Friday, December 16, 2016

Q&A on the oldest known "book" in North America

"If you look upriver as you cross the Pecos River bridge heading west toward the historic town of Langtry, Texas, you will see nestled high on the canyon wall a small, shallow cave. Near dusk on a winter’s day the sun fills this rockshelter with light, illuminating the images painted thousands of years ago in red, yellow, black, and white. Those of us who know the paintings are there wave a
greeting as we pass. Hundreds of thousands of people, however, cross the bridge and never know they are within a stone’s throw of perhaps the oldest known “book” in North America: the rock art mural in White Shaman Shelter." 
—From the Introduction to Carolyn Boyd's The White Shaman Mural.  
The prehistoric hunter-gatherers of the Lower Pecos Canyonlands of Texas and Coahuila, Mexico, created some of the most spectacularly complex, colorful, extensive, and enduring rock art of the ancient world. Perhaps the greatest of these masterpieces is the White Shaman mural, an intricate painting that spans some twenty-six feet in length and thirteen feet in height on the wall of a shallow cave overlooking the Pecos River.

In The White Shaman Mural, Carolyn E. Boyd takes us on a journey of discovery as she builds a convincing case that the mural tells a story of the birth of the sun and the beginning of time—making it possibly the oldest pictorial creation narrative in North America. We asked Carolyn Boyd about her fascinating work and how we can appreciate the White Shaman mural and the region's history.

View of the Pecos River and White Shaman Shelter from across the canyon. Photo by Rupestrian Cyberservices. Courtesy of Shumla Archaeological Research and Education Center.

What is the significance of the White Shaman mural?

The White Shaman mural is perhaps the oldest known “book” in North America. It is a visual narrative exquisitely detailing a very ancient and enduring story of creation – the story of how the sun was born and time began. The narrative was painted by nomadic foragers at least 2,000 years ago on the limestone wall within a small rockshelter overlooking the Pecos River. It documents a story that was passed down to later generations of Uto-Aztecan speaking people, such as the ancient Nahua (Aztec). It is a story still told today by other Uto-Aztecan speaking peoples, such as the Huichol of Mexico.

The mural works on multiple levels of interpretation. Not only does it communicate an ancient creation narrative, it also metaphorically represents the heavens as viewed by people living in the Lower Pecos during the Late Archaic. The imagery relates the sun’s daily cycle and the apparent path of the sun along the ecliptic throughout the year. It documents the changing seasons and the beginning and ending of ages. Beyond its portrayal of real-world cosmological events and cycles of nature, the mural also articulates the ongoing transformations of every person throughout the course of their lives.

The fourth Ancestor transforming into the Moon Goddess. Photo by Jean Clottes.
Courtesy of Shumla Archaeological Research and Education Center

At the White Shaman site, myth, place, and image fuse to create a time-transcending reality. The ritual performed at the White Shaman thousands of years ago incorporated the art, which facilitated the creation of a place of metamorphosis, both in terms of time and space. This took place on four separate cognitive levels. First, there was the temporal order transitioning from day to night to day, or summer to winter to summer, in a never-ending cyclical pattern. All living things are born, live, die and are reborn from the seeds of the previous generation. The story of the White Shaman is structured around this temporal order of ongoing transformation.

Second, there is also a spatial order found in the mural. From the perspective of the actors on stage—the ancestral deities who are looking out from the wall—east is to right and west is to the left, north is above and south is below. The world has four corners and a center. The heavens have thirteen levels and the underworld has nine. Mountaintops and caves are the settings for conversion of profane space to sacred space. The mountaintop has a connection with the heavens and the cave has its connection with the underworld. All of these were involved with the movement and transformation of souls.

Third, the organization of time and space provided mechanisms for the people of the Lower Pecos to understand and control the natural sequence of events—as well as one’s destiny—and for centering one in the cosmos. It is very likely that, as with the Nahua, all of the days of their lives held essences manifested in the gods and their related associations. The moments of transformation in a person’s life—their rites of passage—were, through the ritual incorporating the artwork, assigned an orderly place in relation to the cosmos.

And fourth, there is transcendence—the opportunity to experience in life an existence beyond the physical realm. Participants in ceremonies at the White Shaman mural could have achieved transcendence through various forms of austerity and by way of altered states of consciousness. These allowed them to see a world that lies behind this one. The ultimate goal of the ritual to which the artwork belonged was transcendence through transformation.

What do you think you as both an artist and an archaeologist bring to the job of making sense of the White Shaman composition?

I think it is the coupling of an artist’s aesthetic sensibility with the analytical rigor of an archaeologist. And add to that a lot of dogged determination!

