Yampah perideridia gairdneri

Icons of a Lost Society

In traditional Christian iconography the quality of the art is secondary to importance of the message. In view of this the Native American rock art of the great basin has long been viewed as largely mysterious. With a debate as to whether it was art for art's sake or a symbolic language that had a universal understanding when it was made. There is also a school of thought that suggests these petroglyphs whether abstract or something recognizable such as atlatls and bighorn sheep, were produced by individual shamans representing their individual dreams and visions. I believe that this was some sort of limited language an iconography that was contained by symbolism and oral tradition. If this is true these petroglyphs have more in common with the traditional Christian icons and Egyptian hieroglyphics than the ancient cave paintings of Europe.

The spoken and symbolic language that existed at the time of these glyphs lived and died without being translated into any other known language. We will never have a detailed or precise understanding of this language and the symbolism that went with it. What we do have comes from a variety of sources such as glyphs that transition from a known and recognizable object to a form that is far more symbolic, such as the atlatl and bighorn sheep. We also can use their placement in the environment and the artifacts that are associated with them as clues to their meaning. And finally we have the language and customs of the indigenous people that were here in historic times, though in some cases they live more than 1000 years after these glyphs were made and in an environment that has changed as well.

Image 2

In this petroglyph, image 2, we can see that it clearly shows a plant form, the question is what plant. There are several possible candidates such as the wild onion, camas, death camas, and Yampah. In my opinion these are all good candidates. Here we must take into consideration each species would have a different value and use and therefore a different symbolism associated with it. In regards to all this I’ve settled on the Yampah as the most likely candidate for this glyph. The reason for this is that this petroglyph from the Rodman Mountains most accurately fits the Yampah. We know that the Yampah was an important plant to the Native Americans because it left its name all over the landscape. From the archaeological standpoint it is generally recognized that the wide use of piñon’s and acorns as a staple is a relatively late development in the southwest. A heavy reliance on roots and tubers was still prevalent in historic times with Paiutes and Shoshone Indians, so much so that these Indians were often referred to as diggers. However this reference nowadays is often considered improper. Though it goes to show that throughout history people identified themselves or were identified by others by what they ate, so one would expect plants that were a important food source to show up in the petroglyph record if it were a symbolic language.

Image 3

In the picture, image 3, we can see that the Yampah is now in an abbreviated form or perhaps we can say it’s in a symbolic form, no longer needing the plant stem or leaves to indicate what is. This would be especially so to somebody who was part of this ancient culture. This umbel form plant petroglyph is distributed throughout the great basin. When we take into consideration that it only shows part of the plant and is widely distributed, it would seem to indicate that it is not incidental art, it is a symbol with meaning. Here we might take notice of the resemblance of the petroglyph in the center of the image 3 to image 1.

While we will never know for sure which umbel form plant it is, or its precise meaning, I think this glyph, this symbol, can be put into the gatherer side of the hunter gatherer equation. If we look at the generalities around the petroglyphs dealing with hunting and hunting magic they tend to center around high status animals and activities. And I think the same to be true for the plants on the gatherers side of this ancient culture.

Image 4

When we look at this panel, image 4, we see that there are a number of petroglyphs that could be interpreted as winnowing baskets, giving it a female or gatherer oriented theme to this panel. Near the top we see a petroglyph that could be interpreted as five different Yampah/umbel symbols connected to a rectangular form in such a way that it may be part Yampah part human. This character with a yampah style head appears elsewhere in the glyph record. In the lower right-hand corner we see a figure with arrows coming out of its head. This would be the classic interpretation of this glyph. However I think if we go with the female theme of this panel this might be a female with an arrow head plant headdress. The leaves of this plant look a lot like an arrowhead without the side notch this symbol and character appears only a few times in the glyph record in the Coso mountains. One of the interesting things about these glyphs is the body characteristics tends to have variation in their design and shape. Yet the arrowheads or rendered in a very exacting manner in relation to one another. Perhaps the reason for this is that they are showing the design of a leaf rather than a stone arrow head which can have more variation. This plant was no doubt a plant with high value and status, as it provides a relatively large tuber that is somewhat like a potato and therefore a staple food that can be stored and prepared in many ways much like the yampah. There are numerous other glyphs in the glyph record that may be dealing with the arrowhead plant in a variety of different ways.

