Image 1 - Coso Mountains

The Moment

Perhaps a 1000 summers have come and gone since this glyph was etched into the stone, and yet it story is as clear and precise as the day it was made. This story is a moment in time that was treasured by an individual. To truly understand this moment we must understand this ancient archer. This glyph was no doubt made by one person who had a name, a family and was an important part of his tribe. There were reasons that he chose this moment, this incident, to transmit to the ages. It’s all about what it meant to be an archer in this ancient bighorn sheep hunting cult. If we have some understanding of this lost art, this lost way of life we can better understand the depth of this moment, which is the thrill of the kill. While this concept might be repulsive to many people in our present machine age culture, this moment has depth in philosophy and spirituality in their ancient hunter gatherer worldview. I think there is much that our culture “cult” can learn from this glyph, this moment in time. In this way this moment that has transcended time, will have also transcended the human culture that etched it into the stone.

The small line representing the bow in this glyph doesn’t transmit the technology and craftsmanship that went in to this instrument to somebody that isn’t familiar with traditional archery. Archery is complex and in many ways it is the cradle of technology. To understand this petroglyph and the moment it preserves, we have to have some understanding of ancient archery. To do this we will explore two possible bows that this archer might’ve used to get some understanding of the technology and craftsmanship that went into these instruments. From there we might gain a deeper more meaningful understand of the philosophical and even spiritual implications that these bows would’ve had on these ancient archers and their culture as a whole.

The first bow that we want to explore is a horn bow or sometimes referred to as a laminated horn bow. This technology was developed independently in other places in the world. The Native American technology like the others was both beautiful and a technological marvel. The knowledge and craftsmanship that went into one of these bows was such that people nowadays rarely attempt to make one. While people have written entire books on this subject, here we just need to understand that to construct one of these horn bows requires a knowledge of different materials and their physical properties such as compression and rebound and so on. Then one must fit various components together with surfaces that are very precisely shaped and fitted with stone tools. After that one has to put them together with organic adhesives that require a very exacting formulas, all of this under hunter- gatherer conditions. Bows such as this were not just an everyday object they were extremely useful and valuable, such they were often the measure of the man that possessed it. The person that made this glyph was part of this ancient bighorn sheep hunting cult that possess this knowledge and craftsmanship. Here we should try to imagine the symbolism that was experienced when one of these hunters set out to hunt the sheep with such a bow as this. A bow that was crafted from the horns of a bighorn ram and perhaps had a string from the tendon that ran along its backbone. To have personally taken the elements of the desert bighorn sheep and turned it into this instrument of death that would give life as well, by feeding himself, his family, and his tribe. In this way the men of this ancient bighorn sheep hunting cult worked their way through a maze of symbolism and metaphor that had a physical reality, as well as a metaphysical. This has no parallels in our modern world. It is through acquiring some of this knowledge we can glimpse the psychological and spiritual makeup of this individual archer and the cult that taught them these things.

Now let us examine a more common bow that was made out of wood. While more common than the laminated horn bow this does not mean they were simple or cheap to make. There were many different designs and a wide range of wood that was used for these bows. And no doubt these ancient archers sometimes debated the various materials and attributes endlessly around the campfire. Through this they perfected this technology and the language and symbolism that went with it, to a high degree. Some of these bows were decorated or covered with the skin of a rattlesnake in such a way that when one held one of these bows it seemed like they were holding a rattlesnake. Often this was more than just an artistic expression. It may have been a symbolic component to this bow that signified a powerful and venomous reality, as the technology and craftsmanship of this ancient hunting cult included the use of a poisoned arrow.

Image 2 - Petroglyph of rattlesnake. Coso mountains

The shape and style of the head on this snake in this petroglyph image 2 indicate that it is a viper. Rattlesnakes are classified as pit vipers. There are petroglyphs that show signs that they were painted once, and I believe this glyph was once painted with the classic diamondback markings. In this case the colors were washed away a long time ago. Today the distinctive and symbolic diamondback pattern is used to identify the rattlesnake and no doubt it was in the ancient past. A rattlesnake is a relatively small animal that can kill a human, and was used by these ancient humans to kill other animals making it a very powerful animal physically and no doubt spiritually.

Image 3 - Petroglyph of a rattlesnake as a symbol. Black Mountain California

The rattlesnake is one of the more common animals in the glyph record. Many common glyphs exist as a recognizable picture and sometimes take on a more symbolic form.

