The Shamanic Tradition in Chumash Rock Art
William D. Hyder and Georgia Lee (c)1994

From the beginning, scholars such as Alfred Kroeber, Campbell Grant, Travis Hudson, and Georgia Lee turned to shamanism to explain Chumash rock art. They could not be certain the artists were shamans. They were speculating largely on the basis of the art itself, art that seems born in the imagery of shamanic trance and hallucination. The word shaman, however, encompasses a broad range of societal roles filled by very different persons across many different cultures, and it has evolved yet a different meaning in modern urban society. The Chumash shaman may have been quite different from the picture evoked by today's imagery, but the paintings fit the imagery so well that few other explanations of the art are attempted, much less tolerated. This paper traces the history of the shamanic tradition in Chumash rock art and briefly reviews alternative lines of research.

One of the best known rock art sites in southern California is Painted Rock in the Carrizo Plain. The earliest photographs of this spectacular site date to 1876, testament to the wonder the paintings inspired and their power to lure urban photographers to a remote corner of California. Stories, such as that published in Myron Angel's (1910) La Piedra Pintada, undoubtedly sparked the imagination of local tourists who then made the pilgrimage to the rock. Many of them left their names carved in the rock, so many that they virtually destroyed this incredible site.

The legend of Painted Rock ranks as one of the most fanciful tales of California aboriginal life in print. It was supposedly told to rancher Archibald McAlister by his vaquero Josi Sequatero. Josi learned the story from his mother who, according to Angel, was the wife of a Mojave chief. She fled her husband's village and walked alone across the Mojave Desert to escape the Mojave's anger over an adulterous affair that led to Josi's birth. Carrying the baby Josi in her arms, she went in search of the painted rock described in stories told by her mother and her grandmother. It was there, she told her son, that runners had come to announce the arrival of Cortez in Mexico. It was there that the elder Dreamer, an aging and respected shaman, pronounced the his vision that the coming of the white people would bring freedom for all oppressed peoples. Then came new runners with reports of the killing of Montezuma, and the people lost confidence in the wisdom of the elder shaman. A younger Dreamer, seeking to establish his credibility, sacrificed his daughter before the gathered people to protect the land from the invaders. With that horrible act, he proclaimed a curse on those who would take the land from its rightful owners, and his daughter's blood was mixed with the pigments used to record his warning on the walls of Painted Rock.

Angel's legend mixes elements of Aztec sacrifice, Egyptian ceremonies, and dime novel Westerns. All were popular with the reading public and in the best tradition of the pulp novels, his story has the ring of truth, and it is the earliest publication to link Chumash rock art to shamans. At times, Angel describes features of ceremonies that Spanish explorers witnessed and recorded in their journals. More often he describes events that never happened on Chumash soil. Despite the cultural contradictions, a public fascinated by prehistoric antiquities was ready for any story that might explain the paintings on the rock. A copy of Angel's book in the library at the University of California at Santa Barbara has a brief epilog written in pencil. The anonymous author reports that when Josi learned the book had been published, he clutched his heart and died with a scream of betrayal on his lips.

The first serious academic publication to cover the native California population was A.L. Kroeber's (1925) Handbook of the Indians of California. Although Kroeber devoted a chapter to the Chumash, it was largely speculative and based on comparisons with neighboring groups. In a now famous passage, Kroeber (1925:550) wrote that "there is no group in California that once held the importance of the Chumash concerning which we know so little." In the same volume, Kroeber (1925:937) wrote: "The most remarkable pictographs are those in the Chumash country, beginning with the famous Corral Rock [Painted Rock] in the Carrizo Plains." Kroeber associated the paintings with the toalache or Datura cult of Southern California and he saw the roots of the cult firmly grounded in shamanism. He did not further explore the linkage, but a few years later his student, Julian Steward (1929:225), echoed similar sentiments when he concluded that shamanism was the most obvious explanation for rock art since art is frequently linked with religion and ceremonialism.

Grant (1965:90) affirmed the belief that the paintings were the work of shamans. He noted that Chumash sites ranged from small shelters that might have served the supernatural needs of a nuclear family to larger outcrops serving nearby villages. Grant even proposed that headless figures might represent a ceremonial destruction of people or protection from malevolent shamans. Grant (1965:92-93) proceeds to cite Herbert Kuhn's interpretation of Chumash art as depicting "the concepts of good and evil that have preoccupied man since the beginning."

