For tens of thousands of years humans have struggled to survive, but at the same time, our over-sized brains were busy imagining things. And one of the enduring proofs is petroglyphs.
These mysterious stone carvings appear around the globe on every continent except Antartica, and scientists have been intrigued for decades by the almost universal desire of ancient humans, separated by both distance and time, to create these artistic stone badges. But despite all the study, and as frustrating as it must be for archaeologists, no one can say with certainty what the carvings meant to the artists or their cultures.
It’s been proposed that petroglyphs are astronomical markers, maps, records of events, territorial boundaries or drawings of spirits. Animals, of all types, are a recurring subject, so maybe the carvings were meant to help hunters in the challenge to find food. But, as is frequently the case in history there are some things that the experts can’t, and won’t, ever know for certain.
So what that presents for the rest of us is an opportunity to stop worrying about what it all really means and have some fun making our own guesses … and just appreciating the art for art’s sake.
Before COVID clipped our travel wings, we stood in the desert heat at the base of West Mesa outside Albuquerque, New Mexico playing our own fun guessing game. With over 25,000 images and 17 miles of volcanic exhibit space, Petroglyph National Monument must be one of the largest, most accessible displays of ancient art in the world.
It was a wonderful prehistoric scavenger hunt because any rock face in the blocky jumble could turn up our next surprise. Turtles, lizards, and Puebloan stick people were pretty obvious, but a turkey with antlers had us scratching our sunburned heads. Likewise, the compass arrows pointing in two different directions were ripe for interpretation.
A few days later found us in Moab, Utah which is home to a number of excellent petroglyph sites. The most famous carvings in the area are the trio: “Moab Man, Moab Maiden, and Moab Mutt.” And in case you’re wondering about the photo, no the trio isn’t etched into the White Cliffs of Utah. These are the glyph-knockoff fridge magnets we bought in the Arches National Park gift shop. It was important to get the three petroglyphs in one frame, because of all the stone art I saw in the American Southwest, they’re my absolute favorites.
They’re believed to be carvings from the Fremont Culture which populated Eastern Utah from 300-1300 CE. I love them for their lighthearted cartoon character and deliberate simplistic design. I could easily see these anachronistic figures in some goofy, online comic, but they were chiseled, stone on stone, 800 years ago!
I have no doubt that most of the petroglyphs scattered around the world had a practical function or a deep symbolic meaning to the societies that created them. But alternatively, perhaps sometimes Paleolithic artists just wanted to express how they felt that day, and that feeling might have been nothing more than happiness for the freedom from the drudgery of daily survival.
Many of our ancestors disappeared without a written history, but petroglyphs are messages etched into rocks that have stood the test of time. We’ll never totally understand their meaning, but that doesn’t mean we can’t enjoy the art and appreciate the artists for allowing us a glimpse into their ancient imaginations.
James & Terri