Carolyn Boyd: Deciphering the Oldest American “Book”

White Shaman Mural

White Shaman Mural

I am delighted to have Dr. Carolyn E. Boyd, founder of the Shumla Archaeological Research and Education Center, with us today. Dr. Boyd has spent the last 25 years studying the rock art paintings of the Lower Pecos region in Texas. The images painted on the canyon walls along the Rio Grande near Del Rio, Texas, are over 4,000 years old. Dr. Boyd and Shumla have recently been featured in Discover Magazine, Texas Monthly, Texas Highways and others.

Dr. Carolyn E. Boyd

Dr. Carolyn E. Boyd

Hello, Carolyn. Tell us a little about these ancient paintings.

 Hello Mary, and thank you for inviting me to share with your readers about the rock art of the Lower Pecos!

The region is home to at least three categories of prehistoric rock paintings—Pecos River, Red Linear, and Red Monochrome. All three are spectacular, but it is the Pecos River style that is ranked among the top bodies of prehistoric art in the world. Yes, right here in Texas we have paintings that are on par with the famous European Paleolithic cave art of Lascaux, Chauvet, and Altamira. The renowned French archaeologist Dr. Jean Clottes has declared that Pecos River rock art is second to none in the world. Pretty impressive!

What makes these paintings so remarkable is their complexity and compositional intricacy. Lower Pecos artists used earth colors to create murals that are extraordinary in the level of skill required to produce them, as well as sheer size. Some of the panels are huge, spanning over 100 feet in length and 30 feet in height. Others are very small and tucked away in secluded alcoves. There are more than 200 rockshelters north of the Rio Grande containing Pecos River style imagery. South of the border in Mexico there are likely that many or perhaps more.

Production of the massive murals was no small undertaking. Significant time and effort went into planning the composition, obtaining resources to make paint, creating the artist’s tools, constructing scaffolds or ladders, not to mention the rituals that likely accompanied each step in the process.

Halo Shelter Anthropomorphs

Halo Shelter Anthropomorphs

Pictographic elements in these ancient murals include anthropomorphs (humanlike), zoomorphs (animal-like), a wide range of geometric imagery, and enigmatic figures that don’t fit neatly into any of the other categories. Anthropomorphs are the most frequently depicted and average in size between 3 to 7 feet. However, sometimes they are huge, standing more than 25 feet tall! Others are so tiny they could fit in your pocket.

These fascinating figures are elaborately painted in red, yellow, black, and white. Their bodies are adorned with various accoutrements, such as headdresses, wrist and elbow adornments, waist tassels, and clusters of feathers at the hip. Often they are portrayed holding paraphernalia, such as atlatls, darts, staffs, and rabbit sticks.

Animals are also represented in the paintings. Deer are depicted with antlers, tails, hooves and dew claws, and at other times with only antlers or hooves. Felines tend to be painted larger than life. A few are massive, measuring over eight feet from the tip of their tail to the tip of their nose. Birds are usually small and portrayed with their wings outstretched. Some imagery resembles insects, such as caterpillars, dragonflies, and moths or butterflies. Sinuous, snake-like figures are also portrayed. One of my favorites is a horned serpent spanning 20 feet in length.

What is important about this rock art?

The murals of the Lower Pecos represent some of the oldest known ‘books’ in North America. For decades archaeologists thought these complex murals represented numerous painting episodes performed by different artists over hundreds or even thousands of years. We now know they are not a random collection of images, but compositions. As with words on a page, every image was intentionally placed. They are visual texts communicating a narrative by means of a graphic vocabulary.

Although they aren’t books in the literal sense of the word with multiple pages bound together by a hinge along one side, they do tell a story. The method of reading that story was handed down from generation to generation, such that anyone who understood the grammar could read the paintings. Then, at some point in time, everyone with that special knowledge moved on and the message of the art went into a very long period of dormancy. Today, however, we are rediscovering how to read these ancient texts and what we are learning is rewriting the prehistory of North America.

What do you think the images mean?

