The Meaning of Rock Art

The Meaning of Cochimi Rock Art

Art for Art’s Sake? Shamanism?
A Proto Language? Hunting and Fishing Magic?

The ‘Sea Goddess” from Piedras Pintados

It is documented that when the first Spanish arrived in central Baja and encountered the rock art found there, they asked the native Cochimi who it was that painted these pictures. They were told by the Cochimi that “They were there “before” we came here.” I doubt whether these exact words could have been used as it has been shown that the concept around the abstract word “before” was beyond the Cochimi comprehension. I have no doubt however, that through questioning, the answers derived would have supported that claim by the padres. I am however, going to attribute the rock art to them in order to keep things simple and besides, some of the later dated rock art is no doubt theirs. Other writers call these indigenous artists “The Painters” That’s a pleasant name that fits well.
Rock art is a term that encompasses the grouping of petroglyph and pictograph forms that collectively can be found in rock shelters, caves and in open structures such as canyon walls and individual random rock outcroppings. Various degrees of sophistication is present from random cupules, (said by some to be the most ancient) to intricate fine painted renditions in multicolors.
Rock art has been discovered and recorded here in the Americas, in Africa, Asia, Europe and Australasia. The earliest European examples have been dated to about 35,000 years ago (Chauvet Cave in France) with more prolific activities during the time following the last Ice Age or about 20,000 years ago. The timeline conditions that exist in the Americas is usually attributed to a period in time when the Bering land bridge was in place during the last ice age. Some rock art has been found in Colombia at Chiribiquete Park dating to about 20,000 years before present. It is possible then, that the Americas were visited by marine hunter-gatherers from Asia before this time, leading to pockets of human activity along coastal regions. It is therefore not too much of a stretch to place some groups of early humans in the Baja area at that time, or earlier.
Some of the rock art in the Mulege area has been carbon-dated to about 7500 years before present with the most recent being concurrent with or slightly subsequent to the Spanish influx of the mid 1500’s. During this time period the area around Mulege in central Baja was inhabited by the Cochimi indigenous peoples. Who were the people who were in this area before the Cochimi and when did they arrive? I cant answer that, but, if in looking at some of the rock art in this area, you find some hesitation in attributing the art to the Cochimi people, it may be that you are looking at something left behind by who I will call “The Ancients”. More on that later.
During the early Mesolithic period (about 10,000 years BP) the climatic conditions were more moderate in Baja favouring more abundant game and plant populations. It is therefore not a stretch of the imagination to consider a co-relation between population density, social patterns and the flourishing of rock art. Consequently as the Baja climate became more desert like and the animal and plant species became less abundant; so too did the human population and the resultant rock art examples. Sources of water would become more important for the Cochimi and Rock art is generally found only within a reasonable proximity to these sources.
The most common question I found myself asking when I first viewed Rock Art was “What is the meaning of this art?” and “What were they thinking or feeling when they did this?” As a result of there being no written and documented language existing at the time the art was inscribed and consequently no surviving examples of such, there are no explanations that have survived to present time directly from the artists that would shed light on meaning. There are sometimes tantalizing clues found that seem to indicate conformance to some theory or another but when researched further a dead end is often reached. Also, one must consider the background, education and religious beliefs of the viewer, for it could be construed that what is seen as “meaning” by that person is a reflection of their own upbringing. To be fair, it is therefore important to try to view the art while trying to put yourself in the shoes of the artist so to speak. For then it will be a closer match to what was going on in the artist’s mind. Very hard to do without being too subjective. Not being undaunted, or having a modest countenance, current academics have entered the fray with interpretations on the “meaning” of rock art. As expected, there is no consensus within this group but I offer up the following for consideration.


