Monday, July 18, 2011

Archaic Texan Rock Art Reveals Prehistoric Culture

Thousands of years ago, Native American groups painted art under cliff overhangs along the Rio Grande. The arid climate preserved hundreds of these vivid pieces. Archaeologist Solveig Turpin discusses what the art reveals about changes in climate and the social structure of early Americans, and why it has become difficult to study.

The following is a transcript of the podcast. If you would like to listen or download the podcast, visit the site.

IRA FLATOW, host: You're listening to SCIENCE FRIDAY. I am Ira Flatow.

When you think of the Texas-Mexico border, you probably think about the desert, the border fence, immigration. But does art ever come to mind? Well, in today's debates about the border, you don't often hear about this. But the borderlands are a treasure trove of archaeological history. Along the Rio Grande, the river that separates Texas and Mexico, in hidden rock shelters, under cliff overhangs, you can find hundreds of mysterious drawings of humans and animals. The area has one of the highest concentrations of archaic rock art in all of North America. I bet you didn't know that.

But the people who painted them were not the tribes we think from the old Westerns and history class. They lived in the area long before the Comanches or the Apaches ever came through. The art is not hundreds, but thousands of years old. And my next guest says this is some of the oldest religious art in North America. And archaeologists on both sides of the border are studying these sites to piece together who created the art and why.

Let me introduce my guest. Dr. Solveig Turpin is a retired archaeologist who has studied the rock art in the region for decades. She's a former director of the Borderlands Archaeological Research Unit at the University of Texas at Austin. She's author of the book "The Indigenous Art of Coahuila," about rock art in Northern Mexico. She joins us here at the Witte Museum in San Antonio, which has a terrific collection of the artwork in the museum. If you're coming to San Antonio, stop at the Witte and take a look at it. Thank you for joining us.

Dr. SOLVEIG TURPIN: Thank you.

FLATOW: I don't think people have ever heard about this, outside of your work, you know?

TURPIN: Well, it's become more - better known over the years. About 20 years go, we had a world conference here at the Witte Museum, and people came from all over the world. And it provided the first exposure...


TURPIN: the greater world.

FLATOW: Well, I was up at the Witte in the second floor, and I invite everybody to go up there and take a look at it. And I was looking at the artwork, and it's hard to - as a layperson, I can't describe it. So how would you describe what the artwork looks like?

TURPIN: Well, there's various styles of artwork out there, which is one of our great boons, that we have a lot of rock art in a relatively contained area. And you can detect four prehistoric styles that are relatively stacked one upon each other, and then a historic one that comes after that, which is obvious, because of the European - in fact, longhorns, to get back to our subject...

FLATOW: The panels(ph) show up there.

TURPIN: Yes, yes.


TURPIN: They had a great fascination with domestic animals. And so the longhorn was perpetuated on rock shelter walls.

FLATOW: And, often, I noticed in the early style, they show a medicine man or a religious figure in there.

TURPIN: The focus of the earliest rock art - which we assume is between three to 4,000 years old - is a religious practitioner. And he's commonly called a shaman, and that's created great sturme und drang in the art world because there's arguments over whether it is or isn't. But for convenience sake, it's a central figure. He's endowed with animal attributes, and he's armed with weapons like spear throwers. It's a - he's in the process of becoming an animal, or the animal - acquiring animal attributes. And so he's an animistic figure.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. Some of these figures are on our website at, if you'd like to take a look at them before you get to the Witte. There's also what seems to be a crucifix, but it's not, is it, there?

TURPIN: No, it's not. It's the ascending figure, with his arms spread out in that classic pose that seems to denote a religious transformation for - in many religions outside of this. So when they're showing that, it's the human with his outspread arms.

FLATOW: Interesting. So when I looked through enough of them, some of those figures looked like they had, you know, fuzz on them like they might be - what do you call the cacti that grow with the arms...

TURPIN: Prickly pears?

FLATOW: No, the cacti with the arms on them.

TURPIN: Oh, saguaros.

FLATOW: Saguaros. Almost like that were incorporated into some of those figures.

TURPIN: But we don't have saguaro cactus.

FLATOW: Yeah. I think it looks like it could have been.

TURPIN: Actually, what that fuzz probably is is fur that's showing the animal transformation, because the human is growing. He's got panther ears. He'll have a tail, wings, feathers, fangs, claws. It's just showing that he is in that mid-zone between human and animal.

FLATOW: And how has the art survived for all these thousands of years there?

TURPIN: Well, it's got a great deal to do with the climate and the fact that they paint them in dry rock shelters, where they're sheltered by the curvature of the rock. But - this is a pretty obvious statement, but limestone is porous. And when the water seeps down and comes to the surface and evaporates, it leaves a film, and that film covers the pigment, and so it's actually preserved behind a cloudy film of mineral.

FLATOW: Oh, so we don't see that? We don't see that...

