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Primal Naturalists

“The intellectual achievements of Amazonian Indians suggest that the ultimate challenge of ethnobotany will lie not merely in the identification and extraction of natural products, but rather in the discovery and elaboration of a profoundly different way of living with the forest. Consider the Waorani of eastern Ecuador. Like many Amazonian groups, the Waorani identify both psychologically and cosmologically with the rain forest. Since they depend on that environment for a large part of their diet, it is not surprising that they are exceptionally skilled naturalists. It is the sophistication of their interpretation of biological relationships that is astounding. Not only do they recognize such conceptually complex phenomena as pollination and fruit dispersal, they understand and accurately predict animal behavior. They anticipate flowering and fruiting cycles of all edible forest plants, know the preferred food of most forest animals, and may even explain where any particular animal prefers to pass the night. Waorani hunters can detect the scent of animal urine at forty paces in the forest and can accurately identify the species of animal from which it came.”

-(Davis, Wade 1995 “Shamans as Botanical Researchers” Shamans Through Time Tarcher/Penguin 2001)

Taoist Diet: Bigu – “Avoiding Grains”

“The Daoist Immortals are often described as “abstaining from grain” (bigu) as part of their training and progression in the Dao… Likewise, the “abstention from grain” of Saints must be seen to be a fundamental technique of achieving immortality, perhaps only inferior to a magical plant or elixir that would instantly fulfill the same function as the practice of bigu.” (Dannaway, Frederick R. (2009)Yoked to Earth: A Treatise on Corpse-Demons and Bigu)

The “cutting off” of grains, which were the basic staple food for the peasants, was a rejection of the sedentary life and the peasant condition as such. This refusal should not solely be interpreted in the light of the miseries endured by farmers, but also in a much more fundamental way. Agriculture has occasioned, since Neolithic times, a radical break with the way of life that prevailed for almost the entire prehistory of humankind. Agriculture has also been the main culprit of the imbalances of human civilization over the last ten thousand years or so: the systematic destruction of the natural environment, overpopulation, capitalization, and other evils that result from sedentariness. (Schipper, Kristofer (1993), The Taoist Body, translated by Karen C. Duval, University of California Press. p. 170)



“What becomes evident in the study of the tensions between Confucians and Daoists is a fundamental difference in their assessments of the prehistorical period of China. The Confucian’s viewed primordial times as period of starvation, of violence and wilderness, to loosely paraphrase and translate Levi (1982), contrasted to the Daoist view of a golden-age of uncontrived Eden-like bliss. “Zhuangzi praises that idyllic age with these words: ‘Spirits and gods show their good will and nobody dies before his time’” (Levi 1982). This is anathema to the Confucian view that it took a civilizing divine-potentate to rescue humanity from it’s own ignorance and helplessness in a brutal wilderness. This expresses a fundamental cosmological orientation that is the foundation for much of the social movements in China, perhaps even into modern times.“ Ancient man imbibed dew” and “fed on primordial breath and drink harmony” and ate not the toilsome, vulgar crops of the red dust that are exemplified in the Five Sacred Grains (wuku).”  (Dannaway, Frederick R. (2009)Yoked to Earth: A Treatise on Corpse-Demons and Bigu)

Ge Hong

Ge Hong(c. 320 CE), author of the Baopuzi, literally “[Book of the] Master Who Embraces Simplicity”, chronicles the effects of grain avoidance:

I have personally observed for two or three years men, who were foregoing starches, and in general their bodies were slight and their complexions good. They could withstand wind, cold, heat, or dampness, but there was not a fat one among them. I admit that I have not yet met any who had not eaten starches in several decades, but if some people cut off from starches for only a couple of weeks die while these others look as well as they do after years, why should we doubt that the (deliberate) fasting could be prolonged still further? If those cut off from starches grow progressively weaker to death, one would normally fear that such a diet simply cannot be prolonged, but inquiry of those pursuing this practice reveals that at first all of them notice a lessening of strength, but that later they gradually get stronger month by month and year by year. Thus, there is no impediment to the possibility of prolongation. All those who have found the divine process for attaining Fullness of Life succeeded by taking medicines and swallowing breath; on this they are all in perfect agreement. A moment of crisis, however, generally occurs at an early stage when medicines are being taken and starches abandoned and it is only after forty days of progressive weakening, as one uses only holy water and feeds solely on breath, that one regains strength. (15, tr. Ware 1966:246-7)

Baopuzi “The Master Embracing Simplicity”

Chapter 6, “The Meaning of ‘Subtle'” (微旨), equates grain avoidance with the supernatural abilities of a xian transcendent.

