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the late Malcolm J. Rogers (San Diego Museum of Man) documented the prehistoric rock paintings found onsite with unpublished photographs and sketches in the 1930s.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.



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