My appreciation of the murals began as an artist, not as an archaeologist. When I first stood before the imposing Pecos River style murals in 1989, I was simply blown away. I was working at that time as a commissioned muralist, so I had an appreciation of what was required to produce large scale artworks. I was awed by the artists’ masterful use of form and color to create enormous well-balanced compositions. The murals were painted on craggily textured limestone surfaces curving up irregularly over the heads of the artists by as much as 30 feet. Scaffolding, ladders, straightedges, and stencils, are just some of the tools the artists would have engaged. They were a monumental undertaking in every sense of the word.

Artistically reproducing the murals, figure by figure, line by line, has helped me to see it very differently. One of my favorite quotes is from Frederick Franck’s The Zen of Seeing—“I have learned that what I have not drawn I have never really seen, and that when I start drawing an ordinary thing, I realize how extraordinary it is, sheer miracle.”

The Pecos River style mural at Panther Cave (41VV83) is approximately 150 feet long and 15 feet high. This photograph shows only a small section of the shelter. The anthropomorph with upraised arms at the left side of the photo stands 10 1/2 feet tall. Photo by Michael Amador. Courtesy of the Texas Department of Transportation.

In the 1930s Forrest Kirkland, who was a professional artist, recognized the incredible value and sophistication of the rock art as well. He spent almost eight years producing amazingly accurate watercolor renderings of rock art panels in the Lower Pecos. No one knew the art better than Kirkland. In his analysis of the paintings, he proclaimed the “outstanding artistic achievement” of Pecos River style artists. It wasn’t their ability to accurately portray individual elements that impressed Kirkland, but the skillful way these elements were intentionally placed into “elaborate, beautifully balanced designs and compositions” to communicate “firmly fixed mythological ideas.” Kirkland was an artist--and he was right. His perception of the people who painted the murals was shaped by the sophistication of their art. As archaeologists we too often define ancient cultures solely by their material remains. In the Lower Pecos, these remains engender images of simple foragers engaging simple tools in an often harsh and unforgiving landscape. Without the art, they are yet another little understood and little regarded Archaic population eking out a meager existence. But with the art, worlds change.

Explain how your team was able to connect the White Shaman mural to ancient Nahua (Aztec) and contemporary Huichol mythology?

It is all about patterns. The daunting task of rock art recording is not only preservation or description, but capturing data in such a way that it is useful for answering questions about our human past. This means detecting patterns—patterns are the clues to “making sense” of past human behavior. To do this requires documenting and describing the structure and context of the rock art panel, characteristics of individual figures within the panel, and stratigraphic relationships between and among figures.

Drawing of the White Shaman mural.

Description of individual figures and their characteristics or attributes provides data for inter- and intrasite patterning. Attribute data is information that can be classified, measured and counted. For example, anthropomorph attribute data documents physical attributes (such as size, color and shape), paraphernalia, (weaponry, staffs and darts) and body adornments (feather hip-clusters, headdresses, and wrist and elbow adornments). Attributes provide the clues to what these figures represent. Think, for example, about the attributes or physical characteristics of some popular western mythological figures, such as Thor or Santa Claus. We recognize them in art and in text by their very distinctive attributes. We collect an average of about 100 attributes for each figure we document. This data is then entered into our searchable rock art database for analysis. Analyzing attribute data through database queries reveals patterns needed to begin the process of interpretation.

Once we documented the patterns in the art at White Shaman, we began developing bridging arguments to link the past to the present. Historical accounts and ethnographic observations of indigenous groups living in Mesoamerica provided useful information for formulating hypotheses to explain the patterning. Most markedly were the inescapable parallels between patterns in the rock art and their analogues in contemporary Huichol and ancient Nahua (Aztec) myth and ritual. While the parallels provided significant insight into several of the regional rock art patterns, at the White Shaman site they provided the interpretive key. We formulated hypotheses that breathed life into images of the past and with amazing rapidity the pieces of the puzzle began falling into place.

While many of the concepts represented in the White Shaman mural cross linguistic and cultural boundaries, others are distinctly Uto-Aztecan. In fact, the narrative communicated through the art stunningly relates back to the actual structure of myths and ceremonies uniquely associated with Corachol and Nahua speaking peoples. At the mythological core, the mural incorporates similar patterns, reveals similar, if not identical, actions and symbols, and shares a common function with mythologies of these two linguistic groups. The shared patterns are indisputable, and the parallels are vast. While one may argue each element individually might be coincidental, in the aggregate they are hard to deny.

You assert that the myths and beliefs of the people who created the White Shaman mural draw from “an archaic core” of ancient Mesoamerican traditions. What are some these archetypical traditions?

Shared cosmological beliefs permeate Native American ideologies. Alfredo López Austin, Gary Gossen, Prudence Rice and others maintain that historically recorded mythologies and cosmologies illustrate a durable, virtually unchangeable core of traditions and beliefs. These core concepts have endured from some point in the distant past and have shaped the ideological universe of Mesoamerica and the American Southwest into the present. The actors and the details may change, but at the core, basic story lines and concepts are amazingly resilient to change. This allows contemporary ethnography and ethnohistoric accounts to be an effective bridge to the past.

