The Pictographs: A Rock Art Site in Anza-Borrego Desert State Park

By Michael P. Sampson

The Pictographs Site, as it is identified by staff at Anza-Borrego Desert State Park and on park tour maps, is located in Smuggler Canyon and sits adjacent to Little Blair Valley within the park. Park staff allow public visitation and provide signs and a footpath to the site; a visit to this site requires an approximately one-mile-long hike along rocky and sandy soils. The pictographs, or rock paintings, can be observed on the vertical face of a sizable granitic boulder that adjoins the footpath. As with Mine Wash Village and Morteros Village that we discussed in previous blog posts, the Pictographs Site is located within traditional Kumeyaay territory (also referred to as Tipai, meaning “people,” who are the southern dialect speakers). This site is designated in the California Historic Resources system as CA-SDI-31, which indicates it was one of the earliest archaeological properties recorded in San Diego County.


The painted elements of the Pictographs Site consist of zig-zags, diamond chains, wavy lines, a circle with rays, a small human-like figure, and other skillfully depicted motifs painted in red and yellow pigment. The pigments are typically derived from locally available minerals (e.g., red iron oxide or hematite to produce red). The mineral would be combined with a natural binder such as oil from plants or grease from animals. The painted elements found here are considered by rock art researchers as representative of the San Luis Rey Style, a rock art type most often observed among the Payomkawichum (also referred to historically as Luiseño) people in the Late Prehistoric Period (beginning ca. AD 1200) and historic period. Traditional territory of the Payomkawichum territory bordered the northern dialect-speaking Kumeyaay (also known as Ipai), but the Payomkawichum spoke a significantly different language. This site in Smuggler Canyon is thus the southernmost extension of the San Luis Rey Style in Southern California. A 1994 book by Gerald Smith and Steven Freers (see citation below) has an excellent discussion of pictographs in the San Luis Rey rock art style.


Rock art sites, including those within Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, are recognized as being important aspects of ritual for the Indian people who produced it, and the sites were and are considered sacred. Many pictographs in California and elsewhere are thought to represent the manifestation of a shaman’s [a religious leader] dream experiences. Those dreams or trances could have been induced by ingesting plant hallucinogens, as a result of extreme deprivation during fasts and sleeplessness, and/or through physical stress. Native tobacco (Nicotiana spp.) and toloache (Datura spp.) were two plants commonly used by California Indians for ceremonial purposes. Properly prepared and managed by a shaman, these plants can be hallucinogens.

Some rock art sites may hold astronomical associations, such as depicting a solstice, a historical eclipse, or other such event. San Luis Rey Style rock art has been associated with the puberty rites of young women in Payomkawichum culture and were no doubt important in other aspects of cultural practices. However, the pictograph panel at The Pictographs Site in Smuggler Canyon is thought by some local rock art researchers to be the work of a single ritual artist and thus would not have been produced over time by multiple young women who participated in initiation ceremonies. The San Luis Rey Style of California Indian rock art has also been associated with the Chingichngish religion, a religious practice that flourished among the Payomkawichum, Acjachemen (Juaneño), Tongva (Gabrielino), as well as the Kumeyaay in post-Contact times, i.e., after Spanish colonization.



The presence of paintings on a boulder rendered in the San Luis Rey Style within traditional Kumeyaay territory in the southern end of Anza-Borrego Desert State Park provides evidence that religious practices were shared by neighboring ethnic groups in Southern California. Certainly, the coexistence of different tribal entities increased after the missions were established by the Spanish within present-day California (AD 1769 and later), which would have facilitated the transference of traditions as individuals from differing tribal groups resided together within the mission. And, if images on sites of the San Luis Rey Style were produced during toloache-induced trances [also known as jimsonweed from a plant of the genus Datura], the paintings at the Pictographs Site may be late nineteenth century or later in time. Ethnographic information indicates Kumeyaay people in southern San Diego County (Tipai) initially learned the use of toloache in the middle of the nineteenth century from northern Kumeyaay groups (Ipai), who had learned this religious practice from the Payomkawichum. The ceremony involving toloache use is a central part of the Chingichngish religion.

Numerous ethnographic accounts and archaeological evidence from the Colorado Desert region and other regions demonstrate that rocks, mountains, caves, and other features of the terrain possess power, sacredness, or special significance for indigenous people. We would argue that the Pictographs Site and nearby sites with rock art functioned as places of ritual practice, potentially a place where individuals sought power and spiritual renewal, or what could be termed a vision quest.

