Atlatl Rock Site Rock Art

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This page last updated on 02/17/2017

Introduction: As I began to discover more and more rock art sites during my hikes over these past several years, I have become witness to far too many examples of where persons had seemed fit to deface them with graffiti and other examples of damage. Eventually I realized that the sharing of my hiking adventures could have the potential to increase public exposure, and thereby increasing the possibility for even more damage. As a result, I decided to preface each of my rock art pages with the following information to help educate visitors about the importance of these fragile cultural resources. Before scrolling down, I implore you to READ the following ... as well as the linked page providing guidelines for preserving rock art.

Here are a few simple guidelines you can follow that will help to preserve these unique and fragile cultural resources that are part of our heritage. Guidelines for Preserving Rock Art. If you would like to learn more about the Nevada Site Stewardship Program, go to my page ... Nevada Site Stewardship Program (NSSP).

(Fig. 01)
Atlatl Rock: Atlatl Rock has some of the most outstanding examples of petroglyphs in the park. There are two sets of petroglyphs located here are out in the open; one grouping about 40 to 60 feet above the ground, requiring you to climb up a stairway which is about 40 feet high Fig. 01); the second grouping in on the rock cliff just above ground level to the left of the steel stairway (Fig. 02). The grouping of images at the top of the stairway appear to tell some kind of story, providing room for many interpretations.  If you look at the specific elements, you can see feet, sheep, atlatl's, a cross, a ladder, zig-zag lines, concentric circles and other images.
(Fig. 02)
Petroglyph History at Valley of Fire(1): During the period from approximately AD 1 to about 1200, the Valley of Fire region was occupied by pit house dwellers and eventually by farmers living in small permanent villages. They were similar in many ways to the prehistoric Anasazi or Puebloan peoples of Arizona and New Mexico, rather than to the archaic Hunter-gatherer cultures typical of the larger Great Basin. This period corresponds to a more favorable, wetter climatic regime that essentially allowed rainfall agriculture to spread northward beyond the Colorado Plateau onto the fringes of the Great Basin. Whether the farmers who occupied this region during this period were Great Basin peoples who adopted agriculture and a Pueblo lifestyle, or alternatively whether the ancestral Basin hunter-gatherers temporarily were pushed aside by Puebloan groups moving north, is not known. Many archaeologists favor the hypothesis that the Valley of Fire was occupied by Puebloan peoples who pushed northward.
It is clear, however, that after about AD 1200-1300, a time of great drought, the Numic ancestors of the Southern Paiute occupied this portion of southern Nevada. More to the point is the fact that Altatl Rock contains petroghyphs that are fully characteristic of the prehistoric and ethnographic cultures of the Great Basin, but it also contains some motifs that are more typical of Puebloan rock art sites and presumably date to the period when farming was practiced here. E-P1080310
These include birds drawn in profile, plants, outlined stars, and phallic stick-figure human motifs with bent arms and legs. Although we do not know whether the Puebloan style rock art was also made by shamans to depict vision quests, like the Numic petroghyphs, it is clear that Altatl Rock was a place where cultures intermixed, and a place that all groups signaled as sacred. E-P1080308
Regardless of a specific culture responsible for any given petroglyph, the Altatl Rock petroghyphs exhibit a strong Numic influence. Indeed, the similarity in subject matter between Altatl Rock and other Numic sites is so strong it precludes the possibility of coincidence, suggesting that we may use Numic ethnography to speculate about the meaning of these petroghyphs more generally. E-P1080309
Like many other rock art sites, including those of the Numic speakers, the Altatl Rock petroghyphs are dominated by the entoptic patterns common during the initial stage of a vision. A smaller number of other petroglyphs, including bighorn sheep, human figures, footprints, and a horned lizard (the "horned toad"), are also present. E-IMG_3279
Particularly notable at the site and the reason for its name is a realistically engraved throwing board or atlatl. Indeed, this is one of the best prehistoric renderings of an atlatl in North America; more typically, atlatl petroghyphs appear to have been schematized as a small circle bisected by a long line. As has been noted previously, atlatls were used as hunting implements to launch small dart-like spears prior to the appearance of the bow and arrow, which occurred at approximately AD 500. E-IMG_3280
Although the complete replacement of the atlatl by the bow and arrow may have taken a few centuries to effect, as a general rule of thumb we can consider atlas motifs to be greater than 1,500 years in age. We can infer, then, that at least some of the petroglyphs at Atlatl Rock are 1,500 years old or more, although it is also likely that some of the engravings at this site were made both earlier and more recently. E-IMG_3548
The presence of what seem to be relatively large numbers of atlatls and, subsequently, bows and arrows in rock art, along with depiction's of "game," "hunters shooting game," and so on, led many early researchers to hypothesize that the art largely concerned hunting, in general, and perhaps "hunting magic" specifically. We now know that this hypothesis was incorrect: E-IMG_3281
Such hunting-theme art is actually relatively rare overall, thus indicating that the hunting magic hypothesis would only explain a small portion of the art any way. The ethnographic record provides us with an alternative understanding of the origin and meaning of the art. In Nevada, for example, hunting-theme art constitutes less than 10 percent o the known petroglyphs. We obtain an inflated perspective of the importance of hunting-theme motifs because our attention is draw to such identifiable designs much more than to the considerable, more common, more elusive, entoptic patterns Hunting weapons like the atlatl, and hunting metaphors like killing a bighorn sheep, were commonly employed in shamanistic rituals and beliefs because, in the Far West, shamanism was largely an adult male activity and the creators of this art were hunters. EFP-P1030684EFP-P1030683
In the historical period, shamans were said to sometimes " receive" through visions bows and arrows as ceremonial objects, and would use them as ritual paraphernalia during curing ceremonies. Similarly, they would occasionally receive the supernatural power in their trances to cure arrow wounds or, subsequently, gunshot wounds as signaled by visions of weaponry and warfare. At this point in time, our best hypothesis is that the earlier creators of the atlatl motifs maintained similar beliefs; thus, it is likely that this motif represents the work of an Atlatl Shaman, an individual who specialized in the treatment of spear wounds.
(1) This information was taken from “A Guide to Rock Art Sites of Southern California and Southern Nevada” by David S. Whitely.

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Reference Materials:

Manuscript written by Kenneth C. Clarke