Using snake venom to kill other animals is relatively straightforward. All you have to do is get the poison into the bloodstream. There is a great advantage to using a poisoned arrow. It makes what would otherwise be an insignificant wound into one that is deadly. Or another way of putting it, turning a unsuccessful hunt into one that is successful. The Native American technology was such that they did not simply put rattlesnake venom onto their arrowheads. First they would entice the rattlesnake to bite a piece of meat preferably a piece of liver, after being struck many times they put in to some sort of bag or container and bury it for a few days. Sealed up and underground in this way it would not lose its moisture and was in a thermally stable environment. This would amplify the lethality of this poison many times. Nowadays we understand this in a scientific way, that the rattlesnakes venom is a complex chemical formula. That affects the nervous system and breaks down the cellular structure, and the liver is the chemical factory for the body. The ancient people would’ve understood this but in a very different manner. Regardless of one’s culture from a philosophical standpoint one has to have both knowledge and a lack of knowledge to have a mystery. Here we can begin to understand what they knew and did not know was different from our present day culture. These differences were such that it led them to a mystical worldview. With this insight we can begin to understand the powerful symbolism and the psychological components these poison arrows added to the process of the hunt and the moment of the kill.

There was another poison technology developed by the Native Americans and that was the poisons derived from plants.

Image 4 - Petroglyph. Most likely a plant known as water hemlock Rodman Mountains, California

The concept of plants as medicine and poisons and not just food is one of the things defines us as human beings. So this technology, these ideas exist deep within the human psyche and were there long before people entered the New World. There are many plants that the Native Americans understood and used for a variety of reasons, Such as poisoning fish, hunting large game and medicines. Many of the plants they used were very powerful such as Death Camas, Sacred Datura and Water Hemlock. In this petroglyph, image 4, I believe we can identify it as Water Hemlock. It has a multiple branching umber flower heads and seems to show the bulb or tuber with the characteristic vertical air chambers that are full of a thick molasses like poison. Water hemlock is often considered the most poisonous plant in North America, so poisonous that it must be handled carefully and preferably with gloves. This petroglyph is at a site where this plant may have grown at one time, as it used to have water. There are number of other petroglyphs here, and it is a place where the desert bighorn sheep still inhabit.

Image 5 - Possible Water Hemlock, reduced to a symbolic form. The reason that this plant may have been reduced symbolically in this manner is that the most concentrated and powerful poison exists in the underground tuber. This petroglyph image 5 is near Kingman Arizona

In image 1 we have an ancient archer in the process of killing a bighorn sheep and due to the other glyphs in the area it is safe to assume he is part of this ancient bighorn sheep hunting cult. Yet when we look at these other glyphs many of them have to do with the atlatl technology. So what can we learn from this change in technology? How does it fit in to this defining moment so dramatically portrayed in this petroglyph. First we need to understand some of the basics of the atlatl. The atlatl itself extends the length of the arm another foot or more and this increased length from the pivot point, in this case the shoulder, thereby increasing the velocity at the end of the atlatl, which increases the speed of its arrow or dart that is thrown by this apparatus. During acceleration the shaft of the projectile flexes and thereby stores up energy which is then released at the precise moment of release, increasing its speed even more. The length of one of these darts can be as much as 5 or 6 feet and perhaps weighs 5 or 10 times more than an arrow shot from a bow. While the atlatl projectile is a little slower than one shot with a bow it has a lot more weight and thereby a lot more momentum. For this reason the atlatl dart carry relatively large stone tip. Due to its relatively large mass and momentum it creates a large deep wound channel that is in itself is lethal. It is reasonable to conclude that the atlatl was superior for hunting big game, though it had its drawbacks for small game at close ranges. To start with you have to be standing and make an obvious and energetic movement to cast an atlatl dart. A bow and arrow can be shot from cover and a crouching position and is far more accurate if one wants to hunt small game such as quail or rabbits. The problem with the bow is its lack of power, though the Native Americans did make some very strong bows. Usually the strength of the bowstring was the limiting factor. While the bow and the atlatl are two very different instruments they had about the same effective range. So when a hunter entered the field with the atlatl he was somewhat committed to large game. Using a bow the archer would’ve been more effective with small game and less effective on large game. Of course, if the archer had poison arrow technology this would allow him to hunt small game such as quail or large animals like the Bighorn sheep on the same day with the same piece of equipment. When we look at many of the later arrowheads in this region we find that their very small and are often referred to as bird points. I think this is only half correct. In fact they were designed to be effective on small game such as quail and the cottontail rabbit, but when used for bigger game when they were poisoned. In this case a small arrowhead would be more aerodynamic and give greater range to the projectile, that is the arrow. With this set up they were not relying on a wide deep wound channel to affect the kill on large game but rather the poison. Such an arrow would be designed to carry the poison as deeply as possible and not fall out easy. This is probably why these arrowheads were triangular in design, that is to say very wide at the back as opposed to the long more linear older designs. It seems that these bird point arrowheads were designed accordingly to this dual use big-game—small-game specification. This concept was taken even further by the natives of South America that dispensed completely with the idea of a deadly wound channel and started using blow guns that had effectively a small needle that was dipped in poison to make their kill.

