Chumash Painted Cave: A Traditional Location In The Santa Ynez Mountains, Santa Barbara County, California

By Michael P. Sampson

Elements of rock art, either in the form of pictographs (rock paintings) or petroglyphs (pecked or incised elements on rock), are widely believed by native people and researchers to possess ritualistic importance to those who produced it and the sites are usually considered sacred. Rocks, mountains, caves, springs, and other landscape features, are well documented to possess power, sacredness, or special significance for indigenous people in California and beyond and can serve as mnemonic places with images that are important for legends. Caves, according to oral tradition among California Indian groups, are considered the place where the world began, or as a place where power could be acquired and lives of people enhanced; caves are viewed as entryways to a spiritual or sacred dimension outside of everyday life. Thus, caves or rockshelters are natural locations to be used by native people, in particular, individuals with inherent powers such as shamans (religious leaders and doctors), to produce pictographs and petroglyphs.

Chumash Painted Cave, located within the Santa Ynez Mountains near San Marcos Pass and owned by California State Parks, is one such special place that holds an extraordinary array of polychrome pictographs (rock paintings). The cave, situated at an elevation of 2,600 feet, lies within a steep-sided, densely wooded hillside. Oak trees and various chaparral shrubs are abundantly present here, with bay laurel and sycamore trees also adjacent to the cave. The cave, containing pictographs rendered in black, red, and white pigments, had apparently formed over considerable time through erosion of the geologically soft sandstone outcropping at this location. The front of the cave is characterized by a distinctive series of wind-eroded pockets that align in a honeycomb-like patterning. The effect of this arrangement of erosional pockets draws one’s attention toward the cave, and likely also did so for the prehistoric Chumash who first came to the cave. Natural wind erosion continues to this day inside the cave and removed a significant portion of the prehistoric paintings that were originally present on the cave walls.



A variety of well-executed geometric and stylized animal and human elements are painted within the cave. The most recognizable figures include a centipede, diamond chains (generally believed to represent the rattlesnake), sun-like paintings, and anthropomorphs. The pictographs are open for public viewing via Painted Cave Road, as the cave site and its adjoining 8 acres are owned by the California State Park System; however, parking is limited along this narrow road. A metal mesh locked gate, installed in 1908 by a former landowner, blocks direct access to the cave interior but permits viewing of the paintings. Graffiti etched into some of the ancient paintings, predating the gate installation, are a strong reminder of the need for this locked gate and continued protection. Today, California State Parks carefully controls access inside the cave due to the delicate nature of the sandstone and cultural importance of the paintings. A few isolated painted motifs are located outside the cave entrance high on the cliff.


A commonly-held hypothesis relating to the derivation of many pictographs and petroglyphs in California and elsewhere, including among the Chumash, proposes that elements of rock art represent the manifestation of a shaman’s dream experiences, or vision quest. The shaman traveled to world of the supernatural through these dream experiences—either to perform a benevolent act, such as curing, inducing rainfall, and for other purposes, or to perform an act of malevolence. Those dreams or trances experienced by the shamans were induced either (1) by ingesting plant hallucinogens, (2) as a result of extreme deprivation during fasts and sleeplessness, and/or (3) through physical stress. Two plants commonly used by California Indians for ceremonial purposes were Native tobacco (Nicotiana spp.), which is relatively potent, and jimsonweed or toloache (Datura spp.). The most common species of jimsonweed in the traditional territory of the Chumash is Datura wrightii; there are three species of Nicotiana within Chumash territory. Among the Chumash, jimsonweed was ingested during initiation rites and administered by a shaman, taken to avoid misfortune, used as a curative for various ills, and most particularly consumed by shamans to establish contact with the supernatural, as noted above. [The reader should be aware that both native tobacco and jimsonweed are toxic and should not be ingested; one can become exceedingly ill from their use.]


Chumash Painted Cave possesses certain painted elements that may depict astronomical events in the past, in particular–a solar eclipse that occurred on November 24, 1677–according the late anthropologist Travis Hudson.* Other rock art sites in Chumash territory and elsewhere in California are hypothesized by researchers to hold astronomical associations from which solstice and equinox events, constellations in the heavens, or appearances of comets were observed and documented. A study by Travis Hudson, Georgia Lee, and Ken Hedges* provided a detailed review of ethnographic accounts for observations of solstice events among California Indian groups and discussed rock art sites identified as solstice observation places, including sites in traditional Chumash territory. Hudson and Underhay* made the following conclusion based upon a study of Chumash ethnographic information related to this subject: “…the Chumash shaman-priests were watching the heavens in earnest and observing the motions, positions, “behavior,” and characteristics of a large number of celestial objects. The daily movements of the sun and moon were unquestionably followed, as were those of a large number of stars, constellations, and planets.” David Whitley, a noted rock art researcher, has however recommended we view the solar eclipse hypothesis related to specific painted elements at Chumash Painted Cave with caution, and pointed out that ethnographic accounts for the use of Chumash paintings to record eclipses are lacking.


We would argue that Chumash Painted Cave and other sites with pictographs and petroglyphs functioned as places of ritual practice; here, individuals sought power and spiritual renewal and they served as locations where a balance between the dynamic forces in nature were sought. Among the Chumash, such ritualistic practitioners were all members of a prestigious cult called the ‘antap; only the ‘antap cult members could have entered such a powerful place as this cave and then produced the paintings that we see today. Those Chumash who were not members of ‘antap would avoid such places as Chumash Painted Cave and other area rock art sites.

The visitor to Chumash Painted Cave should act with respect as this is a place sacred in Native American culture. Please stay on the trail, but, do sign the visitor book. This cultural property and all archaeological sites within California State Parks and other public lands are protected by law.