Therefore, by giving up starches one can become immune to weapons, exorcize demons, neutralize poisons, and cure illnesses. On entering a mountain, he can render savage beasts harmless. When he crosses streams, no harm will be done to him by dragons. There will be no fear when plague strikes; and when a crisis or difficulty suddenly arises, you will know how to cope with it. (6, tr. Ware 1966:114-5)

While traditional Chinese mythology depicted cooking and agriculture as key elements of civilization, the Daoists created a “counter-narrative” to justify the idea of grain avoidance. (Campany,Robert Ford. Hong Ge. 2002. To live as long as heaven and earth: a translation and study of Ge Hong’s traditions of divine transcendents. Berkeley: University of California Press. p. 16)

For example, the Confucianist Xunzi and Legalist Hanfeizi describe Suiren as cultural folk hero:

In the earliest times … the people lived on fruit, berries, mussels, and clams – things that sometimes became so rank and fetid that they hurt people’s stomachs, and many became sick. Then a sage appeared who created the boring of wood to produce fire so as to transform the rank and putrid foods. The people were so delighted by this that they made him ruler of the world and called him the Fire-Drill Man (Suiren 燧人). (Hanfeizi 49, tr. Campany 2005:15)


In contrast, the Zhuangzi “Mending Nature” chapter mentions Suiren first in a list of mythic sage-rulers – Fu Xi, Shennong, Yellow Emperor, Tang of Shang, and Yu the Great traditionally credited with advancing civilization – but depicts them as villains who began the destruction of the primal harmony of the Dao. Campany (2005:16) calls this “the decline of Power and the ever-farther departure from the natural Dao into systems of social constraint and what passes for culture.”

The ancients, in the midst of chaos, were tranquil together with the whole world. At that time, yin and yang were harmoniously still, ghosts and spirits caused no disturbances; the four seasons came in good time; the myriad things went unharmed; the host of living creatures escaped premature death. … This condition persisted until integrity deteriorated to the point that Torchman [Suiren] and Fuhsi arose to manage all under heaven, whereupon there was accord, but no longer unity. Integrity further declined until the Divine Farmer and the Yellow Emperor arose to manage all under heaven, whereupon there was repose, but no longer accord. Integrity declined still further until T’ang and Yu arose to manage all under heaven. They initiated the fashion of governing by transformation, whereby purity was diluted and simplicity dissipated. (tr. Mair 1994:149)

Shennong “Divine farmer”

“Now, the people of mysterious antiquity, they reached old age because they remained in leisureand never ate any grains.” (From Most High Numinous Treasure)

The Yellow Turban Rebellion was initiated by Daoist adepts who proposed an alternative world view to restructure society from the Yellow Heaven. The struggle was not against society per se as much as it was frustration at the loss of an “idealized, primitive agricultural community…or a nostalgia for a prefeudal or Neolithic communal society” (Girardot, N.J. 1983. Myth and Meaning in Early Taoism. Berkeley: University of California Press.)

