Humans have been leaving images about ever since discovering that it was possible to add graphics to bone, metals, ceramics, and rocks. Some of this art is quite old; hundreds, thousands, or even tens of thousands of years. There are, for example, rock art sites in France and Spain which are 25,000 years old. The image to the right is of an ibex made 25,000 years ago. (Compare this image with Picasso's work from his Minimalist Period.)
In the Americas, Mimbres artists were painting elaborate figures and patterns on ceramics nearly a thousand years ago. As the cultures that produced these images became extinct, the meaning of these images became lost for centuries or millenia. Sometimes the meaning still eludes us.
Purpose Behind Primitive Art
It is important to remember that the intent behind what we now call "art" was, in all likelihood, not
to create art at all. For example, the sculpture to the right is based on a beer seal from Bahrain, circa 2,000 B.C., depicting two men, notably with pointed beards, drinking beer through a straw.
This seal can be considered to be "art" much in the same sense that a modern tax stamps, such as for liquor or tobacco products, or postal stamps and currency are "art", since all are designed to be aesthetically appealing as well as to serve an official purpose. The "artwork" contained in this Website was created for a variety of purposes, including:
- To record an important event
- As part of a religious ritual
- As a tribal, clan, or individual sign
- Commercial purposes
- As instructions or a warning
- As art
- Some other purpose unknown to us
In many cases, even the creator's descendants are at a loss to explain the purpose or meaning behind a piece of what we call "art".
Difficulty in Deciphering Meaning
Mimbres funeral pottery
, for example, had a clear and distinct purpose -- since it is only found in burial pits and was never used for any other purpose -- but nobody, including the Mimbres descendants, knows its exact purpose or what the symbols mean.
, for example, offer multiple -- and often conflicting -- interpretations for what the symbols really means. A lack of information means that the purpose of these symbols must often be deduced from its physical and cultural context.
Ethnographic evidence suggests that, in some cases, images were copied or produced by children. Others were made for amusement, and may be copies of images seen elsewhere. Some were used as signatures even as recently as a hundred years ago. The rain cloud image to the right, for example, was a common Hopi signature. The meanings assigned to these images must, however, be carefully considered.
have stories about anthropologists attempting to decipher drawings on stone that Hopi men remember making as children to dispel the boredom of watching sheep. (Such images were, of course, not drawn with the same accuracy or amount of effort as the more significant pieces.) In general, however, the enduring rock art was not made for amusement since it takes a great deal of effort to make.
While these images may not have been intended for the purpose we call "art", this Website refers to them in that fashion. Art is, after all, in the eye of the beholder.
Primitive art comes in three forms:
- Naturalistic art depicts real things -- such as animals, insects, humans -- as they actually are, or reasonably close to reality. The image, however, may be quite crude. For example, a human drawn as a stick figure, the sun drawn as a curve with rays, or even something as simple as a handprint.
- Stylized art depicts unreal things, but with some grounding in reality. For example, mythical creatures, X-Ray views of animals, faces decorated like masks, or objects distorted in some way.
- Abstract art depicts objects with no grounding in reality. For example, geometric patterns, spirals, curves, etc.
Images of humans are called anthropomorphs  -- anthropo from the Greek anthropos, meaning "human being", and morph from the Greek morphe, meaning "shape".
Images of animals are called zoomorphs  -- zoo from the Greek soion, meaning "living being", and morph from the Greek morphe, meaning "shape".
Some primitive art can be deciphered directly. There are several reasons for this. The art often matches a known historical event, such as a battle, encounter with Europeans, or a celestial event such as a constellation or supernova. Other times, a group's oral traditions provide an explanation, although this can become corrupted over time.
LaVan Martineau is a United States Army trained cryptographer who was raised by members of the Paiute tribe. He applied standard cryptographic techniques to rock art and argues that -- in addition to the obvious hunting rituals, religious symbolism and doodles -- much rock art consists of travel directions, instructions, warnings, tribal or clan signs, and individual signatures.
Many rock art scholars disagree with him, arguing that Martineau has over-generalized, and that his conclusions are simply not supported by the facts and are nothing more than wishful thinking, and that, despite being raised by a Native American tribe, he lacks any formal training in Native American cultures.
Even if you do not agree with all of his points, his book is still a fascinating read. Most of this section is based upon his work and, given the scholarly debate, the conclusions about the purpose of rock art may or may not be correct. But it certainly is an intriguing interpretation nonetheless.
Rock Art Must Be Decipherable
Martineau wrote that if rock symbols were anything other than decoration or magical symbols they would, of necessity, have some easily decipherable meaning:
"If Indian rock writings were meant to convey any information at all which might have been read and understood by other Indians of the same time and area, the symbols would have had to contain a distinguishable consistency. The science of cryptanalysis, after being applied to these writings, has ferreted out these consistencies, thus establishing it as a system of communication!
