Saturday, March 5, 2011


Bird-headed figure, Kiva Point, Ute Mountain Ute
Reservation, CO. Photo: Peter Faris, 1981

Bird-headed figure, Kiva Point, Ute Mountain Ute
Reservation, CO. Photo: Peter Faris, 1981.
Arrow is pointing to bird on the anthropomorph's head.

One of the more enigmatic, and interesting, themes in the rock art of the 4-corners and the Colorado Plateau, is the bird-headed figure. Many of these figures have a bird standing on the head of an anthropomorphic figure; others have the head of the anthropomorph replaced by a bird.

Tule reed duck decoy, from Marsha C. Bol, ed. (1998, 104).

In 1998, Sandra L. Olsen wrote in Animals in American Indian Life: An Overview “Several north American tribes made duck decoys. Remarkable preservation at Lovelock Cave, Nevada, has led to the recovery of 3,000-year-old decoys - - - that were made by stretching a bird skin over a tule reed form. Many ethnographic reports describe hunters putting duck skins – on their heads as they swam right up to live ducks. They captured the ducks by grabbing their feet and pulling them underwater, so as not to disturb other nearby fowl” (Bol, 1998:104).

Back during that period the American southwest was considerably wetter than it is today. In parts of what is now desert, people were swimming and duck hunting. Lovelock Cave was named after Lovelock in Humboldt County, Nevada. Then the area had a large lake and extensive tule reed marshes. Excavations in that cave as well as others in the area prove that the people of 3,500 to 1,000 years BP lived a life of relative plenty with large numbers of waterfowl included in their diet. Although this is not part of the Colorado Plateau we can assume that similar conditions must have existed there leading to the bird-headed anthropomorphs in the rock art.

Bird-Headed figures, from Alex Patterson, (1992: 49).

It seems probable that the presence of bird-headed figures on rock art panels had some influence on the later development of the kachina beliefs of the Ancestral Pueblo peoples. I can picture later people inspired by those images, making headdresses and masks to imitate the images with birds on (or replacing) their heads. This might be supported by the important place that ducks take in the kachina religion.

At Zuni it is believed that when the kachinas return home they do so in the form of ducks. Ducks are addressed not only in invocation of rain, but of seeds as well, and thus for plentiful crops. The Salimobia kachinas were guardians, messengers to the spirits, and seed bearers from the directions. They arise from the waters of the lake under which the kiva of the kachinas is located. Salimobia are like ducks, and their kachinas are associated with ducks. The duck kachina is called Pawik and his mask is equipped with a duck’s bill.

So the bird-headed figures may have been originally depictions of hunters wearing duck decoys on their heads, and later became involved with the kachina cults of Ancestral Pueblo peoples. These figures today provide us with clues to the ancient history of the area, and charming figures in their own right.

Bol, Marsha C., editor
1998   Stars Above, Earth Below: American Indians and Nature, Roberts Rinehart Publishers, Niwot, CO.

Patterson, Alex
1992   A Field Guide to Rock Art Symbols of the Greater Southwest, Johnson Books, Boulder.


  1. Very nice! I am going to share this with the art class I am taking!

    Jeanne Klynstra

  2. This might be some of the images actually wittnessed by rock artists thousands of years ago, according to the electric universe theory. Enjoy :)