Three Rivers Petroglyphs

Three Rivers Petroglyphs

The sun rise over the Sierra Blanca Mountains was interrupted by a SONIC BOOM!….as was our peaceful slumber. We peer out of our StarShip (the name for our R.V.) and thirty miles distant we can see the reflecting sands of White Sands Missile Range north of Alamogordo, NM. Rumor has it that German fighter pilots have been invited to practice maneuvers over the New Mexican desert. The fighter jets occasionally break the sound barrier and rattle all of humanity within earshot. The missile range is approximately 40 x 150 miles when you take into account Holloman Airfield, White Sands National Monument and Fort Bliss McGregor Range.

Our interest in these parts happens to be Expression, Communication & ART! We are talking about art that predates the old masters, we are talking about art that is more simplistic than the American artist Grandma Moses.
The renown caves in France, Lascaux and Chauvie cave harbor some of the finest and oldest art in all the world. Art work so detailed that paleo-zoologists were able to determine fascinating new details regarding the appearance of long extinct animals. (Cave of Forgotten Dreams). Alas, these caves are completely off limits to the public because too much humidity in the caves can irrevocably damage to the artwork, your breath limits your access.

We are the only people camping at Three Rivers Petroglyphs and it is quite literally …deserted excepting for a lone campground host in the far distance. Coyotes howl close by and keep us awake, they sound like dozens though I suspect its only a half dozen or so. We drift off to sleep and awake the next morning ready to provision a back pack and spend the day afoot. The amount of rock art at this park is an astounding 21,000 glyphs all within a space of perhaps 2 or 3 miles. It is relatively easy hiking in low mountain foothills. The rock art and designs have been pecked through the darkly patinated volcanic rock leaving light colored line images of the past.

Early Americans have been living and hunting in this area for perhaps 10 to 12,000 years. At that time they were hunting large beasts like bison and wooly mammoth. The mammoths went extinct and the bison range remained northward on the plains & prairies, extending even into Canada (woodland bison).

Three Rivers Petroglyphs
Three Rivers Petroglyphs

We are able to ascertain that these glyphs were made post-extinction since no bison or mammoth are depicted on the rocks. It also gives us limited insight into their lives, their values, their fears and their beliefs. It is a place for a modern day hiker and raconteur to create conjecture about everything ancient. We pack a camera, binoculars, lunch and water with the expectation of a thorough reconnaissance of the park and … ahem, a bit beyond the park boundaries.

The sun has risen and we are immediately struck by the shear number of petroglyphs that start to appear on any flat surface available. We start to categorize the glyphs, mammals, insects, fish, & other food sources, people, sun and the cardinal points, weapons, spirit world and geometric designs that might depict weaving designs. These pictures allow us to realize how their world was limited. Their world was limited to Mt. Sheep, turkeys, bear claws,road runners, snakes, lizards, centipedes, birds of prey (falcons and American Kestrels) fish, turtles, deer and mountain lions or panthers. Many of these items depicted were food sources. In a past trip to this park I believe I saw a beautiful tree of life form in the shape of a corn plant. I was not able to relocate the image on this trip. These people were herbaceous, carnivorous and (because of the centipede glyph) perhaps insectivores….total Omnivores!
The art in Lascaux in France has detailed shading and sophisticated flowing lines and depth, it has dimension beyond anything found at three rivers. Lascaux was 10,000 years ago, Chauvie Cave was 32,000 years ago and the art at Three Rivers is much more recent. The difference in these two cultures and their art is profound. The art found in European caves is far more detailed (using charcoal, working by torch light). The pecking of rock at Three Rivers looks rudimentary and more primitive. It may well have been the graffiti of kids wiling away the hours of a warm sunny day like ours. Only one object we found stood out as three dimensional. It was what appeared to be at first glance nothing more than a circle, but then we realized that it contained inner lines that curved at the edges…creating at sphere! It took on the depiction of something SPHERICAL! The appearance of the lines and seams found on a modern day basketball. This image was three dimensional, perhaps the moon or sun leaving the remaining 20,999 petroglyphs….two dimensional!

Were these children playing and making graffiti on a sunny hillside or were these adults marking important food sources in their lives? We could decipher turkeys from road runners, we could discern falcons from wood peckers (acorn or Gila wood peckers) and Mt. Sheep from deer.
All traces of these people vanished by approximately 1300’s putting their disappearance within a few generations of deadly European diseases that effected most native societies. Our diseases defeated them even before we knew they existed. The diseases moved faster than the European explorers.

Graffiti-When we think of graffiti we think of public bathroom walls and railroad cars. Some of this is artful, some vulgar & some expressing territoriality. Some graffiti evokes fright and fear and in the case of the mens bathroom much is sexual in nature. The rock art at Three Rivers seems to express none of these, with the exception of “spirit man”. His image is that of eyes wide open, eyebrows raised, mouth wide open, hands waving in the air! At his feet is what appears to be a rattlesnake. This is North America’s first caution sign! Proclaiming “woe unto those that encounter the snake!” In all of our communication skills….we could do no better.

Having revisited this park in the past decade we are well rewarded with a beautiful day hike. A hike through one of America’s oldest and finest outdoor art galleries.

A gallery that has outlasted any gallery our current society has created.

Bill Keitel

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