Not always the male

Not always the male

By Carl Bjork

At a crime scene, the investigator will always ask the question, “who” perpetrated the offense. And, to answer the question you must discover the “why.” What is the motivation; is it cultural or survival, or perhaps the dictates of the mores of the people? When we discover a crime scene; is there a “crime” committed, what or who has decided that an offense or violation took place? Was the evil deed the results of an action by a male or a female? Have we forgotten in our patriarchal world of today that there are females? Did females carve and paint petroglyphs and pictographs? The answer is, yes!

To understand the role of the female or the male and their “authority” to carve the rocks and paint the symbols in the caves, we will have to discover their role in the society that they live. Do “all” members of the society share equal authority; can each person regardless of social status carve the rocks? The answer is, no!

History as we know it, or more correctly, how a history has been taught to us and what we believe history to be because of our life education, we will never know the real answer. It is problematic to know the truth, so-called “rock art” is not a written language using an alphabet or any other system of symbols to create words that are orally and verbally spoken. There are no tomes of written knowledge; hieroglyphs may come close because we find it carved and painted on walls in ancient temples and tombs, not that far distance from what we find in many locations throughout the world. Many petroglyphs in the State of Nevada easily match carvings found on ancient walls along the Nile River.

Where do we find the answer, do we trust the archeologist even though we can use science to date the site where the rock art is located, is there a valid connection between the dating of the organics in the soil and the carvings? Did the carvings come first from an ancient time and the use of the site at a later date, or did the site activity come first and the carvings were a part of the use of the site? Both answers are no doubt correct. That is the answer that I received over the past forty or so years that I have asked the question, “who and why” at the site and location of the rock-art. What was the motivation, the same question an investigator asks at the scene of a crime?

You will discover the answer regarding the debate for what gender was carving and painting the petroglyphs and paintings within the indigenous community. Even today petroglyphs are carved by those given the authority and taught by the elders. Within the Northern Paiute community of the Great Basin area of the western United States there are members of the tribal group that have been selected and given the “authority.” Many given the authority are female. It is a special honor to be selected for the authority, and the teachings of the sacred medicine knowledge.

Cupules, the small round-shaped dimpled petroglyphs (25-38 mm in diameter) are only created by females. When cupules are in spatial relationship with a rock art site, the site location is “female” and usually the males within the indigenous community are forbidden from visiting the site or knowing of the sacred female knowledge. At “male” sites it is also forbidden for females to visit; even on death if those without the authority enter a site. Most rock art sites are off-limits to those without the authority in the community. Even today, sacredness and knowledge are closely guarded by those in position of power and leadership. Many societies throughout the world are considered “matriarchal” as are the Hopi and Dine’ (Navajo) Tribes. The grandmother elders are highly respected and honored…the keepers of the traditional knowledge.

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Cupules covered with dark patina caused by acid rain during the volcanic explosion of Mount Mazama in Oregon, circa 7,700 BP.

Usually within the area of the “female site” there will be other rock art evidence of female activity and knowledge; child birth, the 28-day menstrual cycle, ovulation period, and location of a safe place to give birth. Located east of Fallon Nevada is a low range of mountains that were once surrounded by a shallow lake, the Pleistocene remnants of ancient Lake Lahontan. When the petroglyphs were carved the peaks of hills were safe islands for child birthing and caring for the newly born; safe from dangerous, scavenging animals and banned males of the culture.

What is interesting at the site is that the carvings represent many different periods in time; many histories. A time of the last Ice Age, the pre-Lake Lahontan pluvial, when the Great Basin was mostly covered by Lake Lahontan and Lake Bonneville, and the Great Basin drying and becoming the rain-shadow desert of today.

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Birthing stone covered with patina-covered cupules. Note the post Mount Mazama volcanic explosion petroglyph that shows how the female has to lie during the birthing process. The rock was used prior to 7,700 BP and after the event.

The far-reaching question has to be asked. Who were the people that carved the first cupules and pits/grooves, and notches on the edge of the boulders? Now heavily patinated by centuries of weather and acid rain from the volcanic explosion of Mount

Manzana in southern Oregon over 7,700 years ago; now Crater Lake. Etched into the dark patina are craved a different style of petroglyphs of a different people, also pictographs appear in caves. Ancient high-water marks on the nearby hillsides indicate that the water levels of Lake Lahontan once covered the cupules many times; it has been discovered that the ancient lake has been lower and refilled at least seven times.

