CAVE ART IN THE BAJA DESERT
Baja California’s Sierra de San Francisco are nature’s canvas, and the region is the heart of Baja’s rock painting.
Not only do the seasons dye the land with bright red ocotillo blooms and dusky green forests, but its unique topography created a medium for art that the peninsula’s ancient indigenous people took full advantage of. In this wilderness, volcanic strata rise above crisp pools of water and palm groves that belie the surrounding barren lands. Water erosion carved through the ruddy rock, creating varied gradients and overhung walls and large, flat panels perfect for painting. The region’s dry weather and the various site’s remote locations have largely protected and preserved the rock paintings over the years.
The Sierra de San Francisco, now the El Vizcaino reserve, was occupied by the pre-historic group of Guachimi or Cochimi. Little is known about these people or their culture except that they inhabited the region from c. 100 B.C. to A.D. 1300 and came from the north. Though legend says that the paintings were done by giants—a folk tale probably started by the size of some of the human figures that range from six and a half feet tall to over ten feet—the paintings suggest that that the Guachimi people had a sophisticated pre-Hispanic culture that remains cloaked in mystery and tinged with magic.
LOOKING AT THE ART IN THE CAVE PAINTINGS
Due to the peninsula’s geographic location, the indigenous groups had an insular existence that developed their local culture even as it isolated them from other continental influences. The cave paintings of Baja California are one of the best insights into this unique culture. Though the motifs throughout the various rock paintings vary, they frequently suggest a hunter-gatherer culture with a predominate theme of warfare. The paintings include figures of men, women, and children as well as a marine and continental flora and fauna including whales, turtles, octopus, eagles, pumas, rabbits, lynx, deer, goats, and more. Weapons, both in relation to animals being hunted and the humans themselves, are also a dominate feature that suggests that not only was hunting a primary activity but warfare was a recurrent feature in their culture. The rock art also incorporates abstract and mystical components that extend beyond dietary habits.
The paint used to capture these complex images was also impressive. The indigenous peoples largely relied on five colors to create their images. The color black, derived from charcoal, is an obvious principle color as was white, created by solidified volcanic ash, and a brick red made from crushed lava. Obviously, the peninsula’s geologic history had an essential role in its cultural development. An orange red and yellow, both derived from ocher, can also be found used within the paintings.
Archeologists have determined that the process of painting the figures began with outlines, usually in white since that color did not require a binder, before they were filled in with a combination of colors. Many of the figures are split between two colors—humans being halved vertically into two colored pieces whereas animals being divided horizontally. While some stylistic tendencies were adhered to overall, there are regional idiosyncrasies that slightly alter these artistic conventions. The following regions are considered a “style guide” when it comes to the rock paintings: Sierra de san Borja, Sierra de San Francisco, Sierra de Guadalupe, San Borjitas, and Southern Semiabstract Style.
Much like other early cave paintings, their meaning and cultural significance remain ambiguous and involve some conjecture. Many archeologists and anthropologists believe that the Baja rock paintings suggest a culture heavily dependent on hunting, or a mystical hunting magic, as the majority of animals are shown as being struck by arrows. Similarly, as many human figures were painted over those of animals, scholars suggest that the culture believed in human dominance over the animals. Lastly, the rock paintings’ locations themselves have drawn some interest. Their remote, usually inaccessible locations indicate that location was closely considered before paintings. Further, whereas some paintings were done on walls and ceilings easy to reach, some are located in places that would require scaffolding to reach. Scholars such as Meighan believe that this demonstrates the Guachimi people found significance in the location and the act of painting rather than focusing on the painting itself.
SCHOLARLY HISTORY AND RECORDED NARRATIVES
The Baja California peninsula hides a wealth of cave paintings are over a thousand years old. Though Europe has the well-known Cave of Altamira in Spain and France’s Lascaux caves and the Chauvet-Pont-d’Arc Cave—all of which have more modern prestige—Baja’s cave paintings are both larger and more numerous than those in Europe. However, much like the peninsula itself that went largely unexplored and unsettled until the 19th century, the mural art hidden away within the peninsula’s sierras went unrecognized and unstudied for the most part until the mid-20th century.
One expedition took place in 1962 when Erle Stanley Gardner sent archaeologist Clement Meighan to explore and record the rock shelters. The exploration led to an article in Life and the publication Gardner’s The Hidden Heart of Mexico as well as Meighan’s 1966 scholarly article. Garner’s funded exploration led to photographer Howard Crosby’s more involved, mule-mounted exploration led to the publication of The Cave Paintings of Baja California: Discovering the Great Murals of an Unknown People. Since then, Baja’s cave paintings have continued to draw attention from scholars, art enthusiasts, and visitors alike, and the wall paintings have been added to UNESCO’s World Heritage Sites in 1993.
