Mexico / Baja California  / Rock Paintings
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Monday, April 24, 2017

Rock Paintings

Rock painting (pictograph) – everybody hearing the word first thinks of Altamira or Lascaux or the masterworks created by the Australian Aborigines.

The rock paintings, hieroglyphs and pictographs of Baja California are distributed over the whole peninsula. There are indeed hundreds of places where paintings have been found, with greater concentrations in the areas of the central mountain ranges of the Sierra San Francisco, Sierra San Borja, Sierra San uan and Sierra Guadalupe. It is very likely that many are still awaiting their discovery.

When the Spanish reached Baja California, they asked the indigenous people about the mysterious drawings in red, white and black mineral colors. But none knew anything about the prehistoric painters. They said that giants had created the drawings, that are up to 16 ft (5 m) high and up to 26 ft (8 m) above the ground; sometimes the sizes or heights are even greater. The painters are today assumed to have used scaffolds of cactus wood to place the drawings so high as to make the observer think of giants. The typical bi-color painting used for the human figures will probably remain a secret forever. Most paintings are found in the central part of Baja California – in particular in the region of Santa Marta and the mountains of the Sierra San Francisco. Only archeological remains have been preserved of the painters‘ tools, i.e. “paint pots” of stone, arrow-heads, scrapers and sculpted bones.

Since 1993, the paintings have been protected by being included into the “World Heritage List” of the United Nations (UNESCO) as a “World Class Rock Art Site”. To visit the paintings, you will need an official guide. Why are these sites so little known? Most of them are situated in highly inaccessible places  deep in the mountains, in canyons or palm oases, so that they are difficult to reach. Only a few of them such as the paintings in the Santa Marta Canyon can be reached by car. It will take you several days, however, to get at the paintings that are seldom visited, and you will have to hike quite a bit and to pass nights in a tent. A fatiguing enterprise that will not only cost you a lot of sweat, but also some money for permits, local guides, a caravan of mules and food. But it is worth the effort, because the wild mountains with its exotic fauna and flora typical of Baja California provide a unique experience of their own. In many places there are not even footpaths, and you will have to climb some to reach the galleries high in the rocks.

Once you have arrived to the destination of your expedition, all effort will be forgotten. In a long row, the portraits of men and animals look down from the roofs and walls of overhangs and semi-caves. Ladders or scaffolds were needed to paint the motifs up to 30 ft (10 m) above the ground, and sometimes even higher. Although researchers differentiate between various schools of painters, all figures are generally represented merely as a contour without details. Human figures, for instance, are always shown with raised arms. Four-legged animals are running or leaping, fish are seen in side view, and birds in flight from below. There are portraits of deer, bighorn sheep, rabbits, wolves, vultures and even whales. Among the most impressive places are certainly the Cueva de las Flechas, Cueva de La Música and Cueva Pintada (also called Gardener Cave) in the Santa Teresa Canyon (Sierra San Francisco). The latter is the largest known gallery of rock paintings in Baja California: it shows hundreds of motifs in a band 545 ft (166 m) long.

As to the colors, there are differences, however, between regions; human figures, for instance, are completely red in the Sierra San Borja, while they are half red and half black in the Sierra San Francisco. They sometimes wear headgear or buns. The artists used natural substances to obtain the pigments: ground stone (red, white and yellow) and charcoal and ash (black). They were mixed with water and applied with brushes cut from agaves. Owing to the dry climate, they were preserved for millennia.

But what do we know of the artists? Although the missionaries of the 18th century documented some of the paintings, they lacked understanding for those works of the devil. It was relatively late that researchers began to study that art, the first, about 1900, being Léon Diguet, a Frenchman who worked as an employee in El Boleo copper mine in Santa Rosalía. From the 1940‘s, American Stanley Gardener (for whom the Gardener Cave was named) researched in particular the paintings of the Sierra San Francisco and wrote “The Hidden Heart of Baja”. Henry Crosby, another American, has been active since 1972. His thorough investigations were published in the National Geographic and in the book “The Cave Paintings of Baja California”,  which appeared in 1984. Recently researchers of the Mexican National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH) have added further pieces to the puzzle of how the mysterious paintings came about. While Crosby dated active painting from 500 to 1500 AD, the INAH greatly expanded this period, namely from 3000 BC to 1650 AD. This would mean that the early Cochimí Indians, who lived in central Baja California when the missionaries arrived, must have been rock painters themselves or at least have known them. The Cochimí, however, knew neither the meaning of the symbols nor the painting technique – or they hid their knowledge from the missionaries. According to their legends, giants had made the rock paintings long before their ancestors arrived.

The artists are therefore still unknown, as are the reasons for their creations so visitors are free to use their imagination. The sites of the paintings may have been places of worship, places of longer stays or places where animals were hunted down, because they are always portrayed on the run, with open mouths as if gasping for breath. In the Cueva de Las Flechas (Arrow Cave) some people are shown as figures symbolically pierced by arrows; this could be construed as an action of war or a territorial dispute between local groups. Or do the figures show Indian shamans, and are the arrows metaphors of death and dying?  Remains of resting-places, camp-fires, ceremonial and burial places were found near many galleries, just as tools and weapons (pestles, scrapers, cutting tools of bone, basketry, bows and arrows). The creators of the rock paintings were certainly nomads, who roved depending on the cycles of nature and the wanderings of the  animals they hunted. Some of the portrayed animals are today rare in Baja California, what is suggestive of a change in the environmental conditions. This may also have occasioned the disappearance of the painters. The best protection for the paintings today is their difficult access. It remains to be hoped that the fascinating paintings will be protected in the future even better than today.