Carolyn Boyd guides her pickup down a cliffside trail overlooking Dead Mans Pass, a limestone canyon cut deep into the backcountry of southwest Texas. A ring of black vultures circles overhead. Boyd slows the truck and scans the canyon for what has drawn their interest. On top of a boulder, splayed out like a ritual sacrifice, is a half-eaten goat carcass. “Mountain lion,” she says.
The region known as the Lower Pecos is an arid 21,000-square-mile expanse of southwest Texas and northern Mexico surrounding the confluence of the Pecos River and the Rio Grande. The land is barbed with cacti, teeming with rattlesnakes, and riven with impassable canyons. But more than 4,000 years ago, these barrens were home to a flourishing culture of hunter-gatherers, creators of some of the world’s most complex and beautiful prehistoric rock art. The literal meaning of those paintings had been dismissed as an unsolvable mystery—until recently.
Boyd parks at the bottom of the canyon. In her early fifties, with high cheekbones and dark hair pulled back under a hat, she is both elegant and hardy, like a pioneer woman from a classic Western. She sets a brisk pace up the side of the canyon. Her destination is Delicado Shelter, one of some 300 shallow caves in the region known for paintings of human figures, deer, canines, felines, birds, rabbits, snakes, and other desert animals. Boyd, an archaeologist and director of SHUMLA (Studying Human Use of Materials, Land, and Art), an education and research center in Comstock, Texas, will spend the afternoon scouring the shelter for insight into the ancient residents and their spiritual world.
Through decades of dogged work, Boyd has also developed a system to understand this enigmatic art. Working like a detective, she discovered a symbolic code that reveals narratives in the paintings, which she believes can be read, almost like an ancient language. Just as finding the Rosetta stone in Egypt enabled linguists to decipher ancient hieroglyphs, these paintings help unlock the secrets of a majestic religious system that blanketed Mesoamerica nearly four millennia before the arrival of Columbus. Boyd has discovered that myths and rituals similar to those written in the rocks have survived in the Huichol, a modern tribe now living in the mountains of western Mexico, and in other cultures throughout Mexico and the American Southwest.
Genies on the Wall
When Boyd first visited the Lower Pecos more than 20 years ago, she had no intention of becoming an archaeologist. At the time, she was an artist living in Old Town Spring, Texas, with her four-year-old son, Jeff, making a small living selling watercolors out of a local gallery. But when she gazed up at the paintings on the shelter walls, she was stunned. The largest of the 4,000-year-old murals stretched over 200 feet, containing hundreds of red, yellow, black, and white images. Gigantic human figures swooped on the walls overhead like genies escaping from magic lamps. Some wore fabulous headdresses or gripped scepterlike objects; others appeared to be half animal, with wings or antlers. There were felines with bristling fur, deer with delicate antlers, canines with tiny teeth. The largest figures reached up 30 feet; creating them would have required enormous scaffoldings and incalculable hours with crude brushes and mineral paints. The paint had faded, but Boyd could imagine walking through the canyons when the walls had been ablaze with color.
She scoured libraries for books on the rock art. Archaeologists, she read, believed the paintings were related to shamanism, the common religious practice among tribes in the region. The shaman was a tribe’s liaison with the spirit world. During rituals, he would fast, dance, or eat hallucinogenic plants to induce an out-of-body trance in which he would travel into the otherworld. There, he fought off demons or consulted the spirits of the ancestors before regaining consciousness and relating his experiences to the rest of the tribe.
Researchers suspected that the paintings conveyed some aspect of the shamanic ritual, but most thought the rock art would never be truly understood. Archaeologists usually learn about prehistoric art from the ancient artists’ descendants, who continue the traditions of their ancestors. But in the Lower Pecos, those who created the paintings had vanished. No one knew why they left or where they went, making it impossible to identify their descendants. “Any attempt at interpretation can only be speculative,” Boyd read in Texas A&M archaeologist Harry Shafer’s book Ancient Texans. “The meanings are lost when a culture comes to an end.”