Although the cave paintings did not draw much modern attention until the 20th century, Spanish missionaries knew of the large murals and discussed them in their records. The first recording of the wall paintings, as yet discovered, can be found in Francisco Javier Clavigero’s Historia de la Antigua o Baja California written in 1789 to Rome. Clavigero describes the paintings discovered on the rock shelters found between the San Ignacio mission and the Mission Santa Gertrudis with some admiration and some condescension for the indigenous peoples:
These paintings, although crude, show the objects distinctly. The colors that served for them are clearly seen to have been made from the mineral earths which are found in the region of the volcano of Las Virgenes. The missionaries most admired the fact that those colors should have remained permanent in the stone through many centuries without being damaged by either air or water. Not feeling those pictures and dress to belong to the savage and brutalized nations which inhabited California when the Spanish arrived there, they doubtless belong to another ancient nation, although we cannot say which it was. The Californians unanimously affirm that it was a nation of giants who came from the north.
Although the California Indians have been asked the meanings of the paintings, rays, and characters they could not attain any satisfactory reason. The most that has been found out is that [the paintings] are of their ancestors and that those of today are completely ignorant of the meaning. (trans. by C. Meighan in American Antiquity)
While Clavigero’s records give insight into earlier missionaries who were aware of the artwork and its possible anthropological significance, they also give insight into the complex, and occasionally tense, relationship between Spanish missionaries—Jesuit or Dominican—and the peninsula’s indigenous people.
PROMINENT BAJA ROCK ART SITES
Cueva del Ratón is more of an overhang than a cave, but the rock mural is located at the highest elevation of any mural within the Sierra de San Francisco as it overlooks Cerro de la Lagunaapt. The mural is about 40 feet long and depicts a human with a black face patch, deer, rabbits, sheep, and a mountain lion. Humans painted with a black face patch can only be found at four other sites in Baja, and the body colored by fine vertical stripes is also a distinguishing feature.
Cueva de la Soledad is appropriately named for its remote perch high on the plateau. Cueva de la Soledad is actually one of many cavities on the rock face, but it’s the largest one. The images are painted on the cavity’s roof, and the mural includes large images of human figures, referred to as “monos,” overlaying images of animals. The cacophony of images may be static, but they suggest a frantic surge of movement through its mayhem. A colored checkerboard, created by yellow-lined boxes filed in alternatingly with red and black, is depicted on an adjacent wall.
The Cueva de las Flechas, the Cave of Arrows, is one of Baja’s more renowned caves. This cave received its name from the distinctive use of arrows that are portrayed as being in the human figures rather than the animals. One figure even has ten arrows within it. While the incorporation of arrows within the rock paintings of Baja are common, they are primarily painted as part of the hunting culture and, as such, are jutting out of animals.
Cueva Pintada remains Baja California’s the largest collection of murals as it spans 500 feet across the base of the cavern at its opening. The well-preserved murals lie in the central portion of Arroyo de San Pablo, and many speculate that the rock’s good condition with little erosion also helped preserve the paintings. Cueva Pintada features a variety of wildlife with distinctly homogenously sized figures. The mural portrays images of monos, birds with wings in flight, sheep, deer, and marine life such as whales and sea lions. The paintings’ immense size have caused many to suggest that the painters fashioned platforms and scaffolds from the neighboring palm groves that enabled them to reach the high surfaces.
Cueva de la Serpiente lies within Baja’s central sierras and is known for its depiction of the two distinct deer-headed serpents. The right serpent remains complete today, and its ears and antlers follow into a body banded with black lines and culminated into a bifurcated tale. The left snake has not survived the years as well, and while the head remains the serpent’s body has fallen away with fallen rock. The mural itself is rather large at almost eight meters, and over fifty animal and human figures appear to frolic along the two serpents’ encompassing bodies. This rock mural is unique in that the animals are fanciful, and scholars have suggested since that they serpents represent renewal and creation for all creatures rather than a more mundane depiction of life.
Boca de San Julio can be found nearby Cueva Pintada. This cave painting portrays a uniquely dynamic rendition of a leaping buck and a pregnant deer linked in motion. Los Musicos also lies in this neighboring cluster of caves. Los Musicos was named for its abstract style that is reminiscent of musical notes. The painting shows humans dancing upon a grid of white lines resembling a score. With their arms outstretched, the human figures appear to be celebrating in joy. Of course, with abstract art or a lost people such as this, much of the meaning is speculation. Baja’s cave paintings contain a vocabulary of symbols we have yet to fully decipher.