Most Frequently Asked Questions About Cave Art

Petroglyphs and Pictographs.? What are they

Pictographs and petroglyphs. Indian signs and symbols that we call rock art. They are the recorded symbols of events in the lives of the prehistoric humans. They left a fascinating visual record through their images. Many of these images are thousands of years old, carved or painted on the natural stone surfaces.

These designs were carefully pecked into the desert rocks, other painted on granite walls in cliff overhangs. There are hundreds of sites scattered throughout the mountains of Baja California

Most rock art has ritual or ceremonial origins and these sites are held to be sacred. There are basically two types of drawings on stone.

Petroglyphs, which are actually engravings on the surface of rocks.
Pictographs are designs, which were painted on the surface of rocks.

What type of paint did they use?

Pictographs are painted usually in only three colors in Baja California; black, reds, and white, although there are also two yellow deer.

Paint is made from pigment and a binder. It is the way paint is still made today. Grounded color material is mixed with a substance that will hold the pigment together. Modern oil paint is pigment and linseed oil, and watercolor’s binder is gum Arabic. The Indians used ground pigment and an oil substance to mix the paint such as animal fat, or possibly oil from ground seeds, or the pitch from trees.

Red pigment came from hematite or red iron oxide.
Black from charred woods,
White from deposit of gypsum and white ash.
Yellow from yellow ochre or limonite.

The pigments were grounded and molded in squares and kept. When needed they were reground and mixed ready to be used.

Where did they mix these paints?

In the floor of the cliff overhangs in Baja California Sur one can find “paint pots”. These are bowls, which were ground into the stone of the floor, and paint was mixed and ground in these “pots”. If one walks into many of the caves the trace remains of this paint, which is still in the “paint pots”, with each one having a different color. The cave of La Pintada has 12 such bowls for mixing paint.

Did the People live in the caves?

In the cliff overhangs there is no evidence that people occupied them. Many of the caves are inaccessible and high on the mountainsides. They could be seen from great distances. They were the cathedrals and places of worship for these primitive people. Religious ceremonies were held, such as marriages and funerals.

How big are the paintings?

The paintings in Baja California Sur are called the Great Mural Paintings. They are the largest in the world. Some individual figures are 30 to 45 feet high. Many are painted 40 feet above the ground. When the Jesuits arrived in the 1600’s they asked the Cochimi Indians who had painted these figure. The Cochimi said that it was a giant race of people before them. But, it could not have been. The Indians also outlined their own hands and painted them. From this we know they were about 5 feet 3 inches to 5 feet 5 inches tall.

How did they get that high to paint the paintings if they were not giants?

It is assumed they used the natural trees or the large type of organ cactus that is called Cardon. They probably used leather strips from animal hides to make a type of scaffolding or ladders. But of course there are people who believe that they used levitation.

Who were the people of Baja California Sur?

There are only the remains of their cave art. They have never been given a name. They burned their dead so we have no burials grounds. They were hunters and gatherers and made no pottery, did not have domestic dogs or permanent housing.

How old are the paintings?

In Chinese astronomy they recorded a galatical explosion on July 5, 1054 A.D., When this happened it could be see from China to Arizona and various American Indians groups recorded this event. In this area at the same time there was a lunar eclipse. The star exploding could be seen for 23 days and for 600 nights with the naked eye.

This event was so spectacular they did record it. There is a cave called “super Nova” which was discovered by Harry Crosby in the 1070’s. This geometric design includes an exploding star and a half moon. In 1995 Kaki Bassi also discovered a petroglyph depicting the “Super Nova” with the star and the moon. The remainder of this event is known as the Crab Nebula.

So we know that the Indians were here at that particular time. It is generally believed they lived and painted here for one thousand years from about 500 A.D. to 1500 A.D. It is likely they disappeared at the same time of the Anasazi and the Mississippi Mound People.

