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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Coso Rock Art Within Its Archaeological Context


Prehistoric rock art is a most obvious part of the archaeological record, yet some interpretative models increasingly distance this art from its archaeological context This is particularly true for the Coso rock art area, which has emerged as a "type locality" for a shamanic approach to rock art interpretation. The fundamental thesis of the current paper is that the meaning and antiquity of prehistoric rock art are best understood by placing the art within its contemporaneous archaeological context using routine analytical methods. We advocate a return to the archaeological approach of interpreting rock art and argue against the perpetuation of increasingly complex and confounding "explanations " based on untestable hypotheses extrapolated from ethnographic data with questionable linkages to the archaeological record. Reviews of local and regional chronological data, settlement patterns, and subsistence practices indicate that the production of Coso rock art tracked closely with the rise and fall of bighorn sheep hunting in the southwestern Great Basin. During the Newberry period (3,500-1,350 cal B.P.), when darts and atlatls provided the main technology, the hunting of bighorn sheep was a major component of the adaptation. When the bow and arrow were adopted during the Haiwee period (1,350 650 cal B.P.), hunting efficiency increased and ultimately contributed to the depletion of sheep throughout the region. We conclude that the proliferation of bighorn sheep petroglyphs during the Haiwee period reflects a unique local response to a regional problem. Responding to the over exploitation of a key food resource—bighorn sheep—local groups intensified their ritualistic practices, and did so in a way that vividly marked their territory and signaled their distinctiveness from neighboring groups in California and in other parts of the Great Basin.

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