Most writing systems were not intended to baffle the reader. This of course is not true of codes and ciphers purposely designed to disguise consistency in order to elude or delay deciphering."
Common Meaning for Rock Symbols
Martineau argues that given the prevalence and similarity of many rock symbols and their distribution throughout the country that is likely that these symbols had similar meanings. Some researchers believe that there was once a common sign language in use across North America. This language, like other languages, evolved over time into various dialects, but was still understandable by other tribes.
Rock Art Meaning Must Transcend Tribal Language
It makes sense that trading and other activities would use some simple sign language, since the spoken languages were so different. Over time, some cultures stylized particular symbols while others made them more ornate or sometimes even reduced them to their essence. But the basic symbols might have been understandable by all Native Americans. The Reverend John Heckewelder, a missionary who spent time among the Lenni Lenape
over two hundred years ago, wrote:
"... yet they [the Lenni Lenape] have certain hieroglyphics, by which they describe facts in so plain a manner, that those who are conversant with those marks can understand them with the greatest ease, as easily, indeed, as we can understand a piece of writing. ... all Indian nations can do this, although they have not all the same marks; yet I have seen the Delawares [Lenni Lenape] read with ease the drawings of the Chippeways, Mingoes, Shawanos, and Wyandots, on similar subjects."
There is no, and really can be no, particular order to these symbols, in terms of a left-to-right or right-to-left reading, if they were to be understood by all, since different tribes used different language orderings. In order for there to be a commonly understandable writing, ordering had to be relatively unimportant.
Some locators specify where to find waterholes, caches, and other important things. Others specify where to find locators, in order to keep the searcher on the right path.
The chart below shows some simple locators and their meanings (redrawn from Martineau):
you missed something in this direction
(Two stylized eyes)
footsteps for a short distance in the specified direction
(Two stylized footprints)
go in this direction or this way
writing or talk
(Two stylized heads conversing)
More complex symbols represent more complex, and usually site specific, instructions, such as: "go around this rock", "there is a something easily missed on the side near the cove", or "cross over, turn around here, and you will find something".
These are often a combination of the simpler symbols above, along with some site specific symbols. The chart below shows some complex symbols and their meanings according to Martineau. (redrawn from Martineau):
Directs reader to the opposite side of the boulder.
Composite symbol directing reader to the only path to the top of a vertical cliff.
Spiral (1) means "go up".
Short line (2) means "short way".
Curved line bending to right (3) means "to the right".
Directs reader around boulder (1) and then partly around another adjacent to it (2).
Entrance to a deep cavern.
Composite symbol directing reader to a panel that is hidden and would otherwise be missed.
Cross at (1) means "cross over".
Curve at (2) means "turn around".
Top of the curve at (3) means "missed"
Dot at (4) means or "hidden".
Composite symbol directing reader to a panel near a small cove which would otherwise be missed.
The semi-circle at (1) means "side".
Line with kink in it at (2) means "cove" or "indentation".
The dot at (3) means "easily missed" or "hidden".
Composite symbol directing reader to a panel on the opposite side of a boulder which would otherwise be missed.
The short line at (1) means "here" (in this case "direction" means "this side")
The "U" shape at (2) means "go around"
Composite symbol directing reader to a hidden waterhole. (Which was used so often that the rock surface leading to it had been worn smooth.)
Curve at (1) means "boulder".
Bowl at (2) means "waterhole".
Dot at (3) means "hidden" or "easily missed".
Warns reader that a cavern is a dead end.
Straight line at (1) means "ground level".
Wavy line at (2) means "movement". Since the line runs to end of (3) it means "dead end".
Deep curve with endpoints at (1) and (3) means "deep cavern".
Martineau argues that some symbols are warnings. Flash floods, which come with no warning, pose a terrible danger in the southwest.
Because rain is so infrequent, the soil is very hard. Thus, when the rains do come, they race across the soil and flow into canyons where they turn in raging rivers. This process only takes a matter of minutes, and hikers and climbers are often killed or stranded for days until the flood waters subside.
A petroglyph in Washington County, Utah has been decoded by Martineau to mean "danger -- water volume increases as it descends". Near it is a petroglyph of an upside-down man indicating "death". Put them together and the meaning is clear: "danger -- a man drowned here because the water volume increases greatly". Nearby petroglyphs indicate "great astonishment" at the volume of water.
are instructions, directives, or commentary. The petroglyph shown to the left appears at The Dalles, Oregon, in the Pacific Northwest
, portion of the United States, next to what was once among the best fishing locations in the area.