Travis Hudson made it his life's work to bring linguist and ethnographer J.P. Harrington's Chumash material to the public's attention. His predecessors at the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History, David Banks Rogers and Phil Orr, conducted extensive excavations along the coast and the offshore islands and used the archaeological record to construct a material culture history of the Chumash. Hudson, in contrast, planted his spade in the labyrinth of Harrington's notes and let the Chumash story be told through their own words. He encouraged Georgia Lee to pursue her idea that stories collected by Harrington could provide some insight to understanding the paintings. Lee's 1977 article, "Chumash Mythology in Paint and Stone" provided the first glimpse of the paintings through Chumash eyes. She linked fantastic creatures in the paintings with fantastic elements from Chumash mythology that Blackburn (1975:88) linked to shamanic beliefs and experiences. Travis Hudson and Ernest Underhay's (1978) Crystals in the Sky added yet another shamanic dimension, demonstrating the Chumash knowledge of astronomy and suggesting possible links between their art, shamanism, and the annual ceremonial cycle.

The influence of Harrington's ethnographic data on Chumash rock art research is best seen in Hudson and Lee's 1984 article, "Function and Symbolism in Chumash Rock Art." They start from the identified role of the shaman in creating rock art and move forward to propose a functional model of rock art production based on the social functions of shamans as identified in Harrington's notes. They make an important leap in assuming that stylistic similarity in Chumash rock art is evidence of an ideological system associated with a contact period religious cult known as the `antap.

Hudson and Lee (1984) examine the proposed link between the 'antap and rock art in some detail. The 'antap were a ritual cult with its members spread across the villages and hamlets within a political province. While the members of the 'antap played a variety of social, political, and religious roles within Chumash society, Hudson and Lee lumped them together under the general rubric of shaman. Membership in the 'antap was primarily hereditary and based on a family's economic and political power. The Chumash shaman, however, retained a degree of distance from the cult. Unlike other cult members who received their status by birth, the shaman's power was acquired. Power was accessible to anyone who sought the necessary supernatural experiences through vision quests or dreams and who were skilled enough to make their living using their power as a shaman. In effect, the shaman maintained the egalitarian nature of Chumash society.

The 'antap cult is assumed to have produced rock art because of their religious role in Chumash society and their ties to shamanism. Hudson and Underhay (1978) note that one ethnographic reference in December's Child refers to paintings being made at the time of the Winter solstice and another refers to paintings being made by a Gabrielino sorcerer. Still other references can be cited to ritual paintings on bone and wood and to ceremonial body painting. Hudson and Lee (1984) then reasoned that if the 'antap made paintings, understanding their ritual functions within Chumash society would help illuminate the societal functions of rock art. Because the universe is dangerous and closely linked to the individual, it was the responsibility of the 'antap to use their knowledge and power to maintain balance in the universe.

Hudson and Lee (1984) identified three functions of the 'antap that they assume involved rock art. The first was the maintenance of the sacred. Certain points on the landscape were associated with mythic events and people. These were places of power that must be maintained and some of these may have been rock art sites. Second, the 'antap were responsible for conducting public and private ceremonies to maintain the cosmic equilibrium or balance of power in the universe. Again, they assume that some of these rituals occurred at rock art sites. Finally, the 'antap, shamans, and nearly everyone else in search of power may have used rock art sites in their quests. Hudson and Lee tentatively identified examples of sites that might have been used for these functions based on a loose measure of visibility and content of the art.

Lee and Hudson's studies opened a rich world of Chumash mythic images and cosmology based on Thomas Blackburn's study of Chumash narratives, December's Child, and unpublished Harrington notes. The mental image of swordfish tossing whales about breathes life into an otherwise static painting found near the base of Honda ridge. In the Carrizo, the long nose of a Coyote painting takes on comical proportions after hearing the story of how coyote's snout grew after he chased the girls begging tsu-tsu for a kiss-kiss. A black anthropomorph with white dots recalls the Chumash shaman using a sun stick to pull the sun back towards the north at the Winter Solstice to begin the annual renewal of the earth's resources. These are not the tall tales of Myron Angel, they are the stories and oral history of a people who made the land their home long before Cortez or even Cabrillo laid claim to it in the name of Spain.

Shamans are frequently artists in nonagricultural societies. Some may be particularly good at painting, others may be gifted story-tellers, and still others may be masters of the song and dance. For the ethnographic Chumash, the shaman was a dreamer. The Chumash word 'atiswinic, translates literally as dreamer or having a dream. Shamans were 'atiswinic. They acquired their powers by way of supernatural experiences. Power was accessible to anyone who sought to establish contact with it through dream experiences, and some were skilled enough to make their livelihood using their shamanistic powers. The dream experience is the link to the rock art. Others may refer to the source of art as hallucinations, drug-induced visions, trance behavior, or vision-quest induced sensory deprivation. Regardless of its source, the elements are the same, basic geometric forms associated with mental imagery such as grids, stars, dots, and meandering lines or fantastic creatures, birds, and horned anthropomorphs. Allowing for the difficulty in finding English translations for native concepts, the recurring choice of dreamers and dreams to describe shamans and their visions is significant.

