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Animal Masters

July 29, 2012

Master of the animals, supernatural figure regarded as the protector of game in the traditions of foraging peoples. The name was devised by Western Scholars who have studied such hunting and gathering societies. In some traditions, the master of animals is believed to be the ruler of the forest and guardian of all animals: in others, he is the ruler of only one species, usually a lerge animal of economic or social importance to the tribe. Thus, among Eurasian peoples the animal most frequently is the bear; among the reindeer cultures of the tundra, the reindeer; among the northern coastal peoples of Eurasia and America, the whale, the seal, or the walrus; among the North American Indians, the beaver, or the caribou; and among the Mesoamerican and South American Indians, the wild pig, jaguar, or tapir. In some traditions he is pictured in human form, at times having animal attributes or riding an animal; in other traditions he is a giant animal or can assume animal form at will. A complex system of customs governs the relationship between the master of animals, the game animal, and the hunter. The master controls the game animals or their spirits (in many myths, by penning them). He releases a certain number to humans as food. Only the allotted number may be killed, and slain animals must be treated with respect. The master of the animals, if properly invoked, will also guide the hunter to the kill. The souls of the animals, when slain, return to the master’s pens and give him a report of their treatment. If this system is violated, the master will avenge an animal improperly slain, usually by withholding game. A ceremony then must be held to remove the offense or a shaman sent to placate the master.  – Encyclopaedia Britannica

Trois-Frères, cave in Ariège, France, containing an important group of Late Paleolithic paintings and engravings. The cave was discovered in 1914, and most of the pictures of animals, together with a couple of therianthropes (half-human, half-animal figures), are located on the walls of a deep interior chamber known as the Sanctuary. This area is filled with some 280 often over-lapping engraved figures of bison horses, stags, reindeer, ibex, and mammoths… The Sanctuary is dominated by the cave’s most famous figure, a small image, both painted and engraved, known as the Horned God, or the Sorcerer. It depicts a human with features of several different animals, and it dominates the mass of animal figures from a height of 13 feet (4 metres) above the cave floor. Its significance is unknown, but it is usually interpreted as some kind of great spirit or master of the animals. The unusual nature of the Sanctuary’s decoration may reflect the practice of magical ceremonies in the chamber.  – Encyclopaedia Britannica

The ‘Sorcerer’, Trois Freres cave

An old engraving of a Tungusic shaman, bearing a striking resemblance to the ‘Sorcerer’ discovered by Count Begouen in the Trois Freres cave in 1918. Photo: Lissner – Man, God and Magic

The following is taken from my notes on “Myth, ritual and rock art: Coso decorated animal-humans and the Animal Master” by Alan P. Garfinkel, Donald R. Austin, David Earle and Harold Williams (Wokod), May 19 2009:


Recent interpretations of rock art have often focused on these images as a somewhat exclusive record of shamanic experiences. Consideration of decorated animal-human figures (Patterned Body Anthropomorphs – PBAs) within the Coso Rock Art Complex in eastern California, in conjunction with the mythology of Kawaiisu, other Numic, and Tubatulabal groups, suggests an alternative (or perhaps complementary) view. Coso PBAs may be representations of an important supernatural – possibly the netherworld master of the animals. This interpretation, if valid, provides further support for Coso rock art as a manifestation of a hunting religion complex. Such a complex prominently featured animal ceremonialism and functioned in part as a means to envision a supernatural agent that had special powers controlling the movements of animals and restoring game to the human world.

Alternative views of the meaning and function of rock art, especially those images depicting large game animals and animal-human conflations, have sparked a long-standing debate. A central figure in this debate since the 1980s has been David Lewis-Williams, who has argued that aboriginal rock art is principally associated with a range of beliefs, rituals, and experiences directly related to a distinctively shamanistic context (e.g., Lewis-Williams a981, 1985, 1987; Lewis-Williams and Dowson 1988, 1999, 2001). In the last decade, between 1999 and 2008, Lewis-William’s position on the role of shamanism and rock art has been somewhat tempered. To provide a fair appraisal even in his 1997 paper he argued that a recursive relationship exists where myth must ultimately be assigned causal or determining primacy over trance and altered states (Lewis-Williams 1997:11).