Yellow Turban Rebellion

“Retiring to a mountain, then as now, would require an inordinate amount of training, planning and discipline. Following Maslow, the aspirant’s first concern, especially in times of famine and strife, would be nourishment. This essentially puts the person back in the same situation as before the advent of agriculture. The Daoist masters in some sense decide that in the face of continually crumbling social orders, with intermittent prosperity, to have done with the charade and to face the situation on their own terms. To be able to minimize or abstain from food (especially the Five Grains) and to thrive by way of subtle arts would be tantamount to freedom from the feudal system.” (Dannaway, Frederick R. (2009)Yoked to Earth: A Treatise on Corpse-Demons and Bigu)

“The Immortals always are just off in the distance, just a bit further out to sea, just a bit higher up the mountain. Beyond modern constructs that burden myths, there are examples of the Shuli, “the cooked ones” and the Shengli, “the raw ones of Limu mountains”. The “raw ones” live in the impenetrable heights of the mountains beyond the reach of the civilizing hearth and beyond them at the top of Mt. Limu are the immortals, which are as far away as possible from civilization while still remaining on earth. The proximity to civilization, like graded levels of health or longevity the higher up the mountain, often determines the vitality of Immortals and power plants. Levi (Lévi, Jean. 1982. L’abstinence des céréales chez les Taoïstes. Études chinoises 1: 3–47.) expresses this in the context of a “refusal of orthodoxy” in favour of a primitive Golden-age where Daoist ‘dietetics are not a collection of good house-woman recipes or a proto-scientific hygienic diet’ but an act of protest. ” (Dannaway, Frederick R. (2009)Yoked to Earth: A Treatise on Corpse-Demons and Bigu)

During the reign of Emperor Cheng of the Han, hunters in the Zhongnan Mountains saw a person who wore no clothes, his body covered with black hair. Upon seeing this person, the hunters wanted to pursue and capture him, but the person leapt over gullies and valleys as if in flight, and so could not be overtaken. The hunters then stealthily observed where the person dwelled, surrounded and captured him, whereupon they determined that the person was a woman. Upon questioning, she said, “I was originally a woman of the Qin palace. When I heard that invaders from the east had arrived, that the King of Qin would go out and surrender, and that the palace buildings would be burned, I fled in fright into the mountains. Famished, I was on the verge of dying by starvation when an old man taught me to eat the resin and nuts of pines. At first, they were bitter, but gradually I grew accustomed to them. They enabled me to feel neither hunger nor thirst; in winter I was not cold, in summer I was not hot.” Calculation showed that the woman, having been a member of the Qin King Ziying’s harem, must be more than two hundred years old in the present time of Emperor Cheng. The hunters took the woman back in. They offered her grain to eat. When she first smelled the stink of the grain, she vomited, and only after several days could she tolerate it. After little more than two years of this [diet], her body hair fell out; she turned old and died. Had she not been caught by men, she would have become a transcendent. (tr. Campany 2005:38)

As the Dayou zhang (Verse of Great Existence) says:

“The five grains are chisels cutting life away,

Making the five organs stink and shorten our spans.

Once entered into our stomach,

There’s no more chance to live quite long.

To strive for complete avoidance of all death

Keep your intestines free of excrement!”

Avoiding grains was the primary medical cure for eliminating the sanshi 三尸 “Three Corpses” or sanchong 三蟲 “Three Worms”, which are evil spirits believed to live in the human body and hasten death. Livia Kohn (Kohn, Livia (1993), The Taoist Experience: An Anthology, State University of New York Press. p. 148) describes the Three Corpses as “demonic supernatural creatures who feed on decay and are eager for the body to die altogether so they can devour it. Not only do they thus shorten the lifespan but they also delight in the decaying matter produced by the grains as they are digested in the intestines. If one is to attain long life, the three worms have to be starved, and the only way to do so is to avoid all grain.”

The ‘Three Worms’ or ‘Three Corpses’

The three worms, or again three corpses. depending on the text, reside in the head, torso and lower body (three elixir fields dantian) and are assisted by a pernicious group of nine worms that do everything they can “to incite people to evil or ill.” Upon his death the host is cast into hells and the worms are rewarded by feast of the poor soul’s corpse. The Upper Worm is named Peng Ju, is white and blue color, and focuses on tempting the adept to long for delicious food and other “physical”delights. The Middle Worm, Peng Zhi,is white and yellow and incites the adept to greed and excessive emotions of joy and anger. The Lower Worm, Peng Jiaois white and black conspires to entice the mystic to the worldly pleasures of sex, alcohol and fancy attire (Eskildsen 1998) or vitality-sapping wet dreams (Eskildsen, Stephen. 2004. The Teachings and Practices of the Early Quanzhen Taoist Masters. Albany: State University of New York.)

