Two thousand years before Jesus of Nazareth walked the shores of the Sea of Galilee, 2,500 years before Muhammad founded Islam, and 3,000 years before the collapse of the Maya in Mesoamerica, prehistoric hunter-gatherers occupied the Lower Pecos River Canyonlands in southwest Texas and northern Mexico, leaving behind an astonishing gallery of rock art.
The passage of time, the elements, and more recently, the building of Lake Amistad and episodic flooding have contributed to the disappearance or demise of many of the pictographs. Many are now underwater and lost, yet hundreds remain as evidence of this lost time and people.
A team of dedicated archaeologists and specialists at the nonprofit Shumla Archaeological Research and Education Center, based in the small town of Comstock, population 375, are working diligently to map and digitally document more than 350 known rock art sites in Val Verde County alone. The rock art was painted between 4,000 and 1,000 years ago, according to radiocarbon dates.
The Shumla’s current documentation project is called the Alexandria Project and purposely recalls the loss of the greatest library in the ancient world in Alexandria, Egypt, attributed to fires set by Julius Caesar in 48 BC and even earlier religious hostilities. The reference serves as a reminder that the fragile murals and figurative rock paintings found less than 200 miles from San Antonio could one day disappear and no longer connect us with people who roamed the region as far back as 12,000 years ago.
The team has adapted a range of high-tech processes collectively known as the Shumla Method to photograph, map, and analyze the rock art. Archaeologists and other specialists are using highly systematic photography mapping, nanotechnologies such as hand-held digital microscopes, carbon dating of minute paint samples, and other techniques that allow digitization of every site in its current state.
That digital archive allows scientists to take images barely discernible to the naked eye and return them to the colorful anthropomorphic splendor created by the original artists. It also will allow scientists to measure the rate of spalling, the layered shedding of damp limestone rock that occurs even in this high desert plain environment. The creation of Amistad Dam and Reservoir in 1969 added considerable humidity to the air and is hastening the steady deterioration of ancient manmade works that survived for thousands of years but are now threatened.
The rock art and Shumla’s documentary work is drawing increasing international attention. In fact, Shumla just hosted a colloquium of international rock art scholars organized and led by the Getty Conservation Institute. Visitors were astounded by the scale of the Lower Pecos rock art and Shumla’s work to preserve it.
The four-year Alexandria Project, launched in 2017 and funded in part by the National Geographic Society, will be completed by the end of 2020, giving researchers around the world a searchable database to access and study.
“Now that we can read these pictographs, they are more than just images. They are North America’s first books, the first written record of the people who once lived here,” said Jessica Lee, Shumla’s executive director. “We use the comparison to the library of Alexandria to give people a name they can grasp and understand why this work is so important.”
Lee and the other members of Shumla team know that many more unregistered rock art sites have survived in the labyrinth of canyons, rock shelters, and caves along this remote stretch of the Texas-Mexico border, including those not accessible to the team in the northern Mexico border state of Coahuila, where drug cartel activity and a lack of public security make such work impractical.
“Rock art is practically everywhere on the globe,” Lee said. “There is ancient art in many regions, but pictographs don’t preserve as well in humid regions.
“The Lower Pecos is extremely unique because of a few factors: One, the amount of rock art in a relatively small locale, including the huge, multicolored murals and other styles we are just learning about. Two, it’s complexity in comparison other rock art styles the world over. This work is intricate, with fine, overlapping lines that we can see in microscopic studies. And three, the arid environment has so nicely preserved the ancient art.
“We believe rock art everywhere has meaning. People were putting art on the rock walls for a reason,” she said. “This was part of their culture, their belief systems, and communicating that with other people. This complexity is only seen in places like South Africa and Australia in terms of hunter-gatherer art. So far, what we have found is the oldest narrative creation story in North America.”
Lee recently led a small group of Shumla donors on a moderate hike and descent to view the celebrated White Shaman Mural, a mesmerizing creation story told through a series of anthropomorphic figures, spiritual ceremonies, and depictions of real and mythologized worlds. Monika Maeckle, my wife, and I were fortunate enough to tag along.
“When I first saw the caliber of work Shumla is doing and the incredible rock art panels they are preserving, I thought for sure they must be funded by the government or a university, but I was wrong,” said Kay Watt, a San Antonio resident who serves on the Shumla board of directors. “They are an independent nonprofit raising the money themselves to trek into the desert and preserve these murals and the knowledge they hold for all of us. They need our support. It costs about $5,000 to digitally document each site before it is lost.”
