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Understanding Nevada Rock Art

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What is Rock Art? There are two basic types of rock art. The first being petroglyphs; motifs that are pecked, ground, incised, abraded, or scratched on a rock surface. The second being pictographs (sometimes called rock paintings); motifs in one or more colors using mineral pigments and plant dyes that have been drawn, daubed, spattered or painted onto the surface of rock found in the walls of caves, canyons, on boulders, in bedrock and sometimes on the floors of caves. Although sometimes images may have originally been executed as a combination of both techniques, most now appear only as a petroglyph because the painted material has faded or washed away over hundreds if not thousands of years.

Dating The People & Cultures: Nevada rock art was produced by a number of prehistoric and historic peoples over thousands of years, making the history of the area very complex. Peoples first entered Nevada and the Great Basin some 12,000 to 10,000 years ago as the Ice Age ended and glaciers across North America finally receded (Fig. 01). Although it is difficult to establish an exact age of rock art, some dating clues are easily identified. For example whenever a horse and rider is depicted, we know the date to be after AD 1540 when the Spaniards reintroduced the horse to the New World. The presence of bows and arrows is presumed to indicate a date after AD 500, the generally accepted time period for their appearance in this region. For identification purposes, the time periods below are broken into generalized categories relating to the people believed to have made them.
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(Fig. 01)
The Paleoarchaic Period. During this period, between 10000-7000 BC, the region was wetter than today’s climate, with residual Pleistocene lakes, marshes, and wetlands that slowly dried up as the climate changed to a warmer and drier regime. During this time Nevada was only sparsely settled with early hunter-foragers known as Paleo-Indians. They focused on big-game hunting and harvesting the resources of wetlands; settlement appears concentrated on lakes and wetlands. Many parts of the state appear to have only been used for sporadic foraging expeditions and population densities were probably very low. Most archaeological remains are of hunting and foraging sites, and a variety of hunting tools.
The Early Archaic Period. During this period, between 7000-4000 BC, the environment began changing to more arid conditions. Many lakeside marshes disappeared and desert shrubs expanded into lower elevations. Settlement became more permanent and repeated throughout the region and economic strategies diversified according to regional environmental variables. During the winter, populations concentrated in valley floors or near permanent water sources. Use of the spear for hunting appears to have been replaced in favor of large dart points hurled from atlatls or spear-throwers. Milling equipment (manos and metates) become more common, indicating that seeds, tubers, and other plants were harvested.
The Middle Archaic Period. From 4000-1500 BC, it appears that a wider variety of plants and animals were harvested as natural resources were more intensively exploited as populations increased and seasonal rounds became more territorially established. A wider range of milling tools appears in the archaeological record. Caches of artifacts and other materials indicate that storage at times played an important role in decisions about residential mobility, with preferred places repeatedly revisited. Exchange in marine shell and obsidian becomes evident and mastery of textiles is displayed in surviving baskets and other tools made from cordage.
The Late Archaic Period. From 1500 BC to the period of contact with Euro-Americans in the nineteenth century, significant environmental, settlement, and technological changes are witnessed, with regional semi-horticultural economies emerging in eastern and southern Nevada. The climate changed toward much warmer and drier conditions that characterize today’s modern climate. Bow and arrow technology was introduced from the west, evidenced by smaller projectile points. Economic practices relied on hunting small mammals and harvesting plants and seeds; milling equipment becomes more elaborate and more frequent at Late Archaic camp sites. Pottery begins to be made around 900 years ago.
 
In southern and eastern Nevada, economies with variable reliance on horticulture (maize cultivation) and harvesting wild resources began to develop. The Anasazi, AD 1 to AD 1275, whose culture centered south of Moab in the Four Corners area, eventually spread into the south eastern areas of Nevada mixing with the Freemont, AD 450 to AD 1250, peoples to the east in Utah, marking an Ancestral Puebloan presence. This is evidenced by distinctive pottery, pit-houses, and above ground architecture. These are also characterized by distinctive domestic architecture (pit houses and above ground structures) but harvesting wild resources seems to have played an important role in their economic practices in addition to horticulture. Both the Ancestral Puebloan and Fremont presences in Nevada are associated with distinctive rock art portrayals of the human form. They concentrated much of their subsistence efforts on the cultivation of corn, beans and squash. These sedentary people also harvested a wide variety of wild resources such as pinion nuts, grasses, bighorn sheep and deer. The Fremont, who were contemporary with the Anasazi people, also grew corn and were apparently more dependent on hunting and gathering wild resources than were the Anasazi. Their territory was mainly in the Great Basin north of the Colorado River but overlapped with the Anasazi at Moab. Both cultures had a complex social structure and were highly adaptive to the extremes of the environment. The Anasazi and Fremont are classified by scientists as "Formative" cultures.
 