Image 5

In this drawing of a petroglyph, image 5, from the Coso mountains we have a curious combination of attributes. If the arrow sticking out of its head is in fact an arrow with a stone tip arrowhead it would almost certainly make this figure a male. This would make it a male, perhaps in the act of ceremonially defecating or urinating. This seems unlikely. If we interpret this figure as a female giving birth, including details like the umbilical cord, we have to ask ourselves about the arrowhead headdress. If it’s female the arrow headdress would be out of place as far as symbolism for a female. This quandary disappears if we interpret the headdress as the leaf of the arrowhead plant. This headdress appears in a small number of places throughout the Coso mountains and as discussed earlier with a great degree of fidelity to the shape of the arrowhead. We also have in the glyph record a few glyphs that might be interpreted as individual stone projectile points or perhaps individual leaves. Here we can also take note of a similarity that could confuse this issue even more. If it’s a leaf that is shown in these petroglyphs it would make sense that would have a short stem. If it’s a stone projectile point it could show the entire projectile with fletching’s. However it is known that atlatl darts were often tipped with a short removable fore shaft that held the stone projectile, so these glyphs are consistent with both objects. There is also a few of these leaf or projectile points that seem to be misshaped in a manner that might indicate that it is a leaf, for a projectile point to be misshaped that badly would render it useless . We should also consider if these are projectile points they may have been modeled on the arrowhead plant leaf. An example of this concept can be seen in a lot of Native American pottery. Much of it seems to be modeled on the cliff swallows nest, mimicking both shape and texture. Here is interesting to note that it would’ve been women producing this pottery and the nest is the domain of the female. I suspect whether these are leaves or projectile points will always be contentious. What ever they are, it will determine their meaning whether or not we can decipher them.

Image 6 - The leaf of an arrowhead plant.

Image 7

In this petroglyph, image 7, we have either a shaman or some sort of deity that is from the Coso mountains, with no real indication as to whether it’s male or female. Here we must take note that many glyphs that show people usually show clearly whether it’s a male or female.

Image 8

If we look at the picture above, image 8, and its relationship to the petroglyph above, image 7, we see that the head of the petroglyphs figure looks very similar to these bulbs which are from the arrow head plant, image 8. If indeed the glyph in image 7 is a combination of a human/deity and the bulb of the arrow head plant as its head it would give new insight to the symbolism of the glyph record. Most the time we will find that harvesting wild plants is part of the domain of the female side of the hunter gatherer society. So the fact that this anthropomorph seems to be neither male or female may be a misinterpretation due to the fact that it does not show any genitalia, that is a large phallic or pendant labia. When we take into account that a person’s identity is manifest in their face or head we can see this anthropomorph a little different, as it could be identified as female due to the fact it has a arrowhead plant bulb head. We find a similar situation, that is lack of genitalia with the anthropomorphs that have a Yampah/umbel head. Most likely for the reason, that is genitalia is not needed to designate female. This phenomena seems to be consistent throughout the glyph record.

Image 9

If we look at the picture above, image 8, and its relationship to the petroglyph above, image 7, we see that the head of the petroglyphs figure looks very similar to these bulbs which are from the arrow head plant, image 8. If indeed the glyph in image 7 is a combination of a human/deity and the bulb of the arrow head plant as its head it would give new insight to the symbolism of the glyph record. Most the time we will find that harvesting wild plants is part of the domain of the female side of the hunter gatherer society. So the fact that this anthropomorph seems to be neither male or female may be a misinterpretation due to the fact that it does not show any genitalia, that is a large phallic or pendant labia. When we take into account that a person’s identity is manifest in their face or head we can see this anthropomorph a little different, as it could be identified as female due to the fact it has a arrowhead plant bulb head. We find a similar situation, that is lack of genitalia with the anthropomorphs that have a Yampah/umbel head. Most likely for the reason, that is genitalia is not needed to designate female. This phenomena seems to be consistent throughout the glyph record.