The Chu sanshi jiuchong baoshen jing (Scripture on Expelling the Three Corpses and Nine Worms to Protect Life) prob. 9th century gives the following details:

1. The Upper Corpse, Pengjulives in the head, symptoms of its attack include a feeling of heaviness in the head, blurred vision, deafness, and excessive flow of tears and mucus.

2. The middle corpse, Peng Zhi, dwells in the heart and stomach. It attacks the heart and makes its host crave sensual pleasures.

3. The lower corpse, Peng Jiao, resides in the stomach and legs. It causes the Ocean of Pneuma ((qihai) corresponds to lower dantian) to leak, and make host lust after women.

Nine worms, which cause corpse-malady (shih-chai) or corpse-exhaustion (shih-lao) [(Strickmann 2002):

1. The “ambush worm” (fuchong) saps people’s strength by feeding off their essence and blood.

2. The “coiling worm” (huichong) infests the body in pairs of male and female that live above and below the heart, consuming the host’s blood.

3. The “inch-long white worm” (cun baichong) chews into the stomach, weakening the inner organs and damaging the digestive track

4. The “flesh worm” (rouchong) causes itching and weakens the sinews and back.

5. The “lung worm” (feichong) causes coughing, phlegm buildup, and difficulty in breathing.

6. The “stomach worm” (weichong) consumes food from its host’s stomach, causing hunger.

7. The “obstructing worm” (gechong) dulls the senses induces drowsiness and causes nightmares.

8. The “red worm” (chichong) causes stagnation of the blood and pneuma, heaviness in the waist, and ringing in the ear.

9. The “wriggling worm” (qiaochong) causes itching sores on the skin and tooth decay.

(Pregadio, Fabrizio, ed. 2008. The Encyclopedia of Taoism. RoutledgeCurzon.)

The Nine Worms

The Taishang shengxuanjing says a fast of 30 days kills the Upper worm, 60 the Middle, 100 and so on as mentioned, but that even after the adept purges the body he will still feel the urge to eat. This is explained that the refined essence of grains causes a slimy membrane that coats the Five Viscera, Six Bowels, the joints, muscles and vessels but perseverance for 20-30 more days will make it disappear (as will moles, scars and blemishes).

The Japanese medical texts are full of similar demon-worms, some requiring magical or potent treatment or vigils on Koshin day. These are from an anonymous 16th century Osakan medical text the, Harikikigaki:

Lectins are types of proteins commonly found in nature in foods such as fruits, vegetables, and seafood, but especially grains, beans and seeds.

Some of the lectins consumed in everyday foods act as chemical messengers that can in fact bind to the sugars of cells in the gut and the blood cells, initiating an inflammatory response. In wheat, gliadin, a component of gluten and an iso-lectin of wheat germ agglutinin (WGA), is capable of activating NF kappa beta proteins which, when up-regulated, are involved in almost every acute and chronic inflammatory disorder including neurodegenerative disease, inflammatory bowel disease, infectious and autoimmune diseases. (Jones, David S., ed.. Textbook of Functional Medicine. Gig Harbor:The Institute for Functional Medicine, 2005, 303.)

Aglaée the Paleo Dietician says, “Some people may experience diarrhea, nausea, bloating, reflux or vomiting when ingesting lectins. Whether you experience symptoms or not, lectins can damage your gut lining, impair nutrient absorption, compromise your gut flora and interfere with your immune system”.

Lectin has a protective role for the plant by irritating your digestive system so you don’t digest its seeds, which is needed for the reproduction and survival of their specie. Some people may experience diarrhea, bloating, nausea, reflux or vomiting when ingesting lectins. Whether you experience symptoms or not, lectins can damage your gut lining, impair nutrient absorption, compromise your gut flora and interfere with your immune system.  Lectins are also involved in impaired intestinal permeability, or leaky gut, which allows undigested particles (pooh!) to pass from your intestines into your blood and causing problems.

