Early Nevadans leave mark
People have lived in Nevada for thousands of years and left behind abundant evidence of their presence. We primarily find stone tools, but because of Nevada’s climate we also find basketry and other perishable materials. One of the things left behind is rock art
Rock art is found throughout the world and all across Nevada in an astonishing variety of styles and locations. Rock art is either carved (petroglyphs) or painted (pictographs.) There are more than 1,000 rock art sites in Nevada, many more than in other parts of the United States or the desert West. Why would there be so much rock art in Nevada when compared to other place? For many years it was thought that rock art played a role in the rituals associated with hunting. It was thought that rock art sites occurred primarily in locations related to hunting, but now we know that this is not necessarily the case. More recently some have suggested that rock art is related to shamanism. They propose that shamens, the healers of the group, would carve or paint their visions on rocks in order to better remember them. But in Nevada at least, shamans’ songs were the most important part of their healing ritual.
The truth is that we don’t know for sure why rock art was created. But, if the locations where it is found are indications it probably had many functions or purposes. Much of Nevada’s rock art is found in domestic contexts or where people were living. In some way it must have played an integral role in their daily lives. But at other times it is found separated from habitation areas or in locations of abundant resources. Some is even found in hunting locales. Until a more thorough record of the state’s rock art is made we will never know for sure.
Until recently, it has not been possible to accurately date rock art. But today methods of directly dating both petroglyphs and pictographs are being developed. For pictographs organic materials such as melted fat or blood were mixed with mineral pigments to make paint, and these can be dated using radiocarbon dating techniques. For petroglyphs it has been much more difficult. However, current advances allow very minute amounts of organic material to be radiocarbon dated. Directly dating petroglyphs is now possible by extracting organic material from rock varnish.
Most of Nevada’s rock art is abstract. It doesn’t appear to depict any specific thing. But some rock art is naturalistic and does depict specific things, especially animals or people. These naturalistic images are found throughout Nevada, but are especially dominant in the southern and eastern parts of the state. It is interesting to note that in those areas people lived a more settled lifestyle and often farmed in addition to gathering wild plants and hunting. Historic imagery also is found in Nevada, mostly imagery of horses or cowboys, again primarily in the south. These historic images indicate quite clearly that at least some rock art was being made in historic times.
To see local rock art visit Grimes Point near Fallon, Nev. This may be among the oldest rock art sites in Nevada. When you visit the site try to imagine how the landscape has changes since the petroglyphs were created – from pleistocene Lake Lahonton, to a large marsh, to the landscape you see today.
To learn more about Nevada’s rock art and history visit the Nevada State Museum at Carson City or the Web site at http://dmla.clan.lib.nv.us. The museum’s new exhibit, “Selections from the Collections,” will open in April in the museum’s new North Building. The exhibit will feature rock art photographs and many seldom-seen treasures.
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