Image 10

Now let’s take a look at these two drawings of Coso glyphs, image 10, starting with the one on the left. The first thing we notice is the head looks a lot like the arrowhead plant bulb or tuber. Perhaps this is even demonstrating that it’s eating or ingesting these bulbs. In one hand it is holding a slightly curved stick that is generally interpreted as an atlatl but if we apply a female or gatherer interpretation to this glyph, remembering that in the head resides the identity of a individual and in this case it could be interpreted as an arrowhead plant bulb or tuber, thus female. This changes the most likely interpretation, of this object into a digging stick. If it were an atlatl it would be missing the balance weight. Perhaps to help differentiate between a digging stick and an atlatl in this ancient symbolic language of the glyphs the balance weight of the atlatl was greatly exaggerated. Here we must remember that this symbolic language probably existed in other mediums such as wood and the tanned hides of animal and probably sand paintings as well, such that there would be a greater need to distinguish the difference between these two important and symbolic objects than if this symbolic language only existed in the petroglyph medium. With a great degree of certainty one could postulate that the glyph record is the surviving form of an extensive symbolic language that included other art forms that have perished. Probably the entire glyph record was influenced in design and meaning, by the needs and of these other artistic mediums. To understand these glyphs fully we need to explore and understand the potential of these other mediums.

For instance in the case of the atlatl we know that it can be drawn very accurately as a petroglyph because there are examples of this in the glyph record. With the balance weight drawn properly and in a realistic proportion. This however would be difficult to render in a sand painting. Though a large circle placed on the center of the stick could be rendered relatively easy in a sand painting and would convey the message that this was an atlatl and not a digging stick. Once the people got used to seeing this object in its sand painting symbolic form, it would become the standard way to produce it regardless of which artistic medium.

Now let’s take a look at the glyph on the right side of,image 10. It could be interpreted as having a Yampah/umbel plant head, remembering the head and face is where identity resides. Here it is interesting to note that what could be interpreted as the stomach, also looks a lot like the Yampah plant’s long vertical bulb that typically has a taproot at the bottom. In this particular glyph it looks as though this taproot is blended into what could be could be interpreted as the intestines. With an interpretation of this glyph’s physical components, we find that it more than just female. It possesses a philosophical component as well. It would go something like this, you are what you eat, you eat the Yampah you are the Yampah the Yampah’s life force is in you. This life force may be female in character. From this we can postulate philosophical and religious ideas that would be important to the whole tribe and culture.

Considering the possibility that these anthropomorph’s are feminine allows us to explore some other issues pertaining to these glyphs. The first would be who made what images, as there seems to be two very different views/images of women in the petroglyph record. Many images of women are obviously women because it shows genitalia. Then there are these images we’ve been discussing images that show their female because they take on the identity and the power of plants. If we look in the modern world will find that images of women that are made by women have different characteristics that images of women that are made by men.

The next question we want to consider is whether this symbolic system had the dexterity to indicate if these anthropomorph were human that is a shaman or somebody in some sort of ceremonial regalia, or a spirit or deity. The only clues that I can see that might shed some light on this issue is that it’s been my experience that these anthropomorph’s come in two basic styles those with legs and those with out legs. Based on my experience the ones without legs often seem to be emanating out of some crack in the rocks or close to the ground. Thus most likely a spirit or deity. People have legs and need them a spirit or deity may not have them or need them. An extensive systematic study may shed some light on the subject. Such a study would have the potential of revealing male and female shamans and deity.