The uniquely rich rock art record in the Coso Range of eastern California (ca. 8000 BC or earlier) to (ca. AD 1000-1300),considered together with ethnographic testimony, offers an opportunity to contribute to this dialogue. We provide new updated information particularly on the Coso Patterned Body Anthropomorphs that are an important element of this complex. We propose that Coso images were not exclusively a product of shamanism but were also developed from elements of mythology and ritual. (Garfinkel, Austin, Earle, Williams: 2009)

Coso Rock Art Complex


Coso Range rock art has been a central part of the shamanism debate since the 1980s. It has played a prominent role in attempts to understand prehistoric forager iconography (Garfinkel 2006; Gilreath and Hildebrandt 2008; Hildebrandt and McGuire 2002; Keyser and Whitley 2006; McGuire and Hildebrandt 2005; Pearson 2002; Whitley 2005). Many researchers have taken Coso to be a classic test case and proven reference point supporting the shamanistic perspective on rock art (e.g., Hedges 2001; Lewis-Williams and Dowson 1988, 1989; Whitley 1988a, 1988b, 1992, 1994a, 1994b, 1996).

The Coso Rock Art Complex is located primarily in the Coso Range of eastern California, within the limits of the China Lake Naval Weapons Station (Figure 1). The Coso complex is one of the largest concentrations of aboriginal rock art in North America (Grant et al. 1968).

One of the more striking and consistent Coso images is an element known as the Patterned Body Anthropomorph (PBA). These figures are sometimes prominently placed on high outcrops at the heads of the Coso canyons just below the rims of the narrows (Figures 6, 7, and 8).

Fig. 6

Fig. 7

Fig. 8

PBAs are elaborate renderings – mixing human and animal characteristics (Figures 6, 7, and 8). They are always decorated, never plain, and never solid-bodied. PBAs are diverse, no two images being identical, although designs found in one PBA often occur in another. They usually have elongated rectangular or (infrequently) ovoid torsos embellished with stripes, checks, circles, chevrons, dots, meandering lines, triangles, bars, or cross-hatching. In many instances, at the base of the torso, is a series of short vertical lines, sometimes likened to a fringe on a garment or what is commonly identified as a “rake” design. Many figures have two thin, straight, perpendicular legs that end in claw-like, taloned “bird” feet (Figures 6a, 6c, 6d, 6e, 6f, 6g, 7c, 7e, 7f, 7h, 7i, 8c, and 9).

The PBA figure, when it exhibits upper appendages, often has outstretched limbs extending directly from the shoulders (Figures 6a, 7c, 7h, and 7i). The right arm is frequently bent upward, and the left arm is often extended (Figures 6c, 6d, 6g, 6h, 8b, 7c, and 8c). In some instances, at the end of the bent right arm is a long, slender, vertical rod (Figures 6d, 6g, and 8b). Sometimes the rod contains a knob in its midsection, an apparent rendering of a weighted atlatl (spear-throwing device). Sometimes the long rod is attached to a bulbous object that may be meant to depict a club, bullroarer, rattle, or hunting bolo (Figure 6h). Often, the long, slender pole appears more akin to a staff, cane, crook, or spear (Figures 8b and 8c). The shorter arm on the figures is most often the left and that appendage frequently holds a single rod or set of multiple rods (Figures 3, 6c, and 8c). These rods are shorter than the implement held in the other appendage. The short rods may extend either vertically or horizontally, and they appear to represent dart foreshafts (Figure 6d). In the American Southwest, similar imagery has been more realistically depicted as definite projectiles, their tips still attached to the foreshafts (Grant et al. 1968:37, middle figure, letter b). Sometimes a lizard, snake, blanket (?), small human effigy, bighorn sheep, or turtle is hung upon one of the two arms of the PBA or placed in close association (Figure 3).

Fig. 3

A circular head is shown atop the PBA’s short neck. The head never has facial features such as eyes, nose, mouth, or ears. It is frequently an unfilled, or, rarely, a solid circular ring (Figure 7a and 7c). Often the head is a nested series of two or more concentric circles (Figures 6d, 7b, 7g, 8a, 8b, and 8c), but very rarely is shown as a spiral. Slender projections frequently crown the top and sides of the head. These may be simple narrow spikes (Figure 6f and 6i), but they may also be right-angled plumes akin to the topknots of quail (Figure 6d and 8a). These crown feathers are depicted on many of the most elaborately rendered figures. In a few instances the head adornments appear to morph into dart points attached to foreshafts (Figure 7i). In still other examples, there are apparent hair whorls on the sides of the head similar to the Hopi style of hair adornment for unwed girls.