A Clovis point arrowhead has also been discovered in one of the caves which would indicate these caves have been inhabited for 10,000 years, but not necessarily by the cave painters. Researchers today believe they may have lived and painted as much as 5,000 years ago.

Why did they paint on the walls of the caves?

In the lives of Indians, rituals provided the necessary means and power to control and stabilize an unpredictable universe. Generally speaking, they believed that all things possessed a soul or spirit similar to their own. When a deer was killed, they thanked the spirit of the deer for its assistance by singing and feasting. This helped the animal’s spirit to find its way into another world.

Other rituals were performed to thank the spirits who made and maintained the universe and the numerous spirits such as the spirit of the rain, the thunder, the sun and the moon.

Rituals such as the ritual of womanhood, manhood, mating or marriage were also part of the responsibility of the Shaman (spiritual leader).

To master the fear of the unknown spirit world the primitive man would paint himself, wear headdresses, chant, and make sacrifices to these supernatural gods. But only the Shaman could directly talk to the spirits and he would instruct the tribe of the word of the gods.

What did man want to know?

Primitive man wanted to know:
1. How the world was created.
2. How he was placed on this earth.
3. When he died where did he go.
We are still asking the same questions.

What is a Shaman?

The Shaman was the priest, rabbi, the medicine man, the holder of the spirits and magical items of the tribe. Shamanism is a worldwide religious phenomenon as ancient as society. It can be traced to the oldest form of cultures. To his people he is the leader. He serves as a medium to the supernatural world. He only can communicate with the unknown spirits. He is the center, the brain and the soul of the community. He could talk and communicate directly with the spirits of the different gods.

The shaman, when called on to heal or perform a special event, would smoke a pipe or take a drink and go into a trance or an out of body experience. In Baja California Sur the plant nightshade is very common and could have been the source for this trance.

He would then turn himself into another animal such as a bird and fly through a crack in the cave to speak to the spirits in the heavens. This can be seen in many examples of cave paintings when the shaman is turning himself into a bird and his hand will be on a crack or in one case the crack is in the middle of the body

The turtle was also used since it lives on the earth and in the sea. The snake was also used as a symbol, usually for fertility and rain, living above and below the earth.

What other animals were painted on the walls?

The Indians painted many animals.
Those they used as food, power, or spirit sources included deer, big horn sheep, coyotes, mountain lions, rabbits, whales, fish and birds of various types including the turkey vulture, eagles and pelicans.

These symbols may seem strange to you but is it any different than our using Smokey the Bear to remind us not to start forest fires. When a small child dies we say they become angels a winged figure that goes to heaven. The snake was used to indicate the fall of mankind and the fertility of Eve in the bible. The symbol of the United States is the eagle and each individual state has a flower, bird and many have an animal as a special emblem.

Where are the caves located and what do the paintings look like?

They are located in caves in the sierras South of San Ignacio. The caves are high. Remote and inaccessible but could be seen from great distances.

Usually the animals are painted lower and the monos, the human figures, are at the highest points.

The monos were depicted facing forward with raised arms, and a flat view of the hands, but the feet are turned outward some with toes and others without. Women are depicted differently from man only by the addition of long pointed breasts, which appear under each armpit. There is no detail in the bodies such as eyes, mouths, etc. Only the outline is representational. Many are painted in bi-colored black and red. When there is a bi-color figure the head is always red.

In the Sierras San Borja the figures are filled mainly with plain red wash.
In the Sierras San Francisco red and black bi-color figures are very common, and animals are shown red with black bellies and inner legs, which could indicate they were trying to show some perspective and depth to the figures.

In Sierra Guadalupe the monos are likely to be filled with checker board or vertical lines so spaced to make them look like a segment of a Cordon cactus.

There are several different headdresses in the paintings, two horns, one horn, sack heads and square heads.