Now let’s take a look at the artistic components of the glyph in image 1. We will start out with our archer. As we look at him we will find there are some curious markings to the right and the left of him, that judging from the patina, are of the same relative age thus they are likely part of the overall scene. I think they can be interpreted as lines trying to give intensity and importance to the archer. You see this sort of artistic mechanism in comic books today. I believe that even today’s audience sees and interprets these markings in this way, though in a subconscious manner. Next we want to take notice of the ram closest to the archer. He is looking back over his shoulder at the archer, as if the arrow has flown past him and now in this moment he is looking to see where it came from. This is an extraordinary piece of detail and drama for a great basin style petroglyph. In this detail we can see the desire of the artist to transmit the drama of this event, this moment in time. This would lead one to suspect that this artist thought very highly of this archer shown in the glyph, or perhaps it shows they were one and the same.

The next element of this scene that we want to examine is the other ram. Like the first ram he seems to be running at full speed, and has been hit by the archers arrow. When we examine the arrow we find that it’s coming straight down on the ram and hitting him in the back. This would indicate that the archer took a shot at the maximum range his bow could achieve and hit a moving target. This is an incredible shot. To hit a moving target at the maximum range of your bow under real-life conditions is perhaps a once-in-a-lifetime shot.

The final element of this picture, this moment in time, that we want to take notice of is the few chips taken out of the stone above the head of the ram. Here again they look as though they were done at the same time as the petroglyph due to the aging of the patina. There is another glyph on this panel that has a somewhat similar situation. This could be symbolically showing the spirit of the ram taking off going back to the spirit world.

So let’s put together a story so that we can examine this petroglyph just a little further. Our story would start out with our archer leaving camp early in the morning with some of the other hunters in the tribe to hunt whatever they could, to bring back food for their family and tribe. Here we want to remember all the preparation and technology we’ve discussed. Then we should take into account that this is only a portion of what these hunters knew. They all knew how to track and read sign. Each one of them had a deep understanding of such things as the sun and the moon, and the ways of wind in a way that we no longer know or experience. While on the hunt for anything big or small this group of hunters found some bighorn sheep. Immediately our archer in the glyph began to stalk them. Then something went wrong and they began to run. In a sublime, Zen like moment, he let loose an arrow at the ram, knowing this long shot was the only shot he would get. He gauged all things right, such as the weight of his arrow, the pull of his bow, the wind, and the speed and direction of the ram, and so on, and he did this in the blink of an eye. In this sublime moment success or failure would be found. Through his experience he knew that due to the arrows lack of velocity at this extended range the wound would be of little consequence. It was the poison that he himself prepared that would make the kill. The flight of his arrow was true to its mark and the kill was made. There would be joy and feasting around the campfire that night. But those of us in this machine age culture will find it hard to understand the depth of their joy. For this was not just the joy of having food in their bellies. For a hunter gatherer people to fail to get food, was not considered just bad luck. It meant facing each other and their hungry children with the fact that they were spiritually unworthy or incapable of acquiring from the spirit world what they needed. So when the other hunter witnessed this amazing shot they could only interpret this as a spiritual and mystical event bestowed upon this particular hunter. This of course would add greatly to his power and prestige and perhaps change the course of his life. And so it was, that this moment was etched in stone and the story told around the campfire for generations, till this tribe and their memories were no more, and only the glyph remained to tell his story of this moment in time, to a people and a culture this ancient archer could not have dreamed of.

By Carlos Gallinger