Updated: Oct 1, 2021
Have you ever wondered how people communicated with each other before they had writing? How our ancestors shared stories across the generations? Alongside their oral traditions, ancient Native American tribes passed along information through symbolic art they created on the surrounding rocks.
There are two types of this ancient rock art:
Petroglyphs, or symbols that are etched into the stone; and
Pictographs, which are painted on the rock surface using natural materials.
It’s important to note that while ancient Native people used pictographs and petroglyphs to communicate, they are quite different from Egyptian hieroglyphs, which formed a complete writing system.
Instead, certain rock art markings communicated different words or abstract ideas – for instance, two arrows pointing in opposite directions meant war, while a broken arrow meant peace. Some markings designated different tribes and families, while others were used as a sort of record keeping. Ancient people often left petroglyphs and pictographs for travelers to indicate good hunting or potential dangers in certain areas. Large murals could represent entire stories: of battles, successful hunts, or even the creation of the universe.
The oldest rock art in the U.S., discovered in western Nevada, is estimated to be at least 10,000 years old. Of course, the use of petroglyphs and pictographs is not unique to indigenous North Americans. The Aboriginal people of Australia have used these methods for upwards of 30,000 years.
There are, however, many creative and cultural variations between the rock art of indigenous people in North America and those in Australia. In ancient – and even current – Aboriginal culture, only certain tribal members are allowed to paint sacred symbols. First People of Australia also considered the act of painting to be more important than the pictograph itself, so images were often repainted or painted over.
Wherever they are located in the world, these pictographs and petroglyphs had, and continue to hold, a deep spiritual meaning that commands respect from all. So the next time you see a piece of rock art, take a moment to consider: What was its creator trying to convey? Should its meaning be considered literally, or figuratively? Most important, take a moment to appreciate that these ancient wonders have survived for us to protect and appreciate.
Top image: Kokopelli rock art at Canyon de Chelly National Monument
Bottom image: Aboriginal Australian pictographs found in the Wunnumurra Gorge, Kimberley region
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