Californian Rock Art

Californian Rock Art – The idea that the rock art of California might plausibly be linked to shamanism was revived by David Whitley in a paper entitled “Shamanism and Rock Art in Far Western North America” and developed in detail in his volume The Art of the Shaman: Rock Art of California (2000). Whitley revisited ethnographic records, including those on the Shoshone, and established that certain metaphors in these documents referred to the trance experiences of shamans. In the rock art of the Coso region in the desert of interior southern California, bighorn sheep predominate, yet they were not a major food source, indicating that the rock art was not produced for “hunting magic.” Whitley argues on the basis of ethnographic records that the prevalence of bighorn sheep engravings is an indicator that the region was viewed as supernaturally potent. Examples of sheep depicted as dead, dying, or being killed may be interpreted as metaphors for trance. The sheep themselves may have been helpers assisting shamans to control the weather, among other tasks. According to Whitley, shamans produced rock art as the concluding performance of vision quests in order to represent their visions and experiences in a graphic medium. As such, the rock art depicts spirit helpers and such performances as healing, initiation, rainmaking, and sorcery. Rock art sites were also sacred sites, with cracks in the rocks being used as entrances to the spirit world. Whitley has applied this shamanistic interpretive framework to a wide range of sites throughout the Great Basin, and while there has been criticism from antishamanism rock art researchers, this shamanistic interpretation is widely recognized as the most consistent and reliable to date.


Historical Dictionary of Shamanism by Graham Harvey and Robert J. Wallis 2007