The visitor to the Pictographs Site should act with respect as this is a place sacred in Native American culture. Do not touch the paintings or the surface of the rock where the paintings are present as such action can damage the paintings. This cultural property and all archaeological sites within Anza-Borrego Desert State Park are protected by law.

Additional information related to the above discussion can be obtained by reading the following:

Lowell John Bean and Sylvia Brakke Vane (1992) California Religious Systems and Their Transformations. In California Indian Shamanism, edited by Lowell John Bean, pp.33-51. Ballena Press Anthropological Papers No. 39.

Constance Goddard DuBois (1908) The Religion of the Luiseno Indians of Southern California. University of California Publications in American Archaeology and Ethnology 8(3):69-186.

Ken Hedges (1992) Shamanistic Aspects of California Rock Art. In California Indian Shamanism, edited by Lowell John Bean, pp. 67-88. Ballena Press Anthropological Papers No. 39.

Ken Hedges (2002) Rock Art Styles in Southern California. American Indian Rock Art 28:25-40. American Rock Art Research Association.

Manfred Knaak (1988) The Forgotten Artist: Indians of Anza-Borrego and Their Rock Art. Anza-Borrego Desert Natural History Association, Borrego Springs.

Katherine Luomala (1978) Tipai and Ipai. In California, edited by Robert F. Heizer, pp. 592-609. Handbook of North American Indians, Volume 8, W. C. Sturtevant, general editor, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D. C.

Gerald A. Smith and Steven M. Freers (1994) Fading Images: Indian Pictographs of Western Riverside County. Riverside Museum Press, Riverside, California.

David S. Whitley (2000) The Art of the Shaman: Rock Art of California. The University of Utah Press, Salt Lake City.

David S. Whitley (2001) A Guide to Rock Art Sites: Southern California and Southern Nevada. Mountain Press Publishing Company, Missoula, Montana.


Morteros Village

by Michael P. Sampson

The Morteros Village site, another important Kumeyaay habitation area open to the public that we have recently visited, is located in Little Blair Valley, within the central portion of Anza-Borrego Desert State Park. The village site has been interpreted for public enjoyment of its cultural values with a guided tour trail that provides access to the site from a parking area. In recent years, California State Park staff have designated a broad portion of Little Blair Valley as a Cultural Preserve that encompasses the Morteros Village site due to the perceived cultural significance of this area. We encourage the reader to view the California State Parks website for further information about Cultural Preserves. The Morteros Village is formally recorded as site CA-SDI-2524 in the State Historical Resources Information System. Daniel McCarthy originally recorded this site in 1974, although the late Malcolm J. Rogers (San Diego Museum of Man) documented the prehistoric rock paintings found onsite with unpublished photographs and sketches in the 1930s.


The Morteros Village site is set against a steep-sided, boulder-strewn hill below Ghost Mountain. [The top of Ghost Mountain has the Marshal South home site, as well as sweeping views of the surrounding park land.] On the north and west sides of the village, one finds the open desert terrain of Little Blair Valley which displays a relatively dense vegetative cover and hills covered in boulders and vegetation. Agave (Agave deserti) is the most striking plant observed here and these plants dot the landscape in profusion. Agave was a plant of inestimable importance to the prehistoric inhabitants of this region and the American Southwest in general—as a food source, as a source of fiber for the manufacture of cordage, netting, sandals and other items, and its parts served as implements in various tasks.


The flat, open living area of Morteros Village is partitioned by sizable granitic boulders arrayed in sundry shapes and sizes that serve to create an ambience befitting a place of special cultural significance. Our attention whenever visiting Morteros Village is always captivated by the numerous cupule petroglyphs present on the assembly of boulders one encounters along the interpretive trail. The cupule petroglyphs are aligned variously, though obviously with careful forethought, on the individual boulders within the village. We particularly enjoy the low granitic boulder with the neat horizontal alignment of cupule petroglyphs next to bedrock mortars. This horizontal row alignment pattern, placed along the boulder edge, is a manifestation of cupule petroglyphs found at other regional village sites, including, the Mine Wash village, a site in McCain Valley, sites in Cuyamaca Rancho State Park, and other places. [Cupule petroglyphs aligned in rows on a vertical surface also are found in regional sites, such as in Harper Flat, etc.] Apparently, the Kumeyaay residents viewed the boulders at Morteros Village as being infused with considerable supernatural power or spirituality, and they sought to draw it out. Clearly, the special qualities of this place reached well beyond the need for sustenance. The Cultural Preserve designation placed on Morteros Village and adjacent portions of Little Blair Valley reflect its extraordinary significance.