In a pioneering attempt to infer meaning for the Coso PBAs, Grant and his colleagues (1968:39) suggest that, “these figures almost certainly represent the costumed principals of the sheep cult and may have been shamans.” David S. Whitley has taken this interpretation one step further, arguing that these images are undoubtedly shamans in costume (Whitley 1998a, 1998b, 2000a, 2000b, 2005). Ken Hedges suggested that Coso PBAs could be embodiments of deities, spirit beings, or the shamans who produced the images (Hedges 2007:8-11).

A key issue is whether such rock art images were produced exclusively by ritual specialists (shamans) or by community members in general. Ethnographic data for indigenous peoples of California and the Great Basin indicate that rock art creation was sometimes associated with activities other than shamanism, such as puberty ceremonies (Earle 2003; Hedges 2001; Kehoe 2002:74). In southern California, jimsonweed or toloache (Datura sp.) use was also correlated with dreaming as a personal means for ordinary people to acquire life-long spirit helpers. According to Ake Hultkrantz (1987a) a central element of traditional Numic ideology was the acquisition of supernatural power (puha) and guardian spirits; every young man was expected to seek visions and supernatural power. Furthermore, in traditional Numic society, the boundary line between common visionaries, medicine men, and shamanic specialists was often slight (Hultkrantz 1987a:32). One could only differentiate a commoner from a ritual specialist by the number of his spiritual assistants. This situation reflected the great emphasis in accounts of Chemehuevi, Southern Paiute, and other southern Numic religion on the shaman as a specialized curer as opposed to a generalized ritual leader. Of possible further note is that the terms for a person with supernatural powers in Numic languages – huviya-ga-dї / poha-ga-dї / ’uu-poha-ga-dї – have as their root the word ‘aga, which means to paint or to rub (Zigmond et al. 1990). This provides a strong suggestion that authors of paintings and petroglyphs were individuals who had acquired or were actively acquiring supernatural power. The abundance of Coso petroglyphs and the great amount of labor they represent also argue against their exclusive production by an elite class of ritual specialists commonly identified as shamans (Bard and Busby 1974; Garfinkel 2006:230).

It has been argued that the production of rock art was the particular sphere of the shaman operating exclusively as a private individual rather that the art being a product of community ritual. It has been proposed that the anthropomorphic figures in rock art represent the shaman’s self-representation during personal ‘travels’ to a world of non-ordinary reality. That perspective is at variance with an interpretation that emphasizes these images as supernatural beings associated with creation and continuing manifestations of the supernatural realm. We present here an alternative scenario where anthropomorphic figures can be associated with this class of supernatural beings.

The region encompassing southern California rock art traditions includes the aboriginal territories of the Chumash, Southern Valley Yokuts, Takic, and Numic groups (the latter two groups of Uto-Aztecan linguistic affiliation). The ethnographic data available supporting the interpretation of rock art content in southern California has been relatively limited. However, original fieldnotes of data collected by John Peabody Harrington, Alfred Kroeber, and other ethnographers permit some interpretation of specific rock art motifs. In a number of cases, rock art content has been associated with supernatural beings linked to earth-creation events and human-supernatural interaction in more recent times (Gilreath 2007).

The Kawaiisu themselves provide a rare example of a documented rock art site ethnographically linked to myth (cf. Sutton 1981, 1982). Creation Cave (also known as Rock House, ti-gahni, CA-KER-508, or Inspiration Cave, see Knight 1994) is located in Sand Canyon in the Tehachapi Mountains within Tomo Kahni State Historic Park. The polychrome paintings there are rendered in mostly red, black, and white and depict a number of anthropomorphic as well as zoomorphic creatures (bears, turtles, bighorn sheep, and snakes). The cave is mentioned in two separate Kawaiisu myths. This rock art site is described as the location where the animal people conducted celebrations, and it was here that the world was created; a mortar hole marks the spot. Grizzly Bear called the animals together and the various animals then decided what they wanted to be and each painted his own picture (Zigmond 1977:76, 1980:41).