Animals are shown in profile as if leaping or running. Some group of animals are painted in sets of three or more which gives one the feeling that the animals are running across the cave wall. Birds are shown in flight as if seen from below and the heads are in profile to show their beak. Through this one can identify several different bird groups.

Although these paintings are the only message from this era, there is an indication of tradition and organization. There is no doubt long trips were made to acquire the needed color material. It was labor intensive to grind them into suitable pigments. The fact that similar paintings are found over large areas of the peninsular indicated that there was specific communication and belief in the same icons.

Can they date the caves?

There are dating methods available. Unfortunately both nuclear and chemical techniques cannot be used. Carbon 14 methods need significant quantities of carbon organic material for the isotopic analysis. The black pigment could be used for this purpose but for the necessary quantity it would literary strip square yards of paintings. Amino acid test have also been performed but the quantity of amino acid was too low to get an accurate determination.

Dr. Meighan collected a wooden peg from a cave in 1962 and had it radiocarbon dated. The results were 530 A.D. +/- 80 years. The only problem is that there is nothing to link the peg to the cave painters.

Jesuit Father Joseph Mariano Rothea the missionary in San Ignacio from 1759-1768 and Francisco Escalante actually visited the Great Murals. They both wrote the first account of the cave art and indicted that they believed they were very old.

Rothea wrote of the Indian legends.

“In very ancient times, there had come from the north a group of men and women of extraordinary stature. Part of them directed their course along the coast of the Southern Sea and of these, they told me, are still seen the wraps that they fashioned and that are like those that the present Californians use, but very large by comparison…The other part of them directed their course to the rugged portion of the sierras, and they are the authors of said paintings. In truth, those that I saw are convincing because, without scaffolds, or other implements suitable for the purpose, only giant men would have been able to paint at such height.

They told lastly that part of them (the giants) died at each others hands, and part also were killed by the self-same Californians (the taller ancestors) who would not tolerate such strange residents in their land.”
(Note: the Indians also painted their hands and engraved their feet on the cave and in rocks. From this we can determine they were about 5’3″-5’5″, so they were not giants.)

Who were the first people to record the Great Mural Paintings?

Hernan Cortez attempted to settle the first colony in the area, which is presently the city of La Paz.

Jesuit Priest Miguel del Barco wrote a book with collected writings and notes from the two Jesuits Rothea and Escalantes in 1785 “The Story of California”. The Del Barco manuscript was shelved and lost to the world. Then in 1872 the Mexican historian, Miguel Leon Portilla published “Historia Natural y Cronica de La Antigua California”.
This book included many of the notes of the Jesuits.

Then in the 1880’s a Dutch physician, Herman Frederik Carel, journeyed through the American Southwest and Mexico. He collected artifacts and noted a few rock paintings. He subsequently published several articles about his finds.

Jose Rosas Villaviencio discovered copper deposits in the area that is now called Santa Rosalia. A corporation was founded and named El Boleo which had control of two thousand square miles of the adjacent territory. This company was a French corporation financed by the Rothschild bank and had negotiated an agreement with the Dias regime. By 1889 the company town of Santa Rosalia was operational. A French chemist, Leon Diguet, was employed at El Boleo for three years. During this time he explored and collected artifacts in the area and after returning to France in 1892 he gave his collection to the Museum of Natural History and museum of Man in Paris.

This attracted a lot of attention and he was selected to lead an expedition to do more research in Baja California. The Baja California exploration was during the years 1893-94. He wrote a paper “Notes on Pictographs of Baja California (1895). During this expedition he discovered the outstanding caves of San Borjitas, San Juan and Cuesta Palmarito.

In 1951 Barbro Dahlgren and Javier Romero was sent by Instituto Nacional de Antropologia y Historia from Mexico City to study the caves in San Borjitas and the report was printed and illustrated in a 1952 issue of “Artes de Mexico”.

