Petroglyphs Galore

What is a petroglyph? According to Wikipedia, they are images created by removing part of a rock surface by incising, picking, carving, or abrading as a form of rock art. Petroglyphs are found worldwide, and are often associated with prehistoric peoples. Outside North America, scholars often use terms such as “carving”, “engraving”, or other descriptions of the technique to refer to such images.

I have seen petroglyphs in at many locations, including Panama, Peru, Azerbaijan, Colorado, New Mexico, and Hawaii. What strikes me is the similarity of the subjects of the pictures as well as the renditions. While these art pictures have been carved into rock by different ancient civilizations at disparate times and locations around the world, they seem, paradoxically, to have all been done by the same artist. This has led to many science fiction writers to say that they are the work of visitors from another galaxy in ancient times. But, more level-headed thinking is that they are independent renditions of things that are of universal importance. The similarities are the result of the limited tools available to earlier civilizations for producing this unique artwork.

What also amazes me is that these rock carvings have survived so long. Many of them are alongside riverbanks where I would expect moisture to erode the carvings over time. Many are found in dry desert climates where the sun should bake the images away over centuries. Yet these petroglyphs have survived for longer than we have written language.

Petroglyph National Monument is a U.S. National Park that is jointly administered by the City of Albuquerque in New Mexico. Located on foothills of a chain of dormant volcanoes known as the West Mesa outside Albuquerque, the park provides a variety of hiking opportunities to see many of the petroglyphs scattered throughout its 7,236 acres.

Common themes for the petroglyphs are stick figures of humans, humans with bow and arrow, animals, images of the sun, images of gods, hand prints, footprints, and geometrical patterns. In Petroglyph National Park, many of the images are in white, which makes it even more curious as to how the white coloring has survived moisture and heat.

An easily accessible portion of the park is known as Piedras Marcadas Canyon (“canyon of marked rocks”). This area alone contains 5,000 or more of the park’s total of 20,000 petroglyphs.

Scientists date the petroglyphs in the park to be between 400 and 700 years old. Archaeologists believe that ancient indigenous peoples would travel large distances to this area which is thought to have served as a sanctuary, many of paintings considered sacred. Scholars are still trying to figure out the significance of many of the drawings. Some believe that may be an ancient form of preservation of history. The true meaning of the petroglyphs here and elsewhere, however, remains one of the remaining mysteries of the world, ample fodder for a Ph.D. study.

Similar petroglyphs carved by early Polynesian settlers of Hawaii can be seen at Kaloko-Hanokohau National Historical Park on the Big Island of Hawaii, just south of the Kona airport. Here the petroglyphs are known by their Hawaiian name, ki’i pohaku, but again the themes of the petroglyphs are similar even though they were certainly created by people that had no way of knowing the inhabitants near New Mexico. Here some of the petroglyphs are of more recent date, as the Hawaiian Islands remained untamed and primitive until late into the nineteenth century when Europeans arrived. Some of the petroglyphs even display European guns. The Hawaiian petroglyphs, like the ones near Albuquerque, are also carved in volcanic stones from the lava flows that created the Hawaiian Islands. The national park here is on the beach. Besides petroglyphs, you can see exhibits of how seafaring Hawaiians lived. But, again, it is astonishing that the petroglyphs survived many documented tsunamis and severe storms that have hammered this coastline over the centuries.