ANCIENT PETROGLYPH MAKERS OF THE NORTHERN SIERRA

by Bill Drake
c2000 Bill Drake (This article may not be reproduced without permission of the author)

When most people think of petroglyphs (images carved on stone), they think of the Southwest. Not many people realize that northern California has numerous petroglyph sites, many believed to be several thousand years old.

Archaeological evidence suggests that most of the rock art in this region was created by people who were part of what is called the Martis Complex. Their name comes from Martis Creek, near Truckee, California, where their artifacts were first found. It would not be technically correct to refer to these people as a tribe or as the "Martis Indians," since they tended to travel in loose-knit groups without the characteristics of a tribe.

The Martis people are identified by certain traits, including the preference for basalt for their stone tools and the use of mortars and pestals. They hunted with spears and atlatls. The atlatl came to America over 10,000 years ago. This ingenious tool was in use before the invention of the bow and arrow. It consisted of a stick with a crook on the end which was used to propell a spear-like dart with considerable force. The dart traveled as fast as 100 miles per hour.

These prehistoric people were what archaeologists call "hunters and gatherers." Tahoe National Forest archaeologist Hank Meals has pointed out the inadequacy of this term, since it can connote human beings of questionable intelligence who wander around the land eating berries and killing game. "Hunters and gatherers" were very intelligent and highly adaptable people who knew far more about their environment, including the use of plants, and the behavior of animals, than people in our modern world will ever know.

The Martis spent their summers at higher elevations in the Sierra and their winters in the lower elevations, and they reoccupied winter villages and base camps over long periods of time. Their artifacts have been found in western Nevada (including the land around Carson City and Reno) and in northern California (Plumas, Sierra, Nevada, Placer, and El Dorado Counties). They inhabited this region from 3,000 BC to 500 AD, sharing the land with eagles, big horn sheep, grizzly bears, rattlesnakes, mountain lions, and other creatures that most of us today have little or no contact with.

Most of the rock art designs in this area of California are abstract. The images include circles, spirals, wavy lines, sun-like designs, serpent-like images, and figures resembling bear and deer tracks. Hard stones were used to peck out the shape of the images. A lighter color just beneath the surface of the rock often helped the forms stand out.

The rock art is frequently found in locations that afforded a view of the surrounding mountains and valleys, places that allowed the Indians to observe game or other Indians from a distance, and that were of great scenic beauty. Horizontal or gently sloping bedrock was preferred for the designs, unlike the vertical surfaces most often used in the Southwest. No pictographs, or images painted on rock, have been found in our area.

It is not possible to know what the individual images meant to the ancient petroglyph makers, even in the case of the few designs that we can make some association with, such as images of "rattlesnakes" and "deer tracks." Since the Indians saw a world that was permeated by Spirit, everything they did, including creating rock art, probably had some sort of spiritual meaning or relationship.

The overall purpose of the northern Sierra's ancient rock art is also a mystery. Archaeologists believe that most cultures that created rock art did so for a variety of reasons, such as to create hunting magic (to have success in hunting); define territory; record events and stories; depict family and clan totems; monitor the position of the sun or other heavenly bodies; and create images related to spiritual life or shamanic activity.

People who study rock art believe that it was created for a purpose and was not the result of random "doodling." It also was not created as "art" per se. In fact, the term "rock art" is very inadequate. As author Malcolm Margolin has pointed out, native people tended to do everything with a sense of "art," even when making baskets for cooking or arrows for hunting. In general, they did not have a separate area of their life that was "art" and therefore totally different from other areas, just as they did not segment only a part of their life as pertaining to the spiritual realms.

It is not clear why the Martis disappeared some fifteen hundred years ago. Some archaeologists believe that they concentrated their population to the eastern end of their earlier territory, near the Reno and Carson City areas, and became the ancestors of the Washo Indians. This may have happened due to climatic changes and other factors, possibly including the influx of the Maidu, who some archaeologists believe came to this region from the Columbia Plateau area around 500 AD. Other archaeologists believe that the Martis became the ancestors of the Maidu, Washo and Miwok Indians.

The Maidu developed several technological advantages, which allowed them to survive in an area that might have become inhospitable for the Martis. The Maidu formed villages, from which they sent people out to collect food and other resources. They began utilizing the bow and arrow around 500AD and permanent bedrock mortars for grinding acorns around 1,200 AD.

They also made petroglyphs, but they created much fewer sites, and their style differed from the earlier inhabitants of the land. Their territory extended from about the Sacramento River east to the crest of the Sierra Nevada, and from near Sacramento and the Cosumnes River north to near Mt. Lassen, Sussanville and Honey Lake.

Although there are over one hundred petroglyph sites that are believed to have been made by the Martis people, archaeologists keep their locations confidential. At a number of these sites, contemporary names and initials have been carved in the rock right next to, or on top of, designs that probably pre-date the Egyptian pyramids. At some sites, pieces of rock with ancient images have been stolen from petroglyph panels. Removed forever from their original environments, they are placed in people's homes and gardens to serve the purpose of ego gratification.

It is an unfortunate fact that increased visitation to rock art locations almost always relates to increased vandalism.

About the Author:

Bill Drake lives in Nevada City, California. He has been interested in Native Americans for over thrity-five years, since he was eighteen. In the 1970s he taught high school classes related to Native American history, culture, politics, and spirituality. He is a co-founder of Friends of Sierra Rock Art.

Bill Drake can be reached through the FSRA PO Box or FSRA email

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