A short distance down a single-track footpath to the east from the boulders with cupule petroglyphs, one encounters a tall, roundish, and distinctive granitic boulder with a broad, flat vertical face. Black prehistoric pictographs [rock paintings] of abstract design are centered on this vertical surface. While the painted motifs are indeed “abstract” to our modern-day eyes, the paintings clearly held important connotations to the prehistoric residents of Morteros Village. It is likely a shaman, a religious leader, in the group produced the paintings purposefully, and perhaps the elements represent figures seen in a hallucinatory dream induced by fasting, sleep deprivation, and/or other means. The precise location of the pictographs on the rock face seems to us carefully chosen to lay on the path where water runs off the top of the boulder. Water is integral to life and sacred in Native American cultures.


Traditional places such as the Mine Wash Village and Morteros Village are significant in local Indian culture and reflect everyday activities and spiritual pursuits in prehistoric society. They are protected places where the visiting public is expected to behave with respect while also feeling the essence of the location and the prehistoric people who came before us. All artifacts, plants, and rocks must be left alone and in-place. Location and how artifacts, subsistence remains (e.g., bones, charcoal, etc.), bedrock features, and the terrain associate with one another are crucial to our understanding and appreciation of past human cultures. Such traditional cultural places are non-renewable.



Mine Wash

by Michael P. Sampson

The village site on Mine Wash, open to public visitation by the state, lies about 1.5 miles south of State Route 78 and measures approximately 8.4 acres in area. This archaeological site, at an elevation of 1600 feet, is situated on an alluvial fan facing north at the base of a boulder-strewn slope. [Note: Archaeologists employ the term “site” to refer to any geographic location with tangible evidence of past human activity.] Vegetation is dense onsite and within the surrounding terrain and includes numerous plants important as food, for their use in fiber production, and for other domestic activities among prehistoric peoples, such as agave, beavertail cactus, cholla, desert ironwood, galleta grass, Indian rice grass, Indian tea, Mojave yucca, and others. The village on Mine Wash has been designated with the California state site number of CA-SDI-813, indicating it is an archaeological site recorded in San Diego County with records maintained by the California Historical Resources Information System (a program of the State Office of Historic Preservation). Based on the results of archaeological research conducted here in the 1980s, the village was initially occupied at least 1110 years ago, and perhaps slightly earlier, and no longer occupied after about 300 years ago.

View of CA-SDI-813 with Mine Wash.JPG

It showed no evidence for occupation by Indian people in historic times, although many other villages in the western Colorado Desert were indeed occupied through the 19th century and early 20th century. Previous archaeological work at the village on Mine Wash and so many of its conspicuous surface bedrock mortars, metates, and pounding areas tell us plant food processing and plant fiber processing were important prehistoric work activities. It is no surprise that the village has a large number of these bedrock surfaces used in pounding and grinding activities, implements used in concert with handstones, given its setting at the base of a boulder-strewn slope of the Pinyon Mountains.


The site surface exhibits an abundance of the material remains of stone tool making, known as flintknapping, and the pit roasting of food plants, especially, agave, in earth ovens. Quartzite and granitic rocks were most commonly employed to create the tools observed onsite; both are relatively hard, readily available materials and quartzite when flaked makes a sharp, durable working edge. A source of high-quality quartzite was found by us within Mine Canyon a relatively short distance south of the village.


The inhabitants of this village were traders and active users of nonlocal materials, as shown by the presence of beads from the Pacific Ocean and Gulf of California, obsidian from the Salton Basin (where the Salton Sea is located today), and fish and mammal bone from species not native to the immediate area. The setting of the Mine Wash village site and its abundant material remains are in our view consistent with ethnographic accounts about prehistoric lifeways of this region, such as the information provided by Kwaaymii Elder Tom Lucas in the 1984 book Just Before Sunset and other works. Thus, we see that the cultural information obtained in the early decades of the 20th century from Indian people reflect ancient cultural practices.


The village on Mine Wash also has granitic boulders containing cupule petroglyphs, which are manifested as small, roundish, shallow, smoothed depressions. Cupule petroglyphs served a variety of critical functions in prehistoric society throughout California and elsewhere, and has been associated with the enhancement of female fertility, employed in attempts to manipulate weather, produced during boys’ puberty ceremonies, used as trail markers, produced while praying for a special benefit, and created to access power located within rocks. Certain rocks or other landscape features did indeed represent places of power, as told in many ethnographic accounts of Indian people in California and beyond.



