The Spiritual Nature of Rock Cairn Alignments in the Western Colorado Desert

Michael Sampson, Director, Center for Research in Traditional Culture of the Americas

Rock construction features made by the indigenous people who resided in the western Colorado Desert serve as conspicuous, durable vestiges of past human activities in the Southern California deserts. These ancient rock structures were initially documented by pioneering archaeologist Malcolm J. Rogers in the 1920s and 1930s. Decades later additional studies were conducted by avocational archaeologist Robert Begole in Anza-Borrego Desert State Park. Alignments of rock cairns – rocks formed into low, tightly constructed piles – are among the cultural features identified during the work of Rogers and Begole. Boma Johnson (1986:7-9, 12, 16), an archaeologist who has worked closely with Native people, discussed alignments and concentrations of rock cairns observed along the Lower Colorado River and along the Gila River within the Colorado Desert, both of which lie in the territory of Yuman-speaking people, and hypothesized that such features were created for their use in ceremonial activity. According to the late Jay von Werlhof (1987:6-7), an authority on archaeology in the Colorado Desert, rock features such as rock alignments and lines of rock cairns help “activate” the powers of protection, spiritual security, fertility, etc. inherent in rock and earth. Rock cairns are considered as important forms of cultural expression among the Yuman people, according to von Werlhof (2004:21). Johnson (2003:172-177) described sites in the lower Colorado River region with multiple alignments of rock cairns and identified them as sacred locations tied to the Yuman creation story.

The area included in this article encompasses eastern San Diego County, portions of southern Riverside County, and a small part of western Imperial County. Several archaeological sites within the western Colorado Desert exhibit long lines and alignments of rock cairns; some alignments contain dozens of cairns, while one site was reported by Begole to have an alignment containing 150 rock cairns. An archaeological site located in the southeastern end of San Diego County was reported in a 1972 site record by Begole to be characterized by lines of rock cairns measuring “hundreds of feet long.” Other archaeological sites in the western Colorado Desert possess multiple lines of rock cairns. The age of rock cairns cannot be reliably and definitively determined, and so any age estimates for these features represent gross estimations only.

The various archaeological sites with lines of rock cairns in the western Colorado Desert mostly do not contain artifacts and no sites with rock cairn alignments are reported to contain faunal remains. Flaked stone artifacts, primarily flintknapping debris, are present at a few sites with rock cairns in alignment. The site record for one site with lines of cairns reported the presence of some potsherds “near dwelling site” and therefore implying the potsherds are not associated with the rock cairn alignment. Two sites in the western Colorado Desert with lines of rock cairns are reported to have ancient trails that cut across the lines of cairns, while other sites with lines of cairns simply have trails onsite.

In a recent visit to a site on a high ridge with a line of rock cairns in the west-central area of Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, Susan Hector and I observed the presence of a faint trail that paralleled the line of cairns on the ridge, and we indeed noted that the site has neither artifacts nor faunal remains. This same site had been reported by Robert Begole to have a line of 42 rock cairns and contain nine rock “lookout blinds” on the side of a steep-sided, rocky slope. The rock cairn features at this particular site were viewed by Begole as either boundary markers between groups, markers for clan territory, or the rock features served to protect the local residents from some form of spiritual force. I accompanied Begole to this particular site in 1983, years after he originally recorded it, in which he speculated that the line of rock cairns may have served as a means to direct bighorn sheep (Ovis canadensis) into a specific route upslope and toward semi-circular stacked-rock features on the face of the slope that may have functioned as “hunting blinds.” This location was known to biologists as a place where bighorn sheep naturally traversed. The ridge-top site, however, contains no artifacts and no faunal remains which are needed to definitively substantiate a hunting hypothesis; none of the other nearby sites in this same general area containing rock cairn alignments have artifacts or faunal remains.


Archaeological and ethnographic studies of prehistoric hunting and butchering practices clearly demonstrate that faunal remains from animals killed at a hunting site as well as stone projectile points, stone butchering tools, and other artifacts left behind by hunters are routinely found at kill sites (Binford 1978:Table 2.8, 75-85, 358-361; Frison 1978:148, 153, 194, 201, 273, 288, 302-305; Haury 1953; Haury et al. 1959; Huckell and Judge 2006:152-153, 155; Lee and Puseman 2017:234-235). Lee and Puseman (2017:235) made this statement about archaeological sites associated with bighorn sheep hunting: “…it seems clear that bighorn sheep skulls were frequently left at kill sites.” Spier (1923:336, 337) related observations about aboriginal hunting practices obtained from his Kumeyaay (Tipai) informant, Jim McCarty, indicating that large game animals, such as deer and bighorn sheep, were butchered at the kill site by Kumeyaay hunters. Spier’s (1923:352) Kumeyaay (Tipai) informant also stated that stone arrow points would be employed when hunting large game animals. Additional ethnographic information from the Colorado River region also indicates that large mammals such as bighorn sheep and deer would have been butchered at the kill site (Kniffen et al. 1935:69, 73-74).

Southern California is not the only region in the state with rock features such as cairns. Chartkoff (1983:749-754) stated that particular rock features including rock cairns, rock alignments, and rock circles are associated with ritual practices among the Yurok people in Northern California. Among the Klamath and Modoc people of Northern California, rock cairns would be constructed by adult members of the group “during a quest for power” as the rock cairns served “to focus their minds during their quests,” according to Haynal (2000:175-176). David (2012:57) argued that stacked rock features , i.e., rock cairns, are culturally significant among the Modoc and Klamath peoples of Northeastern California and would be employed for “religious or commemorative purposes.” Such rock cairns were created by individuals who sought to achieve supernatural power or to renew that power, as well as a means to identify locations of sacred ground or cremations. Research by Whitley et al. (1999:8) indicated that rock cairns were used at vision quest sites in the western United States or at selected places visited by individual praying to cure, for good fortune, or to request supernatural help.

There is documentation of rock cairn features and earthen art features used for ceremonial purposes throughout the Colorado Desert, as reported in B. Johnson 1986; M. E. Johnson 1914:25; Knaak 1988; Vanderpot and Altschul 2008; von Werlhof 1987, 1999; and other studies, and I have discussed ethnographic observations of their ceremonial functions in other locations in California above. I conclude that sites with lines of rock cairns in the western Colorado Desert functioned as places of ritual practice, in particular, a place where individuals sought power and spiritual renewal, or what could be termed a vision quest (cf. Bean 1975:29; Theodoratus and La Pena 1994:22; von Werlhof 1999). Bean (1975:29), regarding the pursuit of power and spirituality among California Indians, stated as follows: “One of the principal routes to acquiring power was the vision quest, and the induction of an ecstatic condition to receive spirits having power was a common preliminary act.” Sites with rock cairn alignments of which I am familiar stand an appreciable distance from the main centers of aboriginal occupation and could have provided the solitude and ambiance necessary for contemplation and spiritual rejuvenation at a sacred place. In my opinion, the so-called “lookout or observation blinds” found at the one desert site with rock cairn alignments served a function parallel to “prayer seats,” which are semi-circular dry-laid masonry structures found on ridges used for a variety of ritual purposes by Indian groups in Northern California, as described by Chartkoff (1983:746-749) and Haynal (2000:171).

My research on Colorado Desert archaeology leads me to conclude that archaeologists and others interested in human culture must give greater consideration to the spiritual aspects of Native cultures, and be cognizant of how religious and ritualistic practices might affect the archaeological record. Sites with ancient rock constructions should be treated respectfully and left untouched given their significance to the Native community and the human family in general.


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