Amazing Kids! Magazine

California Native American Rock Art

By Ryan Traynor, age 11, California

California Native Americans are people that came across the Bering Strait from Russia to Alaska 20,000 – 35,000 years ago. Almost all Native Americans had straight black hair and dark brown eyes. They spoke different languages and had no written language. They lived in triblets of up to 250 people. Their village groups were smaller, with 20 – 100 villagers. In their homes they usually had 5-10 people that guarded their land. Water was important. They had many beliefs. Scientists dig up artifacts so they can find out about them. All artifacts are interesting, especially rock art. Studying rock art tells a great deal about the life of California Native Americans.

California Native Americans made beautiful rock art throughout many regions. There are three types of rock art: geoglyphs, pictographs, and petroglyphs. Geoglyphs are symbols in, or on the ground using light and dark pebbles or rocks piled in lines. Pictographs are cave or shelter paintings. Petroglyphs are designs carved into rock. All these types of rock art were created by the Native Americans from 500 BC to today. They used hard, smooth rock in a protected, durable place. They created abstract scenes showing animals, people, nature, plants and spirits. These beautiful, complicated works of art create a swirl of images as you imagine their meaning. We do not completely understand them today. They used a universal language that contained many symbols. Rock art was used in religious ceremonies, healings, and in general communication. It was also used to note a vision, mark a sacred place, record history, mark a trail, or note a prayer. I will discuss the different ways rock art was used in the southern area with the Chumash, the Colorado area with the Yuma and the eastern area with the Shoshone. We will be looking at three tribes to see the many differences between them.

First, there are a large number of unique things about how the Chumash of the southern region made and used rock art. The southern Chumash had interesting and beautiful cave art.


Cave paintings are called pictographs. The paint is made mostly from minerals. Red is made from iron oxide, white is gypsum or diatomaceous earth, and black is charcoal or manganese oxide. They used a binder, such as water or animal fat, to hold the paint together. It looks like chalk when it dries. Unlike the other areas, painted caves made by the Chumash were 1,000 years old or less. Many paintings overlaid each other so we can’t tell the age for sure. Another difference is that instead of using rocks to create a pattern or carve a design they painted on cave walls and in sheltered areas. They used animal tails or fingers for brushes. One area where pictographs exist is Santa Barbara. They are always in extremely sheltered areas like caves. The special thing about the Chumash’s use of cave art is that they were used to honor the sun and the moon. Painted caves, or pictographs, were similar to the petroglyphs of the Shoshone in the eastern region in a few ways: they marked a Shaman’s vision after he smoked jimson weeds, the painted caves were used in puberty ceremonies, and they used the art to mark a sacred place or trail. They also used them to record history or pray to spirits. The wild Shaman, crazy from smoking jimson weed, would quickly pace the cave with paint in hand to capture the vision offered by the gods as he prayed for a good hunt. The Colorado River Yuma tribe did not use geoglyphs for these purposes. Let’s look now at how the Yuma tribe of the Colorado River region is different.

The Colorado River tribes were different in many ways. First, they made geoglyphs as rock art. Geoglyphs are symbols made in, or on the ground using light and dark pebbles to create a design.



They also can be made by piling rocks in lines. They were made along the Colorado River. Their special thing is that they show their belief of the creation story. They also show their ideas of the universe and their gods. This was their way of passing their ideas down to future generations. Different from the Chumash’s painted caves, the geoglyphs are thought to be from 500 BC to now. This is the same as the petroglyphs from the Shoshone of the eastern region. There are differences with the Shoshone of the eastern region as well.

The eastern region had the Shoshone tribe creating petroglyphs rather than geoglyphs. They had several other differences that made this area special. For instance, the petroglyphs were made by chipping away the large outer layer to leave an imprint. They used a strong rock and hammerstone to do this.

They are not the pit and groove type of petroglyphs of the northern areas, but they are abstract and real mixed. Although petroglyphs are found in all parts of California, the Shoshone tribe has them in the eastern area of California in China Lake and Red Rock. They began in this area and spread north. They sometimes used mazes to confuse spirits. Unlike the Colorado River Yuma tribe, petroglyphs were used to mark a Shaman’s vision, conduct ceremonies, mark trails, or a sacred place, record history or pray to the spirits. This is similar to the pictographs in the southern region. However, the Shoshone also used petroglyphs in hunting magic. Petroglyphs were important to the Shoshone. We can now discuss how rock art was important to all Native American people.

Rock art was very important to the Native American people and was key to their spirit world. They spoke with the gods. They used rock art in their ceremonies. They used it for guidance in their lives and to show the meaning of their visions. It was their way of telling others their beliefs. If they did not have rock art, many Native Americans would not have been able to spread their beliefs. By studying rock art, I learned that the Native Americans used ceremonies for many things. Rock art was their universal language that shows a very spiritual people. They could communicate to each other through these images. They are still speaking to us today. I believe that rock art is an interesting artifact to study because you can learn much about the California Native American’s spiritual and ceremonial life.


  1. lizbeth /

    i like the native american´s drawings .

  2. Paul Aldredge /

    Articles are quite interesting. I really do love the effort you put forth in your research and writings however, as it is obvious you have spent a lot of time doing it. The articles are very well written and I am positive all the information is correct, especially in the fact you make the distinction of activities and physical characteristics and refuse to simply clump all Native Americans into a singular group!! Thank you for your efforts. You are so very bright and intelligent and I wish you the very best!!