About a thousand years before Jackson Pollock and Andy Warhol were making distinctive American art, Native Americans were plying their trade via petroglyphs (rock carvings) and pictograms (rock paintings).
Sean McLachlan at Gadling put together this list of great places to view these incredible, and often incredibly old, works of art. With his list and the help of the National Parks Service’s website, here is a brief guide for those who want to find out more about these powerful cultural symbols and how they reflect the complex religions and societies of the tribes that created them. You can’t beat a history lesson told in ancient artwork in the midst of some of the country’s most beautiful landscapes:
Canyon de Chelly National Monument, Arizona: Sustaining the Navajo people today, the Canyon de Chelly is one of the longest continuously inhabited areas in North America. Prehistoric people built villages in the shadows of these soaring cliffs located in the middle of modern day Navajo Nation. Ancient Puebloans planted crops and raised families amongst the canyons, and their descendants, the Hopi, migrated into the canyons to plant corn fields and peach orchards. Today, the canyons offer a rich mosaic of pictographs and petroglyphs that tell stories about the history of the region. From pictures of antelope to canvases of the Navajo’s experience with Europeans, Canyon de Chelly is an inspiring history lesson. In May the interpretive center will reopen, with brand new exhibits showcasing current issues and research regarding the Canyon.
Canyonlands National Park, Utah: People have been living and visiting this region for over 10,000 years. Nomadic hunter-gatherer groups roamed the Canyonlands from 8,000 B.C. to 500 B.C., creating a wide range of incredible rock art. The best example of their art, called “Barrier Canyon Style”, are on the cliff walls of Horseshoe Canyon. Here you find a massive panel of ghostly painted figures who have been interpreted, and reinterpreted, for thousands of years. They have been thought to represent ancient native ancestors, gods, or even aliens. Before you laugh at that last theory, it should be noted that Upheaval Dome, located within the park, has an area of approximately three miles across where the rock layers are, in a word, strange. They are unlike any of the rock layers in the canyon. One theory on what caused this bizarre folds is it is the site of a meteorite collision.
Nine Mile Canyon, Utah: A petroglyph heaven, this area is often billed as the, “world’s longest art gallery”. It’s the largest concentration of rock art ever found in the U.S., with approximately10,000 images ranging in date from 950 AD to the 19th century. The homes of the Fremont people, a pre-Columbian hunter-gatherer and horticultural people, are visible in the park. The petroglyphs show both the understandable (bison being speared) and the mysterious (strange horned figures that could be shaman.)
Petroglyph National Monument, New Mexico: There are an estimated 24,000 carved images in Petroglyph National Monument, located on the western edge of Albuquerque. Most of the images come from prehistoric Pueblo peoples, starting about 500 AD, as well as some artwork created by the Spanish, who were inspired by the beauty that they saw. There are even petroglyphs of cattle brands of the early ranchers who came through this region.
Saguaro National Park West, Arizona: A quick drive from Tucson and only two hours from Phoenix, the park is named after the enormous cacti, the giant Saguara, that grow in the park. These sub-tropical monsters are one of the enduring symbols of the southwest, but they’re not the only beautiful and strange images that dot this landscape. The Hohokam, a prehistoric Oasisameriaca tribe, covered a rocky hill covered in carvings, including a puzzling spiral that anthropologists think might have been an early calendar. The Hohokam were incredible city planners as well as artists, as they built expansive canal systems and large towns in southern Arizona up until around 1450 A.D.. Today, both Tucson and Phoenix were originally founded by the Hohokam.