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.


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