Lectins which can damage the gut lining, which increases inflammation and is a newly discovered feature of not only autoimmune disease but also insulin resistance and liver pathology.

Wheat contains a lectin called wheat germ agglutinin, or WGA. Lectins are sticky little buggers and the WGA goes into your small intestine and gloms onto the brush border. It then tricks your body into taking it across the border of your intestine intact, where it is seen as a foreign invader by your immune system. Antibodies are created in response to the lectins, and unfortunately, lectins often look a lot like other parts of your body. They may look like cells in your brain, pancreas, etc., so the same antibodies that were created to attack the lectin will actually go launch attacks on your own body. This is where autoimmune issues arise, like diabetes type 1, celiac disease, lupus and multiple sclerosis. (

There is an abundance of literature from the most prestigious journals that lectins such as WGA initiate allergic reactions in the gut causing the release of IL-4, IL-13, and histamine from human basophils producing noticeable allergic symptoms. (Watzl B, Neudecker C, Hansch GM, Rechkemmer G, Pool-Zobel BL. Dietary wheat germ agglutinin modulates ovalbumin-induced immune responses in Brown Norway rats. Br J Nutr. 2001 Apr;85(4):483-90.) (Eur. J. Immunology. 1999. Mar;29(3):918-27.)

WGA has also shown to interfere with protein digestion and increase gut permeability. (Falth-Magnusson K., et al. Elevated levels of serum antibodies to the lectin wheat germ agglutinin in celiac children lend support to the gluten-lectin theory of celiac disease. Pediatr Allergy Immunol. May 1995; 6(2): 98-102.) (Hollander D, Vadheim CM, Brettholz E, Pertersen GM, Delahunty T, Rotter JI. Increased intestinal permeability in patients with Crohn’s disease and their relatives. A possible etiologic factor. Ann Intern Med, December 1986; 105(6):883-85.)


Groups led by Zioudrou (1979) and Brantl (1979) found opioid activity in wheat, maize and barley (exorphins), and bovine and human milk (casomorphin), as well as stimulatory activity in these proteins, and in oats, rye and soy. Cereal exorphin is much stronger than bovine casomorphin, which in turn is stronger than human casomorphin. Mycroft et al. (1982, 1987) found an analogue of MIF-1, a naturally occurring dopaminergic peptide, in wheat and milk. It occurs in no other exogenous protein… Since then, researchers have measured the potency of exorphins, showing them to be comparable to morphine and enkephalin (Heubner et al. 1984), determined their amino acid sequences (Fukudome &Yoshikawa 1992), and shown that they are absorbed from the intestine (Svedburg et al.1985) and can produce effects such as analgesia and reduction of anxiety which are usually associated with poppy-derived opioids.(Greksch et al.1981, Panksepp et al.1984)… One of the most striking phenomena in these studies is that patients often exhibit cravings, addiction and withdrawal symptoms with regard to these foods (Egger 1988:170, citing Randolph 1978; see also Radcliffe 1987:808-10, 814, Kroker 1987:856, 864, Sprague & Milam 1987:949, 953, Wraith 1987:489, 491). Brostoff and Gamlin (1989:103) estimated that 50 per cent of intolerance patients crave the foods that cause them problems, and experience withdrawal symptoms when excluding those foods from their diet. Withdrawal symptoms are similar to those associated with drug addictions (Wadley, Greg; Martin, Angus “The Origins of Agriculture: A Biological Perspective and a new Hypothesis” Australian Biologist 6: June 1993 pp. 96-105)

“The adoption of cereal agriculture and the subsequent rise of civilisation have not been satisfactorily explained, because the behavioural changes underlying them have no obvious adaptive basis… The answer, we suggest, is this: cereals and dairy foods are not natural human foods, but rather are preferred because they contain exorphins. This chemical reward was the incentive for the adoption of cereal agriculture in the Neolithic. (Wadley, Greg; Martin, Angus “The Origins of Agriculture: A Biological Perspective and a new Hypothesis” Australian Biologist 6: June 1993 pp. 96-105)

In the 2ndcent BC Huainanzi quotes a common saying: “Those who eat cereals are intelligent, but they die early, those who don’t eat them at all are immortal”(Lévi, Jean. 1982. L’abstinence des céréales chez les Taoïstes. Études chinoises 1: 3–47.)