The functional equivalents for the analysis presented in The White Shaman Mural were sought primarily in the mythologies, cosmologies, and iconographies of the contemporary Huichol and the ancient Nahua, and to a lesser degree other Uto-Aztecan and non-Uto-Aztecan speakers in Mesoamerica and the American Southwest. Each of these groups possesses core traditions and beliefs diagnostic of the Archaic core: concepts that persisted across linguistic, political, geographic, and cultural boundaries, even into the American Southwest. There is evidence of these core beliefs in the rock art of the Lower Pecos. These include, among others:

1. Cyclical time as a sacred entity. Natural and cultural cycles, such as human life cycles and agricultural cycles, are woven together with the daily and annual cycles of the sun.

2. Delimitation of the sky, earth, and underworld in the spatial layout of the cosmos. Power, efficacy, and survival depend upon spatial mobility within the tripartite vertical cosmos and the related quadripartite horizontal cosmos.

3. Supernatural and secular conflict as creative and life-sustaining forces. Conflict, in Mesoamerican thought, was divinely ordained, and the parties engaged in a conflict often are dual aspects of the same supernatural being.

4. Principle of complementary dualism. The whole of existence is made up of substances existing in balanced and complementary opposition to one another.

5. Spoken and written language (both pictographic and hieroglyphic) as an extraordinarily powerful symbolic entity in itself, beyond its neutral role as a means of communication. Language is a sacred symbol allowing humans to share qualities with, as well as communicate with, the gods.

6. Replication of divine essences. The ability of the gods to reproduce themselves by transmitting their divine essences into other beings, objects, places on the landscape, images, and so forth.

7. Human body as a receptacle for at least two souls. One soul is deposited by the creator deity into the head of a human embryo at the moment of conception and served to connect human beings with their gods. Another soul is lodged in the heart and is the ghost form that survives death and travels to the land of the dead.

In The White Shaman Mural, we demonstrate that these core elements are embodied in the region’s rock art, and very dramatically so at the White Shaman site. Identification of these core traditions and beliefs in the Pecos River style rock art establishes that the ideological universe was already firmly rooted among foragers living in the Lower Pecos during the Late Archaic. We are not saying that the canyons of southwest Texas and northern Mexico are the birthplace of these ideas, but rather that they are the location of the oldest existing documented graphic expression of them. Whether this is the result of preservation bias or the first time the ideology was graphically codified has yet to be determined. Regardless, the murals provide us with a snapshot in time—a glimpse into the deeply rooted and widely shared symbolic world of indigenous Native America as it was expressed thousands of years ago. Indeed, it was the symbolic world of foragers that shaped the ideological universe of later Mesoamerican agriculturalists.

How can interested Texans and visitors to Texas appreciate the White Shaman mural and the history of the region?

There are many ways to experience and gain appreciation for the White Shaman mural and the rich history of the Lower Pecos Canyonlands. Of course, I recommend beginning with 
The White Shaman Mural: An Enduring Creation Narrative in the Rock Art of the Lower Pecos. This book not only provides a detailed history and reading of this remarkable visual narrative, it also presents an overview of previous publications and hypotheses regarding the rock art of the Lower Pecos. I also recommend my previous book, Rock Art of the Lower Pecos, published by Texas A&M University Press in 2003. Many of the ideas proposed in that book contributed to the breakthroughs presented in The White Shaman Mural. Other important books on the subject include The Rock Art of Texas Indians by W. W. Newcomb and Forrest Kirkland (1967) and Painters in Prehistory edited by Harry Shafer (2013).

There are also websites providing a wealth of information about the archaeology of the Lower Pecos. A great place to start is the award-winning website Texas Beyond History This website provides not only a wonderful introduction to the Lower Pecos, but to other regions of Texas as well. The most comprehensive and truly stunning presentation of archaeological excavations currently underway in the region can be found at Texas State University’s Ancient Southwest Texas Project blogpost Shumla Archaeological Research and Education Center publishes a monthly eNews to keep visitors informed of ongoing activities to document and decipher the rock art of the Lower Pecos. Visitors can sign up for the eNews through Shumla’s website

The Witte Museum in San Antonio is opening an exciting new exhibit in spring 2017 entitled 'People of the Pecos.' This exhibit will feature life-sized dioramas, exhibit cases displaying actual artifacts, and public interactive exhibits that enhance the learning experience for all ages.

But there is little that can replace climbing into the canyons of the Lower Pecos to experience the murals in person. To learn about guided rock art tours in the region visit

Artist turned archaeologist, Dr. Boyd is the author of Rock Art of the Lower Pecos. She founded the Shumla Archaeological Research and Education Center, where she spearheads efforts to document some of the oldest pictographic texts in North America.

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