Remarkable Rock Art at California’s Big and Little Petroglyph Canyons
Within the Mojave Desert, in southeastern California, those interested in ancient rock art are in for a treat. Hidden on a military base is an area with thousands of documented Native American petroglyphs within the Coso Mountains. Formerly known as the Big and Little Petroglyph Canyons, according to Tehachapi News these mountains contain “the largest concentration of unaltered prehistoric petroglyphs in all of North America.”
The landscape surrounding the Big and Little Petroglyph Canyon, or Renegade Canyon, in California. (Terry Feuerborn / CC BY-NC 2.0)
The Big and Little Petroglyph Canyons
The Big and Little Petroglyph Canyons, often referred to as Upper and Lower Renegade Canyons, are actually two sites which were declared National Historic Landmarks in 1964 due to the fact that they contain many of the petroglyphs in the wider area. In 2001, these sites were then combined, expanded, renamed and incorporated into the Coso Rock Art District, which is said to contain over 100,000 petroglyphs and covers 90 square miles (233 km2).
The only one open to the public, and exclusively as part of a tour with a prior reservation, is the Little Petroglyph Canyon, better known as Renegade Canyon. To access the area, visitors drive deep into the high desert, passing a landscape dotted with Joshua trees, up to 5,000 feet (1,524 m) where they suddenly face thousands of ancient rock carvings. Known as petroglyphs, this carved rock art differs from pictograms which are painted onto rocks using pigments.
The Renegade Canyon is just one of several canyons in the Coso Mountains that is home to artistic evidence of the Native Americans of prehistory. These basalt canyons are all that is left of a time when the area was filled with meltwater created as the glaciers of the last ice age melted. This water formed what were once streams and valleys, leaving behind the stunning canyons we can see today.
As you look across the dry landscape, it seems impossible that this was once a thriving and lush ecosystem which was able to support a range of big game, home to savanna, woodland and lakes. Over time, the lakes dried up and the animals moved away. These days this high desert is one of the driest places in the United States, with only about 4.5 inches (11.43 cm) of rain falling every year, and no permanent sources of water.
The story of this climate change is visible in the rock art etched into the basalt cliffs throughout these high desert canyons. The petroglyphs depict basketry and spear throwers, elements which formed part of a hunting and gathering lifestyle enjoyed by the early humans who lived in the evolving desert environment. As the presence of large animals declined, a hunting cult emerged, evidenced by their art.
Desert bighorn sheep represent about half the rock carvings within the Coso Rock Art District. (Thomas Barrat / Adobe Stock)
The Rock Art at Big and Little Petroglyph Canyons
Visiting the canyon gives the sense of travelling back in time and surrounding yourself with messages from the distant past. The remarkable concentration of the images carved into the canyon walls is breathtaking, with the rock art carved into the basalt at the top of the canyon. There are representations of animals of all kinds, from coyotes, to centipedes, rattlesnakes and mountain lions.
Etched into the cliffs of the Big and Little Petroglyph Canyons, visitors can decipher the symbol of a snake, an animal which was used to represent fertility and water within Native American cultures. Humans are also represented, along with their weapons. There are also forms, symbols and abstract patterns. In fact, some anthropologists claim that the variety of rock art styles which are present on the canyon walls of the Coso Rock Art District are part of a continuous tradition that goes back all the way to the last Ice Age.
According to the National Park Service, “about half the carvings depict bighorn sheep.” This was an animal which was especially important to prehistoric Native American peoples. But when bows and arrows began to be used here for hunting, from about 1,500 years ago (in around 500 or 600 AD), combined with climate change, their population would have been substantially diminished. Images of the sheep include horns, heads, hooves, hunters killing sheep with spears or bows and arrows, and more.
“The majority of hunting weapon imagery in the canyons shows stylized versions of the atlatl, a weighted throwing stick used to propel a shafted dart,” explained Barbara Bane, the Archaeology Curator at Maturango Museum in personal communication. Used for thousands of years before the bow and arrow, “the increased leverage of the atlatl maximized hand thrown weapon speed by about 40%,” she highlighted.
Left: Petroglyph at Big Petroglyph Canyon depicting the hunting of bighorn sheep using an atlatl, a weighted throwing stick used to propel a shafted dart and used for hunting. Right: Demonstration of throwing an atlatl. Note that the hook end is where the dart shaft rests. (Maturango Museum)
Understanding the Petroglyphs of Renegade Canyon
The National Park Service explains that understanding the petroglyphs of the Coso Rock Art District is particularly complex as they “cry out in a language no one remembers.” In the 1960s archaeologists developed a chronology in the hope of deciphering their messages. Since then there have been lots of different theories as to why ancient humans would have carved so much art into the surfaces of rock here, although we probably will never know the answer.