We find particularly compelling the statement that cupule petroglyphs provided a means to access this power or spirituality inherent in specific rocks. In archaeological sites of San Diego County these pecked and smoothed cultural features most often occur in groupings on a single boulder and regularly will also be observed placed in a row; this pattern of cupule petroglyph clustering is seen at the Mine Wash village site too. One large boulder at the Mine Wash village contains over 200 cupule petroglyphs that are situated under an overhang of a rockshelter that have been exclusively placed on the downward portion of the boulder. The orientation of the clustered cupule petroglyphs suggests to us a purposeful positioning so that the petroglyphs faced into the interior of this rockshelter.


Within Native American culture, rockshelters and caves provided a portal into the underworld. The orientation of the cupule petroglyphs on this particular boulder then can be viewed as a recognition of the rockshelter’s function and a reason the cupule petroglyphs were placed on this specific boulder. We noted that at least seven bedrock metates, or grinding surfaces, had been established on the upper area of this same boulder. The placement of the metates, a mundane implement in prehistoric society, does not represent a contradiction to a use of this same boulder in rituals or acquisition of spiritual power. Rather, it more firmly identifies the rockshelter and the outcrops within and around the rockshelter as a women’s place. Another, smaller-sized boulder within the village site had cupule petroglyphs aligned in a row, a patterning observed by us at other village sites in San Diego County.


Two additional boulders at the village site showed evidence that the natural fractures characteristic of the granitic rock formations in the region had been artificially enhanced by pecking. Such enhancement appears to be similar in purpose to that of the manufacture and use of cupule petroglyphs on specific boulders. The presence of the cupule petroglyphs here fit within a broader regional cultural pattern indicating that the presence of powerful (“sacred”) landscape features such as rocks served as an important criterion employed by prehistoric people in choosing where to locate their villages.


The California Desert: A Place of Traditional Culture

by Michael P. Sampson

For millennia in Southern California, deserts have been places to achieve spirituality, wisdom, or revitalization, obtain daily sustenance, corridors for travel, localities for commercial uses, and other human activities. The Colorado Desert, a region encompassing Imperial County and portions of San Diego County and Riverside County, evocatively conveys the cultural significance of the desert landscape. This desert region provides opportunities for us to explore the complexities of the human experience while offering a means to achieve our own re-creation and emotional awakening. The space and peacefulness we humans find within the desert opens the mind and expands our conscience. There is a poetic beauty in the landscape features and vegetation of the Colorado Desert, which in turn allows us to connect with our inner being.


A visit to desert lands today can lead us, too, into an existential journey whereby we tangibly sense the human condition in the past. Village sites in prehistory certainly were considered for use because of the presence of certain natural resources; in the Colorado Desert, those might include agave, mesquite, water, economically important stone materials, etc. However, we at the Center for Research in Traditional Culture of the Americas believe Native American people, such as, the Cahuilla, Kumeyaay, and Kwaaymii who lived in the Colorado Desert, viewed the land more holistically and felt a strong sense of connection to places. In turn, they identified a spiritual nature in landscape features [mountains, ridges, mesas, springs, creeks, boulders, etc.] and appreciated the inherent capacity of desert lands to inspire, to provoke memories in oral traditions, and to otherwise promote knowledge and wisdom.


Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, a broad, timeless, geologically diverse wilderness of stark magnificence in the western Colorado Desert, abounds in locations that tell an explicit human story in prehistory and historic times. Two such places of traditional cultural importance to California’s indigenous people within this park are the village site on Mine Wash and the Morteros Village Site in Little Blair Valley. The latter two places are interpreted for the general public by the State Park and hold definitive cultural significance for the prehistoric human experience in this desert region. The State invites park visitors to experience these places as respectful visitors. In the coming blog posts, we will describe the traditional values of these places.


Welcome to the Center

We are excited about finally realizing a long term dream to establish a non-profit corporation related to traditional culture.  In the coming months, you will be able to access blogs about places to see and experience traditional culture that are open to the public.  One place we can mention immediately is Old Town San Diego State Historic Park, where Living History events are held on the third Saturday of every month.  During the summer months, Stagecoach Days at the park focus on specific themes of San Diego history.  Visit the state parks website for more details.Old Town San Diego SHP