing material, in particular the desert varnish or patina that covers rocks in the desert. Today this would be difficult and take time, even with our modern steel tools, back then they only had stone tools making the process long and laborious. To cut a hard stone you would need a harder stone, preferably with some kind of point to focus the energy. Aside from the technical difficulties, there is the matter of artistic depiction of various animals, experiences and ideas. To communicate even relatively simple things, given the relatively crude stone canvas, the essence of the item being depicted must be communicated unambiguously, to translate to even strangers speaking a different language. While this discussion is directed primarily at Little Petroglyph Canyon, the principles are applicable to most petroglyphs.
If you visit Little Petroglyph Canyon, you will inevitably ask who created these petroglyphs. The short answer is, nobody knows who made them or in fact, how old they are. The Coso people were inhabiting the Coso area when the Europeans first arrived but there were only about 150–250 Coso people in the area and they claimed to know nothing about the petroglyphs. Over the past 100 years significant effort by anthropologists and archeologists have worked on clues from the past to explain the entrance of humans into the Americas and what they did once they were there. Since it was a long time ago, many things have been washed away by time. However, looking at stone tools, pollen counts from pack rat middens, linguistics and retained native customs we have a hotly debated but reasonable idea of how things changed over time for the Coso people and humans all over the Americas. This post is an overview of this work and while it will not tell you the who and when the petroglyphs were made, it will give you context to decide for yourself. I think you will be surprised at the ultimate influence this tiny, out of the way place, had on the entire southwest.
Since both the Little and Big Petroglyph Canyons are within the bounds of the Naval Air Weapons Station China Lake, thus limited for photography, I am including photographs of the surrounding area before delving into the petroglyphs. The southern part of the Coso range lies in the restricted Naval Air Weapons Station China Lake and the northern part of the range is designated as the Coso Range Wilderness. To visit Little Petroglyph Canyon, you need to go through the Maturango Museum which is located in Ridgecrest, California. To arrange a guided tour of the Coso Rock Art District located on China Lake Naval Weapons Station, you will need to call the museum to secure a reservation, pay a small fee and go through a written security questionnaire. No photography is allowed on the fairly long trip from the front gate until you reach the parking lot for the canyon. Since I believe you cannot properly appreciate the petroglyphs without the context of the surrounding area and cultures, I have decided to do a post on the canyon itself and the surrounding area.