Rock art in the American southwest is plentiful. Painted on or pecked into sandstone cliff walls are countless anthropomorphs, spirals, kokopellis, handprints, animals — notably bighorn sheep and snakes — and geometric shapes. It fascinates; the powerful connection across the centuries is what keeps me searching for rock art. I want to ‘meet’ new artists in each location.
The small town of Bluff, Utah, boasts an impressive panel along the San Juan River at Sand Island, which Chris and I carefully explored last week. The weak October sunlight bounced off hundreds of deep yellow cottonwood trees in the floodplain as we worked our way along the wall of Navajo sandstone, perusing image after image. Some we could relate to; others were mysterious. It was splendid.
Our rock art lives were about to change, however.
Acting on a tip from a local, we proceeded upriver to a location previously overgrown by thick stands of invasive tamarisk, recently cut down. There it was: the image of a bison. It evoked the long linear bison images in the French caves — stylistically ancient, powerful. We could tell only that it was OLD.
And then, just to its left, a mammoth outline started to come into focus. Mammoth with tusks, mammoth that last roamed the area 10,800 years ago. Paleolithic art. Binoculars up, the panel unfolded before us. Far different from everything else we had seen in that location, or any location. 11,000 to 13,000 years old.
We’ve seen large mammals in rock art before — elk, cougar, bear — but mammoths are altogether rare, with forgeries among them. This one, apparently, is the real McCoy. My camera couldn’t capture much of the deeply weathered images, but click on this link to the scientific paper about this panel. Skim the text; study the excellent photos. Judge for yourself whether this is truly a mammoth.
Flickers swooped from tree to tree, leading us back to the car. I walked in silence, thinking of the other puzzling petroglyph I’ve seen: the one that looks exactly like a long-necked dinosaur with wings at Natural Bridges National Monument. If ancient humans documented local mammoths, couldn’t they also document local dragons?