5 Dec 2007, 5:00pm
Native Cultures
by admin

The Coso Sheep Cult of Eastern California

Garfinkel, Alan P. Paradigm Shifts, Rock Art Studies, and the “Coso Sheep Cult” of Eastern California. North American Archaeologist, Spring 2007.

Full text [here]

Review by Mike Dubrasich

The impression was left by some (long-departed) anthropologists that the Paiute-Shoshone people were less evolved than other tribes, particularly less so than the transplanted Euro tribes that generate modern anthropologists.

The august (even in death) Dr. Julian H. Steward claimed that, “the Basin-Plateau–or “Numic”–division of Shoshonean-speakers had the simplest culture in the Western Hemisphere, and in some respects the entire world.”

Omer Stewart claimed otherwise in a series of Indian Land Claim cases that O. Stewart subsequently won and J. Steward lost.

The proof of ancient culture, one way or the other, might be found in the petroglyphs of the Cosos Mountains. The Cosos are adjacent to Owens Valley and Death Valley in California. Although dwarfed by the nearby Sierra Nevada and Panamint mountain ranges, the Cosos are home to the greatest collection of prehistoric rock art in North America and possibly the world.

In Paradigm Shifts, Rock Art Studies, and the “Cosos Sheep Cult” of Eastern California, Alan Garfinkel presents an excellent discussion of the meaning behind the Cosos rock art and the intentions of the ancient artists.

Selected excerpts:

ABSTRACT — One of the more spectacular expressions of prehistoric rock art in all of North America is the petroglyph concentration in the Coso Range of eastern California. These glyphs have played a prominent role in attempts to understand forager religious iconography. Four decades ago, Heizer and Baumhoff (1962) concluded that Great Basin petroglyphs were associated with hunting large game and were intended to supernaturally increase success in the hunt. Similarly, in their seminal work Grant et al. (1968) concluded that the mountain sheep drawings of the Coso region bolstered the “hunting magic” hypothesis.

However, this hypothesis has become increasingly marginalized by a prevailing view that considers most rock art as an expression of individual shamanistic endeavor.1 This paper explores comparative ethnologic and archaeological evidence supporting the hunting magic hypothesis. I place this explanatory framework in a fuller context based on a contemporary understanding of comparative religion and the complexity of forager symbolism. The paper argues that the preponderance of Coso images are conventionalized iconography associated with a sheep cult ceremonial complex. This is inconsistent with models interpreting the Coso drawings as metaphoric images correlated with individual shamanic vision quests.

The Coso Rock Art Complex is located in eastern California, within the Naval Air Weapons Station China Lake (Figure 1). Extraordinary numbers of petroglyphs are pecked into the lava flows, canyons, and tablelands. The glyphs are often associated with rockshelters, caves, hunting blinds, rock stacks (dummy hunters), rock rings, grinding slicks, bedrock mortars (rare), midden, and flake scatters. Due to the security of the Navy facility, the sites are well preserved.

The greatest number of drawings is found within a 90 square-mile area where 35,000 petroglyph elements have already been formally recorded. Systematic inventories provide a conservative projection and element tally in excess of 100,000 (Gilreath, 1999, 2003; Hildebrandt and McGuire, 2002; Keyser and Whitley, 2006; Russell Kaldenberg, personal communication 2006). Therefore, the Coso Range contains one of the greatest petroglyph concentrations in all of North America, if not the world (Grant et al., 1968). Sixty to 70 percent of these are realistic portrayals of the quarry, technology, and ritual paraphernalia associated with bighorn sheep hunting. Bighorn drawings are found throughout western North America, yet the number of sheep drawings in the Coso Range surpasses the total for all other regions combined (Grant et al., 1968:34).

Occupation of the Coso Range began ca. 13,500 calendar years B.P. (Gilreath and Hildebrandt, 1997). Researchers agree that Coso rock art is of long standing. The area was used for thousands of years and into the historic era when Euroamericans disrupted the Native cultures. Yet, large numbers of highly stylized, realistic Coso images were made for only a short time. Prehistorians disagree on whether that peak production period came just prior to 1000 B.P. or within the past 1000 years (cf. Gold, 2005; Garfinkel, 2006; Gilreath, 2000; Hildebrandt and McGuire, 2002 for the former perspective, and Keyser and Whitley, 2006; and Whitley, 1994a, 1994b for the latter).

There are two prominent explanations of Coso rock art. Both agree that the drawings functioned in a magico-religious context. Grant et al. (1968) argue that the depictions were associated with hunting magic and a sheep cult, while Whitley (1994a, 1994b) suggests they were made by individual shamans when engaged in vision quests. By way of definition, Grant’s use of the term cult was intended, in an anthropological context, to imply a particular system of religious worship, especially in reference to its external rites and ceremonies, one exhibiting an excessive devotion or dedication to a specific idea (cf. Bean and Vane, 1978).

Correlation of rock art sites with game trails, ambush locations, dummy hunters, hunting blinds, and the overwhelming depiction of sheep and hunting scenes led Grant et al. (1968) to pose sympathetic magic as the purpose of the drawings. The hunting magic model implies that the production of rock art helped to ensure a successful hunt of big game. Bighorn were depicted because they were some of the most difficult animals to hunt. Hunters who were successful gained great prestige (Grant et al., 1968; Hildebrandt and McGuire, 2002; McGuire and Hildebrandt, 2005)…

The associated religious activities were part of a ritual complex common to Native Americans, including those inhabiting the Great Basin, and shares elements of animal ceremonialism and the journey of ascent and descent typical of forager cosmology worldwide (Hultkrantz, 1987a, 1987b; Lee and Daly, 1999; McNeil, 2001, 2005; Rockwell, 1991; Sharp, 1988). The first half of that cycle emphasized death and post-mortem rites (see discussion below). It began with a fall festival, communal feast, pantomime dance and sing, ancestor worship, and animal funeral.