In sum, we do not support the categorical exclusion of mythic supernaturals as a source for California rock art imagery. Examples from several other regions in western North America also suggest the contrary (e.g., Gilreath 2007; Hudson and Lee 1984; Hyder 1989; Lee 1977; McCreery and Malotki 1994; Potter 2004). Additionally, elements of oral tradition and mythology sometimes reveal relict or residual features representing important themes from an archaic hunting religion cosmology.

In the case of Takic, Numic, Tubatulabalic, and other groups of Uto-Aztecan linguistic affiliation, these groups developed varied traditions of religious belief and practice. It has been observed that while considerable diversity exists in religious beliefs and practices of Great Basin Numic groups, some of them traditionally emphasized chthonic (underworld) supernatural beings, the importance of caves, caverns, and other ‘underground’ places. Corridors of supernatural power and an array of valued resources were found in sacred underworld settings. Laird mentions the importance of caves as places of supernatural power for the Chemehuevi (1976:38-39, 46). They were associated with inherited sacred songs, power in curing, a class of cave spirits, and the supernatural powers of the cave itself. Kelly and Fowler (1986) also mentions supernatural underground travel among the Southern Paiute. Liljeblad (1986: 652-653) discusses the chthonic supernatural underworld among Numic groups and describes its association with a master-of-animals type supernatural being:

“Caves and other named localities, which remain sacred sites for the shamanistic power quest…, are believed to have served formerly as entrances to the legendary underground pathway. The recurrent theme in these stories is the adventures of a hunter following a wounded animal to the lower world and his return after a time spent with the dwellers below.” (Liljeblad 1986:652).

As we shall see, this chthonic tradition is not only relevant to Numic ideas about the supernatural world experienced by human beings, and possibly expressed in rock art, but also to the association of rock art to caves and portals to the underworld. This connection was noted in a comment by John Peabody Harrington about the association of Kawaiisu rock art with a portal through a rock face leading to an underground domain inhabited by supernatural animals (Harrington 1986: Vol. III: Reel 98:151).


Many traditional hunting cultures represent an immortal Master of Animals as a prominent religious figure (Campbell 1988:77-78; Harrod 2000:47-60; Hultkrantz 1961, 1987a; Lee and Daly 1999; McNeil 2002, 2005, 2008; Miller 1983:69; Reichel-Dolmatoff 1971; Slotten 1965; Whitley 2000b:79). The central idea is that culturally important animals have their own supernatural ruler. That deity is a protector of animals and offers or withholds them from human hunters. It is believed that game animals cannot be killed without the permission of this deity and that animals are in fact immortals themselves, able to regenerate and return in renewed bodies after their death. It is the Animal Master that was the agent responsible for the regeneration of the animals and facilitated their reintroduction into the human world from their underworld homes.

Carling Malouf observed (1966:4) that Numic religious practices had much in common with more complex societies and exhibited animal ceremonialism, group religious ceremonies, and associated big game hunting rites (but see Steward 1940, 1941). Ritual adepts often functioned in these group ceremonies, and shamanistic activities had a meaningful relationship with certain hunting rites (Hultkrantz 1986:631; Malouf 1966). Numic oral traditions make specific reference to instances where game animals were reborn after their bones were properly treated and their supernatural powers harnessed for the increase of game (Hultkrantz 1987a:63, 1987b).

The Ute, Southern Paiute, Shoshone, and Kawaiisu believed that a supernatural being was able to transform into a bird (crow, raven, or small hawk) and controlled all animals, including bear, bighorn sheep, elk, and deer. This mythic supernatural was sometimes associated with lower divinities that provided game (Harris 1940:56; Hultkrantz 1986, 1987a, 1987b; Steward 1941:230).

The Ute and Southern Paiute thought that all animals were controlled by a snow-white Master of the Animals, who lived high in the mountains, walked around in cloudy weather, and was able to transform into a raven (Hultkrantz 1986). A central ceremonial pole, originally a deciduous tree, was represented as a metaphor for death and rebirth. The tree goes through a process of “dying” (shedding its leaves and going into a relatively dormant state in winter) and then is reborn anew in the spring. The pole is a means of travel, a road for the Master of the Animals, helping to provide a safe return, means of reincarnation, and an aid for leading game animals back from the underworld to the tribal hunting grounds in the spring (Hultkrantz 1987a, 1987b; McNeil 2005, 2008).

