THE LANGUAGE ON THE ROCKS : WAS THE FLUTE-PLAYING KOKOPELLI, A TRADER, DIPLOMAT, TEACHER OR WITCH ? DID ROCK DRAWINGS REVEAL THE SECRETS OF THE COSMOS AND THE FACE OF EARLY MAN?
South West Rock Art scattered throughout the canyons, washes and gullies of today’s American West Landscape may be the first written language on this continent. For centuries man has wondered about the thoughts and messenages expressed on these rocks, we know these early rock artists were preoccupied with subsistence living, “the successful hunt” moved their world forward. So ritual drawings of game, might be followed by a shadow hunt including spearing the drawn game in anticipation of the real-time experience. Their Gods showed ancient man how to live in harmony with the land, so did their rock art depicted their God? The Devil and the spirit helpers who do their bidding, like the Kachina, who teach and whose arrival signals the time to plant or harvest and a number of ritual responsibilities of the clans of the Pueblo people.
HOPI says the first people emerged into the
Fourth World from the belly-button of the Earth each was handed a tablet, with a tribe of birth; like Hopi, Zuni, Pawnee, or Ute and each was given a clan to be born to. All emerged through the same Sipapu their ancient ancestors had first exited from to enter the present world. No one really knows when that was, but Bible scholars says the Garden of Eden bloomed 50,000 years ago and everyone believes North and South America was peopled from the Bering Strait when big game hunters followed their game over the legendary land bridge about the same time geology-wise. Today several studies show an infusion of people into North America could have been supplemented from the sea earlier.
Rock Art, images pecked from rock, can’t be dated but the patina (varnish) formed on a rock gives some idea of age. Painted rock art, however offers some chance of judging the age of a petroglyph by carbon dating chips of paint. Further dating can be done by dating associated material culture but deposited artifacts can be dropped any time and many sites are visited continuously over time, some are added to, others are subtracted from.
Julian Hayden, judged by many the best field investigator in American Archaeology, worked on both of the legendary Snaketown digs, where he met Pima elders who allowed him to sit in on a three day telling of their (Pima) oral history. Hayden found himself working all day on the dig, listening to the Pima accounting of their past much of the night, then going home and writing it up before work. The Pima Oral History spoke of the first people settling there, but others moved on and over centuries, which became hundreds of years, these firstpeople eventually reached land’s end in South America. They settled but eventually new starts began making their way back north, and oddly enough, they found people speaking their own language.
Sharing some common language its not surprising but to find MesoAmerican influence scattered throughout the American South West and many studies have wondered out loud how much sway the larger civilizations held over the frontier, others have found direct connections between these prehistoric pioneers and Central and South America Civilizations. We find bells forged in Mexico, Macaws from South America, ball courts and Trincheras sites where black volcanic mountains are terraced and take the look of a lush pyramid in a dusty desert. Trade goods, pots, dyes and fabrics might have been the sort of merchandise Kokopelli or a trader might have carried to each village or traded to lone outposts he encountered along his way. His flute would entertain, he would share new ideas, speak of change on the horizon. The South West rock art expert, Polly Schaafsma, first introduced me to Kokopelli on the Utah banks of the San Juan River. Since that first encounter I have photographed the flute-player on the banks of the Little Colorado River just outside of Springerville, Az. I have found Kokopelli hiding amongst the boulders lining a tributary of the Rio Grande south of Santa Fe, NM. Kokopelli has become an old friend, and a personal link to the past. I have found him lying flat on his back, blowing his horn against the canyons walls on the Navajo Reservation, you find him today from central Utah to central Arizona, often with a hard-on, he is most easily found where the Anasazi once lived.
