My father drove down from living off grid in the Saskatchewan bush country to visit my California wilderness with me. I took him to the place that ignited my love of the desert and where I first encountered petroglyphs. I knew there were more in the area than I’d previously found, so it was an opportunity for me to nose around more thoroughly and it certainly paid off. These new discoveries gave me more insight into the Coso people and their lives - if my theory bears out.
The more I study the rock art the more familiar it becomes. Nuance and variation begin to stand out. This new discovery, however, isn’t particularly nuanced in the stylistic sense but given the difference between these new iterations and the classic Coso styles I feel fairly confident that I discovered the work of children which makes my connection to these ancient people feel that much more intimate.
I’ll begin by posting some examples of typical Coso rock art and then discuss my new finds and why I believe they are the product of children.
All images can be clicked on for higher resolution views.
One of the more noteworthy details is the location of the children’s rock. It is approximately a mile from the main petroglyph site on a small pass that leads to the top of the plateau above the canyon. Given the symbolic import of petroglyphs in general, I’m guessing the elders of the group would frown on children defacing their sites or taking up prime real estate with doodles. Can’t help but wonder if the glyphs below were practice or furtive rebellion.
Below are detail images of the children’s rock glyphs - they strike me as the type of stick figure drawing all little ones create early on. I fear the photos aren’t the best but we were hunting mustangs with long lenses and traveling light so I had to shoot these with my 150-600mm lens at some distance. Their significance also did not occur to me until after we’d returned home. A return trip to more extensively explore the area and get better images is warranted.
Also worth noting in the final photograph above is the cross-hatching on the lower right of the rock. To me it has all the hallmarks of bored scratching. But who’s to say? The voices of the Coso people went silent well before the incursion of foreigners and written history. Still, the clues they did leave are tantalizing.
Do you have thoughts about this? What do you see? Reach out through the Contact link below and tell me what you think of this new discovery.
This is one of my favorite experiences though it was mildly alarming when it happened. I have a ritual when leaving the desert. I stop at the petroglyphs I found, place my hand on the cool rock and thank them and this rugged country for tolerating my presence.
The wind was howling and a winter storm was building over the Sierra, shrouding the mountains completely in cloud and swallowing Owens Valley. Before I hit pavement, I stopped the truck to get a few more photos.
As I was standing there enjoying the wild weather, the wind slammed the truck door shut behind me. When I went to climb back in, I found that the door had locked, which is basically impossible given that it takes someone pushing the lock button or toggling the keyfob (which was in the ignition at the time).
“Are you freaking kidding me?” I muttered, tugging futilely on the handle. I stood there for a second pondering my predicament if I couldn’t get back in. I’d left the truck running and the window was open about two inches. So there was at least one option.
But first I tried the rear door. It swung open as soon as I pulled on the handle. I climbed in and stretched to hit the unlock button, came back around and driver’s door was open again. Here’s the thing, when the button is pushed it toggles all the locks, not just the driver’s door. So how did the driver’s door lock itself?
I turned around, almost feeling mischief in the air. “Don’t DO that!” I cried into the wind. “Scared the crap out of me.”
I visited the cave I’d discovered some while ago to check on it, make sure it was undisturbed. To give you an idea of how easy it is to miss things in country like this, I walked right past it and had to backtrack even knowing it was there. It’s that well hidden.
In fact, I had missed part of the site on my initial discovery. I found a second separate site 50 feet to the east of the cave. This one has a small clear area ringed with rock and a single petroglyph that mirrors another I’d documented at a site around ten miles as the crow flies from here.
I also came across some beefy chunks of bone that indicate a larger animal’s presence. I’m guessing these are far later than the site because the desert sun degrades even bone and I doubt anything would be left of any carcass from centuries ago.
The first two photos below are of the main cave. In the third photo, my first find is outlined in blue, my latest discovery is in red and I’ve provided an inset of the petroglyph located there. The fourth photo is a higher resolution image of the petroglyph. You can click on them for a larger, more detailed view.
To the right of the main cave I noticed a flat spur of rock about three feet from the ground. It made for a pretty convenient seat. Coincidentally, It was also at the spot where most of the obsidian flakes and the arrowhead are located. It is easy to imagine the toolmaker knapping and gazing out at the vast landscape beyond. These moments of insight or at least imagination help take an interesting archaeological discovery and, in some ways, an abstraction to a more human level. Glimpses into the lifestyle, not just scattered bits of a forgotten people.
This trip my aim was to hike the entire canyon to see if there were any other traces of the Coso people further in. There were a few basalt outcrops I’d glimpsed up canyon that appeared to have potential. This, I did, without finding anything else. However, I detoured to a very interesting outcropping approximately a mile from the cave. It was of paler rock and very weathered and “geographic”, featuring many alcoves and interesting nooks and crannies. It didn’t take long to spot the telltale signs of paleolithic habitation: the cleared area, the low rock walls and the glitter of obsidian flakes.
A short distance to the northeast was a second cleared area but much less sheltered. The view from this particular shelter is absolutely stunning, looking out over a wilderness of volcanic rock to snowclad mountains in the distance.
After having discovered these sites, it has made me intensely curious about the Coso people. Very little is known about them. They’ve left fragments and glyphs, in some cases mortars. We don’t know how they dealt with their dead, why they established shelters in some locations (usually near a water source, but this second one isn’t), what language they spoke, what their social structure was. Even the Paiute and Shoshone people native to the region confess no knowledge of them. I’d like know more. So I’ll sift through the ephemeral cues, sit in old places and think.
Note: I am deliberately vague regarding locations and do not post photos of these locations within their geographic context in order to keep them secret and safe. I leave all sites undisturbed.