Prior to construction of The Dalles Dam -- and notably before fishing in the area was essentially destroyed -- the Dalles river narrowed for several miles and turned into a channel of boiling, white water rapids several hundred feet wide absolutely loaded with fish.
The petroglyph shows a man bent-over, signifying "old man", and without a belt or crotch line, signifying "poverty". The upper hand showing the palm at the same level as the heart signifies "good". The key to the meaning is given by the triangular symbol extending away from the buttocks.
Native American fisherman in the area had the custom of leaving their catch on the rocks so that those in need could take a fish to eat. Whenever someone came by, a fisherman who did not have any fish to spare would indicate this by slapping his buttocks loudly since speech could not be heard over the roar of the falls. The slap and gesture, however, were unmistakable. The individual would then move along without taking any fish. This practice is known because of historical records and oral tradition.
The reverse arrow on the petroglyph therefore signifies "please do not let those in need go hungry by slapping your buttocks". While two figures, that of an old man and that of a fisherman, would have been clearer, it would have taken twice as long to make the petroglyph. Shorthand, it appears, is particularly useful when the message must be carved into rock.
Some images were created to establish the presence of an individual or clan, much as how mountaineers stamp or sign a log book at the tops of many mountains. The Hopi who journeyed to Willow Springs
at the Colorado River went to collect salt and they marked their clan or personal signatures into the sandstone boulders to establish a record of their journey, and thus their bravery.
The Grand Canyon is a mysterious place for the Hopi, being where they climbed out of the underworld
and the place each Hopi returns to after death. Journeys to the canyon were not undertaken lightly, and only brave men would do so.
Rock art was often used to record historical events, both natural and man-made.
Some rock art records significant natural events. On July 4th, 1054 A.D. the sky was lit up by a supernova in the constellation Taurus. The light from this explosion -- as bright as 400 million stars like our sun -- was so intense that it was visible during the day for twenty-three days and was visible at night for over 600 days. This was the brightest celestial event in the recorded history of mankind.
Once the intense light faded, the supernova was forgotten for more than six hundred years until the invention of telescope allowed the remnants, which are too dim to be seen with the naked eye, to be seen once again.
Chinese astronomers in the Sung Dynasty recorded the "Guest Star" event in their written record, called the Sung-Shih; the Japanese noted it in their written records; and the Native Americans in the American southwest and Mexico recorded it in pictographs. The Sun-Shih describes the supernova as bright as a full moon and about six times brighter than Venus, with a reddish-white color, and pointed rays in all directions.
The drawings below are of pictographs made in 1054 by the Anasazi
living in the American southwest and by the residents of Baja California, Mexico. Note that the images depict a large star adjacent to a crescent moon. Astronomers have calculated that on the morning of July 5, 1054 that the supernova was two degrees south of the Moon.
Drawings of Pictographs made in North America and Mexico
Baja California, Mexico
Support for Recording Hypothesis
The famed astronomer Edwin Hubble hypothesized in the twenties that the Crab Nebula -- a glowing, cloudy mass of dust and gas about 7,000 light years away from Earth -- was created by a supernova circa 1000 A.D., and that the Chinese and Japanese accounts very likely recorded this event. (The Nebula is called a "Crab" because the tentacles of gas and dust resemble the legs of a crab.)
In 1939, the astronomer John Duncan suggested that the Crab Nebula was expanding at rate consistant with a point source origin of about 766 years earlier. A subsequent astronomer, William Miller, calculated that the Crab Nebula supernova would have been visible just before dawn on July 5, 1054, which matches the Chinese observations, and is consistant with the Native American rock art. Miller's paper of 1955 cited two examples of Arizonan rock art depicting the 1054 supernova.
The astronomer John Brandt subsequently confirmed Miller's results and identified additional rock art recording the event.
Some rock art records battles. Forrest Kirkland
described a pictograph at the Lehmann Rock Shelter in Texas:
"The story possibly pertains to adventures that befell a hunting or war party. Some 15 feet of zigzag line, generally taken to represent skyline or distance traveled, marks the beginning of the record. A projectile, enclosed on one side by a double row of dots and on the other by a single row of numeration marks (a total of 109), may have referred to an number of animals or enemies encountered.
Near the center of the group is a reclining human figure, located on the line or trail being traveled. Immediately beneath are seven human forms. The situation may symbolize a night attack of the enemy, made while the party slept. A disc a short distance above the line might be interpreted as recording the fact that the party fled and was a considerable distance away when the sun came up the next morning. At night, suggested by a star, the party was out of danger and changed the course (as shown by the line) to return by a devious route to their camp."