Southern California ethnographies provide abundant evidence for the role of shamans in producing rock art. According to Latta (1977) for example, the Yokuts believed rock paintings had supernatural power, while Zigmond (1977) reported the Kawaiisu believed paintings were made by the Rock Baby who lived in the rocks. The rock itself is intimately linked to the significance of rock art. Gayton (1930), for example, reported that Yokuts names for some rock art sites referred to them as shaman's caches. Whitley (1992) argues that the terms interpreted by Gayton are more properly translated as "supernatural place," and he further argues that the rock was the shaman's symbolic entrance to the supernatural world. At one Yokuts site in the Sierra foothills, paintings located deep in a narrow rock cleft seemingly could have been painted only by someone entering the narrow cleft by merging into the rock itself.

In the Chumash region, some paintings appear to emerge from holes or cracks in the painted surface. At Tinta Creek, for example, a red and white anthropomorphic figure flows from a red ochre caked hole at its base. A line originating with this element meanders around the wall of the cave along natural ridges formed by erosion. At Morris Cabin Creek, figures are formed by using cracks as the backbone of figures and one crack literally has been transformed into the spine of a snake. Yet another impressive site on the coast near Point Conception apparently had its crystal laden walls painted red at one time, perhaps recalling Chumash descriptions of the House of the Sun (Hyder, et al. 1993).

The rock art imagery itself is further suggestive of its origins. California rock art has been equated with phosphenes--geometric images perceived by the brain within the eye or optic nerve in the absence of visual stimuli (Blackburn 1977). Hedges (1976; 1987; 1992) presented a convincing argument that basic recurring phosphenes or form constants are the underlying structure of hallucinatory imagery and, by extension, rock art. These images can be simple or elaborate patterns; with the addition of hallucinogenic substances they become more intense and intricate (Hedges 1992:75). Basic phosphene patterns apparently are seen by all peoples everywhere, and this tends to explain why so many geometric motifs are found worldwide. Whitley (1992:107) unequivocally states that "the origin of the motifs [was] in culturally conditioned altered state of consciousness experiences."

David Lewis-Williams and Thomas Dowson (1988) draw similar arguments based on entoptic phenomena, visual sensations derived from the optic system anywhere from the eyeball to the visual cortex of the brain. They distinguish between phosphenes, which they define as being produced in the eyeball, and form constants arising from the optic system. Basic entoptic forms are geometrics, especially grids and lattice designs, parallel lines, dots and flecks, zigzags, nested catenary curves, and filigrees or thin meandering lines. These elements are the building blocks of southern California rock art designs and rock art found throughout the world. Lewis-Williams and Dowson (1988) identify entoptics as a universal product of stimulation of the nervous system during the first stage of altered states of consciousness. As one enters trance, the nervous system produces involuntary entoptic imagery. Because entoptics originate in the optic nerve, the range of images is limited and shared by all humans regardless of culture. Only the meanings attached to the images change from group to group and from time to time.

First stage trance entoptics are common throughout the Chumash region. At some sites, such as Honda Ridge, seemingly hundreds of parallel lines were formed by brushing paint-laden fingers over a glassy-smooth slickenside surface (see Fig. 1). Parallel lines, lattice works, and grids are the basic elements of some of the earliest rock art in the Chumash area, elements that are typically drawn or dry-applied as opposed to painted (Hyder 1989) First stage images are found in polychrome art as well, such as a checkerboard at Kinevan Ranch.


Figure 1: A portion of the red parallel finger marks at SBa-550, Honda Ridge, are shown in this photograph. Hundreds of parallel and seemingly random lines typical of first stage entoptics cover the panel. (c) 1992 William D. Hyder

Figure 2: Red painted geometric elements at SBa-508, Kinevan Ranch, take on familiar zoomorphic forms as is found in second stage entoptics. (c) 1986 Mark Oliver.

In the second stage of trance, the individual attempts to impose meaning and order on the involuntary images by matching them with stored memories. How the mind links the entoptics with more familiar images depends on the individual's current state of mind. In rock art imagery, such forms include entoptics that share some identifying traits with representational images. One example might be the zigzag caterpillar or snake from Kinevan Ranch (see Fig. 2). Or, the so-called aquatic motifs, a simple arc with split ends suggestive of a fish (Hudson and Conti 1981). A giant caterpillar at Carneros Rocks might fit into this category as well.

