The Rock Art Engravings of the Coso Range

Introduction to Coso Rock Art

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NORTH AMERICAN ARCHAEOLOGIST, Vol. 27(3) 203-244, 2006
Paradim Shifts, Rock Art Studies, and the "Coso Sheep Cult" of Eastern California

ALAN P. GARFINKEL, PH.D.
California Department of Transportation

Abstract


One of the more spectacular expressions of prehistoric rock art in all of North America 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 mountain sheep drawings of the Coso region bolstered the “hunting magic” hypothesis. However, this hypothesis has become increasingly marginalized by a prevailing view that considers most rock art as an expression of individual shamanistic endeavor (cf. Lewis-Williams and Dowson, 1988; Whitley, 1994; Whitley and Loendorf, 1994). This article explores comparative ethnologic and archaeological evidence supporting the hunting magic hypothesis. I place this explanatory framework in a larger context based on a contemporary understanding of comparative religion and the complexity of forager symbolism. The article argues that the preponderance of Coso images are conventionalized iconography associated with a sheep cult ceremonial complex. This is inconsistent with models interpreting the Coso drawings as metaphoric images correlated with individual shamanic vision quests.

Introduction


Four decades ago, Heizer and Baumhoff (1962:238) 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. (1968:291) 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” theory (cf. Quinlan, 2000a, 2000b). The hypothesis has become increasingly marginalized by researchers worldwide (cf. Francis and Loendorf, 2002:23; Ucko and Rosenfeld, 1967) and has been replaced by a prevailing view that most rock art is an expression of shamanism (cf. Clottes and Lewis-Williams, 1998; Keyser and Klassen, 2001; Lewis-Williams and Dowson, 1988; Pearson, 2002; Turpin, 1994; Whitley, 1992, 1994a, 1994b, 1998a, 1998b, 2005; Younkin, 1998).

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 societies (Durkheim, 1915; Eliade, 1964; Frazer, 1933; Tylor, 1913). 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” (cf. Kehoe 2002:384).


Bradshaw Foundation - Introduction to Coso Rock Art
Dr. Alan P. Garfinkel - About the Author
Dr. Alan P. Garfinkel - Introduction to the Research Paper
| Coso Sheep Cult - Research Paper | Page |
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The Coso Range Rock Art Gallery
Coso Publications by Dr. Alan P. Garfinkel
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Talking Stone - Rock Art of the Cosos - Documentary Film
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