*See Bibliography below


For additional information on Chumash Painted Cave, prehistoric rock art, cultural landscapes, and other topics discussed in this blog post, the reader can consult the following documents as well as others not listed here.

Richard B. Applegate (1975) The Datura Cult Among the Chumash. The Journal of California Anthropology Vol. 2 (1):7-17.

Keith H. Basso (1996) Wisdom Sits in Places: Landscape and Language Among the Western Apache. University of New Mexico Press, Albuquerque.

Lowell John Bean, Sylvia Brakke Vane, and J. Young (1991) The Cahuilla Landscape: The Santa Rosa and San Jacinto Mountains. Ballena press Anthropological Papers No. 37.

Robert S. Begole (1984) Equinox, Solstice and World Renewal. Pacific Coast Archaeological Society Quarterly 20(4):1-12.

C. William Clewlow, Jr. (1978) Prehistoric Rock Art. In California, edited by Robert F. Heizer, pp. 619-625. Handbook of North American Indians, Volume 8. Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D. C.

Lora Cline (1984) Just Before Sunset. LC Enterprises, Tombstone, Arizona.

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.

Lynn H. Gamble and Michael Wilken-Robertson (2008) Kumeyaay Cultural Landscapes of Baja California’s Tijuana River Watershed. Journal of California and Great Basin Anthropology 28:215-227.

Alan P. Garfinkel and Harold Williams (2011) Handbook of the Kawaiisu. Wa-hi Sina’avi Publications, Tehachapi, California.

Amy J. Gilreath (2007) Rock Art in the Golden State: Pictographs and Petroglyphs, Portable and Panoramic. In California Prehistory: Colonization, Culture, and Complexity edited by Terry L. Jones and Kathryn A. Klar, pp. 273-290. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., Lanham.

Campbell Grant (1966) The Rock Paintings of the Chumash. University of California Press, Berkeley.

Susan M. Hector (2009) Cupule Petroglyphs as Elements of the Cultural Landscape. Journal of California and Great Basin Anthropology 29:68-76.

Ken Hedges (1981) Winter Solstice Observatory Sites in Kumeyaay Territory, San Diego County, California. In Archaeoastronomy in the Americas, edited by Ray A. Williamson, pp. 151-156. Ballena Press Anthropological Papers No. 22.

Ken Hedges (1983) The Shamanic Origins of Rock Art. In Ancient Images on Stone, edited by Jo Anne Von Tilburg, pp. 46-61. The Rock Art Archive, The Institute of Archaeology, University of California, Los Angeles.

Ken Hedges (1992) Shamanistic Aspects of California Rock Art. In California Indian Shamanism, edited by Lowell John Bean, pp. 67-88. Ballena Press, Menlo Park, California.

Travis Hudson (1982) Guide to Painted Cave. McNally & Loftin, Publishers, Santa Barbara, California. [This is a brief guide book to Chumash Painted Cave authored by the late Curator of Anthropology at the Santa Barbara County Museum of Natural History.]

Travis Hudson and Kathleen Conti (1984) The Rock Art of Indian Creek: Ritual Sanctuary of the Gifted Chumash. In Papers on Chumash Rock Art, pp. 47-88. Occasional paper #12, San Luis Obispo County Archaeological Society.

Travis Hudson and Ernest Underhay (1978) Crystals in the Sky: An Intellectual Odyssey Involving Chumash Astronomy, Cosmology and Rock Art. Ballena Press Anthropological Papers No. 10.

Travis Hudson, Georgia Lee, and Ken Hedges (1979) Solstice Observers and Observatories in Native California. Journal of California and Great Basin Anthropology Vol. 1 (1):39-63.

William D. Hyder (1989) Rock Art and Archaeology in Santa Barbara County, California. San Luis Obispo County Archaeological Society, Occasional Paper No. 13.

William Hyder and Georgia Lee (2015) Chumash Paintings on Stone. In First Coastal Californians, edited by Lynn H. Gamble, pp. 89-96. School of Advanced Research Press, Santa Fe, New Mexico.

Don Jewell (1987) Indians of the Feather River: Tales and Legends of Concow Maidu of California. Ballena Press, Menlo Park, California.

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

Georgia Lee (1977) Chumash Mythology in Paint and Stone. Pacific Coast Archaeological Society Quarterly Vol. 13(3):1-14.

Georgia Lee (1997) The Chumash Cosmos: Effigies, Ornaments, Incised Stones and Rock Paintings of the Chumash Indians. Bear Flag Books, Arroyo Grande, California.

Ruby Modesto and Guy Mount (1980) Not for Innocent Ears: Spiritual Traditions of a Desert Cahuilla Medicine Woman. Sweetlight Books, Angelus Oaks, California.

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

Julian H. Steward (1929) Petroglyphs of California and Adjoining States. University of California Publications in American Archaeology and Ethnology 24(2). University of California, Berkeley.

Dorothea J. Theodoratus and Frank La Pena (1994) Wintu Sacred Geography of Northern California. In Sacred Sites, Sacred Places, edited by David L. Carmichael, Jane Hubert, Brian Reeves, and Audhild Schanche, pp. 20-31. Routledge, London.

Jan Timbrook (2007) Chumash Ethnobotany: Plant Knowledge among the Chumash People of Southern California. Heyday Books, Berkeley, California.

D.L. True and Georgia Waugh (1986) To-Vah: A Luiseño Power Cave. Journal of California and Great Basin Anthropology 8:269-273.

David S. Whitley (1996) A Guide to Rock Art Sites: Southern California and Southern Nevada. Mountain Press Publishing Company, Missoula, Montana. [Chumash Painted Cave is specifically discussed on pp. 170-174.]

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

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