Where Did They Go


Anasazi Art

Rock Art Photo Gallery

The Anasazi

Ancient Ruins
Photo Web

The Really Ancient



Permanent Housing

Early Pottery


Beans in the Southwest

Canyon Lands

Geology & Volcanoes

Dinosaurs & More



Southwest Expedition
Base Camp

Camp Internet
Base Camp

Exploring the Ancient Southwest

A Race of Giants and Baja California Rock Art

Deep in the mountains and precipitous canyons of the Sierra de San Francisco of the Baja California peninsula in northwest Mexico lies some of the world's most spectacular rock art. The people who painted them remain a mystery .. believed by some to have been a race of giants. There is evidence of human life in Baja from 9,000 years ago, but it is the mysterious rock art that is the strongest reminder of an early people who sought to sustain life in the rocky canyons 1500 years ago. This rock art is in the form of large continuous murals stretching long lengths of dry canyon walls. From the surfaces of streamside boulders to full cliff-face paintings, the murals can be up to 500 feet long and 30 feet tall. Francisco Javier Clavigero, in his 1789 Historia de la Antigua o Baja California,was the first to describe the painted rock-shelters, noting pictures of " Men and women, and the different species of animals.

These paintings, although crude, show the objects distinctly. The colors that served for them are clearly seen to have been made from the mineral earths which are found in the region of the volcano of Las Virgenes.

The missionaries most admired the fact that those colors should have remained permanent in the stone through many centuries wirthout being damaged by either air or water. Not feeling those pictures and dress to belong to the savage and brutalized nations which inhabited California when the Spanish arrived there, they doubtless belong to another ancient nation, although we cannot say which it was. The Californians unanimously affirm that it was a nation of giants who came from the north. " Designated as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO and today the destination of an increasing number of visitors, the rock art sites of Baja California remained little known for many years, even after news of them had traveled beyond the Sierra.

Jesuit missionaries who entered Baja California in the 18th century were the first to report on their existence. The Jesuits also provided firsthand information on the local Cochimí Indian population, but the Cochimí did not lay claim to the paintings, ascribing them instead to a race of giants that had entered the peninsula from the north.


The Jesuits recorded their observations on the paintings in a dispassionate style, proposing rational explanations for their creation. A more excited response to discovering the painted rock shelters in this remote and rugged land is that of a recent author, Harry Crosby, who did much to publicize the Great Mural sites, as he called them, through his explorations of the Sierra in the 1970s: " Over the slit-like opening of a long shallow cave was a vast expanse of fairly smooth rock surface. On that was painted a tumultuous cavalcade of human and animal figures far greater than life size. All the beasts seemed to press forward in movement from right to left; huge red and black deer and equally immense red mountain sheep dominated the surge.

The figures were all executed in a strange sort of partial superimposition that gave a powerful sense of motion. Each animal seemed to be in mad flight treading on the heels of those ahead and straining to free himself from the crush behind. Scattered among the creatures of this bustling frieze were a variety of strangely static humans. Whereas the hurrying animals moved in profile across the stony canvas, the men faced us, frozen into identical erect postures with their arms upraised. I was astonished and overwhelmed. The impact of that vast canvas is impossible to describe. "

For nearly 200 years after the expulsion of the Jesuits from Baja California in 1768, there was little investigation of the paintings. One of the few reports was that of Léon Diguet, an engineer employed by the French mining company at Santa Rosalía, on the east coast of the peninsula; he explored a number of sites and in 1895 published descriptions of their paintings in the French academic literature.

In 1951 a team from Mexico's National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH) explored a site in the Sierra de Guadalupe, south of the Sierra de San Francisco. Neither report, however, led to systematic exploration.

It was not until the 1960s that the rock paintings were widely popularized, the result of their "discovery" from a helicopter by the well-known mystery writer Erle Stanley Gardner. Local ranchers of the Sierra had, of course, long been aware of the sites, many of them encountered during searches for lost livestock along the steep canyon walls.