The first systematic survey of Coso petroglyphs was conducted in the 1960s by Campbell Grant, James W. Baird and J. Kenneth Pringle. These anthropologists believed that the rock art was created around 3,000 years ago by ancestors of the Numic Shoshoneans as a kind of “hunting magic,” the idea being that drawing the animal would bring about a successful hunt.
This hypothesis was later contradicted by other academics who posited that the rock art was created far earlier. More recent dating technology has concluded that in fact the rock art could have been created as far back as 10,000 to 19,000 years ago, making the original artists either Paleo-Indians or Proto-Shoshoneans. Barbara Bane, from Maturango Museum, explained that “while some may be as old as 12,000 years before present, current archeological scholarship holds that the majority of glyphs were probably created between 3,000 and 1,000 years ago, tapering off dramatically about 700 years ago.”
The idea of sheep depictions being a form of “hunting magic” has also been contradicted. According to DesertUSA, Dr. David Whitley has proposed that “the Coso petroglyphs were made by shamans; the sites themselves were shamans' vision quest locales; and the petroglyph motifs depicted the hallucinatory images seen by shamans when in the supernatural realm.”
To Whitley, who has written several books about the motivations for rock art, these Native American shamans believed that the killing of a sheep would bring the rain, and that “the image on stone must have been the embodiment of magic itself.”
Ancient rock carvings cover the canyon walls at the petroglyph canyon. (Jaynes Gallery / Danita Delimont)
Who Were the Artists of the Coso Rock Art District?
Tehachapi News explains that “ancient peoples used hammer stones to chip away the dark patina or “desert varnish” on the surface of the volcanic basalt rocks, creating patterns and designs on the dark rock by exposing the lighter surfaces beneath.” But who were these so-called “ancient peoples”?
The rock art at Coso Rock Art District is associated with the Coso people, indigenous Native American people of the Coso Mountains. While we are still unsure as to when humans first inhabited the area, the Coso Paiute Indians believe that they were born out of the muddy Coso Hot Springs, while archaeologists argue that the first inhabitants crossed the Bering Straight at the end of the last Ice Age. The relationship between the rock artists and today’s Native Americans is also up for debate, although the area is now sacred to the Paiute-Shoshone and they are the only citizens allowed to visit the rock art all year round.
Euro-Americans moved into the area in search of gold in the 1800s, which led the U.S. army to remove about 900 Native Americans from the area by force in 1863. The land was then taken over by the United States Navy in the 1940s, as part of a 1.1 million acres (20,000 miles squared) site.
The Big and Little Petroglyph Canyons, and their ancient petroglyphs, are actually located one hour within the active military base, the Naval Air Weapons Station (NAWS) China Lake, near both China Lake and Ridgecrest in California. This means that visitors need clearance in order to visit the petroglyph canyons, which is probably why the rock art has managed to avoid the vandalism that plagues other rock art sites. While the Renegade Canyon has avoided being swamped with tourists, it was included by the Los Angeles Times as one of the top 15 sites to visit in California.
Tour of visitors to Little Petroglyph Canyon in California. (Craig Baker / CC BY-SA 4.0)
Visiting Renegade Canyon (or Little Petroglyph Canyon)
Visitors can visit Renegade Canyon (Little Petroglyph Canyon) with a guided tour in spring and autumn, and only with a previous reservation for a tour organized by Maturango Museum in Ridgecrest, located about an hour and 45 miles (72 km) away. To take part in their tours you must be a US citizen, over 10 years old, pay a fee (currently $60) and fill out an application. Tours start at the museum at 6.30am, for an introductory presentation and in order to review documentation and the petroglyph tour rules, due to the sites location within a military base.
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Dubbed a “moderately strenuous hike,” there are no facilities available at the canyon. While it’s not a long walk, Renegade Canyon being approximately 1.5 miles long (2.4 km), there is no footpath, but visitors need to make their way around the boulders and granite base of the canyon which change with every rain. The rock art is protected and remains sacred to the Native Americans who once inhabited the area and remain in the region today. Visitors need to behave with respect and care, as well as wearing appropriate clothing and hiking boots. They should bring water and their own lunch.
Note, in a private communication, Maturango Museum explained that due to a 7.1 earthquake in 2019 which damaged the military base, the tours have come to a stop until rebuilding is complete and COVID is under control.
Top image: Petroglyphs visible at Little Petroglyph Canyon, or Renegade Canyon, in California. Source: Terry Feuerborn / CC BY-NC 2.0
By Cecilia Bogaard