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Unraveling the secrets of White Shaman Cave

Unraveling the secrets of White Shaman Cave


On the border between southwestern Texas in the USA and northwestern Coahuila in Mexico, is the archaeological region known as Lower Pecos River. It contains more than 2,000 archaeological sites dating back up to 10,000 years. Of these, more than 300 sites are rich with ancient pictographs. Among them, the most famous is the White Shaman Cave.

The researchers studying the area have named three different types of prehistoric rock paintings in and around this region: Pecos River, Red Monochrome, and Red linear. The most well-known of the sites is the White Shaman Rock, which has a stunning pictograph dating back 4,000 years. It was created in the Pecos River style, and is considered to be among the most impressive rock paintings in the world. It has been compared to the European Paleolithic art from Chauvet or Lascaux.

Searching for the paintings of forgotten tribes

Researchers began exploration in the caves of the Lower Pecos and the surrounding area in the early 1930s. The first archaeologist to lead the works was Frank Setzler of the Smithsonian Institute of Washington, who explored a site known as the Knight Cave. James E. Pearce and A.T. Jackson of the University of Texas explored the Fate Bell Shelter in Seminole Canyon, and in the same year another group started to explore the Eagle Cave.

In time, all the research teams became aware that they were exploring a unique place. The paintings, which are older than they initially expected, are realistic presentations of human figures and animals, including canines, felines, birds, deer, rabbits, snakes, and others. For the researchers, it was like finding the Rosetta Stone to the world of the tribes of hunters who lived in this area thousands of years ago. Analysis of the paintings has allowed the researchers to decode the complicated system of symbolism used by the artists, who used the pictures to share messages.

White Shaman shelter.

White Shaman shelter. (Mary S. Black)

The earliest archaeologists who arrived at the caves made their main goal to collect as much information as possible for future studies or possible display. They discovered many baskets, nets, sandals, and other items, which had belonged to the ancient inhabitants. Unfortunately, many of the teams destroyed the archaeological sites by digging too fast, and searching for artifacts to fill the exhibitions. In the 1950s, many of the sites were looted. A.T. Jackson of the University of Texas had tried to protect the paintings from the time he first recognized their importance in 1932. His innovative book about rock paintings was published in 1938.

After decades of explorations, researchers have cataloged thousands of paintings, and created many theories about them. Unfortunately, for many decades the pictographs did not receive as much attention as they deserved. In 1998, the archaeologist and artist, Dr. Carolyn Boyd, recognized the value of the pictographs and created an organization called Shumla, which is now an archaeological research center, for the preservation and education connected with the treasure of the Lower Pecos River.

The White Shaman's secret

The White Shaman Cave is a very small rockshelter, located in a hot and humid area of a tiny and brushy canyon. The rock shelter called White Shaman has an anthropomorphic figure depicting a ''shaman''. It is carved into a limestone bluff located near the confluence of the Rio Grande and the Pecos River. This is one of the most photographed pictograph sites and it has become a symbol of the expeditions. On the walls of the White Shaman Cave is a painting depicting the flight of the shaman to the land of the spirits. It is also his metaphorical death and rebirth, shown as a message from the past about humanity’s mission and a solution to the mystery of life according to the tribe, which lived there 4,000 years ago. The painting, and the message which is easy to read, surprise many who see it with its sophistication.

Map of the Pecos River watershed.

Map of the Pecos River watershed. (Public Domain)

The site currently belongs to the Rock Art Foundation, but Carolyn Boyd made an interesting research about the painting. Previously, archaeologists believed that the pictures in the White Shaman Cave were not related to each other, but when she started to sketch them and study them once more, Boyd discovered that they depict much more than a few presentations of forgotten rituals. According to Boyd, the paintings present a complicated ceremony or a belief system, and they are all connected with each other. Studying the similar painting, she decided that the pictures show the shaman’s journey into the underworld.

According to Boyd, the paintings are connected with early shamanism and a common religion practiced among the tribes in the Lower Pecos. After studying hundreds of books on rock art and visiting many sites, she believes that the researchers may only suspect the real meaning of the painting, but as long as there is no more information, it will be impossible to confirm anything more.

A lifelong love of the pictographs

The team of researchers which explore the secrets of the paintings and the people who created them centuries ago, are aware that their lives will be too short to do even a small percentage of the work which may allow one to understand the stories on the rocks. Nonetheless, the team is growing and each year more people want to visit the sites in the USA and Mexico.

White Shaman, Val Verde County, TX. Photograph Peter Faris

White Shaman, Val Verde County, TX. Photograph Peter Faris (rockartblog.blogspot)

The works by the team of researchers from Shumla uncovers more and more new artifacts to analyze, and it is hoped that these may provide some answers to the questions regarding the true meaning of the pictographs.

Top image: White Shaman Mural. Source: (Mary S. Black)

By Natalia Klimczak



Natalia Klimczak is an historian, journalist and writer and is currently a Ph.D. Candidate at the Faculty of Languages, University of Gdansk. Natalia does research in Narratology, Historiography, History of Galicia (Spain) and Ancient History of Egypt, Rome and Celts. She... Read More

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