Around 700 years ago, the Ancestral Puebloan and Fremont economies are replaced by economies focused on hunter-foraging. Some Great Basin archaeologists have suggested that this is when the ancestors of most modern Indian Peoples, the Utes and Paiutes, AD 1200 to AD 1880, settled Nevada. It is equally possible that changes in material culture recorded in the archaeological record reflect endogenous social and economic changes in response to climatic fluctuations, shifting distributions of animal and plant species, and influences from neighboring cultures. They were a very mobile hunting and gathering people who roamed the Great Basin. They used the bow and arrow, made baskets and brownware pottery, and lived in brush wickiups and tipis. These people lived freely until the late 1880’s when they were forced onto reservations.
 
Categories of Rock Art: Found on rock surfaces all over the Southwest desert, southwestern rock art generally depicts people, animals and other shapes and forms. It is basically divided into two categories known as representational and abstract.
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(Fig. 02)
Representational Rock Art: Elements within the representational can include: Anthropomorphic (human-like) figures (Figs. 02 & 03). These figures usually have trapezoidal shaped bodies with arms, legs and splayed fingers and are sometimes elaborately decorated with headdresses, ear bobs, necklaces, clothing items and facial expressions.
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(Fig. 03)
A wide variety of zoomorphic (animal-like) figures include bighorn sheep, deer, dogs, birds, snakes, lizards and other creatures (Fig. 04). Other elements may include hand prints and plant-like images.
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(Fig. 04)
Abstract Rock Art: Abstract designs and geometric shapes include spirals, dots, circles, ladder-like forms, sunbursts, “squiggles”, “wheels”, and mazes just to name a few, are quite common (Figs. 05, 06 & 07). Many times these designs have been used to record religious or mythological events, migrations, hunting trips, resource locations, travel routes, celestial information and other important knowledge. Often they were created by a shaman (an intermediary between this world and the spirit world.) during vision quests. Individual panels, or rock art sites, can be comprised solely of elements from one or the other categories or a mix of both depending upon how many different cultures lived in the area over time.
                                   
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(Fig. 05)
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(Fig. 06)
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(Fig. 07)
Identifying Rock Art Styles and Themes: Nevada’s rock art offers a wide variety of themes and subjects and has been divided into several "styles" based on cultural phase or time period, geographic region, method of execution, subject matter and attributes. Bearing in mind that any one, or sometimes more, of these components may overlap other style boundaries, i.e. hand prints may appear in both Archaic and Anasazi sites, one can visit a rock art site and approach it with a basic understanding of when it was made and who made it. Rock art was created for many purposes by the indigenous people who lived in the area. All that being said, applying a style to one rock art site is not always a simple task. Sites dating from the Archaic hunter-gatherer peoples to modern Native Americans can be found across the state. Rock art may have served to identify cultural differences, record celestial events, or was used as a form of communication. Though certain rock art sites are known to have been used for seasonal time-keeping, many archaeologists are confident that there are rock art sites where the elements reflect a religious or spiritual purpose, or have symbolic meaning. However, when it comes to definitively interpreting prehistoric rock art images archaeologists, historians and even modern Native Americans can only speculate as to what they mean because prehistoric rock art exists outside of living cultural context.
Abstract motifs that are highly ambiguous in meanings and references are the most abundant motif types portrayed. Most of the themes and subjects of prehistoric Nevada rock art are not directly apparent to external observers. Though it is believed that much of this rock art portrays important social and religious themes, or significant scenes from everyday life, without insider commentary it is impossible to really know. This may have been a meaningful, deliberate choice on the part of Nevada’s prehistoric artists; by choosing ambiguity, prehistoric artists would have made information about rock art's meanings the subject of a special knowledge. This highlights that rock art’s symbolism was culturally significant and mostly not intended to simply depict events in daily life.
Identifying regional and chronological differences in rock art styles may eventually allow archaeologists to identify differences in cultural uses and cultural affiliation. The broad cultural context of Nevada is generally a long continuum of hunter-forager groups practicing varying economic and settlement systems, punctuated in eastern and southern Nevada by a period of semi-sedentary horticulture. Stylistically distinctive portrayals of the human form (anthropomorphs) and animals (zoomorphs) appear to accompany these changes in economic and settlement practices in southern and eastern Nevada. Similarly, archaeologists have attempted to find whether rock art can be related to changes in hunter-forager practices.
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(Fig. 08)
Curvilinear and rectilinear motifs are the two most common abstract styles and are widely distributed throughout the Great Basin culture area. Curvilinear Symbols: These are complicated abstract motifs consisting of rounded interconnected geometric shapes, spirals, concentric circles, zigzags, dots, “starbursts, wavy lines, and meandering lines (Figs. 08, 09 & 10). These motifs are believed to be the oldest rock art in the southwest and may date to 8,000 BC. The circle in one form or another is the most common element.
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(Fig. 09)
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(Fig. 10)
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(Fig. 11)