Symbolic oppositions between animals and humans figure critically in Southern Numic ritual and oral traditions and are at the very heart of their religious thoughts and their perspective on human mortality and the proper relations between humans and the natural world (Franklin and Bunte 1996). Mythic stories provide important clues to the symbolism and functions of ritual performances. Unless proper rituals were carried out, game animals will not let themselves be caught. Certain ritual dances were a way of showing gratitude and propitiation for the blessings of the annual rains and for human and animal fertility. Key aspects of symbolism and cosmology underlie and unify Numic ritual practice. The human domain is brought together in unison with the natural world and its annual cycle through dramatic personification of animals. It is a Numic tenet that only through animal sacrifice can the turning of the seasons, the cycle of the day and night, and the revitalization of human and animal life be accomplished (cf. Franklin and Bunte 1996).

The Western Shoshone identified a coyote-like supernatural or dwarf spirit that opened the pen or cave where Wolf had kept the wild animals and let them run away (Hultkrantz 1961; Steward 1941:230, 1943:271). In some stories, the animals had been secluded by the Crow deity, with both bird and human qualities, and it was Weasel who let them go. The release of the animals, in some variants, was done specifically to benefit Numic groups (Lowie 1924:62-64; Thompson 1929:292-293; Steward 1936: 372-373).

According to ethnographic information obtained across half a century by Maurice Zigmond, Stephen Cappannari, and Judy Barras (Barras 1984:30; Bibby 1999; Zigmond 1977, 1980) an Animal Master, called Yahwera, is a recurrent figure in Kawaiisu cosmology… An analysis of the nine Yahwera narratives reveals certain recurrent themes. The elements most frequently mentioned are the Yahwera deity, songs, quail, bears, a big snake, Kawaiisu humans, deer, and hunting equipment. Repetition of narrative elements supports the importance of these key themes.

Several themes in these narratives may have relevance to interpretation of Coso PBA rock art. The Animal Master immortal takes the form of a bird and was described as a hawk. Yahwera also has a special relationship with mountain quail, and in three narratives (two Kawaiisu and one Tubatulabal) he fathers a profusion of quail progeny by his human spouse. Yahwera lives in a cave, hole, or tunnel deep within the earth, where the spirits of deceased game animals dwell. He is guarded by a large snake. He is able to help humans who visit when they are sick or need assistance in life and can transmit healing powers through gifts of song and/or dance. Yahwera is associated with hunting arrows that remain after the game animals (bighorn, deer, fox, etc.) leave to be reborn. His human visitors can obtain good luck in hunting by taking the hunting weapons littered about the walls of the cave. Yahwera is a provider of an inexhaustible food supply, either pinyon nuts, acorns, or deer meat, magically replenished from a never-empty food vessel. Yahwera stories represent journeys of troubled individuals using various substances or techniques to enter into the rocks where Yahwera lives and ultimately to exit at another portal that may be distant from the entrance.


The Yahwera figure described above is associated with portals to the underworld that in several versions of the story are linked to rock art sites. One of the sites is found in Back Canyon in Walker Basin, in the vicinity of the Tehachapi Mountains, and is associated with a portal to the Animal Master’s domain (Figure 10). This is a place called Yahwe’era Kahniina (Yahwera’s House). A spring in the vicinity of Paiute Rancheria is at or near an entrance to this supernatural being’s home (Zigmond 1977:75). A number of sacred stories identify this location as the place associated with tales of the Animal Master – Yahwera (Barras 1984; Whitley 2000b:78-79; Zigmond 1977, 1980). A monochromatic red pictograph panel (CA-KER-2412) is located there. This prominent pictograph site includes a central figure, a face-forward, frontal view of a four foot tall animal-human with concentric circle head, feathered or horned headdress, patterned body (?), and claw-like animal feet and hands (Figure 10; Whitley 2000b:78). Associated with this large main figure is a meandering, snake design that is 3 feet in length. The Kawaiisu rock art site at Creation Cave, mentioned above, is also associated with a door or portal to the underworld, and with a chthonic domain of supernatural animals that were painted at the cave at the site of the portal.

Fig. 10


The context, typical characteristics, and predominant features of Coso PBAs are reviewed in this following section. Our analysis considers the possible concordance of Kawaiisu oral tradition with certain key characteristics of Coso PBAs. These possible correlations between the rock art figures and myth elements suggest the plausible interpretation of the PBAs as supernaturals.

