Ancient Travelers or Local Artists? Who Made the Enigmatic Hemet Maze Stone?
Near the town of Hemet in the Reinhardt canyon of southern California there is a curious petroglyph known as the Hemet maze stone. It is a figure made of interconnected rectilinear shapes that form a cyclic pattern of mazes inside a square or rectangle. The overall shape vaguely resembles a swastika, a symbol used in Native American and Asian art for millennia before it became associated with the Third Reich.
Archaeologists do not know exactly who made the drawing or how old it is. Various identities have been suggested for the petroglyph’s creator. Suggestions range from an unknown indigenous Californian culture to Chinese Buddhist monks. This article will examine two of the popular theories and evaluate them in light of what archaeologists, historians, and other scholars know for certain about the artist behind the maze.
The Hemet Maze Stone. (Wayne Hsieh/CC BY NC 2.0)
A Chinese Connection
The first theory, which is also the most controversial and outside the mainstream, is that the petroglyph was made by Chinese Buddhist monks or shipwrecked sailors. Proponents of this view argue that parts of the maze look like interconnected swastikas forming into a giant swastika-like symbol. The swastika is a common symbol in Buddhist art and symbolizes eternity in that context.
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The similarity in the shape of the figure to a swastika was recognized quite early and even led to vandalism in the 1930s when someone etched a Nazi swastika onto the petroglyph. This theory is influenced by suggestions that the Chinese reached the Americas before Columbus arrived to the island of Hispaniola.
A wooden Buddha in meditation position on lotus flower. (Wonderlane/CC BY 2.0) Note the ‘Buddhist swastika’ on its chest.
If any culture could have reached and established settlements in the Americas before the Europeans, it would have been the Chinese. In the early 15th century, the Chinese admiral Zheng He made expeditions to Malaysia, Sumatra, India, and East Africa. This has led some enthusiasts to wonder if the Chinese could have reached the Americas. Gavin Mensies, a former naval officer, has even written a book titled 1421: the year China discovered America suggesting that Admiral Zheng He made a voyage in which he reached America before the Emperor shut down his program of exploration and destroyed all records of the voyage.
General Zheng He statue in Sam Po Kong temple, Semarang, Indonesia. (CC BY SA 2.0)
There are a few problems with this theory, however. First, many historians reject Mensies’ theory since it lacks hard evidence and he does not cite original sources. Another problem is that there is no evidence of an ancient Chinese presence in California at that time. There are no iron tools used in Imperial China, no Chinese settlements, no remains of monasteries, nothing that would suggest settlement by the Chinese or Buddhist monks. Furthermore, although Chinese Buddhist art does contain swastikas, the Buddhist swastika bears little resemblance to the swastika-like symbol on the Hemet Maze Stone.
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Indigenous Californian Artists
The second major theory, one which fits in with a conventional understanding of the history of southern California, is that the petroglyphs were made by indigenous Californians. The main support for this view is the similarity between the maze petroglyph and other examples of rock art in southern California. The petroglyph of the Hemet Maze Stone is like rock art found in the Riverside and San Diego counties known as the Rancho Bernardo style. This style is noted for numerous rectilinear shapes made of parallel lines that come together at right angles.
A maze stone from southern California. This stone is on display at the Ramona Museum. (Chris Jepsen/CC BY NC ND 2.0)
The Rancho Bernardo style also lacks figures such as plants and animals and contains only abstract geometric shapes. The art is composed mostly of lines and boxes, quite like the Hemet Maze Stone. This form of rock art is found in places in the Riverside and San Diego counties including the Salton Sea, Palm Canyon, Travertine Point, Sunshine Summit, and Rancho Bernardo (from which it gets its name.)
One problem with this theory is that archaeologists still haven’t been able to connect the art style to a specific indigenous culture. However, one culture that archaeologists have suggested as the source of the Rancho Bernardo style are the Kumeyaay people. Many of the examples of Rancho Bernardo rock art occur within the traditional territory of the Kumeyaay, however it is also found in territories of the Luiseno, Juaneno, Cupeno, and Cahuilla cultures to the north and east.
A maze-like petroglyph found at Travertine Point. (San Diego Museum of Man)
Ken Hedges, a founding member of the American Rock Art Association and a rock art expert, says that the art style could have started in Kumeyaay territory and then spread to the north and east from there. But he also proposes it could have been introduced from the desert and spread westward and southward instead.
Looking for More Evidence
Both theories have uncertainties. The theory that the Hemet Maze Stone was made by the Chinese however has more challenges that need to be addressed for the theory to be accepted. To date, no indisputable archaeological or historical evidence has been found that the ancient Chinese were in the Americas before the Europeans.
A votive sword found in Georgia, USA. Some researchers say this sword shows evidence of Pre-Columbian Chinese contact in North America. Photo courtesy of the Indigenous Peoples Research Foundation
The Hemet Maze Stone is also created in a rock art style ubiquitous across southern California. If the Chinese made the Hemet Maze Stone and other examples of similar rock art in the area, a relatively large scale settlement consisting of multiple outposts would be required since this rock art is far inland and implies a sustained presence. This would suggest that archaeologists could find Chinese style outposts as well as Chinese material culture dating to the Pre-Columbian period. Yet, no Chinese outposts, monasteries, or material culture dating to before 1500 have been found in California so far.
All that has been found in association with rock art like the Hemet Maze Stone is indigenous Californian material culture. Arrowheads, pestles, mortars, and other stone age tools used by the Native American inhabitants have been found throughout southern California and at sites near similar rock art. The current state of the evidence suggests that it is more likely the petroglyph was made by indigenous Californians or other Native Americans. But it is entirely possible that future evidence will reveal that the history of Eurasian exploration in the Americas is more complex than generally believed.
Example of an arrowhead found in Big Valley, California. (Darron Birgenheier/CC BY SA 2.0)
Top Image: Detail of the maze on the Hemet Maze Stone. Source: Public Domain
By Caleb Strom
Hedges, Ken. "Rock Art Styles in Southern California." American Indian Rock Art 28 (2002): 67-90.
Furnish, “Is Gavin Mensies right or wrong?” Atlanta Journal Constitution (newspaper article)
Finlay, Robert. "How not to (re) write world history: Gavin Menzies and the Chinese discovery of America." Journal of World History 15.2 (2004): 229-242.
Menzies, Gavin. "1421: The Year the Chinese Discovered America." (2004).