Talking Stone Rock Art Coso America USA Documentary Film

The Rock Art Engravings of the Coso Range

The Meaning of Coso Rock Art

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The Coso Range glyphs have played a prominent role in attempts to understand prehistoric forager iconography (Hildebrandt and McGuire, 2002; Keyser and Whitley, 2006; Lewis-Williams and Dowson, 1988; McGuire and Hildebrandt, 2005; Nissen, 1982; Pearson, 2002; Whitley, 1994a, 1994b, 2005). They are an excellent example of how these varying perspectives have been framed. This article is a response to the standard critiques of “hunting magic” and provides empirical evidence supporting it (contra Keyser and Whitley, 2006; Whitley, 2005). Here I attempt to elaborate on the spiritual and cognitive dimensions of the hunting magic model (cf. Hildebrandt and McGuire, 2002:256).

In this article I compile and evaluate data relevant to interpreting Coso petroglyphs. I argue that Coso drawings are not best understood as the exclusive product of “shamanism” (contra Keyser and Whitley, 2006; Whitley, 1998a, 2005; Younkin, 1998). The predominant raison d'etré for the Coso images was an expression of communal religious rituals associated with increase ceremonies of fall communal hunting of bighorn and a spring revival gathering. These rituals functioned to ensure ample game, bountiful plant resources, and perpetuation of the cosmic order of the universe. Fall sheep-kill rituals and spring renewal ceremonies are symbolically expressed in Native iconography.

coso range california

The north-south trending Coso Range
consists mainly of rhyolitic domes &

outcrops of volcanic rock cut by washes
& canyons of various sizes.
Photo by D. Austin

coso range rock art panel

Documenting rock art is time
consuming work. Depending on your
criteria for counting, this panel has at
least 70 individual petroglyph elements.
Photo by D. Austin.


I first briefly introduce the Coso drawings. Next, I present the two competing hypotheses and identify the nature of the critiques of the hunting magic model. I then turn to material relevant for an understanding of comparative religion and the characteristics of hunter-gatherer ritual, ceremonialism, and cosmology.

Following that, I review pertinent archaeological data from the Coso region. Finally I evaluate the merits of the competing perspectives.

The Coso Rock Art Complex


The Coso Rock Art Complex is located in eastern California, within the Naval Air Weapons Station China Lake (Figure 1). Extraordinary numbers of petroglyphs are pecked into the lava flows, canyons, and tablelands. The glyphs are often associated with rockshelters, caves, hunting blinds, rock stacks (dummy hunters), rock rings, grinding slicks, bedrock mortars (rare), midden, and flake scatters. Due to the security of the Navy facility, the sites are well preserved. The greatest number of drawings is found within a 90 square-mile area where 35,000 petroglyph elements have already been formally recorded. Systematic inventories provide a conservative projection and element tally in excess of 100,000 (Gilreath, 1999, 2003; Hildebrandt and McGuire, 2002; Keyser and Whitley, 2006; Russell Kaldenberg, personal communication 2006). Therefore, the Coso Range contains one of the greatest petroglyph concentrations in all of North America, if not the world (Grant et al., 1968). Sixty to 70% of these are realistic portrayals of the quarry, technology, and ritual paraphernalia associated with bighorn sheep hunting. Bighorn drawings are found throughout western North America, yet the number of sheep drawings in the Coso Range surpasses the total for all other regions combined (Grant et al., 1968:34).

Occupation of the Coso Range began ca. 13,500 calendar years B.P. (Gilreath and Hildebrandt, 1997). Researchers agree that Coso rock art is of long standing. The area was used for thousands of years and into the historic era when Euroamericans disrupted the Native cultures. Yet, large numbers of highly stylized, realistic Coso images were made for only a short time. Prehistorians disagree on whether that peak production period came just prior to 1000 B.P. or within the past 1000 years (cf. Gold, 2005; Garfinkel, 2006; Gilreath, 2000; Hildebrandt and McGuire, 2002 for the former perspective, and Keyser and Whitley, 2006; and Whitley, 1994a, 1994b for the latter).


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 |
| 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | 8 | 9 | 10 | 11 | 12 | 13 | 14 | 15 | 16 | 17 |
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
American Rock Art Archive

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