Association with Portal-like Settings (Figure 8a)

Fig. 8a

Human visitors come to Yahwera’s home through the rock. Petroglyphs may be an attempt to commemorate that journey into the rock or an effort to entice the Animal Master to release the souls of the regenerated game animals back into the human world. Coso PBA imagery has a three-dimensional quality made visible by the way it sometimes wraps, folds, or even disappears into and around the cracks and crevices of boulders and rock shelters.

Concentric Circles (Figures 3, 6b, 6d, 7g, 8a, 8b, and 9b)

The faces of the Coso PBA figures are often represented as sets of concentric circles. Such an image is sometimes identified as a typical “phosphene” – a visual image seen when the eyes are closed (Hedges 1985:1). The concentric circle symbol has also been understood as a metaphor for a tunnel, path, or passageway (Waters 1963). A concentric circle face is also characteristic of the Kawaiisu Yahwera image that adorns the Back Canyon portal known as Yahwera’s home (Figure 10).

Feathers and Quail (Figure 3, 6b, 6d, 6f, 6i, 7f, 8a, 8b, 8c, and 12)

Many Native American cosmologies hold that human existence was designed by creators who had human qualities but who were subsequently transformed into animals. Hence there is a close affinity between people and animals. Native Americans tended to imitate animals in dress, action, and projective thought.

Feathers are particularly characteristic of divine beings and supernatural powers. We have identified 103 PBA images in Coso rock art that have variously shaped projections, appearing to be feathers, emanating from their heads.

The Chemehuevi had a class of ritual specialists known as bighorn sheep dreamers (Kelly 1936:138-142). These sheep dreamers were especially adept at charming game animals. Hence, these were shamans of the hunt (cf. Hedges 2001:131). Kelly (1936:142) describes these sheep dreamer /game charmer / hunt shamans as having visions of rain, bull-roarers, and quail-tufted caps of mountain sheep hide. These caps were the most prestigious headpiece of the Chemehuevi. This mountain hat (kaitcoxo), was a critical component of the costume for a hunter or chief (Kelly and Fowler 1986:373, Figure 2, bottom left; Laird 1976:6-7). The hat was traditionally sewn with a prominent tuft of many feathers – exclusively the crests of quail.

Quail-feathers were only used for the adornment of special baskets (taarabigadi) exclusively used by the Kawaiisu for the preparation of a Jimsonweed brew used by vision-seekers to enter the world of the supernatural (Zigmond 1978). Hence ethnographic references for both the Chemehuevi and Kawaiisu point to significant association of quail plumes for their vision seekers. These feathers also appear to be prominent metaphors, symbols relating to prestige, the control of game animals, and hunting success.

Thirteen Coso PBAs appear to be holding or wearing blankets that may represent mountain quail blankets (Figure 3, 4, 6b, 6d, 7c, 7h, and 8c; cf. Maddock 2009). In one instance, these blankets are what have been conventionally identified as medicine bags. These fringed squares or trapezoids have also been variously interpreted as bags holding talismans, as in a shaman’s bundle, or as full-body hunting disguises (Heizer and Hester 1974; Nissen 1982).

Fig. 12

Birds, Raptors, and Talons (Figure 9)

Images of birds are abundantly represented in the rock art of North America. Nevertheless, bird-human conflations, zoomorphic birdmen, or human figures impersonating birds are rare (sensu Grant 1993). Birds have claw-like feet, or talons (Figure 9). The number of toes on birds can vary, with the majority of birds having four toes. Most birds have three toes facing frontward and one smaller toe in the rear facing backwards. Birds also have thin, stick-like lower limbs and ankles.

Fig. 9

Bird-like lower appendages are typical of most all Coso PBAs: 266 of the PBAs illustrated in Maddock’s (2009) study have discernible feet, and 192 of those (72.1%) have avian, claw-like talons. All of the Coso PBAs, that include depictions of their legs, have stick-like legs and ankles. Significantly, in other rock art that is interpreted as depicting the trance visions and images of shamans in the American Southwest, such avian appendages are rare to nonexistent (Malotki 2007:76-87, Figures 139, 142, 153, 154, 155, and 158; McCreery and Malotki 1994:13-33).

