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 and cooling off fully clothed in the local sheep troughs, she and fellow team members tracked down 48 new rock art sites over the next two years in Seminole Canyon—doubling the previously known number. It was a testament to their tenacity, but it worried Turpin no end. “This was the area that had been the most studied in the whole Lower Pecos. So if this was the case here, what must it be like where nobody’s been?”

Striking out on her own, Turpin began wringing reluctant permission from ranchers to search for sites on private lands. And as she clambered up and down rugged cliffs from Ozona in the north to Melchor Múzquiz, Coahuila, Mexico, in the south, she developed an enduring appreciation for those who had gone before. Along the deeply entrenched rivers, small bands of hunters and gatherers had once hooked catfish and gar. Roaming the floodplains and uplands, they had speared and snared whatever game they could, from rabbits and snakes to rock squirrels and deer. And in the shady rock shelters, they had roasted the starchy bulbs of desert plants such as lechuguilla and sotol.

But they had more on their minds than the material world, says Turpin, pointing to a shadowy grotto in the east wall of the canyon. As the boat nudges up to the shoreline below Panther Cave, I spy the unmistakable lines of its namesake—the nine-foot-long cougar leaping along the back wall. Painted blood-red and frozen forever in a lethal pounce, the giant cougar, or panther as it is known in local parlance, still blazes across the rocky canvas after thousands of years. “I think there are six different panther figures in there,” says Turpin, stopping to admire the great cat from the shore, “but of course, he’s the winner.”

Scrambling up the path, I follow Turpin as she darts through a small door in the wire fence that protects the paintings from vandals. Under the tawny overhang of rock, we crane our necks as we stare up at the wild profusion of figures sprawling over more than five hundred square feet of the wall. Giant black, rust-red, and orangy-yellow human forms loom high above our heads, following the sweeping curve of rock like living things. Painted one on top of another, they rise, collide, and evaporate into their neighbors—the arm of one blends into the staff of another. Lighter than air, one small human figure levitates up the wall, his long hair standing on end. Nearby, a grotesque crablike creature scuttles through the ether, while a herd of deer succumbs to hunters’ spears. Like other murals painted in what has come to be known as the Pecos River style, this faded wall of color resists snap interpretations. With its competing flocks of figures, its alien shapes and bizarre radiating lines, it overwhelms the eye. And as researchers have long known, there are no local oral traditions to help unlock the meaning: By the end of the sixteenth century, all the native residents of the Lower Pecos had been wiped out by disease and warfare.

By examining the figures carefully, however, Turpin and others have detected clear rules governing their portrayal. As she studies the wall, she explains that the giant elongated human figures always occupy the most prominent positions in the panels, their arms extended wide and their faces blank and featureless. Waving weapons such as spears and clubs, they dangle strange prickly ornaments from their arms and wrists. “You know that it’s a pattern that has some meaning because it’s so repetitive,” says Turpin, “repetition being the mode of communication and ritual.”

But what kind of ritual was it? During the late sixties, Texan anthropologist William Newcomb theorized that the central human figures were shamans engaged in ritual dances of an ancient mescal-bean cult. Commonly known as mescal beans, the scarlet-colored seeds from Texas mountain laurel contained a poison that rendered the cultists unconscious. Upon awakening, they told of powerful visions. Perhaps, Newcomb suggested, the panels depicted sacred dances of the mescal-bean shamans. The seeds seem to have been well known to the people of the Lower Pecos: Excavators unearthed dozens of samples in painted caves of the region.

Turpin was intrigued by Newcomb’s theory. For years researchers believed that shamanism had arrived in North America with the first migrants, but little was known about its early practice on the continent. To test the idea, she began immersing herself in the scientific literature on the religion. Among modern shamanistic cultures from Siberia to Chile, she discovered, people told of a time long ago when the earthly and the spirit worlds had been one. At some point, however, the two realms had splintered apart, and humankind had lost its ability to commune with gods and supernatural beings. Only a chosen few, the shamans, were still capable of crossing the great divide between the worlds: Their method of transport was the trance. Forsaking their earthbound bodies in an induced state of rapture, they called on the help of certain guardian animals and embarked on the perilous voyage to the otherworld. There they confronted deities and waged supernatural battles in order to see into the past, divine the future, cure illness, and escort the souls of the dead to their final home. “I like to call them supramen,” says Turpin, “because they were over everything, by the very fact they could die and be reborn.”

Had the Lower Pecos artists represented these beliefs in their art? Turpin began poring over the patterns of painted figures for clues. Throughout the region, she noticed, only one form ever approached the human figures in size or prominence—the cougar. At Panther Cave and elsewhere, Lower Pecos artists had endowed certain human figures with distinctive cougar attributes—claws, alert cat-ears, and striped underbellies. Perhaps the artists were portraying shamans in the act of shape-shifting—assuming the protective form of a guardian animal for the dangerous passage to the otherworld. “This is the shaman who transforms into the largest and most powerful animal here,” says Turpin, pointing up at the tall, rust-red figure of the panther shaman.