 Early interpretations suggested Pecos River style imagery represented hunting cults and

Panther Cave at Seminole Canyon State Park

Panther Cave at Seminole Canyon State Park

manifestations of shamanic visions. Many still adhere to the idea that the striking Pecos River style anthropomorphs represent shamans. Others continue to argue the meaning of the art was lost with the people who produced it. But the meaning is far from lost and vastly more complex than any prior explanations.

Though the artists are gone, the myths and belief systems of the hunter-gatherers who produced the murals have remained over the centuries. With stunning resilience, their beliefs have endured from some point in the distant past to shape the ideological universe of Native America into the present. Indeed, it was the symbolic world of foragers that shaped the ideological universe of later Mesoamerican agriculturalists.

The murals exquisitely detail sophisticated cosmological and mythological concepts traditionally associated with complex agricultural societies in Mesoamerica. The art brought life to the mythology, and the mythology aided in the spiritual development of the participants, helped establish community, and was used as a teaching device for understanding natural law.

However, one must keep in mind that the imagery was not strictly visual communication, but, rather, a form of visual-verbal communication. Any meaningful discussion of the significance of the rock art should take into consideration the oral traditions and the performances that accompanied it. As with the pre-Columbian codices, the imagery was likely read aloud and explained to onlookers who participated in the ceremony through ritual offerings, music, singing, chanting, and dance. This performance would have greatly increased the ritual significance of the paintings. Through ritual performance, actions that were performed by gods at the beginning of time were not only commemorated, but repeated. Thus, human action in the present re-created events of the past.

Why should people today care?

I get asked that question often. Sometimes I find it helps to explain it this way. Imagine what you would do if someone delicately placed in your hands a well-worn, extremely fragile text and said “this is one of the oldest books in North America.” What would you do? Would you consider it important enough to take care of? What lengths would you go to preserve it?

The Lower Pecos is a library full of 4,000 year-old manuscripts containing information that is transforming our understanding of North American prehistory, of hunter-gatherers, the tenacity of myth, the origin and dissemination of languages, the function of art in prehistory, and so very much more. Sadly, we are losing these ancient texts at an alarming rate to vandalism, floods, and a changing climate.

What does the Shumla Archaeological Research & Education Center do?

Shumla is a not-for-profit organization working to preserve and share the ‘library’ of painted texts

On the Shumla campus

On the Shumla campus

and the information they hold through documentation, research, stewardship and education. We are literally in a race against time to save these visual texts. I encourage you to visit our website (www.shumla.org), check us out on Facebook, and sign up for our eNews to learn more! And please, donate today to join us in our important work in the Lower Pecos.

I understand you have a new book coming out. Tell us about it.

 Yes, I do! The book is titled “The White Shaman Mural: An Enduring Creation Narrative in the Rock Art of the Lower Pecos” and it is being published by the University of Texas Press. It will be released this time next year.

In this book, I and my collaborator, Kim Cox, provide a detailed interpretation of the WhiteShaman mural, the most famous rock art panel in the Lower Pecos and one of the most famous in the world. We walk the reader down a twenty-two-year path of discovery to find that the mural tells a story of the birth of the sun and the beginning of time. Patterns in the rock art equate, in striking detail, to the mythologies of Uto-Aztecan speaking peoples, including the ancient Aztec and the present-day Huichol. The finding of such a significant thumbprint of Mesoamerican culture in the rock art demonstrates that a shared ideological universe was already firmly established among foragers living in the Lower Pecos during the Archaic. Codified on a canyon wall in Texas thousands of years ago, the White Shaman mural may represent the oldest pictorial creation narrative in North America.

Wow! That’s exciting. Thank you so much for sharing with us today.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

2 thoughts on “Carolyn Boyd: Deciphering the Oldest American “Book”

  1. Mary, thank you so much for posting this interview. I am a huge fan of Dr Boyd’s work and am avidly looking forward to her book about White Shaman. Her talk at Shumla School for Rock Art Rendezvous this past Saturday was beyond impressive, and very moving.

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