Southern Utah is a museum of ancient human culture and artifacts. Rock art, arrowheads, cutting tools and pottery pieces are easily seen within the boundaries of our city of Saint George. Since I began guiding for Paragon Adventures in 2012, I have had the pleasure of taking people through some of the area’s most impressive sites. But who made them, and where did they go?
Who were they?
The names of most of these tribes are lost in time. They are not here today to tell us what they called themselves. Since archaeologists and historians cannot name them, they give names to cultural traits, like pottery/basket styles, or tool, shelter and clothing types. When consistent styles of artifacts are found and dated from a similar era and region, they give them a name but we cannot prove whether they considered themselves one tribe, or just had a lot in common with their neighbors. But they were not the only people who left traces of life in this region.
The dates are constantly debated, but humans have been in the Americas for as long as 12,000-20,000 years. These first people were believed to be mostly “hunter-gatherer” tribes who followed/hunted wild animals and harvested wild plants. This nomadic lifestyle makes it not worth the time to build a permanent home, since you may not live there very long, so fewer artifacts were left by them. There were a few different culture types among these first people, which are categorized mostly by their stone tools, which is nearly all that has survived the eons. Another group that hunted-and-gathered these lands were named by archaeologists the “Desert Archaic” people. Their traits were found as old as 7-10,000 B.C. and ended around 400 A.D. The most recognized natives to our area were the Ancestral Puebloan culture, once called the “Anasazi,” a name that is no longer used. These people are most well-known for their farming and rock-and-mud homes of the American Southwest. The Ancestral Puebloans settled southern Utah as early as 2,000 years ago and farmed corn, beans and squash along with many other crops. A few structures built by them are still visible in the area today but most have crumbled. One reason they are so well-recognized is for their mysterious disappearance around 1200-1300 A.D. This displacement of such a large group of people allowed the Paiute tribe to move into the area where they still live today. They were hunter-gatherers who also farmed a few foods: methods that are believed to have been learned from the Ancestral Puebloans. Their long-lived culture is the only one that we can be certain bares its true name, for they are alive to tell us themselves. Throughout these various waves of occupation, tons of evidence has been left behind and much of it survived to be found by modern Americans, thanks to the dry climate of southern Utah.
Perhaps the most abundant evidence left here by Native Americans are petroglyphs. This type of rock art was created here by many different cultures from chipping away the black varnish (called patina) that naturally forms on sandstone, revealing images in the underlying color. Some are so old that this patina has re-formed, making the symbols harder to notice, but just as impressive. Scientists are still trying to figure out how fast this patina forms on different stone in order to determine how long ago this art was made, based on how much patina has re-formed. Many areas where these can be viewed contain dozens of examples and some spots even contain thousands of petroglyphs.
Even more rare, but still visible, are pictographs. These images are actually painted on the rock. The paint was made by mixing blood, oils, and other organic fluids with colorful plants and minerals that were crushed and ground into powders. These organic materials can actually be dated and we are currently working on getting more information on the exact dates from our local BLM office. These are less commonly found due to the fact that rainfall washes them from the rocks and much of the local rock itself erodes quickly. They can be found in yellow, orange, red black, white and blue. Red is most common, and perhaps all colors were once made, but many of these have not survived the weather.
Rare Combinations of Both
Of all the rock art I have witnessed, from the California coast, to Moab, Utah, nothing is as unique as one site that we can actually guide you through. In an area we call “The Adventure” a small cave shelters dozens of beautiful pictographs from the rain. Among these perfectly preserved symbols are a few pictograph/petroglyph combinations, where a petroglyph was chipped away and then painted over with a pictograph. This is the first and only place my fellow-guides and I have ever seen this style of native art.
We would be happy to show you this cave, and many other sites. I will cheerfully show you pieces of pottery and cutting tool flakes all over the ground at some of these sites. Just remember: take only pictures and leave only footprints! Thanks.
Do not deface rock art in any way.
Do not move, or take any artifacts found at the sites (or anywhere!)
Do not touch the art or any artifact: The questions surrounding most rock art cannot be answered yet, but technology is catching up. If damaged or even touched too much, the future techniques that may tell us how long ago petroglyphs were carved may not even work. The oils from your skin can damage their ability to date that spot or artifact later.
Obey all other laws & regulations: Leave no trash at the sites, stick to the designated trails, etc.
Local Tip/Warning: Many sites, popular and obscure ones, are monitored by video and/or alarms. It’s true. We have seen them.
Please click the links to visit each site’s page, complete with descriptions and directions. Each site is highly recommended for native culture enthusiasts.
-David Ward, Paragon Adventures Guide