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Chumash Rock Art: If the Sandstone Could Speak

Noozhawk June 12, 2008

Chuck Graham

I had already hiked 50 miles to reach this gritty wall of lichen-covered sandstone. Several small caves honeycombed the steep face, many of them just wide enough for me to shimmy into. The sandstone slab rose out of a dry creekbed, and a youthful oak tree grew out of a fissure that split its face. I climbed hand over hand until I reached the first grotto, slowly and carefully wiggling inside on my back. Flipping on my headlamp, I marveled at the ancient, elaborate artwork before me.

For centuries the Chumash Indians made the arduous, 30-mile trek from what is now Los Padres National Forest to the coast and paddled their tomols, or plank canoes, to what is now Channel Islands National Park. Their colorful and spiritual rock art is some of the most unique in North America, scattered and hidden throughout 2 million acres of wilderness. And if you find a site, this hidden trove of rock art will try to tell you its stories.

Natural pigments were used from resources found throughout the region to create three dominant colors. White paint came from ground seashells or diatomaceous earth. Black paint came from charcoal, burned graphite, asphaltum, or oxidized ore. Red paint was produced from hematite, another oxidized ore.

Last year’s Zaca Fire burns in the distance in a view from the Santa Ynez Ridge. Flames that burned off centuries-old chaparral have exposed long-hidden rock art in Los Padres National Forest.


The paint was applied to a canvas of sandstone to create murals depicting various aspects of the Chumash culture. Most sites are probably the work of shamans. Some of the sites seem to have played a role in personal spirituality; their abstract images appear guided by some inner vision of the spirit world. Other aspects often depicted in Chumash murals included puberty, and the images of many animals found in the forest are thought to represent the vices and virtues of man. Everything from bears, snakes and dolphins to California condors and ticks can be found in Chumash rock art.

“The condor is the cleaner of the wilderness,” said Adelina Alva Padilla, a Chumash spiritual leader and part of the bear clan. “The condor feathers are used for healing and draw out what people have inside.”

According to the forest service, there are at least 2,400 rock art sites in Los Padres National Forest, spanning a rugged wilderness of sandstone canyons and outcroppings, meadows and mountaintops, and it’s anyone’s guess as to how many more sites are undiscovered.

The summers of 2006 and 2007 saw a combined total of 400,000 acres burn in Los Padres forest during the Day and Zaca fires, scorching old-growth chaparral that was more than 100 years old. The fires have exposed long-hidden rock art where old, concealed trails lead to previous sites unseen.

“We haven’t got back to all of it,” said Joan Brandoff-Kerr, an archaeologist with Los Padres National Forest since 2001. “It’s a mission to cover all that land. A lot of our trained stewards are going out there.”

Brandoff-Kerr said many of the sites are prehistoric. Most of the old trails exposed are those of Native Americans. There was a higher population in the backcountry during the prehistoric period, with major villages back there. Those routes were discontinued once the Chumash were exposed to Spaniards and Western expansion; they became tangled and overgrown in chaparral. For so long the chaparral provided protection for the rock art, but now the forest service has the opportunity to record more.

Technically the sites are open to the public, but the exact locations of a majority of them are kept confidential, and for good reason.

“People have actually chipped off rock art,” Brandoff-Kerr said. “This is a culture that was seriously disrupted, but it’s great to see the Chumash recognizing their culture and reveling in it.”

Looters and vandals aren’t the only threats to rock art. Sandstone surfaces breathe, sweat and change with the seasons. Wind, fire, dust and water gradually eat away at exposed art. Animals rub up against it, causing the art to crumble and flake. Tree roots grow into them, birds and insects make nests in sites, lichen and moss can all have a damaging effect.

What appears to be a crudely drawn grizzly bear tells an unknown story at a remote cave.
So when you’re out hiking in the forest and you come across some rock art, observe it from a safe distance. The heat and sweat rising from your body after a long hike, even the dust a hiker kicks up, can damage the ancient art.

“Cool off before you approach a site,” Brandoff-Kerr explained. “Take your backpack off so you don’t swing around and hit the sandstone. Don’t touch the art. There’s more bacteria and oils on your hands. All of that contributes to ... the deterioration.”

Camp fires and lit candles are out of the question, too, so bring a flashlight and don’t camp in the caves. One person can cause more damage in a single day than centuries of natural erosion. Many paintings are damaged by scraping, chiseling and shooting away at this precious heritage nearly lost. Many more are damaged through careless actions.

Some paintings that were visible just 10 years ago have disappeared without a trace. The Chumash themselves never lived in the caves or alcoves where rock art exists.

“We go to caves to do a ceremony and have a vision,” Padilla said. “Outside of the caves we’ll pray and burn sage. Spirituality is one thing, and living quarters are another. They didn’t live in them.”

Existing knowledge of rock art suggests an important link to the spirit world. The symbols illuminate an invisible world inhabited by spiritual forces. Some rock art sites can be awe-inspiring. Large areas were used to perform rituals, relay stories and legends, and practice the living traditions of public life. Brandoff-Kerr instructs hikers to respect the rock art sites for what they are.

“An archaeological site is a nonrenewable resource,” she stressed. “It contains not only information about human history, but contains environmental information, too. Treat it for the rare and unique jewel that it is.”

How ancient the rock art might be is unknown, because it’s difficult to date paintings on rock. According to Brandoff-Kerr, the forest service doesn’t have the funding to date painted elements.

“What we do know is what we have is very old,” she said. “When the first padres came through and the first Spanish soldiers, they asked about the rock art. The response was, ‘the old ones did it.’ We don’t know how old they are, but it’s thousands of years old.”