CA, Death Valley

Coso Petroglyphs

Also known as Little Petroglyph Canyon and including nearby Renegade Canyon, the Coso petroglyph site is the largest concentration of petroglyphs in North America. The canyon has more than 20,000 petroglyphs pecked in a 1 1/2 mile section. Possibly even more amazing is about half of them are of bighorn sheep. Botanists believe there were never more than 200 actual sheep here at any one time. It is suspected that the thousands of bighorn petroglyphs were part of ceremonial rituals honoring the spirit of a bighorn sheep after a kill.

Besides the bighorn sheep glyphs, there are a few shamanistic anthropomorphic figures with patterned bodies at the site. Typical of these pattern body anthropomorphs (PBAs) are: concentric or solid circles for faces, weapons in hand, sometimes bird feet and some with California Quail topknots. This is too complex a discussion for this website, but some archaeologists believe these honor the “Animal Game Master” who would guide the animal’s spirit to the underworld for rebirth.

These petroglyphs here have been dated from 1300 AD back to about 2000 BC but could be much earlier with further research. Roughly 45% of the Coso petroglyphs were made between 600 AD and 1300 AD. Some of the petroglyphs show hunters with bow and arrow. It is believed that the bow and arrow supplanted the atlatl in this region around 300 AD.

The petroglyphs here are relatively pristine having been kept under the protection of the Navy since 1943 when the land was included in the Naval Air Weapons Station, China Lake (commonly just called China Lake). Because the petroglyphs are on a military base, they would normally be off-limits to civilians but the base has an arrangement with the Matarango Museum in Ridgecrest to allow limited tours. If you are interested in seeing the petroglyphs for yourself, you can arrange a tour with them. The tours tend to fill up quickly. My friend Dr. Alan Gold occasionally leads tours as well.

My photos below are from 1998, 2000, and 2013. I won’t show you all the thousands of petroglyphs, but it might feel like it.

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About Guy Starbuck

Exploring the American West.
  • Nevada
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