Cerro Chino Petroglyphs

2005–2006

Hidden away in a remote and rugged area of the western Chinati Mountains in Presidio County is a newly discovered, prehistoric rock art site that promises to add significantly to our rock art database for the Big Bend. The CBBS was informed of the existence of the site by the landowner, who arranged a preliminary visit to the site by CBBS director Robert Mallouf in 2000.

Impressed with the need to formally document the site and its rock art, the CBBS scheduled a recording project for the fall of 2001. In October, Mallouf and a crew of seven anthropology students and CBBS personnel camped near the site and conducted a five-day investigation that included instrument mapping of the overall site and exact recording of most of the site's rock art.

The Cerro Chino site consists of a grouping of large tuffaceous sandstone boulders-some the size of automobiles-at the base of a low ridge that overlooks an extensive arroyo system. The boulders originated as part of a sandstone rim rock forming the top of the ridgeline, the edge of which was slowly undercut and fractured by erosion, eventually breaking away in the form of massive boulders that tumbled down the slope. Several of the smooth-faced boulders came to rest in essentially vertical positions that ultimately provided prehistoric hunters and gatherers with impressive rock canvasses on which to produce their art.

PetroglyphsWith the exception of two snake-like figures, all of the art found at the site is in the form of abstract petroglyphs made by pecking, abrading, and scratching designs into the boulder faces. The term "art" in this case may be somewhat of a misnomer in that the most common motif at the site are groups of two to six simple, parallel, abraded lines arranged vertically or in slightly oblique configurations.

Other motifs include rows of dots, possible stylized bear paws, simple circles and circles with central dots, horseshoe-like figures, and a few cupule-like depressions. The largest of the decorated boulders exhibits what appears to be two stylistically, and possibly temporally distinctive episodes of carving-a lower panel consisting primarily of abraded lines, and an upper panel containing most of the remaining design elements.

The petroglyphs at the Cerro Chino site are highly weathered, either the result of great age and exposure, or the susceptibility of the boulder faces (softness of the rock) to erosion.

PetroglyphsRock art researchers around the world tend to agree that non-representational (abstract) forms of petroglyphs are probably of greater age than succeeding kinds of art that instead emphasize stylized animal, plant, and human (anthropomorphic) figures (e.g., Schaafsma 1980). The Cerro Chino examples are probably at least of Late Archaic age, dating somewhere in the range of 1000 B.C. to as late as A.D. 1000, but they could be much older. Stylistically similar forms of abstract carvings are found in many parts of the world, including Australia, South Africa, and other areas of North America.

Although occuring throughout most of the Trans-Pecos region, only a few petroglyph sites have been discovered along or in areas within a few miles of the Rio Grande in Presidio and Brewster counties. While Big Bend Ranch State Park is known to contain many rock art sites, virtually all are pictograph (paintings) rather than petroglyph sites. Two exceptions are the Bravo Bluff site found on Alamito Creek, which is distinquished from Cerro Chino by representational and anthropomorphic rather than abstract motifs, and Abraded Rockshelter, a rockshelter with numerous abraded, parallel lines much like those of Cerro Chino (Mallouf 1993).

PetroglyphsOther documented petroglyph sites include Indian Head, near Study Butte, and farther down the Rio Grande in the Lower Canyons, Site M-128, which has a series of pecked dart points amid anthropomorphs, animal figures, and abstract forms (Mallouf and Tunnell 1977). Much closer to Cerro Chino and upstream on the Rio Grande is the only other recorded petroglyph site in the area-consisting of only a few abstract carvings on a bluff above the river (Carpenter 2001).

At this early stage of analysis, the Cerro Chino site appears significant because of several factors. It is the only known petroglyph site in the immediate area of the western Chinati Mountains, and it contains a number of carved motifs not found in other known petroglyph sites of the general region.

Its location along a significant tributary of the Rio Grande, coupled with a very distinctive and picturesque setting, suggests a possible ritualistic significance to the hunters and gatherers responsible for the art.

It is hoped that efforts can be directed toward locating additional area rock art sites in the near future.

— Robert J. Mallouf

References Cited

Carpenter, Steve
2001 -Archeological Reconnaissance of Eight Permanent School Fund Lands in Western Presidio County, Texas. Archeological Survey Report 99-0005. Texas General Land Office, Austin.

Mallouf, Robert J.
1993 - Archaeology in the Cienega Mountains of Presidio County, Texas. The Artifact 31(1):1-44. El Paso Archaeological Society.

Mallouf, Robert J., and Curtis Tunnell
1977 - An Archeological Reconnaissance in the Lower Canyons of the Rio Grande. Office of the State Archeologist Survey Report 22. Texas Historical Commission, Austin.

Schaafsma, Polly
1980 - Indian Rock Art of the Southwest. University of New Mexico Press, Albuquerque.

from La Vista de la Frontera 15(1):8-9.