Such beliefs, she adds, were common among shamanistic cultures. In Europe, the ancient notion of shape-shifting had given birth to legends of werewolves; in Africa, it spawned tales of were-crocodiles. Throughout most of Central and South America, however, it had nurtured beliefs in were-jaguars. Among the Campa of Peru, people described the stealth of human jaguars who prowled the forests at night in search of prey. In the Mexican highlands, people talked of similar creatures who stalked the darkness in feline form. And among certain Mayan groups, these beliefs became so deeply engrained that the word “balam” served for both “jaguar” and “sorcerer.”

Dodging hostile forces, which were often represented in the rock art by a rain of spears, the shamans described their entrance to the sacred realm through a small circular portal. “See that hole over there?” Turpin asks, walking to the back wall of Panther Cave and pointing at a large painted red dot. “See the circle with the lines coming out and the bird rising out of that? That’s what I think is the hole of the universe, the portal to the divine.” Recent psychological studies, moreover, suggest that such an image stems directly from human neural wiring. When entering deep drug-induced trances, subjects of experiments consistently report the sensation of being drawn through a deep hole.

Indeed, a belief in sacred portals may help explain why ancient artists chose these cave walls as their canvases. More than places of shelter, these dark grottoes may have become entrances to the spirit world. To illustrate the point, Turpin tells a story as we climb into the boat and head back up the Rio Grande. Some years ago, she and a small team began excavations in a dark, bell jar-shaped sinkhole near the rim of Seminole Canyon. Descending the narrow vertical shaft by ladder, the team reached a large subterranean chamber whose floor was littered with splinters of human bone. As the excavations proceeded, many of Turpin’s colleagues concluded that the hole had been used as a hasty dumping ground for the dead. “Everybody went, ‘Oh, look, they just threw ’em away down the hole,’” she says.

But Turpin saw another interpretation of the sinkhole. With its vertical shaft belling into a large subterranean chamber, the sinkhole may have come to symbolize both the earthen birth canal and the passage to the otherworld. Four thousand years ago and more, grieving relatives had carried their infant and elderly dead to the underground chamber, sliding them gently down the chute to return them to the darkened realm from which they had come. “It was just a perfect symbolic rebirth,” Turpin says finally, shaking her head at the memory. “It’s that same old mythical portal to the earth.”

TUCKING AWAY PIPE AND TOBACCO, rock art photographer Jim Zintgraff leads the way down the snaking path to the White Shaman site, alert to the slightest sound. A small, wiry man in suspenders, a neatly pressed white shirt, and canvas pants, the white-haired photographer looks more like a kindly pastor leading a church picnic than a man packing a pistol. But Zintgraff is nothing if not full of surprises. The grandson of a Texas Ranger, the courtly San Antonio resident has come well prepared to blast the trail’s resident rattlesnakes to kingdom come.

Zintgraff doesn’t take kindly to intruders in these parts. Since finding and recording the White Shaman site more than thirty years ago, he has taken up its protection with true missionary zeal. (White Shaman is on the Pecos, half a mile above the confluence with the Rio Grande. The site belongs to the Rock Art Foundation, a San Antonio—based group dedicated to the preservation of the paintings.) Persuading a local businessman to purchase the property for the Rock Art Foundation, he has succeeded admirably. As we reach the painted overhang without so much as glimpsing a rattler, Zintgraff strides up to the panels with quiet reverence. In front of him, the white shaman shimmers, headless and ascendant, against the golden rock. Nearby, a huge painted larval monster wriggles up the back wall, while a flock of elongated humans wafts in the cosmic breeze.

As I stand back staring, trying to take in its meaning, I wonder about the state of mind that conceived such unearthly images. Among some North American cultures, shamans regularly sought union with the spirit world by methods as diverse as dancing, fasting, and bloodletting. But here in the Lower Pecos, they took a more direct route. According to Carolyn Boyd, a graduate student at Texas A&M University, the mystic artists of these canyons likely conceived many of their visions after consuming potent hallucinogenic plants. “I do think that what they painted are experiences they had under the influence of these plants,” says Boyd.

An artist, muralist, and archaeologist, Boyd began looking into the subject five years ago while analyzing the Pecos River style of art and reading published studies of tribal groups in northern Mexico and the American Southwest. As she was sketching the mural at the White Shaman site one day, her attention was suddenly transfixed by the small reddened figure of a human with deerlike antlers tipped by black dots. The image resonated strongly with something she’d read. “I said wait a minute—the black dots on the antler tines, where have I heard about that before?” Turning it over in her mind, she remembered reading of an ancient divinity, part human and part deer, revered by the Huichol people of Mexico. Often called the peyote tribe, the Huichol had long resisted Christianity, holding true to their shamanic traditions. Living on small ranches along the slopes of the Sierra Madre Occidental, the Huichol still spoke of an ancestral homeland in the Chihuahuan Desert. Even today, Huichol shamans lead a pilgrimage there in the fall to collect a small, carrot-shaped cactus: the powerful hallucinogen peyote. According to tribal tradition, peyote is a sacred plant that was first carried to earth on the tines of a deergod. To honor this divinity, pilgrims fasten some of the cacti to deer antlers carried along on the quest.