The Legend of the Birch Tree

Long ago and not far away, a boy was born into a nice  family. Before he could walk, a ceremony was held in his honor, a naming  ceremony. He was given the name Wiigwaas. Wiigwaas was given many gifts from the creator.  One of those gifts was to help others in a  good way. He not only helped his father hunt and fish, he also helped his mother  pick wild berries and tend the garden. He helped the elderly not only in his  village, but in other villages. He would help make canoes and houses.

One day when he became a young man he had to go to battle. In this battle he lost his life. His brothers brought his body home and  buried him, after they held a farewell ceremony. He was buried in pure white  buckskin on a hill just beyond his village. The following spring his people noticed that a little tree began to grow at the site of his grave. As this  tree grew tall a dream came to the father of Wiigwaas. In this dream he was  told that Wiigwaas was still able to help his people and the dream showed him how.

In the springtime you can take the sweet sap from him and you can make syrup. You can peel the bark off to fashion food containers for keeping food and eating. You can make canoes and you can use the bark to make lodges. You can make boxes and baskets.  From the strong wood you can make daabaagan, sleighs and lodges. You can make  fires, so the people can keep warm and cook food. So, even in his death, Wiigwaas is still helping his people.

-Anishinaabe Nation

The Ash Tree origins of the Penobscot

Klouskap and the Origin of the Penobscot

    as told by
Jason Keith Brown, Rabbit Clan

Klouskap, whose name in the Penobscot Language means The Man From Nothing, was put on Earth by the Creator.  He was created from the Earth and was responsible for preparing the land and animals for the coming of the Penobscot People.

At that time, the squirrel, Mikew, was the size of a wolf and Klouskap asked, “What would you do if you saw an Indian?”

Mikew told Klouskap, “I would kill him!”

Hearing this, Klouskap picked up the squirrel and patted him down into the small size he is today and placed him in a tree.  “There, Mikew.  You will not be able to hurt the Penobscot,” said Klouskap.

As you can see, Klouskap was very strong and extremely sacred to the Penobscot.  When he prepared the land and was ready to bring the Penobscot, he took his Bow and Arrow and shot straight into the Brown Ash tree.  The tree split and the Penobscot came dancing and singing out of this tree.  To this day, our baskets are made of Brown Ash and sweet grass.  This still symbolizes the Penobscot connection and respect of this sacred tree.

Animals and Humans

In the second chapter of Coming to Our Senses: Body and Spirit in the Hidden History of the West, Morris Berman discusses the relationship of humans and animals:

… This is a more reliable mirror” than the mirror per se, not only because more data are available, but also because the nonhuman living world is the most obvious Other around… Human/animal relations would seem to be isomorphic to mind/body relations, or Self/Other relations. To be close to the animal kingdom is to not see the body- that thing in the mirror- as an Other… whereas for many centuries now, and I suspect many millennia, “we” (i.e., our minds) have regarded our bodies as somehow untamed, unruly- animalistic. They give birth, they die, they generate stomach aches and menstrual cramps, they contract diseases, they tingle with excitement, they get tired, and all without “our” voluntary control. Like animals, they don’t “listen to reason.” And so in animal species we see reflections of our own physicality. How we relate to animals over time can, I believe, even more than the mirror, serve as a way into our hidden somatic history… (p.64)

Animal mythologies go back to the earliest Paleolithic societies. Belief in human descent from animals, as well as tales of human/animal transformations, are probably as old as the race, and part of the age-old view of animals as sacred beings. John Berger, in an essay entitled “Why Look at Animals?,” suggests that the mirroring function of the animal is a crucial one because the look of an animal is so unlike the look of another human being. The eyes of an animal  considering a man, he says- and he is explicitly excluding a pet or zoo animal here- are wary, ans man “becomes aware of himself returning the look.” The animal’s silence, and its distance, hold a secret for man, and in Paleolithic times this resulted in the animal’s being seen as a possessor of power. D.H. Lawrence was inspired to write the following lines upon seeing a wild doe, which capture what Berger is talking about:

… I looked at her

And felt her watching:

I became a strange being…

This strangeness we ourselves feel is the result of the power of a nonhuman mirror, and it probably accounts for the fact that the first art, which can be seen in the caves of Altimira and Lascaux, is about animal subjects rather than human ones. (Fig 1 & 2) Otherness is a miracle, for hunter-gatherers, this was a source of celebration and awe, not fear. The fundamental distinction made by humans from Neolithic (agricultural) times onward- about 8000 or 9000 B.C.- was the division between the Wild and the Tame, a distinction not made by human beings for the million or million and a half years preceding the advent of the domestication of animals.

Fig.1 Lascaux, France

Fig. 2 Altamira, Spain

All of this falls into the category of what Paul Shepard calls “totemic culture.” Totemic cultures, he says, assume separateness of animals, a separateness that shakes us loose from ourselves and enable us to see ourselves from the outside. In this way, animals become constituents of the Self. If human identity, as I have argued in Chapter 1, is so heavily shaped by the phenomenon of mirroring, it becomes obvious how different a culture that has a nonhuman mirror available is going to be from one that does not. It is not for nothing that the American poet, John Ciardi, called zoology “the science most like a looking glass”… (p. 65-66)

… Exposure to animals was one of the first experiences an infant in preagricultural societies had, and there was something direct and unmediated about it. This experience broke the homogeneity of human mirroring from a very early age, and this was the case for most of the history of the human race. There is something tedious and narcissistic about a strictly human world, and hunter-gatherer societies managed to avoid this. It is thus no surprise that the first symbols were animal ones; that the use of animal imagery for charting the experiences of the world is universal… (p. 67-68)

… Animal movement, the animal body, was the model of human expression in hunter-gatherer society. It is very likely that Hugh Brody’s description of the hunt among contemporary Indians of British Columbia depicts a very old pattern, psyche, and way of life: “Above all they are still and receptive, prepared for whatever insight or realization may come to them, and ready for whatever stimulus to action might arise. This state of attentive waiting is perhaps as close as people can come to the falcon’s suspended flight, when the bird, seemingly motionless, is ready to plummet in decisive action.” (Brody, Hugh Maps and Dreams Vancouver: Douglas and McIntyre 1981 p. 43)

Agricultural and industrial man formulates a plan and then goes about carrying it out. (Herscovici, Alan Second Nature Toronto: CBS Enterprises, 1985 p. 66) Paleolithic men and women took their cues from body feelings and the movements of animals. This was a life of shifting moods rather than demands of the ego. The ego, very likely, was a tool; it didn’t run the show…

The hunting and eating of animals did not contradict the fact that they were regarded as sacred beings. In fact, just the reverse was true…. for the hunt was seen as a sacred activity, an act of communion and reciprocity with the animal kingdom. They understood that death was a part of life; animals occasionally killed men, and men occasionally killed animals. There was no need to take it personally. (Herscovici: 1985, pp. 15 & 60) The tracking and killing of a wild animal requires great identification. To catch it you must learn its habits in your body; you must become it, in a sense; and all tribal cultures have or had rites of wearing animal skins or animal masks.

Similarly, eating an animal was a sign of profound respect. By eating the animal, you absorbed its power, its characteristics… Eating is the most fundamental form of Self/Other relationship, the incorporation of the body of another into your own body. And the cutting up of the animal body, as Paul Shepard says, taught the children of Paleolithic societies about the insides of things, and therefore about their own insides. One’s innards were not a source of uneasiness, but of pleasure. All of this adds up to a reverence for life. The animal was hunted, eaten, worshipped, and, above all, used for transformation. The Plains Indians of the nineteenth century sought animal encounter, or vision encounter, with a wide range of creatures to, to obtain a guardian spirit, and thereby, personal power. The animal could also enter the seeker’s body, it was believed, and become part of his spirit strength. The famous Sioux medicine man, Black Elk, claimed that many of his healing powers came from the bear.(Brown, Joseph Epes “The Bison and the Mother: Lakota Correspondences”, Parabola, 8, 2 May 1983, 7-8 and 11)

