Preserving and Deciphering Ancient Rock Art in Texas

This figure shows the talent of the Lower Pecos Archaic artists. Straight clean lines can be difficult enough to produce on canvas with acrylics and expensive brushes. The artists of the murals of the Lower Pecos created precision images on rough rock shelter walls with homemade brushes of agave fiber and animal hair. Notice the special attributes of this finely painted figure, including claw-like fingers and a halo-like image above its head. Photo by Jerod Roberts

By Jessica Lee, Shumla Archaeological Research & Education Center

Why are we here?

Who created us?

What’s our purpose?

What happens when we die?

These are fundamental questions that every culture addresses in some way. But was it only the builders of grand pyramids and great cities who contemplated these things? Or have these thoughts been part of the human experience ever since our brains took on their modern form—more than 100,000 years ago?

Unfortunately, the archaeological record doesn’t preserve thought like it does stone tools. Beliefs are fleeting, shared in pre-agricultural times primarily through storytelling, poetry, and song—trade “items” that wouldn’t weigh anything when carried in the mind to the next camp site. This difference in preservation may be the reason for the common assumption that our nomadic hunter-gatherer ancestors were “simple” and less cognitively complex than members of more recent sedentary civilizations, or that they weren’t capable of complex belief systems, or of expressing them in decipherable art and writing.

Here’s the challenge: How can we put these assumptions to the test when the very reason for their existence is the non-existence of data to prove otherwise? We need data—hard evidence of pre-agricultural thoughts and beliefs.

In Texas we have it.

Examining a site (Photo courtesy Shumla)

The Lower Pecos Canyonlands of southwest Texas and northern Mexico hold a forager archive in the form of over 300 rock art sites. I’m not talking a few lines etched in a rock wall. These are murals. Some from as far back as 4,200 years ago. They are multi-colored, highly complex, single compositions painted by Archaic people to communicate their view of the cosmos and their place within it. And now we can read them.

Dr. Carolyn Boyd, a National Geographic grantee and founder of the Shumla Archaeological Research & Education Center (a non-profit dedicated to the preservation and study of these murals), has spent the last 25 years cracking the code for deciphering them. In her book The White Shaman Mural: An Enduring Creation Narrative (2016, UT Press), she focused on one particularly well-preserved mural and offered a convincing argument that it depicts a creation story that is intricately connected to later Mesoamerican mythologies of the Aztec. The book won the field of archaeology’s highest book honor, the 2017 Society for American Archaeology’s (SAA) Scholarly Book Award.

This is incredibly rare. We have an ancient forager graphic library that we can decipher!

The information it holds could revolutionize our understanding of the development of human belief systems, the role of myth and spirituality in human survival, the dispersion of prehistoric people and languages across North America, and much more. There is enough information in these murals to fuel hundreds of theses, dissertations, and research projects.

This mural is painted inside the rock shelter seen below, under water during the 2008 flood. (Photo courtesy Shumla)
The rock shelter seen above, under water during the 2008 flood as indicated by the date-stamp in the lower right. (Photo courtesy Shumla)

Unfortunately, many of these ancient panels will be destroyed before that can happen. The information held in these remote rock shelters must be recorded and saved from inevitable loss to flash floods that annually ravage these canyons.

This is the purpose of Shumla’s “Alexandria Project.” The name draws a comparison to the ancient Egyptian Library of Alexandria that was burned in 48 B.C. An unfathomable amount of ancient knowledge went up in smoke. That’s not happening to our “Alexandria.” Shumla’s Alexandria Project is a four-year research project and data management plan intended to fully catalog and digitize Texas’ treasure of over 300 rock art panels and ensure that every image is available to researchers for years to come. It’s an enormous job but necessary and there’s no one better to do it than our team.

Join the effort at


Changing Planet

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