TURPIN: You will in a cross-section. We have cross-sectioned pieces and you can see.

FLATOW: Yeah. We have a gentleman in the audience who'd like to ask a question.

JAY BROWN: Yes. Thank you. I'm Jay Brown, and I live in Shiner, Texas. And I'm really interested in your topic. I'm wondering, have you found or are you aware of any other sites besides just the trans-Pecos area, the Big Bend area? Is there anything, like, maybe in central Texas or east Texas or north Texas, the rock part?

TURPIN: There's a few site in central Texas. There's hardly any in east Texas because the climate just isn't conducive to their preservation. There's quite a few in the panhandle, but most of those are petroglyphs as opposed to paintings. So there's a lot of rock art just outside the lower Pecos. There's a great enclave out around El Paso that you may know, Hueco Tanks State Park.

BROWN: Right, right. Sure, Sure. Right.

FLATOW: Well, thank you for that question.

BROWN: Yeah. Thank you.

FLATOW: The ones that were talking about on the Rio Grande, are these the same people, are they different people who migrated in and out to create the drawings?

TURPIN: They're sequences done by different people, and that what makes it such an interesting archeological problem because you can see the changes in world view. The early people are very ornate and decorative and religious and ritualistic, and the ones that follow are much more mundane. They're showing everyday life. And so you see that the object of the art was different.

FLATOW: Right. So, do we know what happened to these people (unintelligible)?

TURPIN: We have some pretty good ideas, if we look at a great climatic model that's been developed for the area, that there were movements of people in and out in front of different climatic waves. And they - people used to say, they disappeared as well. All of a sudden, these people just vanished.

FLATOW: Like the Anasazi.


FLATOW: They fled somewhere. We don't know where they went.

TURPIN: Yeah. But most of the time, I think that as the climate became drier, they moved south into Mexico. And, as it became more climate, they moved back north into Texas.

FLATOW: Very interesting. Yes, we have open microphones here in the audience if you'd like to come up and share your views about the art. Maybe you've seen it. Are these sites open to the public?

TURPIN: There are some sites that are open. There's Seminole Canyon State Historical Park. The Rock Art Foundation, which is based here in San Antonio, takes tours to various sites out there. And the Texas Parks and Wildlife is just now acquiring a lot of land on the Devils River that will be open for scheduled tours.

FLATOW: And do we know how they actually painted the stuff?

TURPIN: Oh, yeah.

FLATOW: Because some of them is pretty big, isn't it?

TURPIN: Yeah. We have a pretty - we have got shells that they use as a little palette that are stained with paint. We know they ground mineral paints to make the pigments. They're made of hematite, limonite. And we have brushes that have pigment on them that they used to apply it. Sometimes they finger-painted. You can tell the designs in the finger painting. Other times, they held it up and blew dry a pigment around it to make a negative image.

FLATOW: No kidding.

TURPIN: So they had a lot of ways of painting.

FLATOW: But, so they were having fun with this stuff. The serious shaman stuff, some of it was interesting, experimental stuff.

TURPIN: Well, I think it was an information system, not unlike radio or television or newspapers are today. So, yeah, it had an entertainment quality to it.

FLATOW: Is there any evidence that kids were doing any of this stuff?

TURPIN: No, I don't believe so. I think it was much more of a - even though some it looks rather humorous to us, I don't think it was - they considered it funny.

FLATOW: Interesting. Yes, sir.

CHRISTOPHER BROWN: Hi. Christopher Brown, San Antonio. You mentioned about migratory patterns and possible relationships, and I was wondering if we could take that a step further. Did these people associate or become or live at the same time as, say, Mayans and Aztecs or other Indian tribes in Mexico and Central and South America?

TURPIN: Well, they were definitely contemporaneous with the forerunners, of course, of it, but direct contact is probably not the answer to the similarities between the styles. I mean, people see similarities between the emphasis on, perhaps, a feline character, and that'll appear in Olmec art and it'll appear in the art of Chavin in Peru, just like it appears on the Lower Pecos. But these are the outpourings of a basic religious system, and they don't necessarily mean that there was any kind of contact between the people.

BROWN: Okay. Thank you.

FLATOW: And how widespread along the river would this be?

TURPIN: It runs about 90 miles.

FLATOW: 90 miles. Could there be other undiscovered places that...

TURPIN: I don't think so. It's been pretty intensive on the north side of the river. On the south side of the river in Mexico, yes, there's hundreds of sites that haven't been recorded over there.

FLATOW: Because?

TURPIN: The terrain is extremely difficult. There aren't roads. You can't do your normal walk around looking for them. So most of what we know has been reported to us by cavers, ranchers, cowboys, people that have a familiarity with the land.

FLATOW: And I'm sure they're afraid to go to these places because of the violence in the regions there now.

TURPIN: Well, everything that we did that's reported, we did during a time when there was still easy access or relatively easy access. Research now has come to a complete halt. Nobody is brave enough or foolish enough...