In an old hunting story written about 75 years ago about hunting wild sheep in Mongolia there is an account of the wild sheep working hard to dig up the bulbs of the wild onion to eat. Here we want to think of the Yampah wild onion and perhaps other plants When they shot and ate one of these bighorn sheep it was said that they could taste the wild onion in the meat. This of course is nothing new, it even applies in our modern times. Most modern restaurants chains will buy cattle from anywhere they can get them and then taken to a feedlot and run them through a feed regiment so that they taste better and the taste is consistent.

Image 11

With this in mind, we want to think of the glyphs that show pattern body human/anthropomorph and pattern body sheep. It goes without saying that neither humans or sheep exist naturally with these patterns. So most likely this to show a difficult to represent attribute in a symbolic fashion. If we look at the glyphs of both the anthropomorph and the pattern body sheep these patterns often fill the entire body just as the taste of a strong tasting plant would fill the entire body of whatever ate it. So how would of this work in relation to the petroglyphs of the desert bighorn sheep? There are number of ways, and I will explore just one of them as food for thought. The ancient people could have taken the seeds or the bulbs of selected plant species and planted them along the springs and seeps throughout the desert, with an in-depth understanding of the needs and lifecycle of these particular plants. They would’ve also had a deep and real time understanding of the plants out in the desert beyond the water source as well. When the time was right these ancient people would know where to go and when to go there with incredible accuracy.

Image 12

The first thing we want to take notice in this picture above is the date in the upper left-hand corner. The grass that these Desert Bighorn Sheep are eating in this picture was able to grow tall and to maturity because the plants out the desert were still green enough to attract the attention of the Bighorn Sheep. Here we must take into consider that the area around a spring or water source is a dangerous place to be, for it concentrates the activities of predator and prey alike. So as long as the plants out in the desert were of equal or better quality the sheep would eat them. Only when the plants out in the desert dried out and lost some of their nutritional content would the bighorn sheep take the risk of eating the plants next to the water. When this happen these plants near the water become a strategic resource for predator and prey alike.

Image 13

Now in image 13, in just six days, the grass has been devastated, you can see the water source in this image whereas an image 12 you could not. This is another graphic indication that the desert bighorn sheep were coming down here to drink the water and not spending the time to eat the grass for much of the summer. I have talked with cattlemen and sheepherders that understood these things and probably could’ve predicted this event with considerable accuracy. There is no doubt that the ancient people of this land were the true masters of this knowledge. They had language that was tailored to these things, and allowed them to communicate with each other and through the generations.

Taking all these things into account what it shows us is that in these ancient petroglyphs of the great basin were a written symbolic language that was preserved in its infancy, blossoming and dying before it was literately overwritten by something more complex. And thus we have a true showcase of one of humanities first written languages.

If we were to take a trip back in time to this very spring and join a hunting party as it approaches the spring. (Images 12 and 13) We would hear them talking about the plants and express their deep and vast knowledge of them, that they acquired through language from their mothers aunt grandmothers and as far as they were concerned, a lineage that went back to the very beginning of creation. When they spoke of strategy and the attributes of this particular spring it would’ve been the knowledge and wisdom of their forefathers, told to them in stories, in a language that was purpose driven, and rich in metaphor and symbolism, allowing them to be in concert with all the elements of the hunt, such as the sun the moon and the wind. With this ability they could integrate themselves into their environment survive and feed their families. This, was the way of things, in their world in their time.

By Carlos Gallinger

Acknowledgment

Many people have taught me things that I have worked with through the years that in some way or another have ended up in this article.

  1. The Society For The Conservation Of Bighorn Sheep, that also provided image 12 and 13.
  2. A book called THE ROCK DRAWINGS OF THE COSO RANGE by Campbell Grant, James VV Baird and J Kenneth Pringle. I bought this book many years ago and I still think highly of it. Images 5 10 and 11 came from it.
  3. Jerry Grimsley image 4
  4. Eve Ewing for a fantastic conversation that we had that help shape the range and character of this article.
  5. Dr. Alan Gold for encouraging me to write this article and for benefit is vast technical knowledge
  6. My father Robert C Gallinger for proofreading and editing this and many other articles I have written