The transition from the second to third stage of trance is accompanied by imagery similar to that reported for near death experiences, typically a vortex, concentric circles, or a rotating tunnel. While Chumash designs include basic entoptic forms, Chumash rock art is best known for its polychrome mandalas or sacred circles and other brilliant and complex images typical of the third stage of trance. Benson and Sehgal (1987) identified the sacred circles as transformation symbols of the shaman's journey to the other world, the symbolic death and rebirth of the shaman. Again, the death and rebirth imagery cuts across cultures and can be considered a universal attribute of shamanism. Lewis-Williams and Dowson (1988) identify the iconic hallucinations or visions that accompany the third and deepest stage of trance as being culturally determined. Rather than seemingly arbitrary abstract forms, the fantastic imagery includes people, animals, and other familiar or meaningful objects. The most popular and famous examples of Chumash rock art likely derive from this third stage of trance.

Familiar stage three images might include the deer and sun image from Painted Cave (see Fig. 3) or a half man-half fish at Arrowhead Springs. Familiar animals also take on fantastic forms such as a red-legged frog at Condor Cave. In some instances, anthropomorphs are enmeshed in fantastic forms such as the figure at Sulpher Springs.

Figure 3: Polychrome elements from SBa-506, Painted Cave. The fantastic creature below the sun-like element might be interpreted as a deer, a shaman, or a hunter in a deer costume. Or, it might be a fantastic form typical of third stage entoptics. (c) William D. Hyder 1989.

Datura ingestion and the resulting deep trance and accompanying hallucinations played an important role in Chumash religious practices. Initiates were prepared for their hallucinatory experience in advance and shamans helped explain and interpret the initiates' visions as they recovered from the datura induced coma. Lewis-Williams and Dowson (1988) argue that the fantastic imagery of iconic hallucinations can be explained by the vividness of the deep trance experiences, but that interpretations of the imagery can only be understood within the context of the artist's culture. Indeed, if the Chumash were painting images from trance experiences, these images were further refined and otherwise defined post-trance under the guidance of the shaman or other practitioner guiding the initiate's experience. Professional shamans, on the other hand, would have similar hallucinatory experiences since their own training and experience was grounded in the very teachings they passed on to others. Chumash rock art, for example, shares a limited array of forms despite its seemingly endless variety of elements.

Chumash rock art clearly can be categorized as visionary imagery. Many designs appear to have originated in visions, and those motifs accentuated or created by tiny dots are characteristic of datura visions. Far from being arbitrary imagery, the shared elements are easily recognizable as a Chumash style distinct from the art found in neighboring culture areas. This consistency led Hudson and Lee (1984) to make the linkage between the shaman and the religious `antap cult. Hultkrantz (1979:85-86), however, cautions against automatically equating the "person and performance of the shaman" with a religious pattern. The antiquity of the `antap cult has yet to be demonstrated, and it is not certain that `antap members produced rock art, even if they were shamans. Indeed, we cannot be certain the people who produced Chumash rock art were shamans, even if the imagery derives from trance and other behavioral experiences associated with shamanism. The individual acquisition of power through trance experiences was common throughout California and it may not be easy to separate images that derive from individual, culturally guided experiences with shamanistic imagery.

In his 1989 study; Rock Art and Archaeology in Santa Barbara County, California; Hyder combines archaeological and ethnographic data to construct a more complete picture of Chumash rock art. The range of sites and possible functions of Chumash rock art are more varied than Grant, Hudson, or Lee proposed. Hyder refined definitions for various sites types proposed in Hudson and Lee's (1984) study and expanded the list of possible functional types (see Table 1). His definitions combined the presence or absence of midden, the presence or absence of bedrock mortars, and general site size to distinguish between occupation sites, camps, limited activity sites, as well rock art sites with no other archaeological associations. A public versus private classification based on the visibility of the rock art panels was borrowed from Hudson and Lee, and the number and types of painted elements present were added to define seven possible types of rock art sites.

Table 1: Chumash rock art site types, archaeological attributes, and assessment of probable shamanistic content (after Hyder 1989, Hyder and Conti 1992).

Hyder's studies reveal a wider range of Chumash rock art sites than might be expected based on shamanism alone. Even though rock art symbolism may reflect shamanistic beliefs, the source of the imagery does not mean every site was created by shamans or even as the result of shamanistic ceremonies. Other theories can be used to explain and interpret some Chumash rock art. The Gabrielino, for example, are said to have carved family identification symbols on rocks and trees, while the Cahuilla recognized some petroglyphs as boundary markers. The Chumash recognized painted body designs as belonging to a particular lineage or village, but little consideration has been given to the potential role of Chumash rock art as territorial marker. Hyder and Conti (1992) proposed that a particular class of Chumash site might be related to puberty ceremonies, in particular female puberty rites. As Whitley (1992) also noted, the imagery may be drawn from trance, but the painting is not necessarily the work of shamans. The linkage between shamans and Chumash rock art has evolved over the past one hundred years and continues to find support. Indeed, we would argue that much of Chumash rock art is shamanistic. Yet, the near universal acceptance of the shamanistic origin of Chumash rock art makes it difficult to separate its status as anthropological theory from fact.

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