In central Arizona where Kokopelli first showed up on pottery in the Hohokam village of Snaketown along today’s Gila River. In Pueblo myths, Kokopelli carries seeds, babies, and blankets to offer the maidens he seduces. According to the Navajo, his hump was made of clouds filled with seeds and rainbows. In the Hopi village of Oraibi, they believe he carried deer skin shirts and moccasins which he used to barter for brides or babies which he left with the young women. Others believe that Kokopelli’s sack contained the seeds of all the plants and flowers in the world, which he scattered each Spring. Legend tell us, everyone in the village would sing and dance throughout the night when they heard Kokopelli play his flute. The next morning, every maiden in the village would be with child. Campers still report hearing the haunting, sweet flute sounds floating on the wind along the San Juan River, particularly near Chinle Wash, home to the Navajo’s watersprinkler, the god of fertility and the giver of rain. When Kokopelli played his flute, the sun came out, the snow melted, grass began to grow, birds began to sing, and all the animals gathered around to hear his songs. His flute music soothed the Earth and made it ready to receive his seed.
San Ildefonso Pueblo legend, believed Kokopelli’s flute brought happiness, joy and embodied everything pure and spiritual about music. Kokopelli was a wandering minstrel they believe who carried songs on his back, trading new songs for old ones. According to this legend, Kokopelli brought good luck and prosperity to anyone who listened to his music.
My most interesting flute-player experience came in the form of a 300mm lens slice of a large rock art panel at Sand Island just south of Bluff Utah. This view showed a flute-playing mountain sheep carved in rock in the midst of the Navajo Nation this rock art is an remnant of the ANASAZI prehistoric culture and this isolated view is only 18 inches by 30 inches sliced from a rock art panel on a 150’ cliff beside the San Juan River. Most of that 150 foot cliff is rock art, this is simply a paragraph.
The detail appeared to me as very unique — a Mountain Goat playing the flute, like Kokopelli, so I pulled this view in with my 300mm lens and thought no more about it until one day when I visited Edgar Perry, a White Mountain Apache Medicine Man and described the panel to him from memory.
Is there a crack between the two groups of sheep? he asked. Yes, I said. “That line represent the real world (topside) and the supernatural world (beneath),” he said. Topside you see two sheep walking on all fours beneath the crack you see two sheep — one standing on two legs and playing a flute and the other on all fours with a bird (raven) appearing from its head the Navajos call this, shape–shifting or perhaps, skinwalkers. The Medicine Man points out the White Sheep becoming a black Raven characterizes the battle between good and bad, right and wrong. Imagine if that much meaning can be taken from a fraction of the panel, imagine what you might learn from the entire display.
Shape-shifting as depicted in this panel is a common supernatural feature attributed to shaman,who legend says can become any creature necessary to their purpose–a raven could cover great distances and spy on ones enemy, and a flute-playing sheep was probably a big draw for Kokopelli when he blew into a platform mound with a new line of goods. But honestly, the sheep was Kokopelli and the shaman in him just preferred hooves for the rock prehistoric roads he traveled.
North American’s rock art began long before the birth of Christ, and continues today. It’s function varies all over the South West. North to New Mexico’s Chaco Canyon, a rock wall there has a series of lines in a single panel said to mark the coming of the summer equinox, a sun dagger is said to mark the coming and going of summer. Elsewhere in Chaco’s back country another panel is said to depict a 10th century Super Nova seen around the world in the prehistoric sky. Is Kokopelli, the flute-player, the first “Kilroy was here” ? Or does this tradition depict another tradition of Mesoamerican traders who plied the prehistoric pathways of yesteryear carrying trade goods, news, entertainment and their own special DNA.
What we believe is rock art is timeless, it began in Europe 50,000 years ago ! In the American South West, it is believed to be priceless. Last fall a Las Vegas nineteen year old spent nine months in jail and was fined shy of $25,000 for spray painting blue graffiti on top on Rock Art thought to date from 1100 AD. Another incident in the high Sierra, where a team of vandals using ladders, power-saws, hammers, generators–stole four mural scenes by cutting them from 15 feet high lava cliffs, damaging two others.
