A large mountain lion-shaped figure, the namesake of Panther Cave, lies on the far right side of the rock wall.
A large mountain lion-shaped figure, the namesake of Panther Cave, lies on the far right side of the rock wall. Credit: Brendan Gibbons / San Antonio Report

AMISTAD NATIONAL RECREATION AREA – Behind the bars of the fence enclosing most of its rock shelter, the panther has waited in a lunge position for possibly the past few thousand years.

The big cat dominates the rock wall mural left by a hunter-gatherer culture that once moved throughout the limestone canyons that make up this region where the Rio Grande meets the Devils and Pecos rivers. The panther, likely a mountain lion, faces the other human- and animal-like figures, including another, smaller panther whose pigments have faded over the millennia.

This is Panther Cave, one of the most important rock art sites left behind by the Archaic people of the Lower Pecos. Accessible only by boat, the rock shelter holds a mural with figures that bear common motifs found at many of the roughly 200 rock art sites in the region, according to archaeologists with the National Parks Service and Shumla Archaeological Research and Education Center, a nonprofit group dedicated to studying and codifying the paintings.

Other important rock art sites in the area include White Shaman panel, owned by the Witte Museum, and Fate Bell’s Shelter at Seminole Canyon State Park and Historic Site, whose southern boundary lies across the canyon from Panther Cave. All were painted by a culture that lived in the area between 4,200 and 1,500 years ago.

“You can just imagine people in there together reading that panel together, learning from it, and having these times where they’re experiencing this kind of community,” Jessica Lee, Shumla’s executive director since 2015, said in a phone interview this week.

In early April, Jack Johnson, park archaeologist for Amistad National Recreation Area, brought the Rivard Report and two other visitors behind the gate that protects the rock art panel from would-be intruders.

To get there, he guided a boat more than 45 miles across Amistad Reservoir, formed by a dam built on the Rio Grande in 1969. The trip ended at a floating dock with a staircase that ascends to the rock overhang.

In the shade of the rock, Johnson demonstrated the use of prehistoric weapons like the atlatl and a boomerang-like device called a rabbit stick. Both were weapons that helped prehistoric peoples kill animals that would have been some of their only sources of vital protein and fat.

Jack Johnson, park archaeologist for Amistad National Recreation Area, demonstrates the use of a rabbit stick, a primitive weapon likely depicted on the walls of Panther Cave.
Jack Johnson, park archaeologist for Amistad National Recreation Area, demonstrates the use of a rabbit stick, a primitive weapon likely depicted on the walls of Panther Cave. Credit: Brendan Gibbons / San Antonio Report

Rock art isn’t the only thing left behind in this area. Johnson said the most common archaeological site he finds is a rock midden, the remnants of an oven where the people who once lived there would have cooked their food. Plant foods included prickly pear, sotol, and lechuguilla.

“There’s a lot of sites of everyday people trying to turn this land into calories,” Johnson said.

That would have been a constant task in a semi-arid region with a landscape that would not have allowed for the kind of farming practiced by other Native American peoples.

“The climate here is too unpredictable, too variable” for farming, Johnson said. “These guys stayed hunter-gatherers.”

This kind of lifestyle made creating these rock murals a communal sacrifice. Painting them would have required carrying around rocks used to make the pigments and hauling water in baskets – they had no pottery, Lee said. Animal fat, probably from deer or another ungulate that would have been a precious food source, was also a crucial ingredient in mixing the paint.

“Any mother would say [that] if it is more important that the child knows what is being painted and remembers it and feels it in their heart and experiences it through art, if that’s more important than eating for their life and their longevity, that’s something,” Lee said.

As Johnson demonstrated the prehistoric weapons, figures loomed behind him painted in black, red, yellow, and white that seemed to be holding similar weapons. Many of them also carried more inscrutable shapes, such as spiky balls in their hands and feather-like ornamentation on their elbows and hips.

“We see if everywhere and we see it very consistently,” said Lee about the spiky ball, which she and her colleagues call a “power bundle.” Superficially, it resembles the pod of a Datura plant, known for its psychoactive properties among some indigenous peoples of the Southwest and northern Mexico.

Archaeologists like Carolyn Boyd at Texas State University are working to discover what the power bundle figure truly means, Lee said. Even the figures that appear to be holding weapons can’t be automatically assumed to be hunters. With no written language and much work left to do to uncover the mythology of those who painted the panels, it’s difficult to assume much of anything about the art’s meaning, she said.

What is obvious, she said, is how the same motifs repeat themselves in rock art sites across the Lower Pecos Canyonlands. Through microscopic imaging and radiocarbon dating, Shumla has also found that each mural was painted in the same order – first black, then red, then yellow, then white. That and other clues indicate the methodical effort that went into their creations.

Lee compared the murals and their importance for that culture to the significance of the Sistine Chapel to the Judeo-Christian world. Lower Pecos people seeing the murals would likely have known exactly who each figure was, the way many of us know when we’re looking at a painting of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden.

“You know exactly who those people are, you know that the snake can talk, you know what the tree is for, you know why she’s holding an apple, and you know what she’s about to do,” Lee said. “You know what their kids’ names are going to be. You know they’re about to put clothes on.

“When [Lower Pecos people] walked into these shelters, they knew everything about each one of these figures,” she continued.

Though some of the art has survived for thousands of years, much has also been lost. In an effort to catalog and preserve its records in as comprehensive a form as possible, Lee’s staff is using high-resolution imagery to digitally record all of the art they can before it fades.

Some of Panther Cave's figures stand relatively isolated, such as this yellow human-like entity.
Some of Panther Cave’s figures stand relatively isolated, such as this yellow human-like entity. Credit: Brendan Gibbons / San Antonio Report

They call their work the Alexandria Project. So far, they’ve documented 138 sites, she said.

“Unfortunately, we can’t keep it on the wall,” Lee said. “It’s so fragile, hanging by a thread on those limestone walls. … This is our way of making sure that this library of Alexandria is not burned to the ground and lost forever.”

For the most part, their work stops at the border. On the U.S. side, these murals extend north from the Rio Grande for approximately 30 to 35 miles. Lee said they extend at least that far on the Mexican side, and possibly farther.

“Right on the border in Mexico is not a safe place to be, and we just cannot go there,” she said.

That’s why they’re working with archaeologists with Mexico’s National Autonomous University of Mexico and its National Institute of Anthropology and History to use the same methods to document Archaic sites south of the border.

“So we can have the full picture without the Rio Grande boundary, which wouldn’t have been a boundary in the past,” Lee said.

Brendan Gibbons is a former senior reporter at the San Antonio Report. He is an environmental journalist for Oil & Gas Watch.