The Figures

The paintings are notable for often being much greater than life size and for their vivid depictions of animals in movement and humans in formalized, static positions. Hundreds of sites with paintings have been recorded in the sierras of the central Baja peninsula, an arid region receiving less than 100 millimeters of rainfall a year. Despite the apparently inhospitable nature of the area, the paintings depict a wide variety of animal species: among them are mule deer, desert bighorn sheep, pronghorn antelope, mountain lion, and rabbit; there are also birds and marine animals--fish, sea turtle, and stingray. The most memorable images however are the giant human-like figures. Red, black, white, and (rarely) yellow are the principal colors used, derived from local mineral sources. Figures are often outlined in white and in-filled with either solid color or stripes. Many human and animal figures are impaled by arrows or spears. As with most rock art, the meaning of the Baja paintings remains obscure. The animals, for example, are not simply creatures depicted in nature but have been struck by a hunter's arrow, and this implies a "cultural meaning associated with hunting magic. The human figures are painted overtop animals at least three times more frequently than would be expected by chance - probably an expression of human dominance.

Placement of some of the paintings is curious. While most were on easily accessible walls and ceilings, some would have required a ladder or scaffolding, and others were executed in dangerous locations, e.g. on projecting roof over drop of several hundred feet. Such locations indicate that the act of painting was as important than the painting itself. In addition to the large scale of many of the paintings, two aspects that impress those lucky enough to see them are the astonishing preservation of their strong colors and the fact that many motifs are painted far out of reach of present-day visitors. The Jesuits speculated that the paintings--in places nine meters or more above ground level--might have been executed using scaffolding, "unless we imagine extremely long paint brushes in their hands!" The preservation of the colors was noted by Father Joseph Mariano Rothea, who lived at the local mission of San Ignacio until the Jesuit expulsion: "The durability of these colors seemed notable to me; being there on the exposed rock in the inclemencies of sun and water where they are no doubt struck by rain, strong wind or water that filters through these same rocks from the hill above, with all this, after much time, they remain highly visible."

Who Were the Artists ?

The paintings--and the many petroglyphs, or rock engravings, found in the Sierra--are the work of the prehistoric population that inhabited the Baja California peninsula. The archaeology of this area is now much better known thanks to a project carried out and directed by María de la Luz Gutiérrez of INAH and Justin Hyland of the University of California, Berkeley, between 1992 and 1994. Systematic surveying and selected excavation of rock-shelter and open-air sites have helped establish the cultural context of the remarkable paintings and their creators. Radiocarbon dating suggests that most sites flourished between 1500 and 500 years ago, though there is evidence of human presence in the area as early as 9000 B.C.E. Although none of the rock-shelters had deep deposits, explorers have collected a small assemblage from crevices where debris had accumulated, including flaked slate and basalt choppers and scrapers, obsidian projectile points, and sandstone manos and metates; bone awls and deer scapula "saws"; wood fire drill components, arrow foreshafts, pegs or stakes, a hook for harvesting cactus fruits, cut segemnts of cane and palm, and viznaga spines; basketry and net fragments, yucca fiber quids, cordage of yucca fiber, and a palm frond braid; marine shells and fragments; and an iron knife blade (a relic of a later visit to the site). Bedrock mortars were ground into the rock-shelter floors, and there were abundant chipping debris and coarse stone tools on the slope at their mouths. No artifacts that would indicate how the paintings were made, such as brushes, were recovered. Artifacts from Cueva Pintada were similar to those from a rock-shelter at Bahia de Los Angeles, to the north, which belongs to the archaeological complex (a set of distinctive artifacts and other cultural features) known as Comondú. The Comondú painters were probably the ancestors of the historic Cochimí inhabitants of the area whose language is called Peninsular Yuman. A wooden peg from a crevice in Cueva Pintada yielded a date of 530 ± 80 years, or sometime between A.D. 1352 and 1512. This date agrees both with Clavigero's report of 1760s observation that Indians said the paintings were by an earlier people and with the late prehistoric and historic Comondú assemblage. A possible explanation of their origin that Baja rock art researchers have suggested : several hundred years ago, Peninsular Yumans in Baja were successful hunter-gatherers, subsisting on fish and shellfish, pitahaya cactus, rabbit, deer, and mountain sheep.

As time passed, life became more difficult through the general desiccation of the Desert West, over-hunting, or some other reason. Whatever prompted it, beginning perhaps 600 years ago, efforts to improve the supply of game supply were made through hunting magic involving the paintings. They failed, and the rock-shelters and painting were abandoned 200 years before the arrival of the Spanish.

Adapted from the Getty Conservation Newsletter Summer 1996 and the American Institute of Archaeology Newsletter 1999