A second half of the ritual cycle was the spring revival rites or world renewal ceremonies. An annual ceremony of rejuvenation was timed to the new season of vegetation, normally in the spring, intended to bring humans back into harmony with the universe. As Hultkrantz identifies these ceremonies, “it is a reiteration of the cosmic drama through which the world was formed” (1987b:137). This was the occasion to affirm the common origin of the tribe and emphasized rebirth, magnification of game animals, and a reassurance of success in the coming years. Those rites would complete the journey of ascent with the re-emergence of animals into the human world (Sharp, 1988). The cosmic journey would finish as the game animals were led back into the world through emergence sites typically associated with underworld portals (springs, seeps, fumaroles, cracks in rocks, lakes, rivers, etc.)…

Coso petroglyphs occur at optimally suited ambush and trap locations that allow for communal big game hunting (cf. Grant et al., 1968; Murphey, 1986; Thomas, 1976). The art is prominent in open-air, amphitheater-like settings. In contrast, rock art in more secluded contexts, hidden from public view, has often been interpreted as vision quest sites (cf. Greer, 1995 sensu “private ceremonial sites” versus “public ceremonial sites”). The private sites are where shamans produced imagery associated with altered states of consciousness. The Coso sites differ from these, being situated along well-used game trails in direct association with watering holes (natural tanks) in the steep walled canyon bottoms. Some glyphs are at gorge entrances next to hunting blinds.

The largest groupings of rock drawings are in Petroglyph, Renegade, and Sheep Canyons (Figure 1). These are natural sheep “traps” (cul-de-sacs and hunting enclosures) where game could be driven past hidden hunters armed with atlatls and darts, spears, or bows and arrows. Glyphs are also found on stony promontories astride saddles between drainages. Smaller concentrations are located near springs…

Rock structures, interpreted as hunting blinds, are regular components of the Coso sheep trap complexes (Brook, 1980:Table 2; Grant et al., 1968). The blinds are just above the streambed so archers could fire weapons as sheep channeled past them (contra Keyser and Whitley, 2006). Some glyphs are directly on boulders forming the blinds. Several blinds have been recorded within Renegade Canyon, Upper Centennial Spring, and south Sugarloaf Mountain. I noted blinds within Sheep Canyon, Junction Ranch, and Parrish Gorge. Many are also on Coso Peak and Silver Peak in the pinyon zone above 5,500 feet in elevation.

Dummy hunters are found along the canyon rims of the largest Coso galleries. These are not isolated features but rather multiple collections of stacked rock sculptures serving as figurative hunters (Figure 9). Such decoys were used by Native hunters in many areas of North America. Similar stone features are known in Nevada, associated with the Pahranagat petroglyphs (Heizer and Hester, 1974), where they are located just above the game trails and water sources (NevadaPlaces.com 2006). Dummy hunters constructed of wood were used by the Cheyenne on the Plains to funnel buffalo into drive lanes (Coleman, 1996). These wooden sentinels were known as “dead men” since they directed the bison along a path to their death.

The hunters of stone are known from several areas in the Coso Range. In Sheep and Upper Renegade Canyons there are large numbers (n = 30+) of these piled rock figures. These rock stacks are sometimes weathered and tumbled from age but many still stand from two to four feet tall. They are always situated on the north-facing, shaded portion of the drainage so that they manifest in silhouette from below.

[John] Muir (1898:321-322) describes the communal hunting of bighorn and the use of such features:

Great numbers of Indians were … required … (and) they were compelled … to build rows of dummy hunters out of stones, along the ridge-tops which they wished to prevent the sheep from crossing. And without discrediting the sagacity of the game, these dummies were found effective; for with a few live Indians moving about excitedly among them, they could hardly be distinguished at a little distance from men, by anyone not in on the secret. The whole ridgetop then seemed alive with archers.

The narrow defiles of the Coso Range were perfect for such communal drives. The many stone sentinels serve as contextual evidence for the intensive hunting exercises focused on communal sheep hunting.

Bighorn hunts were conducted in a variety of ways (Annell, 1969; McGuire and Hatoff, 1991; Stewart, 1941:367). The analog for the Coso pattern are communal hunts, surrounding sheep, driving them into enclosures or nets, guiding the sheep with fire and dogs, and running the sheep past hidden hunters (Stewart, 1942:242). Stewart notes that hunters would also occasionally make loud noises–pounding objects together to imitate the clash of rams in battle…

Rock basins (tinajas) are found throughout the Coso canyons where large concentrations of glyphs occur. These natural tanks, or literally “earthen jars,” are found along the floor of the petroglyph walled canyons in rock crevices that are deep and shaded. The basins often contain sand and trap water, slowing evaporation and holding water for many months. Thundershowers refill the basins and provide watering holes for bighorn that use specific tinajas, generation after generation, tethering the bands to this particular geography during their annual pilgrimages from highlands to valley floor.

  • Colloquia

  • Commentary and News

  • Contact

  • Topics

  • Archives

  • Recent Posts

  • Meta