Exploring the Enigmatic Rock Art of California’s Coso People

cosos rock art

The Coso Range along the northern edge of the Mojave Desert in southern California is one of the harshest places in North America, with rugged volcanic hills and virtually no surface water. But this hot, inhospitable landscape holds an incredible secret in its bone-dry canyons and washes—some of the most beautiful (and most enigmatic) petroglyphs in the world, some more than 10,000 years old.

The array of pictographs—many of hunters and game animals, particularly bighorn sheep—are spread across several canyons in the Coso Range. But the Coso Rock Art District, a nearly 100 square mile area which includes the Big and Little Petroglyph canyons, is one of the most well-known with over 100,000 petroglyphs.

The mystery, though, is exactly who created these incredible petroglyphs, which share similarities with other petroglyphs found at sites across the American Southwest. Scientists say recent dating tests show that some of the drawings could be well over 10,000 years old—far older than most of the other rock art sites in the region.

“It is innately human to express ideas, communicate beliefs, and promote an understanding of the world around us,” says Sarah Payne, director of Crow Canyon’s Cultural Explorations travel seminar program. “Exploring images on stone is one way that we, as archaeologists and as humans, gain knowledge from the past and examine our shared human heritage.”

“When we look at the Coso Range, with one of the densest concentrations of rock art in North America, and think about it in the context of its location in the Mojave Desert—you can imagine what exciting and compelling discussions will ensue,” says Payne.

A notable aspect to the petroglyphs in the Coso Range is that, in addition to being numerous, most are quite well-preserved—especially considering their age. This can be at least partly attributed to the fact (along with the arid conditions and remote location) that the range is part of the Naval Air Weapons Station China Lake, which means that the area is largely off-limits to visitors except with permission from the U.S. Navy.

The mysterious origins of the Coso petroglyphs, along with the rugged scenic beauty of the region, are why the Crow Canyon Archaeological Center’s Cultural Explorations travel seminar program is offering “Coso of the Mojave: Rock Art and Desert Cultures”—a week-long exploration set for April 2-8 with guest scholar Dr. Alan Garfinkel, a leading expert on the Coso people and the petroglyphs they left behind.

On this expedition, participants will learn more about the Coso people through their spectacular rock art, including their depictions of the universe’s origin, as well as their unique cultural traditions.

“Dr. Alan Garfinkel is one of the leading archaeologists in the area who has been collecting diverse narratives and perspectives on the imagery. He’ll transport us back in time and guide us on a journey that will help us walk away with our own personal understandings,” says Payne.

“Coso of the Mojave: Rock Art and Desert Cultures” is a trip you definitely don’t want to miss! For more information, click here or call 1-800-422-8975, ext. 457.