We would argue that the predominance of bird-like lower appendages on Coso PBAs distinguishes these images from those of typical humans. Images of human beings in the Coso area, even those serving a ritualistic or religious function, are often rendered with solid rather than patterned bodies and exhibit rounded, bulbous feet (with or without toes) but without the avian lower appendages, stick-like lower limbs, or talons (cf. Maddock 2009). The pattern of solid-body anthropomorphs with club-like feet is also common to the Dinwoody rock art assemblage. Additionally, in both the Dinwoody and Coso cases, the human figures lack extensive head adornments such as elaborate headdresses, feathers, or weaponry. In the Coso case, we are often able to readily discriminate the distinctly human renditions on the basis of easily recognizable hands, fingers, feet, and toes.

In the Animal Master accounts and the descriptions of Yahwera we are often told that this being is a raptor or scavenger (small hawk, raven, crow, etc.). The former animal is often symbolic of skill in hunting and the latter are associated with death as scavengers are carrion eaters. Both characteristics are likely metaphors associated with the Animal Master.

Hunting Weaponry (Figures 6c, 6g, 6h, 7i, 8b, 8c, and 13)

The Coso PBAs often carry hunting equipment – an atlatl, long spear or dart, staff or wand in one hand (poro?), and dart foreshafts in the other (cf. Grant et al. 1968:37, middle figures). A few Coso figures have realistically rendered dart points projecting from their heads or shoulders (Garfinkel and Pringle 2004, Figure 4). The flexed-arm posture, seen in 103 of the 428 PBAs in Maddock’s database, appears to be exclusively associated with atlatl-bearing figures. Alternatively, some of the long rods may be staffs, wands, or batons (sensu a poro as discussed below).

The Chemehuevi staff of power or sacred crook (poro) was a long wooden rod that had magical properties (Laird 1976:31, 1984:273-275; Musser-Lopez 1983). In mythic times this was the essential equipment for a shaman or an animal-human supernatural and it was the means used to bring the dead back to life (Laird 1976: 31, 1984:273-275). Since Yahwera was responsible for revivifying game animals he would, most logically, be depicted with his heraldic staff – a wand with supernatural powers. Ruth Musser-Lopez (1983) when discussing the meaning, function, and symbolism of the poro with Carobeth Laird comments that the poro was an archetypical object of great power with no associated regalia of any kind (e.g. no feathers or talismans) and was the badge of office for the shaman and also for the immortal animal-people, Wolf, Coyote, and Woodrat.

The poro was the most sacred artifact of the mythic era (Carobeth Laird personal communication 1981, cited in Musser-Lopez 1983:262). All the immortals used their supernatural staffs (poro) in a variety of ways to at times tunnel through mountains, revive the dead, heal the sick, and even to kill game. The former attribute seems to imply a relationship to our discussion of an association with portal-like settings and tunnels as discussed above and the latter functions clearly identify the use of the poro as a way to kill, heal, and also revivify the deceased

Androgyny and the Rake or Fringe Design (Figure 6d, 7d, 7e, 7f, and 7h)

Some Kawaiisu accounts portray the Animal Master as an androgynous being, recognized in human dreams in either male or female form. Six PBA images of the Coso Range exhibit human phalli (Figure 6g and 7d). Some Coso PBA figures exhibit characteristic feminine elements (Figures 7b and 8b). Elements of both sexes are found on certain figures. However, in most instances PBAs do not allow us to confidently distinguish gender.

A rake design is most often exhibited at the lower portions of PBA figures (Figures 3, 4, 6d, 7c, 7d, 7h, and 8c). Some researchers have suggested that this element is a “pubic fringe” and is characteristic of the feminine gender. Alternative meanings have been attached to this “rake” as a symbol of rain or a rain curtain (Patterson 1992:165), or the fringe on a costume (Grant et al. 1968:39). In Maddock’s (2009) sample, nine out of nearly 450 PBA figures have pendant labia (Figure 8b), 17 have hair whorls (akin to the Hopi unmarried woman’s hairstyle), and 58 have the distinctive fringe or rake element.