The Witte Museum acquired the mural site in 2017, which is located near the confluence of the Pecos River and Rio Grande and within sight of the bridge spanning U.S. Highway 90, where truckers and Amistad Lake visitors drive by oblivious to their proximity to this ancient site. Museum tours of rock art sites resume in September and require pre-registration. Guided hikes to Fate Bell’s Pictograph Shelter at Seminole Canyon State Park and Historic Site continue daily at 10 a.m. through the summer. Admission to the park is $5 for adults and $8 for the guided tour. Click here for dates and times.
The second floor of the expanded Witte houses the Kittie West Nelson Ferguson People of the Pecos Gallery, an opportunity for museum-goers to learn about the ancient dwellers of the Lower Pecos before traveling to the rugged and remote canyon country of Southwest Texas.
Our group led by Lee and her associates later traveled nine miles west of Comstock on Highway 90 to Seminole Canyon State Park. A path descending from the visitor’s center and museum took us to Fate Bell’s Shelter, named for a former owner and rancher.
People found shelter in this rock overhang for thousands of years, one generation’s leavings layered upon those who came before them, leaving archaeologists a deep record of occupation and daily life in the middens, fire circles, grinding stations, and of course, the fantastical painted figures and stories reaching high on the protected rock faces. The occupants could gaze out for miles from their natural refuge.
But it’s the White Shaman Cave mural, which measures 26 feet long and 13 feet high, and the unlocking of its mysteries that resisted archaeological inquiry for more than a century, perhaps longer, that now offer one of the most tantalizing stories left behind for people to ponder thousands of years later.
Carolyn Boyd, a Galveston native and trained muralist, first set eyes on the White Shaman Mural in 1989, arriving at the site in a small boat. The creation of the Amistad Dam and Reservoir raised the level of the Pecos River by 80 feet, so the cave that Boyd reached by ascending a vertical wall would have involved a much longer climb for the artists who created the White Shaman creation mural. Today a series of stone stairs and a chain handrail make reaching the cave easy enough for active seniors to experience.
“I was not a trained archaeologist at the time. I was working on a body of fine art work, traveling in Mexico a lot, reading about the Maya, Aztec, and Zapotec, the potters and weavers,” Boyd said. “I was reading a lot. This ended up leading me to learn about the rock paintings in West Texas.”
Upon first seeing the mural, Boyd saw what archaeologists could not see: a carefully conceived composition and narrative story, the work of ancient but sophisticated muralists working in a sequence of four colors to portray a creation story and their belief in an underworld and overworld alive with anthropomorphic figures. Archaeologists had puzzled over the fantastic imagery, concluding they were the dreamlike visions of an ancient people influenced by ceremonial hallucinogens such as peyote or mushrooms.
“Rock art was a stepchild of archaeology back then, but that is changing now,” Boyd said. “I did go back and earn my doctorate in archaeology so I could speak that language, learn to think and analyze the way archaeologists do.”
Boyd earned her doctorate at Texas A&M University in 1998 and now serves as a professor in the department of anthropology at Texas State University. She is recognized internationally for her pioneering work in the field of decoding the images into a clear narrative that helped show that the stories told by the Lower Pecos hunter-gatherers were eerily similar to those of the Aztec in central Mexico and the Huichol in Mexico’s western Sierra Madre.
“The way to think of this region is that it was a painted landscape. It must have been fantastic to wander through those remote canyons with their painted walls thousands of years ago,” Boyd said. “The White Shaman Mural certainly has imagery that is strikingly similar to creation story imagery later found in the Aztec codices. So it can be seen as the first book in that world, with a distinct vocabulary of imagery rather than words or written language. This imagery served to communicate stories, traditions, spirituality, the underworld, the overworld, and other learning being passed down through the rock art.”
Noting the 1960s counterculture fascination with shamans and hallucinogens, and the many distortions of indigenous ceremonial traditions that found their way into print and practice, I asked Boyd if she wished the cave mural was named something other than the White Shaman.
“I think it’s unfortunate that it’s called the White Shaman Cave because we have identified the so-called white shaman figure as a female lunar deity, but some say she was the first shaman, so I am okay with it,” Boyd said.