Incidents like the one in the high Sierra, where an audience is unlikely, sites go unmonitored and with increased human contact brings pressure, cuts to budgets and a lack of enforcement where an implicit risk exists to all the rock art panels scattered though out the South West and deep into Mexico. Many South West archaeologists, like renown rock art researcher, Polly Schaafsma who wonders if south central Utah may well have been the central heart beat of the Rock Art movement.In a short distance, three distinct Rock Art styles, show regional similarities, the same stylized high priest shamans, each wearing similar symbols of rank and dress and all three messages deal with the shamanistic powers of the individuals who the design emulates. Throughout history, the fellow with the press (or the money or the power) has always been the person able to get his message out, so I have to believe, the Shaman illustrated on these covered rock habitation sites were sending out a message. Many of these archaic Utah Rock Arts panels, have images that are frequently two-three feet in size and some reach five or six feet. Over time, images get smaller and the message seems to be softer, less stressed and more focused on everyday things, corn, sheep, religious designs (some also seen on pottery) and while shamanistic influence was everything around 300-400 AD by around 11-1200 AD it was much less important to the rock artist then than it was at the time of Christ. But these Fremont/Anasazi farmers/hunters lived in and about the San Juan River and while they had regional similarities in dress and ornaments, the Fremont artwork was preoccupied with hunting and warfare and the Anasazi Basket-makers farmers seemed preoccupied with the supernatural. The Anasazi were perhaps seasonal visitors who had smaller family groups and were subject to living life in harmony with their world. Their Fremont neighbors hunted, competed for game and probably felt first the squeeze from marauding raiders (southern Piaute) who took their food and their family as slaves, their sites were lousy with arrow points.
Despite similarities, Polly Schaafsma suggests interesting differences; the Canyonlands Maze Unit Shaman gallery might be a portrait of all the shamans who over time have led and given direction about life, past spiritual leaders whose combined knowledge would be the fountain of understanding for all things. Unlike, other sites developed over time, this Shaman gallery in the Barrier (Horseshoe) Canyon might have been a single performance — by one artist a snapshot of the ancestors! Some paint is thought to have been blown through a straw.Or was it a doorway for some to the Cosmos, was it an Oracle for others where they found the answer to life’s questions ? Did the Holy Ghost answer the prayers of the Anasazi Basket maker people known to be living in the area around the birth of Christ? Frequent Carbon 14 rating attempts to date this site suggest the rock art should be 2,000 years old or older.
While these shaman wear similar headgear and breastplates seen on the shaman of the Fremont People to the West, the Lower Butler Canyon Rock Art emphasized the animal helpers who worked with the shaman, the ability to hear and see what is hidden, the ability to change shape-a man becomes a mountain sheep or raven — whatever is needed. In Leslie Spier’s book “YUMAN PEOPLE” published around 1925 he interviews lots of Colorado River Tribe members who were 60-70 years old, one tale told of a shaman whose tribe was facing attack and perhaps ambush, who slept on the question and when he arose, he said he had seen the enemy camped on the other side of the mountain leading his warriors to a successful surprise attack. Hallucinogens, like Datura or Mushrooms have long been attributed to the trance experienced and to the exaggerated features shown on the Shaman. Today’s drug researchers have found subjects who take hallucinogenic mushrooms find the experience to be the most meaningful spiritual event they have ever experienced.”I was so small and everything was so big”, they report. The participant reports, “a self-awareness” and is often able to comprehend the scale of the Universe and see their small and insignificant place in the total scheme of things it was, they say, a “basically indescribable experience”. These rock art galleries held great importance for the people of their period. As time passed, rock art became less spiritual and more informational and more abstract and decorative, maybe Kokopelli was the “KILROY was here” of the time, his passing would have been worthy of note.
The Rock Art of the Anasazi Basketmaker Rock Art is still revered, perhaps even feared today, because of its potent power. Many rock art sites have been added to, over time, right up to the present. In the Chinle Wash where Tony Hillerman set the drama found in his book, "A Thief of Time" Polly Schaafsma shows us where someone has attacked a piece of rock art with an axe. The "vandal" completely destroyed the offending design, but Schaafsma suggests this may be a case of self-defense. This area of the Navajo Reservation is said to have skinwalkers who might even work with medicine men. The destroyed rock art was an archaic design said to be used by a skinwalker for great power to place a curse on a now living Navajo, who by axing the rock, he freed himself from the skinwalkers curse. In Doug Preston’s Talking to the Ground, skinwalkers are said to shoot splinters of bone or teeth into their victims or sprinkle “corpse powder” triggering “ghost-sickness” in their victims, who then go to see the Medicine Man, who lifts the skinwalkers curse and splits the fee with the skinwalker, reservation-style free-enterprise? “The power people perceive in these drawings, isn’t good or bad, it’s there for the using ! An evil-mined person might use the power to hex someone!”, says Polly Schaafsma. When this is done, it becomes necessary for a medicine man to break the connection by destroying the figures. If you are a witch (skinwalker) and the hex doesn’t works–it backfires on you.” So the village Shaman helped people cope and solve life’s problems, often performing shamanic feats with supernatural powers for the benefit of the group. With aid from their spirit helpers who contact the ancestors through supernatural spirits for help in curing, fertility, divining, hunting, battle and the weather.
