5 Dec 2007, 5:00pm
Native Cultures
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The Coso Sheep Cult of Eastern California

Garfinkel, Alan P. Paradigm Shifts, Rock Art Studies, and the “Coso Sheep Cult” of Eastern California. North American Archaeologist, Spring 2007.

Full text [here]

Review by Mike Dubrasich

The impression was left by some (long-departed) anthropologists that the Paiute-Shoshone people were less evolved than other tribes, particularly less so than the transplanted Euro tribes that generate modern anthropologists.

The august (even in death) Dr. Julian H. Steward claimed that, “the Basin-Plateau–or “Numic”–division of Shoshonean-speakers had the simplest culture in the Western Hemisphere, and in some respects the entire world.”

Omer Stewart claimed otherwise in a series of Indian Land Claim cases that O. Stewart subsequently won and J. Steward lost.

The proof of ancient culture, one way or the other, might be found in the petroglyphs of the Cosos Mountains. The Cosos are adjacent to Owens Valley and Death Valley in California. Although dwarfed by the nearby Sierra Nevada and Panamint mountain ranges, the Cosos are home to the greatest collection of prehistoric rock art in North America and possibly the world.

In Paradigm Shifts, Rock Art Studies, and the “Cosos Sheep Cult” of Eastern California, Alan Garfinkel presents an excellent discussion of the meaning behind the Cosos rock art and the intentions of the ancient artists.

Selected excerpts:

ABSTRACT — One of the more spectacular expressions of prehistoric rock art in all of North America is the petroglyph concentration in the Coso Range of eastern California. These glyphs have played a prominent role in attempts to understand forager religious iconography. Four decades ago, Heizer and Baumhoff (1962) concluded that Great Basin petroglyphs were associated with hunting large game and were intended to supernaturally increase success in the hunt. Similarly, in their seminal work Grant et al. (1968) concluded that the mountain sheep drawings of the Coso region bolstered the “hunting magic” hypothesis.

However, this hypothesis has become increasingly marginalized by a prevailing view that considers most rock art as an expression of individual shamanistic endeavor.1 This paper explores comparative ethnologic and archaeological evidence supporting the hunting magic hypothesis. I place this explanatory framework in a fuller context based on a contemporary understanding of comparative religion and the complexity of forager symbolism. The paper argues that the preponderance of Coso images are conventionalized iconography associated with a sheep cult ceremonial complex. This is inconsistent with models interpreting the Coso drawings as metaphoric images correlated with individual shamanic vision quests.

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