Saturday, April 18, 2009


Petroglyph identified as a "map of the
area" in southeastern Colorado.

This question first manifested itself to me as I stood in front of an archaic abstract petroglyph panel in southeastern Colorado a number of years ago. The landowner identified the collection of connected wavy lines as a representation of the canyon we were in and its adjoining canyons. This did not seem wholly acceptable to me then although it took me some time to have my thoughts come together on the subject. As they did there turned out to be three basic reasons why the idea of a petroglyph map does not make sense to me:

1. The Native Americans who occupied this land were an oral culture, accustomed to pass on learning vocally. There are examples in ethnographic literature of Native Americans drawing maps, but only at the prompting of anglos. Reports do tell us, however, of many examples of knowledge about an upcoming trip being passed on as a verbal description, even with marks scratched on the ground, but never as a permanent record. It has been stated that Australian Aboriginals actually encoded knowledge of the locations of resources in their mythology.

2. The residents of any specific area need no maps. They know their land as well as I know my own back yard. They know intimately where to find water, where and when food resources are likely to be available, and where natural resources can be found.

3. You do not give your maps to potential enemies. As I said above our people need no maps, and anyone else is a potential enemy and invader. It makes absolutely no sense at all to place a permenent map where they can find it and profit from it.

This is not to say that there are not geographical factors involved in the meaning and placement of some rock art. Just that I do not believe there are any examples of maps as we define them, a visual image intended to convey information of the relative placement of features in the landscape, and to help the viewer locate them.

(These reasons also apply equally to the question of often identified "water marks" that many anglo enthusiasts feel passionately about. You know where your water supplies are, and it makes no sense to mark them for others who might be potential enemies. )

Careful analysis of examples of rock art maps published in the past have tended to bear this out. One example I have seen consists of a pattern of pecked dots which the writer stated that by marking them on a transparent overlay one could then orient it on top of a contour map and the spots marked springs in the surrounding area. One has to ask how the Native American who pecked the dots got his copy of the contour map in the same scale to correctly place the marks. Another example of a paper published about a map of a stretch of river in Utah had to actually overlook the main tributary of that stretch of river in order to reach that definition.

Although I have yet to see personally a convincing example that meets the strict definition of a map I am open to further consideration on this question. I do accept that by modifying your definition of a map one might be able to squeeze in a few of the examples that have been so defined.

1 comment:

  1. Good stuff, I share your sentiments on this subject.