Coso Rock Art District in Coso, California

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Coso petroglyphs

Situated within Southern California’s Naval Air Weapons Station China Lake, the Coso Mountain Range is a vast desertscape boasting some of the oldest and most plentiful examples of Native American rock art in the Northern Hemisphere.

It’s believed that the Coso Rock Art District in the Mojave Desert was inhabited by early indigenous people as long as 13,500 years ago, rendering this arid SoCal region one of the earliest settlements on the continent. But this 57-square-mile area is most famously characterized by its abundance of ancient petroglyphs, as many as 100,000 pictures scratched or ground into the basalt rock face.

Portrayals of bighorn sheep, reptiles, human hunters, and different symbols are found across the region, and archaeologists can only speculate about the intended purposes of these pictorial narratives. Various theories have supposed the petroglyphs to be territorial markers, time-tellers, ritual conjurers, and visual educators, but experts have yet to settle on any sort of definitive hypothesis.

In the 1960s, a group of anthropologists postulated that the petroglyphs were linked to “hunting magic," a ritual intended to conjure a fruitful hunt. The profusion of sheep engravings in the Coso Range indicate that hunter-gatherers in the region were likely dependent upon these animals for survival, but the invention of the bow and arrow some 1,500 years ago most likely depleted the local sheep populations. Therefore, the widespread emergence of petroglyphs depicting longhorn sheep may have been an attempt at reviving the herds.

Other theories propose that rock art was a shamanic practice, and that the petroglyphs were created during visions in an attempt to harness supernatural powers, often related to controlling the weather.

The oldest Coso petroglyphs date back to the Paleoindian period, with more carvings introduced over millennia of human occupancy in the area, which came under the control of the U.S. Navy in the 1940s. Not all the petroglyphs have been accounted for, but records indicate upwards of 100,000 in the region.