A casual study of some samples of the Cochimi rock art shows a good eye for proportion and shows renditions of animals, especially deer, in remarkable detail. Beautiful, proportionally shaped head, neck, antlers legs and body. Some pictures of deer show an internal tapered line from the mouth to the tail, beautifully curved and of varying thickness. Some call this a Life Line and as such, this is a complex, abstract concept to try to visualize and render. This can be seen in the Trinidad deer.
I have also seen pictures showing placement of internal organs which have been shown with wavy lines surrounding them, signifying motion or an aura of life or spirit perhaps. The “Venado Gordo” in the Santa Barbara arroyo for example. When you consider the absence of understanding of abstract concepts such as “life” or “spirit” as discussed earlier you can begin to marvel at the renditions shown in the Venado Gordo pictograph.
The petroglyphs at the Piedras Pintados site about 15km west of Mulege shows many images. Some arguably very old, maybe in the region of 10 to 20 thousand years before present, others more recent, say five thousand years BP or much less. Of the more recent then, there are two humanlike images that are almost life-size, one male and the other with female attributes that I will attempt to describe here.
The female figure (sometimes call the Sea Goddess) has proportionately enlarged vulva with what could be a forked tail (or small legs) protruding. The head of the figure has no neck, is fully pecked and has two protruding conical appendages which may be a Shamans headdress. Within the outline of the head there are two holes in the rock about ½” in diameter and about 4″ apart which could be interpreted as eyes giving the figure the appearance of looking slightly to her right.
Her left hand has six digits and that arm is of short proportions and is angled down below horizontal. The raised right arm is short also and may have six digits. This hand seems to be holding an object that is circular with five upward extending vanes. (A fan maybe) Superimposed on the right shoulder of the figure is a definite picture of a fish with the head of the fish up, above the shoulder, and the forked tail of the fish at about the middle of the figure, The fish also has two other fins and is fully pecked.
Suspended below the left hand is an unidentifiable object that is fully pecked. Below this small figure there is what could be the shape of a turtle with pecking only on the outline.
There is a horizontal line at mid level on the figure that extends (by coincidence?) outside of the figure to the viewers right. Close to the center of this line is a six pointed star shape spanning about 6 inches. There is another horizontal line at what could be waist level and a prominent cleft on the rock where the belly button would be. From this cleft there is prominent pecking that occurs both inside and outside of the lines denoting the limbs and torso of the figure although pecking favors the viewers left side below the cleft. Near what would be the figures left shoulder there is a prominent cleft that has heavy pecking extending upwards towards the figures head and also outwards along the left arm part way. About half way along the arm the pecking turns upwards into an area of the rock that shows signs of being broken away in recent history. The whole figure is outlined with pecked lines of a wavy nature to signify ?
Dark staining on the rock surface is evident extending down below the right arm. There are lightly pecked figures of what could be 3 or 4 fish below the right arm.
An extraordinary figure! Now, how would you interpret the meaning of this figure without including at least one spiritual synonym?
I believe it is safe to say that evidence shows that Shamans or Medicine Men existed in all the social groups in the Americas since the first settlers crossed the Bering land bridge at about, or before, the end of the last ice age. This person, him or her, was a specialist in the rituals of society and used trance inducing drugs, alcohol, starvation, meditation and dreams as mediums for creating the supernatural aspects of the ritual. The Shaman coached others in the supporting roles for the rituals, but he alone maintained the artifacts that enabled him to communicate with the appropriate spirit. The creation of beliefs and associated superstitions would have given the Shaman power with, and over his society group for his perceived ability to produce rain, animals to hunt and kill, and enemies to subjugate. More on the dangers of this later.
The Shamans of the Cochimi used masks, cloaks and headdresses, and plaques which were placed in/on the ground with images that supported the spiritual concepts ideoligized by his society. These masks and plaques can be seen in some of the art of the region and also exist today as artifacts.
Painting parts of the body and wearing definitive clothing may have also been used to show rank or exclusivity for the Shaman. Rock art images showing radical body colours, six fingers, differential headgear and other features not generally accepted as being consistent with “normal” people are evident in many locations in central Baja. There are so called Can-head figures that could be a representation of a cylindrical head covering with a facial visor and in some figures, an attached breast plate or throat guard. A form of armour if you will.


