Academic journal article Rock Art Research

Ritual, Ceremony and Symbolism of Archaic Bighorn Hunters of the Eastern Mojave Desert: Newberry Cave, California

Academic journal article Rock Art Research

Ritual, Ceremony and Symbolism of Archaic Bighorn Hunters of the Eastern Mojave Desert: Newberry Cave, California

Article excerpt


Newberry Cave is in the eastern Mojave Desert (Fig. 1a), just a short distance up a steep and somewhat treacherous drainage in the Newberry Mountains (Fig. 1b). An enormous boulder conceals the entrance. The boulder appears to have fallen from the cliff face - broken out of the face of the drainage. The immense, school bus-sized, irregularly shaped rock is of a redbrown andesite, which is a volcanic stone.

Wood rats (Neotoma lepida) occupy the confines of the deep cave that has four 'rooms'. Bighorn sheep (Fig. 2) bed down in the cave during summer months, finding the cool shelter to be beneficial. Newberry Cave is a special place. Some of the pre-Historic artefacts recovered are unusual as are the accompanying cave paintings. We believe that the full significance of this site has not been thoroughly brought to light.

The location, archaeological and palaeontological assemblage, age and associated rock art argue for an interpretation that this place was a distinctive site of great religious significance to the local Native people. This religious site figured prominently for many generations of desert bighorn sheep hunters and their society. We argue that Newberry Cave represents a particularly striking and persuasive example of what Coulam and Schroedl (2004) have identified as 'increase totemism'.

Coulam and Schroedl's model: social and increase totemism

A bold and innovative exposition of the nature and character of the split-twig figurine complex in the Far West of the United States has been espoused by Coulam and Schroedl (2004). Split-twig figurines from eastern California, the Great Basin and American Southwest were found to date exclusively between 3000 and 1250 BCE (calibrated radiocarbon determinations based on the midpoints of their one sigma determinations). The figurines were first reported in the 1930s and are typically associated with the Grand Canyon in Arizona and the Green River region of Utah.

There are about 400 split-twig figurine specimens that have been discovered to date, and these artefacts come from 30 pre-Historic archaeological sites. The figurines are made by splitting, bending and wrapping a long, thin, single branch of willow to craft a representation of a miniature animal.

What Coulam and Schroedl (2004) argue is that these figurines are not simply fetishes or unique talismans. They are objects that are patterned, replicated and transmitted from one generation to the next. Hence this was a manifestation of a belief system that was not representative of an individualistic cult but instead was a communal cult.

These researchers examined the archaeological context of the total corpus of sites with split-twig figures and conclude through cross-cultural comparison, based on the ethnology of foragers worldwide, that there were two classes of such figurine-producing archaeological sites in the region. These sites are clustered in two different geographic areas and represent two distinctive construction styles. The larger figurines are of the Grand Canyon style and occur in Arizona sites (n = 16), Nevada (n = 2) and California (n = 1). The smaller figures are exclusively from Utah (n = 11) and are classified as Green River style.

Sixteen sites were argued to represent sites of social totemism, and those expressing increase totemism numbered 14. Social totem sites were domestic sites that served as habitation loci, and increase totem sites were exclusively ceremonial. In terms of overall classification, sites with Green River style figurines were mainly of domestic or social context, while those of the Grand Canyon type were predominantly religious expressions.

Social totemism is where equivalent social groups adopt a symbolic totem as a representation for the group acting as a differentiator from other groups. Social totemism correlates with kinship systems regulating marriage to a spouse outside of one's lineage, moiety or clan. Its main functions relate to spousal selection and the naming of individuals. …

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