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Notches carved into the edge of a large boulder at the Grimes Point NV female site. The notches were carved prior to the Mount Mazama event.

Today, cupules are still carved by many indigenous cultures for the same ceremonial reason; always, hand-drilled with a “sacred” stone by the young females as taught by their Grandmothers (female elders). Over 12,000 years ago, this most sacred ritual began and even today the ceremonial ritual is conducted for the passing of the child-girl into womanhood. It is told by many medicine women that the rock powder was eaten (geophagia) by the young women to cause a pregnancy. Through proper ceremonial prayer during the creation of the cupule and ingesting the powder the continuance of life and a people was guaranteed.

Who were the people that created the system for universal communication using petroglyphs and pictographs; who were the ladies that created the cupule ceremony; how did the ancient information and “authority” pass down through the many, many generations to the keepers of the knowledge of today?

Grandsons of two neighboring tribes in western Nevada, the Paviotso (Northern Paiute) and the Wasiw (Washoe) have shared that during the early 1980’s they were taken by their grandmothers into the mountains and shown where they were not allowed to enter. The area was for the Grandmothers to tend to and care for the very young children. It was a place for soon to be mothers, and the other women and pubescent girls to meet; a quiet place to share, gossip, and talk about their cultural mission. Today, there is such a place at a small high mountain meadow in the Sierra Nevada Mountain Range, a summer camp to escape the hot desert heat in the valley below. Like at most Grandmother rock-art sites there is a large juniper, grandmother tree that was used as a day-care center, bed-rock mortars (grinding holes), small shade trees, prayer rocks, and cupule-covered boulders. When I first visited the site with my Washoe friend, Darrel Cruz, he told me if his late-grandmother was with us we would have to leave or we would both be chased away with a stick and receive a severe tongue lashing; and have to be cleansed with a special smoke-purification ceremony. All necessary because of the essence of female activity from 100’s of generations at the site that would attach to us and change and weaken our masculinity.

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Big Spring CA “female site.” Large Grandmother juniper tree upper left. Cupule covered boulders, grinding holes, and prayer rock in foreground, small grove of aspen trees for shade. Elevation: 7,700 feet / 2347 meters

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Cupules carved to show family clans. Locally, called the “Rain Rock.”

The late honored, Grandmother Yazzie, Dene’ (Navajo) medicine woman shared that she traveled to her “special” female site to talk with the ravens and pray, a place high on the canyon walls of Chaco Canyon in western New Mexico. Knowing that I for at least forty years had visited protected “female sites” and had not been harmed by the essence (spirits) it would have been allowed that I could visit with her and pray with the ravens (Keepers of the Knowledge). Grandmother cautioned that there were female rock art sites only used for teaching and ceremony for the sacred medicine with strict taboos. Those not invited or trained properly were in danger of harm, sickness, or even death upon entering the area of a female rock art site

Most Native American Grandmothers have said that the so-called “vulva” symbols as stated in volumes of rock-art literature are not female genitalia and where the vulva shaped glyphs are found are not always female sites. Shared information contained in email messages from two Grandmothers:

“My NA contacts also argue that these are not vulva forms. (They also deny creating anthropomorphs (stick figures) with exaggerated genitalia.) They tell me that they represent the camp arrangement with the tents arrange in a horseshoe pattern around the central area where the firewood and supplies are stacked and folks gather together. When I mention this to other archaeologists they tend to roll their eyes.”


“The so-called yonis/vulvas symbols are not female genital; that is a “white man” thing that was created back in the 1960’s hippy days. The NA ladies tell me that the symbols are how the folks slept around a long-shaped campfire or showing that the site is a camp/living site. They build campfires to stay warm and the longer shape of the fire the more folks that could sit/sleep near the fire. Of course you will never change the white man’s version of the yoni/vulva use; it is now locked into the papers of academia.”

The Grandmothers say that the small cupule covered boulders and rock walls are located through-out the world. Is there a global connection; was there a First People that created the cupule phenomenon and the ceremony?

Yes, there is a hidden history to be discovered by studying the ancient female and male “doodling” on the rocks.


Information in this article was shared by the kind and sharing Grandmothers of the Hopi, Navajo (Deni’), Chumash, Washoe, and Northern Paiute People. I hold it as a personal honor to have been accepted by the many male and female elders that shared their cultural stories and traveled with me to their “rock-art” sites in the western United States.

Contact Information for Carl Bjork:
PO Box 422, Valley Springs CA 95252 Telephone: 1-209-772-1480