This is possibly the simplest of all theories about Cochimi rock art. This view holds that there is no real meaning behind this type of art, that it is nothing but the product of an idle activity with no deep motivation behind it, a decoration of a rock surface with whatever thought comes to mind. A form of doodling if you like. As simple and innocent as this view may sound, it has some important implications. It firstly implies that there is leisure time for the artist. This in turn implies that there is sufficient food and water available within reasonable reach of some, or all of the people. This food and water must be able to be processed with sufficient time remaining in the day to afford time for leisure activities. You could also consider that the artist may be part of an elite group within the society with time on their hands because others are conscribed to do the hunting and gathering of the food and water needed. A hint at a hierarchal society perhaps? An evolution away from egalitarian hunter-gatherer society? Either way, time is available for art.
Secondly, if the art is only for art’s sake then, gentle reader, it also implies that there is no connection between the subject of the art and the artists environment. Now keep in mind that some scholars saw people in the early Cochimi communities as savages incapable of being driven by deep psychological motivations, and they even rejected the idea that rock art could have any connection with religion/spiritual concerns or any other subtle motivation. This approach is not accepted today, but it was somewhat more influential in the early years of anthropology, I am told.
When one looks at the rock art at the sites of La Pinguica and Montevideo however, you are tantalized by the abundance of abstract images which bear absolutely no resemblance to any fauna or flora of the region. This may then support the theory that this particular art is motivated by the intellect of the artist in concurrence with the Art for Art’s sake view.
It therefore does not take too much stretch of one’s thought process to consider the natural progression of ideas to the following. Consider then, that rock art was part of the fundamental fabric of society like music, dance and ritual and as such must be considered as vitally connected to human evolution. Almost to the point of being a natural human trait that is the proclivity of everyone in some degree of competence or other. Is everybody doing it? You only have to look at the range of artistic competence exhibited in the rock art of the Mulege area to support that theory. Hmm?


Some scholars have claimed that rock art was produced as indicators of territorial boundaries by different communities during the time that deteriorating climatic conditions increased the competition for territory between Cochimi hunter-gatherer communities. (Some) Rock art, according to this view, is seen as a sign of the ethnic or territorial divisions within the different Cochimi groups coexisting in a given area. This art was used as a marker by hunting-gathering communities in order to indicate to other groups their ‘right’ to exploit a specific area and its resources and avoid (or threaten) potential conflicts.
Other followers of Cochimi rock art have made similar arguments: they proposed the idea that when the population density was quite high and with climate changes causing a decline in available food, that rock art was used as a social or cultural device to promote “clan” cohesion in the face of the otherwise inevitable social conflict. The large anthropomorph figures in the San Borjitas cave in the mountains northwest of Mulege seem to support this with some figures showing spears and arrows penetrating the body which could be seen as a warning to the viewer. Other figures are shown with hands raised above their heads. A warning or a welcome?
I am told that this argument seems to be in line with perceived demographic and social patterns during the Upper Paleolithic age in both the Americas and in Europe. More population density meant more competition and subsequent territorial awareness in hunter gatherer societies. However, again, we may be using our modern bias’ and education in order to make this statement.
It could also be said that if Cochimi groups or clans increased their awareness of territoriality, it is reasonable to expect, at the extreme end of the scale, some sort of indication of this in the archaeological record of human remains. An indication of signs of injuries inflicted with sharp or blunt weapons in excavated remains, or other signs of trauma that could be linked to inter-group conflicts. Although in this case it is possible that if the art actually helped to avoid conflict, no such signs would be detected. Hmm?


