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Mark James Miller: Chumash rock and cave art: What were they saying?
Central Coast: Past, Present, Future

Mark James Miller: Chumash rock and cave art: What were they saying?

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It may be as many as a thousand years ago when people living along our Central Coast ventured into caves or made their way to remote, hard-to-get-to places. Once there, they used paint made from minerals in the soil and brushes made from plants to create brightly colored pictures of people, animals, circles, and other shapes and forms whose meaning escapes us.

What did these figures represent? Who painted them, and what were they trying to say? The artwork left behind on the walls and ceilings of caverns the world over has long tantalized humankind, and that of the Chumash is no exception.

The Chumash arrived on the Central Coast somewhere between 14,000 and 11,000 years ago. They lived in separate communities from Malibu to Morro Bay along the coast, and inland as far as the California Valley. They are known for their intricately made baskets and advanced watercraft. But it is for their artwork, left behind in places as remote as Burro Flats in eastern Ventura County to the Painted Rock on the Carrizo Plain. One of the best known of these sites is The Painted Cave, located five miles north of Santa Barbara, off Highway 154 in the Santa Ynez Mountains.

A locked iron door bars the entrance to the cave, protecting it from vandalism, but the bars are wide enough for you to see inside if you have a flashlight: A mother and child stand beside what may be a representation of a solar eclipse. A circle with a cross inside it. All drawn in vivid colors.

But what do they stand for? Ever since Marcelino de Sautuola’s daughter looked at the ceiling of the Cave of Altamira in Northern Spain in 1868 and beheld a painting of a great bison, what the people of the past left in the recesses of the earth and on the faces of cliffs and rocks have both puzzled and intrigued us.

Cave paintings are found on every continent. Why did our ancestors go deep into caves and having only the light from animal fat to see with, draw detailed pictures of animals and people? “Painting is a sophisticated art,” wrote historian Will Durant, “presuming many centuries of mental and technical development.” A professional artist named Bill Edge writes, “I can assure you that to draw animals accurately, from memory alone … is unbelievably difficult. To add to the fact that they painted these true masterpieces in dark caves lit only by the flickering light of a torch or candle, with a limited palette of locally found pigments, is simply mind-blowing.”

This brings us back to the question of why these images were made. There is no agreement on what the figures in the Chumash cave (or any of the others found worldwide) mean. Art historian Helen Tye Talkin of Allan Hancock College, says “The consensus of opinion is that they went into caves inside the earth for some kind of ceremonial/spiritual reason.”

For the Chumash, one plausible theory holds that their rock and cave art was made by tribal shamans while under the influence of a powerful hallucinogen brewed from jimson weed. Caves were thought to be portals to the spirit world, so the shamans ventured into them and drew what they saw while their minds were in this altered state.

“Art speaks where words are unable to explain,” is a quote that is especially appropriate here. The Chumash, through their art, speak to us across time. Hopefully someday we will know what they, as well as the people who left behind other, similar forms of art, were trying to tell us as well.

Mark James Miller is an Associate English Instructor at Allan Hancock College and President of the Part-Time Faculty Association. He can be reached at


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