We get some idea, then, of how deeply hunter-gatherer cultures were immersed in animal life as an agent of sorting out Self/Other relationships and the meaning of human life. Properly speaking, human life for them had no special significance apart from the animal world. (p. 68-69)

The Way We Lived 1

To the California Indian way of thinking, nothing was inanimate. Animals, plants, rocks, trees, trails, mountains, springs, manufactured objects and natural objects- indeed all things- were people, fully alive and intelligent, with complex and interconnected histories.

Native Peoples of Northern California

The Greedy Father (Karok story):

Karok man

Famine descended, and the people were hungry. A man said, “Tomorrow I’ll go fishing.” The family went to bed without eating. The next day at dawn he left the house. The sun was rising. It was shining on the water. Suddenly the string attached to the fishnet quivered. A big salmon was in the net. He hauled it out and put it down in the back of the fishery.

Then he thought, “Let me cook it! It’s because I’m hungry.” So he cleaned it. He cut off the tail putting it to one side. Then he cooked the salmon. When he ate it, he devoured it all, and only afterwards did he realize it.

Then he went home. He was carrying just the tail. Some distance from home he was shouting, “Here children, this is the tail! There were a lot of beggars on the way who got the rest.”

Then the children ran out. They were shouting, “Hurray, we’re going to eat, hurray, we’re going to eat.”

The next day he went fishing again. Again he caught a big salmon, and he ate it on the spot. Again he shouted, “Here children, this is the tail! There were a lot of beggars.”

Karok woman

Now the woman thought, “He’s holding out on us.” The next day he went fishing again. She told her children, “You stay here. I’m following him. I think he’s holding out in us.” When she arrived at the fishery, he had just pulled out a big salmon. He cut off the tail and put it down a little ways off. Then he made a fire and cooked it. He was about to eat.

The woman ran back up river. She told her children, “It’s really true. He’s holding out on us. Let’s get started, we’re going to leave.” They climbed uphill. Then they heard him. He was shouting below them, “Here, children, this is the tail! There were a lot of beggars.” It was silent. He shouted again. He ran indoors. There only mice were squeaking. Then he jumped out of the house. He was still shouting like that, “Here children, this is the tail! There were a lot of beggars.” He looked uphill. That is were they had climbed.

His wife shouted, “Eat alone there: that’s why you held out on us.” He was following them. He got closer. He was still shouting. When he caught up with them, his wife told him, “You’re going to be doing nothing but this: you’ll be eating only mud in the creeks. But we will be sitting around in front of rich people.”

And he thought, “Let me grab the littlest one.” He reached out, but the child turned into a bear-lily. He thought, “I’m grabbing the other one.” It turned into a hazel-bush. He grabbed his wife: she turned into a pine tree. He, in turn, swooped down there. You will see him like that now. He eats mud on the edge of creeks. [He became a water-ouzel, a small, grey bird called “Moss-eater” by the Karok.] But his wife and his children, when there is a deerskin dance, are lined up [as baskets] in front of rich people.



When a Karok woman went out to collect pine roots, hazel stems, and bear-lily roots for her baskets, she moved in an animate and indeed passionate world. She gathered her basket materials from people– from a woman and her children who had once been dreadfully poor. By plucking roots and stems she was not harming these people but rather honoring them, transforming them into beautiful baskets that would be displayed during ceremonies, “sitting in glory before the rich people.” The woman was thus helping the roots and stems fulfill their destiny. Her relationship with the pine tree, hazel bush, and bear-lily was one of partnership, friendship, even equality: after all, she and pine tree were both women, and could thereby understand and help each other very well.

(Margolin, Malcolm ed. The Way We Lived: California Indian Reminiscences, Stories and Songs Heyday Books 1981)



Hazelnut bush

Pine tree

Animal Masters

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.