Revised and Updated:
By Alan P. Garfinkel, Ph.D.
Originally published in: North American Archaeologist, Spring 2007 Edition
Alan P. Garfinkel, Ph.D.
Founder and Director
California Rock Art Foundation
One of the more spectacular expressions of prehistoric rock art in all of the Western Hemisphere is the petroglyph concentration in the Coso Range of eastern California. These glyphs have played a prominent role in attempts to understand forager religious iconography. Four decades ago, Heizer and Baumhoff (1962) concluded that Great Basin petroglyphs were associated with hunting large game and were intended to supernaturally increase success in the hunt. Similarly, in their seminal work Grant et al. (1968) concluded that the desert bighorn sheep drawings of the Coso Region bolstered the “hunting magic” hypothesis.
However, this hunting magic hypothesis has become increasingly marginalized by a prevailing view that considers most rock art as a nearly exclusive, expression of individualistic shamanistic endeavor.1 This paper explores comparative ethnologic and archaeological evidence supporting the hunting magic hypothesis.
I place this explanatory framework in a fuller context based on a contemporary understanding of comparative hunter-gather religion and the complexity of forager symbolism. The paper argues that the preponderance of Coso images are conventionalized iconography associated with a sheep cult ceremonial complex. This model is not entirely inconsistent with models interpreting the Coso drawings as metaphoric images correlated with individual shamanic vision quests. A synthetic framework applying both models is suggested.
Four decades ago, Heizer and Baumhoff 2 concluded that Great Basin petroglyphs were associated with the hunting of large game. This “hunting magic” hypothesis was based on the distribution of rock art sites found along game migration trails. The researchers posited that the primary animal being hunted was the bighorn sheep. In their work on the Coso Range drawings, Grant et al.3 concluded that the realistic sheep drawings bolstered that hypothesis (Figure 1).
Yet over the years the hunting magic model has not fared well. At best, this interpretation has lost “traction” and is currently classified as an “out-of-favor” theory4. The hypothesis has become increasingly marginalized by researchers worldwide5 and has been replaced by a prevailing view that most rock art is a nearly exclusive expression of shamanism6.
Any concept that purports to account for all, or even most rock art of a given style or motif, I would argue, is inherently suspect. One would expect to find that different sets of environmental, cosmological, religious, artistic, and social factors influenced the creation of rock art at various times and places. Nevertheless, the manner in which hunting magic has been specifically framed does not provide a clear and full picture of the context and implications of that particularly important model. Such treatment minimizes the role that ritual and symbolism plays in animistic hunter-gatherer societies7. It also implies a rather monolithic notion of the eclectic manifestations of ritual behavior identifying them under a singular and somewhat ambiguous term of “shamanism” 8.
Figure 1. Location of Coso Range rock drawings. The largest petroglyph concentrations are located within the named canyons identified on the map. Boundary of the China Lake Naval Air Weapons Station and location of the station within the state of California is depicted on the inset map. The concentrations of Coso rock art are found excusively on the North Rase. The North and South Range of the China Lake Installation makes up an area containing over 1 million acres.