The Cochimi were the aboriginal inhabitants of the central and northern parts of the Baja California peninsula. Two other ethnic groups occupied the peninsula further south; the Guaycura and the Peric. Archaeological research suggests that the peninsula was inhabited up to 10,000 years ago.
The Cochimi spoke a dialect of the more northern Yuman language. It was considered a sister language to the Yuman ethnic group, hence the 'Yuman-Cochimi family'. The Cochimi were hunter-gatherers, leading a prehistoric existence without agriculture or metallurgy. Pottery was used and there is evidence of wooden drums or tablas. Ceremonies and shamanic practices were held. Perhaps their greatest cultural legacy is the cave paintings; the Great Murals of Baja California have been attributed to the Cochimi, although on-going research aims to confirm this assertion.
It is hypothesised that the rock art was produced in the context of shamanic rituals. Indeed, the paintings are a significant statement of the cultural sophistication of a prehistoric people whose material culture was relatively minimal [Schaafsma 1997].
In the 1970's the author and photographer Harry W. Crosby explored the central mountains of Baja California by mule and pack burros in a systematic search for these rock paintings, resulting in his publication 'The Cave Paintings of Baja California: Discovering the Great Murals of an Unknown People'. Indeed, it was Crosby who coined the phrase 'Great Murals'.
The Unknown Painters of the Baja California Great Murals
Harry W. Crosby discovering the Great Murals of an Unknown People
Cueva de las Flechas
In 1993 the Sierra de San Francisco, considered to be the centre of Baja California's rock art, appeared on UNESCO's World Heritage List.
Historical reports reveal how the Cochimi were first encountered by Spanish seaborne explorers during the sixteenth century, then by the Jesuits establishing missions on the peninsula in the late seventeenth century, such as Francesco Maria Piccolo's Cochimi mission at San Javier in 1699. The Cochimi customs and beliefs were recorded in the writings of the Jesuits, such as the works of Miguel Venegas and Miguel del Barco. After the Spanish crown expelled the Jesuits from Baja California in 1768, the Franciscans established further missions on their way north to Alta California. The Franciscans' successors in Baja California, the Dominicans, created the final new mission among the Cochimi at El Rosario in 1774.
These encounters cost the Cochimi culture dearly; epidemics of Old World diseases caused the population to decline dramatically. At sometime in the nineteenth or possibly the early twentieth century their language and traditional culture became extinct. Archaeologists believe that it is now only the rock art that endures.
Baja California - In Search of Painted Caves - Documentary Film