it is said that by analyzing the distribution of the images in different caves or other locations, it can be suggested that the distribution of the cave paintings is not random: there may be a matrix or pattern in its distribution, sometimes referred to as a ‘blueprint’. When you read articles written by anthropologists and others studying the Cochimi you can see the descriptions of the rock art defined, counted, and otherwise tabulated. This is no doubt done in order to see if there is a pattern from which some Matrix hypothesis can be concluded. So where are the patterns in Cochimi rock art and what can be concluded?
Size: Rock art images tend to be larger in rock art sites in the interior mountains and smaller in the caves and shelters of the coastal regions.
Topic: Fish and sea life tend to be the predominant subjects of coastal sites and Deer and other animals in the interior
Abstract: Abstract renderings seem to be more prolific at the extreme northern and southern range of the Cochimi. Realistic renderings of animals, people and fish etc tend to be the subject matter in areas in the central areas of Cochimi populations.
Male vs female: In some sites vulvas tend to be the dominant topic. Other sites might be dominated by horned deer vs their doe opposite sex.
Patterns: images involving repeated patterning can be found in almost all sites. It has been said that all cultures contain universal patterns that are the product of the common development of the human mind. Proof of this can be found in the patterns of ritual, religion, music and maybe even the last doodle you did on a scrap of paper while you were waiting for the train/bus/plane. . . ? Concentric circles is a favourite also; they can be found on every continent and in almost every location.. . . and they are hard to draw freehand and get a consistent curve. A straight line is relatively easy so a pattern involving multiple straight lines is easier to produce than concentric circles
Placement of image: Some sites might have a protruding rock that in the eyes of the artist is just begging to have a whatzit drawn on it so that the rock’s shape or feature is incorporated within the image structure. Purely in the eye of the painter in many cases. In most circumstances no logical placement pattern or structure is discernable that can stand scrutiny within the context of the matrix thought or, if you like, each site has a unique layout of images that will not conform to a general scheme. (Check out the photos of the Piedras Pintados East Side, in this website, for numerous incorporated images)

Re Circles and Spirals:
I believe that when a “straight” line is drawn it is relatively easy for the artist to produce a successful image. If the line is not just perfect it often does not detract from the success of the image the “straight” line is incorporated in. With a circle or spiral however it is immensely harder to render and is always a challenge to the artist. If the curvature of one part of the circle differs from another part then it immediately draws your eye. In a spiral there is (sometimes) a constant rate of change of radius that will challenge even an accomplished artist. Sometimes the rate of change is also varied in some fashion producing delightful images. (The second derivative for the mathematician) And. . . if either form is drawn correctly there seems to be a feeling of “comfort” in the beholder. That the image is just “right” ( If you have the time, gentle reader, check out the art work in the Irish site at Brú na Bóinne, in County Math)
I believe that artists who render circles or spirals are forwarding their development of a basic “doodle” and are trying to perfect the image to give themselves a feeling of success or comfort or accomplishment.
Also, I believe that as everyone has experienced phosphenes (of this nature) then Shamans can relate to this shared commonality in some of his/her rituals. Consequently, the artist who makes a circle or spiral can be sure of some of the same commonality with his peers and so enhance a feeling of “belonging” to the rancheria or whatever group/clan he belongs to.
So, are circles and spirals just a doodle or are they part of the fabric of the belief system of the Cochimi artist and viewer? I believe the latter!

One cannot be ashamed for the effort put into trying to apply a Pattern theory to the rock art sites for what in effect you are trying to do is show that the Cochimi people were not ignorant savages but are a race of people with advanced cognitive abilities . . . just like us.


Another suggestion is that Cochimi rock art can be a pictorial manifestation of sympathetic magic, designed specifically as a hunting aid. This then would attribute certain controlling attributes to the artist over an animal or fish that was an important food source. Some support for this theory can be evidenced by the fact that deer and other animals are sometimes depicted with penetrating arrows and spears
Magic rituals may not have a direct material outcome, but this type of practice surely boosts the confidence and must have a direct psychological benefit (a placebo effect?), increasing the success of hunting activities. In this context, Cochimi rock art is seen as a tool to magically benefit the groups’ subsistence, encouraging the success of the hunters.
Also, it may be considered that the magic is applied to a resource that carries a greater risk of “failure to succeed”. Deer that once were plentiful and now with climate change and a rising human population are few and further apart and harder to kill for example. Low risk and plentiful food sources such as shellfish are seldom if ever depicted in an image that could be construed as risky and demanding that magic be applied in order to have a successful harvest.
If this emphasizes the idea that magic can be a psychological response to conditions where uncertainty grows, then this is what we would expect in the case of hunters affected by increasing population and/or climatic pressure. This would also suggest greater competition between groups and clans and perhaps a splintering in the beliefs of each clan.