FLATOW: Really?

TURPIN: go over there. So there is no work going on at all in the north of Mexico.

FLATOW: Wow. So, there's all this stuff waiting to be discovered that no one can get to.

TURPIN: Yes. And then there are difficulties, too, now with the Homeland Security approaches because you can't just go over there. You have to have a passport. For a Mexican student to come to the United States, they have to have a passport. So there's a lot of bureaucratic paperwork that's now put between it and the research itself.

FLATOW: It wasn't like the old days.

TURPIN: No. Never is, is it?

FLATOW: No. Long pause. Yes, ma'am?

NANCY: I'm Nancy from San Antonio. And I wish you would tell about how in more modern times, fast forwarding, a local photographer was hunting and discovered the rock art. And I was wondering if before that time, the rock art was known to anyone but the property owners?

TURPIN: Yes. It began actually being publicized in the 1930s. There was a super draftsperson, Forrest Kirkland, who took upon himself the task of recording all the rock art in Texas. And his work was published in increments and finally in a book by the University of Texas Press. And then there was another book in 1938 called "The Rock Art" or the "Picture-Writing of Texas Indians." So it's out there, but it didn't really hit the newsstands, so to speak...

FLATOW: Right.

TURPIN: ...until Forrest Kirkland and Bill Newcomb put out "The Rock Art of Texas Indians" in 1967.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. As I say, you can see a slideshow of a lot of his art work on our website at This is SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR, talking with Dr. Solveig Turpin, who is a retired archaeologist and author of "The Indigenous Art of Coahuila." I'm pronouncing that correctly...

TURPIN: Mm-hmm.

FLATOW: ...I hope, because I never get any name right. So it wouldn't be a gift if I got your name right here in this program. And it's rock art in northern Mexico. And it's quite interesting - can you give us an idea what it's like to be an archaeologist out there? What, you know, I hear stories of other archaeologists, and it's almost like you got to be nuts to go out into the badlands here.

TURPIN: Well, yeah. You probably might say eccentric.

FLATOW: OK. I give you eccentric.

TURPIN: Eccentric.


TURPIN: It's a very liberating thing.

FLATOW: Liberating. It sounds like...

TURPIN: Yeah. There is very little contact with, quote, "civilization," at least in those days, and you'd go camp out, so you had all the things that people like to do on vacation. Let's go camping at the park. That was what we did in our work. So we were having our vacation while we were working.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. And is it basically on your back looking around, digging up? I mean, or do you have to open up caves, boulders, push them aside? How do you get into these things?

TURPIN: A lot - it's a lot of climbing.


TURPIN: An awful lot of climbing because that rock shelter will be up there and somebody will see it and say, oh, look over there. And you'll go, oh no.

FLATOW: No, you look over there.



TURPIN: You go up there and holler if there's anything.

FLATOW: And take this stick to get those mosquitoes or whatever...

TURPIN: And some of the pictures that are on exhibit upstairs here in the Witte Museum were gotten in Mexico with tremendous burdens, hauled up hills for Jim Zintgraff, who was the Witte photographer at the time. And he loved old equipment, heavy old tripods, none of this...

FLATOW: He had to take them with him.

TURPIN: Yeah, flash bulbs. And so all of this would be in a pack and be carried up there so he could take his pictures.

FLATOW: Right. Thought he was Ansel Adams...


FLATOW: Yes. One quick question here. Hello. I was wondering when one group would leave and another group would come, would they, like, incorporate what was previously drawn and sort of add to it or they just do away and say our style is better, so we're just going to draw something over your art?

TURPIN: In the beginning with the very ornate art that is so impressive, I mean, the figures can be 12 feet tall and reach 18 feet off the ceiling. They're monumental, and they're impressive. And rarely did anybody who came after that do anything to damage them. It was though they were created by the ancients, and we're going to revere them. But they did sometimes use them as a background. And it's almost comical because they will - you will have a, quote, "shaman" figure with a hollow body and inside it will be six little dancers.

It won't have damaged the older painting, but it will have used it as a framing mechanism. But the later style - also, there is a great deal of scraping off of paint pigment from a lot of these. And it isn't necessarily vandalism because they would take this paint and mix it into their puberty ceremonies and to drinks and things to gain the power of the ancestor.

FLATOW: Wow. Wow. Thank you very much for sharing this with us. And as I say, it's right here in the Witte. If you want to go up to the second floor and see this great exhibit over the artwork that they have collected over the years, you're more than welcome to do that. Dr. Solveig Turpin is the former director of the Borderlands Archaeological Research Unit at the University of Texas at Austin. Thank you again.

TURPIN: Thank you.

FLATOW: Yeah. And as I say, go to our website and see a slideshow of the photo of the rock art until you can get here to the Witte.

2011. "Archaic Texan Rock Art Reveals Prehistoric Culture". NPR. Posted: July 8, 2011. Available online:

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