Boyd went on to become the founder of Shumla and inspire and mentor a new generation of archaeologists, many of them women in a field once dominated by men. Boyd herself was inspired and mentored by Linda Schele, an archaeologist at UT-Austin who, before her death in 1998, played a leading role in deciphering Mayan hieroglyphs and was widely admired for making her celebrated sketches of stelae and inscriptions available to other scholars, what we today call open-source data.
“We are a woman-founded, woman-led organization, which is quite unusual, especially in this field,” Lee said. “I met Carolyn in 1996 and it has been an amazing journey. How lucky I was to have stumbled across a woman who was not going to take no for an answer. She was going to figure this out. She is an incredible woman and scholar.”
Her book, The White Shaman Mural: An Enduring Creation Narrative in the Rock Art of the Lower Pecos, published in 2016 by the University of Texas Press, was recognized with a Society of American Archaeology Scholarly Book Award and is considered the definitive work on the subject.
The Shumla staff works out of offices in Comstock in Val Verde County, where they welcome visitors to visit their headquarters. Readers interested in a deeper look into their work can read the Shumla blog and become a supporter of Shumla’s work.
Their field work is conducted along the Balcones Escarpment between the Rio Grande, the Pecos, and the Devils Rivers. There, on some public lands and countless private ranches, they are studying and documenting a rich record of rock paintings, petroglyphs, human habitation, and survival. The ancient record is public knowledge in the region, yet few in San Antonio or beyond know about the rock art, and even fewer people have seen it firsthand.
My own introduction to the rock art came in the 1990s when I shared a hunting lease on a ranch six miles north of Comstock.
My youngest son Alex, then about 10 or 11 years old, and I and two other hunters were hiking one of the 17,000-acre ranch’s canyons in search of white-tail deer when we happened across a large figure painted 12 feet above us on a rock wall, perhaps at a time when the canyon bottom still featured running water. We carried a disposable camera, which we used to record the shamanic figure, young Alex standing on my shoulders. Alas, I misplaced the camera and have no record of the still uncatalogued site.
Real estate listings for numerous Val Verde ranches openly advertise the existence of ancient rock art with photos that aim to increase interest in the properties.
The New World’s earliest known artists and storytellers are chronicled in Painters in Prehistory: Ancient Echoes from the South Pecos Canyonlands, published in 2013 by Harry Shafer, the noted archeologist emeritus of Texas A&M, Witte Museum associate, and Southtown resident.
There is a strong argument to make that the Lower Pecos Canyonlands rock paintings merit inclusion on the list of 1,073 UNESCO World Heritage sites, with only 23 of them found in the United States. The U.S. National Park Service and Texas Parks and Wildlife Department own and manage panels well worthy of international recognition and status. First, however, the sites must gain recognition from the U.S. Department of the Interior and listing in the National Historic Landmarks Program.
The remote location of the Lower Pecos rock paintings explains, perhaps, why they are not already included among the more than 2,500 historic sites and places of extraordinary heritage found in the United States. Resistance from ranch owners also contributes to the sensitivity of any campaigns to win national and international recognition for the unique rock art record of a people and time otherwise lost to history.
Archaeologists here and around the world continue to uncover and document new evidence that ancient hunter-gatherers preoccupied with survival still found time and inspiration to make art, and to engage in spiritual and cultural activities that reflected their belief in life beyond their own physical reality.
Analysis of the White Shaman cave, Panther Cave, Rattlesnake Cave, and others shows that ancient artists approached their work with method, planning, and access to scarce materials. Scaffolding, which was constructed from cactus and succulent shoots and bound together with wild grasses, and four colors mined from area soils and rocks and applied one color and layer at a time using a pre-drawn schematic were necessary to produce the final results we still see today, according to the latest research.
Individuals who own land with rock art sites who are willing to allow Shumla staff to explore their canyons to find and document rock art sites can click here to make contact. Shumla staff always keep the location of such sites confidential. Their goal is not to provide public access to the sites but to document, study, and protect the fragile rock art record before the further passage of time and nature takes its toll.
Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that guided tours of the Fate Bell’s Pictograph Shelter in Seminole Canyon State Park are free. Park admission is $5 for adults, and the daily guided tour of the rock shelter is $8. Children under 12 are not charged admissions to the park, while children ages 5-13 must pay a $5 fee for the rock shelter tour, with children under five allowed to accompany an adult at no charge.