In this explanation, Cochimi art is said to be the result of drug-inducing trance-like states of the artists. This is based on ethnic data linked to other societies in the Americas and elsewhere where even in current times there are some common elements.
It could be argued (and is!) that some of the abstract symbols at certain sites are actually depictions of hallucinations and dreams.
I have read that when the human brain enters into certain altered states, bright lines are part of the visual hallucinations experienced by the individuals: this pattern is not linked to the cultural background but rather is a default response of the brain. . . any brain that is. Today, yesterday or 3000 years ago the reaction is the same. Various shapes, some phosphorescent, Long lines, multicoloured or just red are present in many hallucinations. Maybe then the Life line of the Trinidad deer is a result of this altered state (edit)
This is another argument with a fairly solid background. (I’m hedging my bets aren’t I !) Nonetheless, there is no basis to generalize the idea of shamanism as the cause of the Cochimi rock art as a whole. Shaman practices could be, at best, considered a specific variation of the religious and magical traditions or beliefs mentioned above.
However if you must take anything away from this argument consider this. . . Above all it must be considered that Shamans in and by themselves do not create magic and religion; instead, conversely, it is the propensity for humans believing in magic and religion present in virtually every society that is the origin of shamans.
Ultimately, this argument rests on magic and religious practices, and goes hand in glove with the argument above that sees art as a form of hunting magic.


The term Phosphene describes the phenomenon perceived by the visual center in one’s brain receiving stimuli other than visual stimuli. This could be by applying external pressure to the closed eyelid or by looking at a bright object, then closing one’s eyes and seeing the after effect. There can be, I am told, additional factors such as fatigue, hunger, and trance states either produced by using drugs or self induced.
The images seen have been extensively documented by others and range from simple graphic lines, circles, stars and geometric shapes, to complex images involving designs superimposed on landscapes or images of animals.
The research done by others also concludes that Phosphenes are experienced by everyone; child, adult, and in every ethnic group in all geographic areas. Yes, you too! So, it is safe to conclude that phosphenes were experienced by the Cochimi and no doubt had an influencing effect on their art especially the abstract art. This would also be enhanced by the Shamans of the group relating their experiences.
Phosphenes then, are perhaps the only contributing factor to Cochimi art that can be safely argued with a high degree of acceptance from everyone.


Since almost all cultural developments have been influenced by multiple causes, it seems reasonable to suppose that the development of the art of the Mulege Cochimi has a multi-causal explanation rather than a single cause. None of the arguments presented above can, by themselves, account fully for the development of the rock art in this region.
While anthropological studies worldwide commonly emphasize the religious/spiritual origin of rock art. This is not the only origin detected thorough ethnic studies; there are examples of secular use, but it is by my reckoning at least, apparently the most frequent. However, because we can not go back and ask the Painters who applied the paint in the Mulege sites why they did it, it could be considered a presumption if we applied meanings based on our interpretation and examination of current societies or cultures.
Here is another thought. . . If we assume and accept that at least some Cochimi rock art was created for religious/spiritual reasons, then it is safe to suppose that rock art is just the most archaeologically visible evidence of prehistoric ritual and belief, and unless rock art was the only and exclusive material expression of the religious/spiritual life of prehistoric communities,(doubtful), we can therefore assume that there is an entire range of religious/spiritual material that has not survived. Since most of the Cochimi portable artifacts were organic in nature (wood, fibre, bone etc) they could also be connected to spiritual aspects of their lives and been a part of the ‘material package’ that made up their prehistoric rituals and over the ages have not survived to be examined today. Hmm? .
When you think about it, our knowledge on the meaning of Cochimi rock art should not be considered either correct or incorrect, only fragmentary. A Thin Slice if you like. The element of uncertainty, which could result in the rejection of any form of dogmatic or simplistic explanation, is likely to always be present in this field of study. This, hopefully, should lead to flexible theories complementing each other and the willingness to accept that, as more evidence is revealed, arguments and models will have to be adjusted. (Spoken like the anthropologist I am not!)
So, gentle reader, is the rock art a product of the inner intellect perhaps, or is it influenced by the need to find food in an era of declining resources? Do we also have to consider the effect of territorial conflict and perhaps the power of the Sea Goddess of Piedras Pintados? Yes definitely, Why not!