Saturday, May 12, 2012


An article (p.51-57) by Will Hunt in the May, 2012, issue of Discover Magazine, entitled “Secrets of the White Shaman” attempts to explain the meaning behind one of the truly iconic panels of Pecos Style rock art in Texas. Hunt is writing about the theories of Carolyn Boyd who purports (at least according to Hunt) to be able to read the hidden messages in the panels of rock art. According to Hunt; “working like a detective, she discovered a symbolic code that reveals narratives in the paintings, which she believes can be read, almost like an ancient language (p.51).” By the end of the article we have learned that Pecos rock art can all be explained by the S-Word (Shamanism).

White Shaman, Val Verde County, TX.
Photograph Peter Faris, March 2004.

Archaeologists, she (Boyd) read, believed the paintings were related to shamanism, the common religious practice among tribes in the region. The shaman was a tribe’s liaison with the spirit world (p. 52).”  In  truth there is a broad range of opinions among archaeologists about the relationship between rock art and Shamanism. While some amateur aficionados of rock art ascribe all rock art to Shamanism, many students of rock art prefer to be much more careful with the term, and purists point out that the term Shamanism technically should only be used to describe the spiritual beliefs of Siberian tribes (where the word originated).  According to Wikipedia: The term "shaman" is a loan from the Turkic word šamán, the term for such a practitioner, which also gained currency in the wider Turko-Mongol and Tungusic cultures in ancient Siberia.  Shamans were known as "priests" in the region of where Uralic languages, Turkic, or Mongolic languages are spoken.”  To designate the beliefs of a people of a different time and culture, to say nothing of thousands of miles away from Siberia, shamanic, just seems to be too much of a stretch for me. I am much more comfortable admitting that the belief systems of the old Pecos inhabitants may have had things in common with shamanism, or may have had shamanic-like elements, especially as so little of their culture is known. I just cannot say they are the same any more than, on the basis of present cultural evidence, I could say that Baptists and Unitarians believe alike, even though they are both Protestant Christian religions. 

Red deer, White Shaman panel, Val Verde County, TX.
Photo Peter Faris, 2004.

Other examples of leaping to unwarranted conclusions can be found. On page 54 we learn that “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.”  Really? Which tribes, and what are the boundaries of the region? And on page 56; “Next to the underworld was an isolated red deer: this had to be the sacred deer that led the humans on the journey east. (Note: The red deer on the opposite page may be facing west, but the ancient rock artists always depicted west on the right side of a pictogram).” (the underline is mine). What can I say, I have studied rock art for  35 years and I missed that west is "always" on the right side of a pictograph  – how embarrassing!
Also on page 56 is one of the best quotes of the whole article.  “Retired University of Texas archaeologist Solveig Turpin, who began researching in the Lower Pecos in the 1970s believes connecting 4,000-year-old paintings to a contemporary tribe (the Huichol) is unwarranted. ‘You’re reaching across thousands of years and hundreds of miles,’ she says. ‘It just doesn’t hold up.”  Right on Solveig.
Now I actually don’t want to be too harsh on Boyd. First, I have to admit that much of her supporting data is real, some of the images are like images in Huichol art and belief, but there is little proof other than the images themselves that there is any connection. Second, I believe it’s possible that Hunt may have exaggerated Boyd’s case because of enthusiasm. This is heady stuff, translating messages from a people lost for 4,000 years, no wonder he is enthusiastic!  I would personally love to make a discovery of this magnitude, and find so much proof that I am right. Finally, the exaggerations may have come from the editors at Discover Magazine.
So I fear that I will have to remain a skeptic for the present. But by all means look up the article, if only for the pictures. There are some great photographs of some of the truly outstanding rock art in North America, if not the world. And if future study lends credence to Boyd’s theories I will happily eat my words and congratulate her. 

Also, I recommend Boyd's book Rock Art of the Lower Pecos, Carolyn E. Boyd, Texas A & M University Press, College Station, 2003. While I do not agree with some of her conclusions, I did find it full of information (and some good pictures) about the amazing rock art of the Lower Pecos, and even some of her supporting evidence is interesting and worth knowing.

NOTE:  These things come up regularly. I would like to refer readers to previous RockArtBlog postings on Ogam in North America (April 20, 2009), and A Misplaced Reliance on Statistical Analysis (January 25, 2011) which addressed a report that statistical analysis proves that symbols painted on cave walls in Europe constitute a written language.

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