Rectilinear Symbols: These include abstract motifs similar to curvilinear except the elements are more square and rectangular composed of straight lines, angular designs, and perpendicular forms, such as grids, rectangles, squares, triangles, lines, cross-hatching, rakes, zigzags, diamonds, etc. (Figs 11, 12 & 13). It has been determined that these are younger than curvilinear, dating back to ca. 5000 BC
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(Fig. 12)
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(Fig. 13)
Naturalistic Depictions: Less common are schematic and naturalistic depictions (Fig. 14) that sufficiently resemble real-world objects. These designs, representing humans (anthropomorphs), animals (zoomorphs), tools, weapons, and hunting scenes have particular resonance for contemporary observers as the “meaning” of this class of rock art motifs can, at one level, be inferred from simply identifying their subject and themes. Most common are humans portrayed as stick-figures and bighorn sheep depicted with curved horns. These are sometimes combined as hunting scenes where a human bearing a bow and arrow is placed beside a bighorn sheep motif. Interestingly, hunting scenes where atlatls are portrayed (Figs. are virtually unknown in Nevada and very rare in general. Atlatls, when they are portrayed with anthropomorphs, are usually shown being held but not being used. The atlatl is seen in both (Figs. 15 & 16).
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(Fig. 14)
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(Fig. 15)
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(Fig. 16)
Zoomorphs: Bighorn sheep are by far the most common animal species depicted in Nevada rock art (Figs. 17 thru 19). The distribution of bighorn sheep motifs is more pronounced in eastern and southern Nevada and, although present throughout the state, seems less common at sites in the north and the west. Other animals portrayed in rock art include deer, elk, lizards, coyotes, and mountain lions. The prominence of bighorn sheep in rock art perhaps attests to this animal’s symbolic importance in prehistoric cultural thought as it was not a staple of the prehistoric diet. Small mammals (rabbits, marmots, ground squirrels, etc.), were probably more important sources of meat and deer and antelope were also hunted. Plants, which at all times, made up the bulk of prehistoric diets, are very rarely identified in Nevada rock art.
                         
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(Fig. 17)
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(Fig. 18)
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(Fig. 19)
Anthropomorphs: Some stylized depictions of the human form are found that are regionally restricted in distribution and are formally distinct styles of anthropomorphs. In southern and eastern Nevada these are associated with archaeological remains of Fremont and Ancestral Puebloan cultures (ca. 1500-800 BP)-semi-horticultural cultures with variable reliance on harvesting of wild plants and animals. The rock art of these cultures portrayed the human form variously as stick figures (Figs. 20 & 21), hourglass shapes, rectangular shapes, or as triangular bodies lacking legs. Often these forms have bodily adornment (headgear, “horns,” or jewelry), or internal decoration that might represent clothing.
                                     
