FIRST THERE IS THE LAND ITSELF, WITH ITS menacing sweep and its rolling thunder of names—Big Satan Canyon, Devils River, Dead Man’s Canyon, Frightful Cave, Mystic Shelter, Sorcerer’s Cave. Then there is the malice of nature, where rattlesnakes wind through the dust and needle-sharp spines turn every shrub and strand of greenery into a particular torment: catclaw, horse crippler, Spanish bayonet, crucifixion thorn. And finally there is the lingering presence of death—the carrion birds circling aimlessly over the canyon rim, the skeleton of a sheep whitening at a water hole. To the early Spanish settlers, who came to dread this desolate sweep, the lower Pecos River was part of the great despoblado, the uninhabited zone. To those who passed through later, it was an earthly vision of hell.
I have come to this southern edge of Texas to see great galleries of art painted on cliff and cave walls more than three thousand years ago. Strewn liberally throughout a maze of canyons along the northeastern end of the Chihuahuan Desert, the strange murals teeming with birds, panthers, snakes, and shamans constitute a little-known treasure, one of North America’s oldest, largest, and most important collections of ritual art. To track down and record the long-lost masterpieces, rock art expert Solveig Turpin and a small ragtag crew of graduate students and friends have spent more than a decade combing this thorny wilderness. Giving up weekends and holidays to crawl across sheer mountain ledges and drop down stygian sinkholes, they are racing against time to photograph and record the fragile murals before they fade from sight.
Relegated to the fringes of archaeological research, where amateurs and hobbyists generally roam, rock art seldom attracts serious professional attention. But Turpin, the headstrong director of the Borderlands Archeological Research Unit of the Institute of Latin American Studies at the University of Texas at Austin, is accustomed to breaking her own trails. Convinced that the isolated paintings offer clues to a powerful ancient religion that once blanketed the New World, she has taken on the research as a personal labor of love.
This week, she and longtime colleague Jim Zintgraff, a rock art photographer from San Antonio, have set aside field time to take me and two visiting researchers to see half a dozen of the finest galleries. On a gentle March evening there are nine of us camped along the rocky brim of the Pecos River canyon, our tents flapping gently in the breeze. Below us, unseen in the folds of limestone, the Pecos rolls on silently to the Rio Grande, just a mile or so away. In the distance, the mountains of Mexico rise above the horizon like a band of smoky gray onyx. As we sit companionably around the campfire, watching darkness fall, the conversation turns to the ancient paintings. In the flickering firelight, Turpin, a forthright woman in her late fifties with long graying hair, recalls how she once vowed to turn away from the temptation to interpret the puzzling figures. “They tease me a lot about that now, the guys,” she admits, her husky voice edged with laughter. “I said I wasn’t going to deal with it, it’s too fantastic, and I’m a scientist.”
But how could she resist? For decades archaeologists have yearned to see into the minds and mysterious inner lives of the early people who called North America home. The passage of time and the relentless processes of decay, however, have greatly hindered such studies; little now attests to the spiritual and intellectual lives of ancient hunters and gatherers. After centuries of exposure, delicate ceremonial offerings, musical instruments, and ritual robes have crumbled to dust. And songs, dances, and mythologies have vanished into the thin, unforgiving air. Only scattered panels of rock art, long dismissed by most professional researchers as indecipherable and undatable, hint at a richer life.
Now the doors of perception are slowly opening. By scraping tiny traces of paint from caves along the confluence of the Rio Grande and Pecos and Devils rivers, popularly known as the Lower Pecos region, physicists have dated the earliest style of art to some 3,000 to 4,200 years ago. And by gleaning clues from ethnographic studies of disparate modern and historic cultures, Turpin and her colleagues have finally begun cracking the millennia-old codes of metaphor and symbol. The earliest panels, Turpin and her colleagues now suggest, were painted by ancient shamans—a mystical elite who served their followers by journeying to the otherworld to battle and commune with supernatural forces. To transcend the world of the flesh, they likely collected and consumed the world’s oldest known hallucinogens, and in altered states of consciousness, they wrestled with gods and spirits, conceiving strange visions that they later recorded on rocky walls.
EAGER FOR A GLIMPSE INTO THESE MYSTERIES, I brace myself the next morning as we bounce over the water on the way to Panther Cave, spray lashing against the hull of our flat-bottom boat. Ahead of us, like a muddy brown highway, the Rio Grande flows cool and inviting past canyon walls stacked with brilliant green cacti and brazen scarlet flowers. Pushing back the hood of her cherry-red poncho, Turpin scours the upper cliffs for familiar landmarks, clearly in her element. She points out a side canyon that protects an endangered species of pistachio, and she relates the short disastrous history of ranching in the region. “You know what they say about sheep in this country,” she concludes with an ironic grin. “They’re born looking for a place to die.”
Turpin first arrived in the Lower Pecos in the late seventies, a recently divorced mother of five and a doctoral student in anthropology at UT. She had been hired to help map archaeological sites along the fence line of the newly created Seminole Canyon State Historical Park, 48 miles northwest of Del Rio, just off U.S. 90. For one born and bred in Minnesota, the Lower Pecos was an alien world, but she was determined to learn. Thrashing through the spiny brush