Had the people of the Lower Pecos subscribed to similar beliefs nearly 4,200 years ago? Certainly the artists had painted antlered human forms repeatedly on their rock shelter walls. And archaeological evidence suggested they knew peyote well. While excavating a series of high painted caves overlooking the Rio Grande in 1933, researchers from the Witte Museum had unearthed paraphernalia similar to that employed in modern peyote rituals. More intriguing still, along the sandy floors they had also found remnants of buttons of peyote, which grows only in isolated spots in the region. When radiocarbon-dated recently, two of these specimens proved to be 7,000 years old—the oldest peyote associated with human use in the world.

“I said, ‘Okay, that’s interesting, but it’s still not enough proof,’” Boyd recalls. Digging further into published accounts of today’s peyote pilgrimages, she began turning up a remarkable series of parallels to the images recorded at the White Shaman site. For example, to symbolize a spirit of unity before they set out, Huichol shamans instruct the pilgrims to grasp part of a long cactus-fiber cord; the cord is then scorched by fire. With ritual purification complete, the pilgrims then depart their village in single file, each carrying a lighted candle. On the White Shaman mural, five large, equally spaced humans hold fiery torches in both hands—each linked by a serpentine white cord darkened at one end. “It was just incredible,” Boyd says, “because it was one thing after another that started revealing itself.”

In considering the evidence she now suggests that specific physiological effects of peyote may have profoundly shaped both religious belief and art. Those consuming peyote, she notes, are often seized by an initial sense of physical and mental exhilaration. Among some native cultures in Mexico, runners eat peyote to increase their speed and boost their endurance during footraces. On occasion, witnesses of some modern rites have described participants’ “jumping like deer” after swallowing the plant. Such athleticism on the part of an ancient shaman, says Boyd, could have inspired belief in a divinity half-deer and half-human. As intoxication from the plant deepens, subjects report their first swirling hallucinations. The plant, laced with alkaloids, including mescaline, triggers visions both nightmarish and beautiful and fosters a strong sense of disembodiment. Among the mystics of the Lower Pecos, such powerful visions were likely painted hours or days after the trances had ended, when hand-eye coordination had returned.

In Boyd’s view the peyote murals of the region stand as the world’s oldest known record of hallucinogen-inspired altered states. “It’s the first evidence we have visually, it’s in the sediments and pulled together through ethnography, to say, yes, four thousand years ago, people were using hallucinogenic plants,” she notes. But as her research proceeds, she is rapidly amassing evidence of other equally potent plants. “I think we’re going to find a great many more through the rock art—not just hallucinogens, but medicinal plants that were very much a part of ritual.” Painted long before the invention of paper in the New World, these enigmatic panels serve much like the later hand-painted codices of Mesoamerica, recording tribal mythology, sacred ritual, and spiritual vision.

IN THE SILENCE OF THE MORNING, about twenty miles west of the White Shaman site, I pick my way down the rubble-littered wall of Rattlesnake Canyon, trying not to think about the heat. (Rattlesnake Canyon is west of Langtry on the Rio Grande. It is on private property owned by Texas Tech University and accessible by arrangement through the Rock Art Foundation.) The sun has already developed a hard, steely gleam; the air hardly moves. “It’s the worst kind of sky,” Zintgraff says, mopping his forehead as he rests at the side of the trail. Sweat trickles down my back. In the canyon below, Turpin and two others disappear into a towering thicket of desert willow, crashing against trunks and snapping slender branches. I follow, welcoming the shade. Along the muddy ground, javelina skulls whiten in the cool quiet.

Rising twenty feet or so in the air, the willows wall out the world, reducing our vision to a green tunnel. Emerging at last, I straighten and stare in amazement. Along the canyon floor lie small pools of clear green water, like something from a classical Chinese garden. High along the rim, slender canes of ocotillo, each tipped with a brilliant crimson bloom, bend in greeting. Below, on scattered ledges, prickly pear cacti cascade like giant green water drops, and claret-cup cacti brim with ruby flowers. “They’re like little hanging gardens,” Turpin says, gazing up at them with a smile.

Turning, she leads the way to a shady painted wall, and as I stand before scenes of soaring humans aloft in rapture, I feel a sudden, unexpected kinship to these ancient artists. Once they walked this narrow canyon, reveling in its secret harmonies of water and shade. Alive to its beauty, they returned here time and again, choosing this rugged wall for their unearthly visions. In the shady cool of the morning, I am reluctant to leave this corner of paradise. Caught in the same spell, Turpin leads us to a small alcove farther up the canyon. Along a broad shelf of white rock, we stretch out in silence along the cool rock, staring up at the sky. In the far distance, a canyon wren sings, its sweetness echoing along the towering walls. Turpin looks over and says, “Maybe this is what they mean by ‘the unbearable lightness of being.’”

For more information, call Seminole Canyon State Historical Park (915-292-4464) or the Rock Art Foundation (888-525-9907).