“The Coming of Age Cave” – Puberty Rituals on Queen Mountain (Joshua Tree National Park)

For the past two years, once every couple of months I have marched up Queen Mountain in search of its well guarded secrets. Despite being one of the most beautiful, and secluded portions of Joshua Tree National Park, the mountain holds a spiritual importance to the Serrano and Chemehuevi tribes of the region. William Mike, the chief and shaman of the Chemehuevi tribe in the late 1800s and early 1900s went so far as to call Queen Mountain, his “power mountain.” Nobody traveled through Queen Mountain without him accompanying, or his permission.

Before William Mike, and the Chemehuevi arrived at the Oasis of Mara around 1863, the Queen Mountain region of Joshua Tree National Park was utilized by the Serrano tribe. The densely vegetated mountain provided the Serrano with honey mesquite and piñon nuts, acorns, yucca roots, and cacti fruits. There was also an abundance of game, everything from big horn sheep, deer, and rabbit.

While I haven’t seen any proof of long-term habitation on the mountain, there are without a doubt dozens of temporary camps, and even spiritual and ritualistic locations. One of these such locations has been the focus of my two-year ongoing hunt. Many times over the course of this period I told myself to give up, yet in the back of my mind knew that I wasn’t far from finding it. I had meandered every wash, climbed up and down every dry fall, and rock fall – yet still couldn’t find this one particular site that I yearned so deeply to see. Then one day out of nowhere the location fell out of the sky and hit me square between the eyes.

I was no stranger to the area, I had walked right past it on at least two occasions, having been within 100 feet of what I would call the holy grail of Queen Mountain pictograph sites. The first time that I had been there, a mountain lion was perched above watching and pacing. Needless to say, I didn’t stick around long enough to investigate. The second time, I investigated some rock shelters on one side of the wash, not realizing that behind a line of pinyon pines on the opposite side was the rock shelter that I was so eager to find.

On the morning that I set off to finally see what I had looked for for two years, I had both feelings of excitement, and of sadness. It was an odd combination. I was excited because the two-year long search was coming to an end, and I was finally going to get to see it, and experience it first hand.  I was saddened for exactly the same reasons.

Four miles, two dry falls, some minor scrambling, and two hours after parking my vehicle at the base of the Queen, and I was there. The first of the boulders that I encountered on the hillside had a shallow concave, that at one time was covered in orange pigment. Much of that pigment has eroded away, leaving only the outline of whatever had once filled the rock canvas. On an eastern facing wall are two faded sun motifs. There was probably much more here at one time, but not any longer. Damn erosion.

 

Several faded pictographs are in the concave of this boulder.

Several faded pictographs are in the concave of this boulder.

 

Close-up of concave.

Close-up of concave.

 

I enhanced the orange on this image, to show some of the faded pigment in the concave.

I enhanced the orange on this image, to show some of the faded pigment in the concave.

 

Eastern facing sun motif.

Eastern facing sun motif.

 

The “holy grail” was near, just a stones throw away. I approached it with an unnerving caution, almost like a part of me would be lost upon first glance. As I turned the corner, the first thing that grabbed my attention was a small portable metate sitting on the ground in front of a blackened cave. The fact that this metate was well ground down indicated to me that this site had some long-term or rather extensive use. But what was it used for? Was it for food processing, or did it have ritualistic uses?

I glanced around, and everywhere that I could see was slathered in orange and red pictograph designs. A lot was going on here, busy lines, circles, shapes, both zoomorphic and anthropomorphic figures.  As I walked around the rock shelter I noticed pigment colors other than orange and red, there were designs painted in white, black, and even blue. Previous to this site, I had only  encountered blue pigment in the aptly named, Blue Sun Cave in Anza-Borrego Desert State Park. Blue is a rare sight to behold, the pigment comes from the rare mineral vivianite, and mostly likely would have been received in trade from tribes in either the San Diego or Death Valley regions.

 

The "holy grail" of rock shelters in Joshua Tree National Park.

The “holy grail” of rock shelters in Joshua Tree National Park.

 

A metate, and some other possible stone tools sit outside of a smoke soot covered cave.

A metate, and some other possible stone tools sit outside of a smoke soot covered cave.

 

A thick lined panel of pictographs, consisting of red, white, and blue pigments.

A thick lined panel of pictographs, consisting of red, white, and blue pigments.

 

A very busy panel of red, orange and white pictographs.

A very busy panel of red, orange and white pictographs.

 

The overhang above the shelter is slathered in faded, messy designs.

The overhang above the shelter is slathered in faded, messy designs.

 

Look closely and you'll see a sun, a lizard, and even a bird.

Look closely and you’ll see a sun, a lizard, and even a bird.

 

The longer that I stared at the highly decorated walls, I noticed some inconsistencies in what I was seeing. Methods appeared to vary between bold and slender lines, side by side designs were faded or brighter than others. There was definitely some long-term use of this rock shelter, quite possibly for hundreds of years. But what for, what was its significance?

I had yet to enter the small, blackened crawl space, saving it for last. I dropped to the ground, and pulled myself inside. The inside was heavily covered in smoke soot, with dozens of additional pictographs painted over top. One particular design was attention grabbing, that of a red diamond chain pattern. This red diamond chain pattern could very well tell the story of this rock shelter, and what went on here. This design is often associated with a female puberty ritual followed by the Serrano and other neighboring tribes, this diamond chain pattern is thought to represent rattlesnakes, the female spirit helper.

 

Inside of the soot covered crawl space.

Inside of the soot covered crawl space.

 

Diamond chain pattern in the lower right corner, a good indicator that this was utilized as a girl's puberty ritual site.

Diamond chain pattern in the lower right corner, a good indicator that this was utilized as a girl’s puberty ritual site.

 

Additional pictograph designs near the rear of the crawl space. There appears to be several anthropomorphic figures on this panel.

Additional pictograph designs near the rear of the crawl space. There appears to be several anthropomorphic figures on this panel.

 

A pottery sherd found near the rock shelter.

A pottery sherd found near the rock shelter.

 

Archaeologist, David S. Whitley wrote on the subject, “Other parts of the initiation rites involved isolation in a warmed pit for three days, thereby mimicking the ritual isolation and immobility practiced at childbirth; the ingestion of tobacco and resulting receipt of a supernatural vision; and apparently at the culmination of the initiation, the painting of the designs representing the spirit received during the girl’s altered state.”

At that moment, I was very well sitting inside of a womb shaped roasting pit. The designs around me, painted by young girls on their first spiritual vision quest. I couldn’t help but feel odd, and out-of-place. I exited the crawl space, walked to the outside of the shelter and made a cup of coffee. I sat there in silence for a good hour pondering this place that I had spent two years looking for, and then I walked away.

 

About the author

Jim Mattern

Jim is a scapegoat for the NPS, an author, adventurer, photographer, radio personality, guide, and location scout. His interests lie in Native American and cultural sites, ghost towns, mines, and natural wonders in the American Deserts.

  • pat

    Awesome! Casa Grande…
    Your perseverance paid off!

  • dzrtxplorer

    Great job finding probably my fav picto site in the park! Hope that you are also able to find the small rock art site hidden in the pines near Butcher’s Cave. It’s a site worth checking out too. Keep up the great work Jim.