This summer I have found myself venturing out of the desert and into the mountains in search of cooler temperatures and new things to see. Don’t worry, I’ll be back in the deserts as soon as the monsoonal moisture high tails it out of there. It is only fitting that I take my love and passion for Native American rock art to the mountains, and the Los Padres National Forest has plenty of it to see. Much like our desert rock art sites, the forest sites are equally if not more fiercely protected by their “keepers,” making it difficult to track down their whereabouts.
The Chumash have inhabited these lands for over 13,000 years, from what is now San Luis Obispo, Santa Barbara, Ventura and Los Angeles counties, extending from Morro Bay in the north to Malibu in the south. They also occupied three of the Channel Islands: Santa Cruz, Santa Rosa and San Miguel. At the tribes height, their population was in the tens of thousands, reaching out over seven thousand miles.
Unlike the Mojave Desert tribes that I usually focus on, the Chumash had an abundance of natural resources from both the land and the sea. Fish from the ocean, deer and other game from the mountains. Their villages and way of life were far advanced compared to the Kawaiisu, Mojave, Serrano, and other desert tribes. The Chumash were master boat craftsman, and they built large dome-shaped homes made of willow branches and whale bones. Up to fifty people could call one of these buildings home.
In the mountains the Chumash would find caves and use them for sacred religious ceremonies. These ceremonies included painting designs on the inside of the cave walls. Today we call these pictographs. Like their desert neighbors, the earliest Chumash used charcoal to create these designs, and later evolved to using colored pigments made from various colors of ochre. One distinct characteristic of Chumash designs is their use of dots around some of their designs to make them stand out.
Today there is still a Chumash population of around five thousand, a far cry from the tens of thousands that there once was. For the Chumash, the Spanish Mission system of the 1700 and 1800s with their indoctrination into the Christian faith is what hurt their culture and way of life, nearly erasing it.
On this particular trip to the Los Padres National Forest, I had the pleasure of visiting two separate Chumash pictograph sites. The first is located in a rock outcropping on a flat, the nearest community of size is Ojai, a two-hour drive southwest. Without a doubt in my mind, this site will go down in history as one of my favorites. The outcropping measures roughly 60 x 40 yards, and contains a number of small caves and wind/water eroded holes or tunnels. Inside there are many elaborate pictograph designs.
The largest cave in the outcropping contains dozens of fine lined designs, likely painted using a brush of either human hair or feathers. The most intriguing panel is painted over the soot covered rear portion of the cave, a birthing scene complete with mother, baby, umbilical cord, as well as several figures that appear to be in celebration. Was this possibly a birthing cave? Other elements in this cave might suggest otherwise, appearing to have nothing to do with birthing, like the amazing image of a California Condor. The floor of the cave has several large mortars, and small cupules ground into it, there is also enough red/orange pigment on the floor, suggesting that at one time it too was painted.
There are several other panels ranging from a couple of designs, to several dozen throughout the outcropping. I am in no way an expert on these designs, and I try to take them at face value. I will allow the photographs, and designs to speak for themselves.
The second site that I visited has been dubbed “Skull Rock,” because of its skull like shape. “Skull Rock” is located nearly three miles west of the flats along Piru Creek. It is a much smaller site, containing only a single panel under a stone overhang. The elements are very interesting however, and contain several colors. The most interesting being a large anthropomorph (human figure) painted in yellow, a very rare color to see. Other designs including several sun shapes that also incorporate the yellow paint, along with red/orange.
Overall, I’m very impressed with the rock art of the Chumash, and I’m well aware that I haven’t even scratched the surface of what there is to find.