Hence, this fringe embellishment appears to be an important decorative element on Coso PBAs. It has been noted that fringe on such images might mark the bird-like nature of these iconic creatures. The costume fringe might represent and replace the feathers of a bird’s wings. This fringe element would create an effect akin to real feathers since the individual fringes hang loose and move with the motion of the garment. This bottommost fringe has also been suggested as symbolizing the connection of the figure with the underworld


Kawaiisu ethnographic data and Coso PBA characteristics suggest to us that these petroglyph elements were not exclusively self-representations of shamans. Instead, they may additionally represent mythic supernaturals, particularly the Master of the Animals. This interpretation does not exclude the images having other meanings or that the representations were simultaneously intended as depictions of shamans commemorating their experiences in altered states of consciousness. Various levels of meaning may have merged within the symbolism of Great Basin rock art, simultaneously signifying both the source and agent of supernatural power and the dream and trance world that gave humans access to the Game Animal Master. Therefore, it appears likely that Coso PBA artisans were engaged in rituals that served to activate the mythological past evoking and retrieving a supernatural agent capable of restoring and revivifying game animals and replenishing the world. It seems reasonable that local mythologies would have profoundly influenced the character and interpretation of the personal visions or dreams experienced by the Coso people. Significantly, some researchers acknowledge that local mythology could be of great importance in contributing to our understanding of the meanings of specific rock art production (Bahn and Helvenston 2005:106).

Recently Gilreath and Hildebrandt (2008) have argued that Coso rock art is best understood in its archaeological context and as a ritualistic byproduct of the prehistoric hunting practices of the local indigenous population. We heartily agree with that perspective (in most points) and Garfinkel (2006, 2007) has emphasized the centrality of a hunting religion and increase rites as an explanatory platform for understanding the imagery produced by Coso bighorn sheep cult artisans.

Growing evidence supports the notion that bighorn hunting, a hunting religion, and sheep cult complex, characterized the Coso region and perhaps certain other areas of the larger Great Basin during the period from ca. 2000 BC to AD 300 (sensu Coulam and Schroedl 2004; Garfinkel 2006).

The precise relationship of rock art production, hunting rites, and the Animal Master is rarely represented in ethnographic literature. However two examples of such associations are known to us. The Southern Siberian Evenki held hunting rites each year at a sacred rock or tree and crafted paintings on these rocks (Lahema 2005). The Evenki images were commonly zoomorphic, resembling the head of an elk, and the rocks were then believed to be “numinous” (alive) inhabited by an elk deity who could bestow good luck to the hunter. McNeil (2005) comments that such “shamanizing” activities were not restricted to Evenki ritualists but were activities conducted by many community members during hunting and revival rituals. These Siberian hunting rites, identified ethnographically as singing songs and narrating stories, employed an animal intermediary (bear ancestor) to solicit Kheglan, the Mistress of the Animals, to release the souls of the unborn animals into the human world (McNeil 2005, 2008). Reichel-Dolmatoff identifies rock paintings of the Tukano and rock drawings made by their ancestors in Colombia, South America. The Tukano identify these images as promoting game animal fertility and they are located at the Animal Master’s homes (1971: plates between pp. 168-169, and p. 247). Petroglyphs at Tukano hunting sites commemorate mythological themes. Ritualists communicate with the Animal Master at these rock houses. Tukano ask for herds of game animals, good hunting, and negotiate with the Animal Master to replenish game. The ritualist goes to the Animal Master’s home and draws game, fertility symbols, and the mythic snake that brought man to earth. Tukano recognize these actions as invoking the aid of the Animal Master on behalf of the hunter, with or sometimes without the artist having participated in ecstatic vision questing (cf. Reichel-Dolmatoff 1971). Tukano drawings depict many types of animals, including the divine king of beasts–the jaguar. The rock paintings are made precisely to reaffirm requests to the Animal Master, to foster fecundity of game, and to promote the fertilizing power of the jaguar, an earthly representative of their supreme deity–the Sun. These actions occur at the source where the animals are reborn and repopulate the earth (Reichel-Domatoff 1971:82-83).

Alan P. Garfinkel Ph.D., University of California, Davis; has ongoing research interests focusing on aboriginal population movements and linguistic prehistory in eastern California.

Donald R. Austin Avocational archaeologist, artist and educator explores and documents rock art sites in the American Southwest.

David Earle Ph.D. professor at Antelope Valley College and specialist in Native American Ethnohistory.

Harold Williams (Wokod) A Kawaiisu Elder and a Most Likely Descendant recognized by the California Native American Heritage Commission.

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One Comment
  1. Hello mate greatt blog

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