In the Lower Pecos region of southwest Texas are some remarkable rock paintings, dating to around 4,000 years old. Records from indigenous peoples in the area don’t give much insight into the paintings and it’s only been recently that archaeologists have been to decode the art as having religious significance to a people practicing the “White Shaman” religion, so named because of geographical landmarks, not because there were actually any white shamans living there at the time.
One afternoon that fall, Boyd stood beneath the tawny overhang of Panther Cave, where ancient artists had painted hundreds of black-, red-, and saffron-colored human and animal figures in what looked like a jumbled fray. Sketch pad in hand, she studied a human figure about two feet tall on the panel’s right side. The figure had wings coming down from its arms; it hovered above a circle with a long, wavy line emanating out.
Boyd froze. She had seen these images before. Back at College Station, she tracked down a 1930s book of rock art drawings and turned to a rendering of Rattlesnake Canyon. Near the center of the panel was a winged human figure beneath a circle with a long, wavy line attached to it, nearly identical to what she had seen at Panther Cave. A survey of drawings from other shelters revealed dozens more of this pattern. Like the figure at Panther Cave, the human figures all displayed animal attributes, such as wings, deer antlers, rabbit ears, or fur. “If they were painting these images over and over, they had to have been significant,” she thought. But what did they mean?
Boyd found answers in studies of tribes throughout Mexico and the American Southwest, where shamans consistently described their cosmos as vertically tiered: Spirits were said to live in heaven, on Earth, or in the underworld. She then reexamined the humans in the paintings. They were placed above, below, and on top of the wavy lines. Could she be looking at 4,000-year-old depictions of shamans journeying into the underworld?
Boyd hunted for clues. One came from Ralph Beals, a UCLA anthropologist who studied the Yaqui, a tribe in northwestern Mexico and southern Arizona. In Beals’s work, a Yaqui shaman said that when he journeyed to the underworld, he “passed through the body of a snake.” This was a pattern: Nearly every tribe in the region envisioned a serpent as the divider between the earthly and the spiritual realms, explaining the wavy lines on the Lower Pecos rocks. The same kinds of stories explained the animal adornments; when shamans traveled to the underworld, each had a “spirit animal” for protector and guide.
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