According to the U.S. Forest Service, there are at least 2,400 rock art sites in the Los Padres National Forest, spanning a rugged wilderness of sandstone canyons and outcroppings, meadows and mountaintops. The colorful and spiritual rock art of the Chumash Indians — scattered and hidden throughout 2 million acres of the forest — is some of the most unique in North America. These hidden troves of rock art are full of stories.
During the summers of 2006 and 2007, fires burned through the Los Padres, scorching old-growth chaparral that was more than 100 years old. The fires exposed old trails that led to long-hidden rock art sites, allowing the Forest Service to get to and catalog additional sites.
“We haven’t got back to all of it,” said Joan Brandoff-Kerr, an archaeologist with the Los Padres National Forest since 2001. “A lot of our trained stewards are going out there to look for sites and record them.”
The Chumash used natural pigments from resources found throughout the region to create three dominant colors in their rock art paintings. White paint came from ground seashells or diatomaceous earth. Black paint came from charcoal, burned graphite, asphaltum or oxidized ore, and red paint was produced from hematite, another oxidized ore.
The paint was applied to a canvas of sandstone to create murals depicting various aspects of the Chumash culture. Adelina Alva Padilla, a Chumash spiritual leader, says most sites are probably the work of shamans. Some sites have played a role in personal spirituality, their abstract images guided by the artist’s inner vision of the spirit world. Other images in Chumash murals include many animals found in the forest and are thought to represent the vices and virtues of man.
Everything from bears, snakes and dolphins to California condors and ticks can be found in Chumash rock art.
Throughout the centuries, the condor was one of the most revered creatures in the Chumash culture. Its size and place in the natural world is depicted on sandstone throughout the forest. Today they still worship this endangered species, performing ceremonies at their releases into the wild following captive breeding.
“The condor is the cleaner of the wilderness,” said Padilla. “The condor feathers are used for healing and draw out what [toxins] people have inside.”
Rock art symbols illuminate an invisible world inhabited by spiritual forces. Large areas were used to perform rituals, relay stories and legends and practice the living traditions of public life. Brandoff-Kerr said that Native Americans viewed the world through a lens of nature.
“Everything is alive, including the rocks,” she said. “It’s a world view of everything having a spirit. It’s people’s interpretation about what some of these figures are in rock art.”
According to Brandoff-Kerr, many of the sites are prehistoric, possibly thousands of years old, and many of the old trails now exposed were used by the Chumash. She said there was a higher population in the area during the prehistoric period with major villages scattered throughout the forest, and those villages contained anywhere from 50 to 200 people.
The old routes were discontinued in the 17th and 18th centuries once the Chumash were forced into the Spanish mission system during Europe’s western expansion. For so long the chaparral provided protection for the rock art, but now the Forest Service has the opportunity to record more sites.
None of the backcountry sites are shown on the Los Padres National Forest map. Yet, if a hiker comes across a major site, there are iron boxes containing information on the site and a notebook to sign in. Technically the sites are open to the public, but the exact locations of a majority of them are kept confidential, and for good reason.
“People have actually chipped off rock art,” said Brandoff-Kerr.
Paintings are damaged by scraping, chiseling and shooting away, but looters and vandals aren’t the only threats to rock art. Sandstone surfaces breathe, sweat and change with the seasons. Wind, fire, dust and water gradually eat away at exposed art. Animals rub up against it, causing the art to crumble and flake. Tree roots grow into them, birds and insects make nests in sites, lichen and moss can both have a damaging effect.
Brandoff-Kerr tries to educate hikers and backpackers to observe rock art sites from a safe distance. Some paintings that were visible just 10 years ago have disappeared without a trace. She says one person can cause more damage in a single day than centuries of natural erosion. Even body heat and sweat, along with the dust kicked up by hikers, can damage the ancient art.
“Cool off before you approach a site,” explained Brandoff-Kerr. “Take your backpack off so you don’t swing around and hit the sandstone. Don’t touch the art. There are bacteria and oils on your hands. All of that contributes to accelerating toward the deterioration.”
Camp fires and lighted candles are out of the question too, she says, so bring a flashlight and don’t camp in the caves. Brandoff-Kerr encourages hikers to respect the rock art sites for what they are; “An archaeological site is a nonrenewable resource,” says Brandoff-Kerr. “It contains not only information about human history, but contains environmental information, too. As archaeologists we’re retrieving and analyzing data on what plants and animals were there, and climate information comes from flora and fauna as well.”