The abstracted anthropomorphs with shamanistic supernatural abilities is a rock art subject repeated again and again in the canyons of the Colorado Plateau, many are surrounded or aided by “animal spirit helpers”, or demonstrate their shape-shifting skills or trance-like abilities that allow the shaman to see lost objects, the presence of evil spirits, the cause of an illness, the future and the past. The Horseshoe Canyon or Barrier Canyon site in the Maze Canyonland district could be the portrait of the principal shaman. When times got bad and resources were scarce they used magic to improve their lot. It would have been very dramatic to bring in new initiates at night with light from torches lighting up the rock art for ritual initiations, drug-assisted vision quests and for praying to your God. The name of your world means “Made for You”.
The Lower Butler Wash was chiseled by an artist pecking a straight controlled line, while the Holy Ghost Gallery was partially sprayed onto the limestone and both reflect this ghostly, ancestrial-spirit overtones which are absent in the Fremont Panels which highlight war-like motifs.
“It’s like two different clubs were operating on separate sides of the (San Juan) river,” says Schaafsma about the similarities between the Fremont Culture Shaman Gallery and the one in Horseshoe Canyon judged to be a very old ritual site for the Anasazi Basket Maker Culture. Did the Holy Ghost figure represent the “soul force” of a departed shaman still aiding his flock from the underworld ? Schaafsma believe it was “important to do (paint) it here” beneath this 170′ high rock alcove which may have been viewed as a doorway to the supernatural world. Then there was a “ritualistic painting” which called for a ceremoniously gathering of the materials, sing song in prayer and then the painting in Horseshoe Canyon is believed to be done by one person in a single setting. In rock art an animal drawing upon completion its possible that the artist might attack it with a spear in anticipation of the hunt to come and in hopes of swaying the gods will about the outcome of the hunt.
Newer Rock Art does function much like the graffiti-kids spray on my neighbor’s fence, it shows their territory. Rock Art show many different styles and demonstrates a large number of cultural influences, even where one culture begins, where it begins to morph or blends with other nearby cultures or where an entirely different group begins. Over time researchers find the importance of the message changes, as does, the message. Anasazi Rock Art, like this Hohokam rock art from 1000 AD seems more casual or more graffiti-like than the much older Basket Maker archaic floating Shaman. There is an old Navajo saying that “pride and arrogance” were the downfall of the Anasazi who they believed learned too much and simply disappeared! The Navajo say “They wrote all their knowledge on the rock walls before they left, but over time it became too abstract to understand.
ACID RAIN has been blamed for diminishing the once dramatic rock art gallery of floating Shaman’s found on the covered back wall of an Anasazi Basketmaker II site featuring a fifty foot panel of a dozen figures in Horseshoe Canyon of the Maze District in Utah’s Canyon lands where it is feared the nearby coal-operated Page, AZ electricity generation plant has caused more deterioration in the past 20 years than seen there in the previous 2000 years. South West Rock Art might well have been the original email, a short concise message for a specific audience. Messaging has come full circle, if you buy the email you get today on your smartphone, is the rock art equivalent of a thought expressed on a prominent rock feature certain to capture the desired audience. Graffiti may also link us with those prehistoric artists and archaeologist must struggle with the question, does a nice blank surface require a creative hand to leave its mark–will man make art, regardless of what he has to say “Kilroy was Here!” for instance ? Or is the message everything ?
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