Around 1960 Erle Stanley Gardner, the writer of the Perry Mason novels, made a hobby of Baja California exploration. Jose Rosas Villavicencio (a relative of the discoverer of the Boleo copper deposits) told Gardner about the caves near his childhood home. Gardner arranged for a helicopter and in 1962, visited the pueblito of San Francisco and the caves in that area between Santa Teresa and San Nicolas.

He realized that he had stumbled into a major archaeological find. He contacted Dr. Clement Meighan of the University of California at Los Angeles. After two trips together their explorations were reported in a spread in Life Magazine and in Gardner’s book “The Hidden Heart of Baja”.

Dr. Meighan found a wooden peg and had it carbon dated although there was no evidence it belonged to the painters. His report was published in “American Antiquity in 1966, “Prehistoric Rock Paintings in Baja California”.

Harry Crosby, a writer and photographer, explored for several years discovering many unreported sites and published “The Cave Paintings of Baja California” in 1975. It has been such a popular book that it has been expanded and reprinted in 2001.

If I want to visit the caves what do I do?

1. You will need to contact the Insituto Nacional de Historia y Antropologia (INAH) to get permission. You can contact them in Mexico City, La Paz or in their office in San Ignacio. This permission is not hard to get, but they want to control the number of people who are in the area at one time.

2. You will need to go in with National Guides. Theses are the Mexican ranchers who live in the area.

3. Your trip will be on mules, packing everything on burros.

Once I have the permission what next?

You will need to contact the guides. When you have the permission letter in hand drive to one of the two ranches, Santa Marta or San Francisco. This trip can take a day (4-5 hours) and as the roads are dirt and sometimes washed out in places, a 4 wheel drive is best. You need to be prepared and take all your own provisions with you.

The Guides
When you get to one of the ranches, they will know which guides you will be using. They alternate them. These ranchers live off the land and it is the only outside source of money they have, so they give all of them the opportunity for this income.

You will agree with the guides how many mules and burros are needed. You will pay a fee each day for each animal, the guides, and their animals.

On these ranches there are many children and all the people look forward to when a group might arrive. You might want to bring with you
candy for the children and adults as they will all want some. We take in large bags of tootsie pops. Also Cokes.

Beer is not to be taken to the caves, but when you negotiate and plan the trip with the guides this is a real treat for them, so are the cokes.
Bags of oranges, coconuts and cookies.
Any used clothing and toys you can gather up is always appreciated.

What Provisions?

The guides will not provide you with anything. You will need to take the following. At the ranches you will sleep outside in your own tents.
Bedrolls and tents
Blankets and pillows
Jackets as it is cold in the mountains
Towels,
Propane stove and propane tanks (no fires are allowed)
Water purifier container for water
Canteens
All the food you will eat and also for the guides.
Large pieces of canvas and bungee cords
Because of the rough terrain, cactus and scrub brush, we wrap all of our provisions in canvas. On one trip a bedroll was snagged by a tree and pulled out of the package on the burro. When we arrived we were short one and someone had to sleep without it.
Don’t forget your camera and lots of film. No flash allowed in the caves.

What food to take?
Because weight is a problem try to bring food that is lightweight.
Dried instant soup
Dried cooked beans (Sporting good stores have a variety of dried meals)
Eggs
Bread
Potatoes
Pasta
Bacon
Flour tortillas
Cooking oil, salt, pepper, and spices.
Machaca (dried meat found readily in Mexico)
We bring fresh meat packed in an ice chest. Duct tape the ice chest so no air can enter and it will last several days if not opened.
Coffee and instant tea, no alcohol is allowed on the trip.
Bring the individual packages of sugar and creamer not bags, the Mexican guides love sweets and they will go through a bag of sugar in one sitting. Give them the individual packages for their coffee.
We bring bags of oranges. When you have ridden on a mule for 4 hours and break for lunch that orange is so divine.
All your cooking pots, pans, utensils, etc.
All the trash you make you must carry out.

After the trip?
Send me e-mails and photos of the trip.