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(Fig. 20)
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(Fig. 21)
Uncertain in its age and cultural affiliations is the Pahranagat anthropomorph style, which is only found in the Pahranagat Valley area of southeastern Nevada. Traditionally the style is dated to the late Middle and early Late Archaic based on associated archaeological remains and the fact that some figures wield atlatls. This style comprises two distinct types of anthropomorphs. One is a rectangular form internally decorated with grids, dots, or geometric motifs, “fringed” by short vertical lines (Fig 22). It often lacks a head but has stick-figure legs and short arms (Fig. 21) sometimes bearing an atlatl-like object (Fig. 22). The second type has a solid-pecked ovoid or rectangular body, large eyes (indicated by using negative space), and a line protruding from its head; their arms are portrayed down-turned and with long fingers (Figs. 23 & 24). Click the following link for more detailed information on Pahranagat Valley Rock Art ... Black Canyon Petroglyphs.
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(Fig. 22)
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(Fig. 23)
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(Fig. 24)

Summary: The life of desert archaic peoples who created Nevada’s rock art was extremely hard and difficult. Eight and a half thousand years ago in the southwestern United States and northern Mexico, the time had come for change. A 2000-year period of cool, wet weather was giving way to a time of heat and drought. Playa lakes, once filled by rainfall, had begun to evaporate. Lower elevation forests, previously nurtured by the rainfall, had begun a retreat into the mountains. Basin grasslands had begun to wither. Many large game animals had begun a migration to more favorable areas. The onset of a prolonged drought meant that the Paleo-Indians of the region had to redefine themselves, following a more diversified life based on desert hunting and gathering at the expense of ancient traditions rooted in wood and grasslands big game hunting. While a new life arrived gradually, it would take deep root, evolving into the culture which many archaeologists now call the Desert Archaic period. Over some six and a half millennia, the Desert Archaic peoples would have to adapt successively to the onset of a hot dry desert climate, the "Great Drought," which would last from about 8400 to 5000 years ago; the return of a cooler and moister climate, the "Sub-Boreal Period," which would last from 5000 to 2800 years ago; and, finally, the return of a desert climate, the "Sub-Atlantic Period," which would last – with some interruptions – from 2800 years ago into modern times. Ultimately, their adaptations, seasoned by influences from peoples far to the south, would become the foundation of the Pueblo cultures.
The beginnings of the Desert Archaic culture is cloudy to say the least. Some archaeologists suspect that the Desert Archaic culture of the southwestern U. S. could have originated in the deserts of southern California, southern Nevada and western Arizona, a region which has yielded some of the earliest evidence. If so, the Desert Archaic peoples would have spread new ideas and innovation eastward slowly, piecemeal and irregularly, gradually introducing change across Arizona, New Mexico, western Texas, southern Utah, southern Colorado, northern Sonora and northern Chihuahua. Over time, they left a ragged cultural mosaic, one now marked by large gaps in the archaeological record and by poorly understood regional similarities – and differences – in community relationships, band structures, technology, subsistence, outside influences and spiritual beliefs.
They had made the long leap from big game hunter to village dweller, but they left an archaeological record cloaked in riddles. During their 6000 to 7000 year odyssey from nomadic big game hunter to sedentary villager, the peoples of the Desert Archaic period manufactured and used assemblages of artifacts which were similar in function but often different in detail and relative abundance. For poorly understood reasons, bands in the desert lands of Nevada never adopted agriculture at all. Probably all the bands used grinding stones for milling, but the forms may have been different depending on traditions of the band, types of available rock materials, and the size and hardness of the wild or domesticated seeds. All used stone-point-tipped spears and the atlatl in big game hunts, but they often used different flint knapping techniques and manufactured different shaped points. Some bands wove plant fibers into baskets, matting, nets, cordage and sandals, but they frequently used different weaving techniques and produced different styles. The relative abundance of artifact types differed depending on the band’s emphasis on gathering, hunting and agriculture. Based on what they know so far, archaeologists can paint the Desert Archaic culture only with a broad brush. As evidenced by the varying examples in the pictures above, which come from more than a dozen sites in south east Nevada, each site is unique. The patterns and motifs may be similar but are never quite the same. Styles vary from place to place, and from people to people.many diverse cultures inhabited this area over a period of more than 10,000 years each leaving a “piece” of their life and culture for others to see.