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Drawn from Prehistory

Deep within Mexico's Baja peninsula, nomadic painters left behind the largest trove of ancient art in the Americas

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As I take in the mural, the INAH team has pulled out a digital camera, measuring tapes, notebooks and a GPS receiver (to fix a precise location and altitude). As the scientists work, Gutierrez points out the arrows, or flechas, that are drawn through the wings of the vultures and into the bighorn sheep. As the hunters pay homage to their prey across thousands of years, I ask Gutierrez, why here? Why not on the mirror-image respaldo on the canyon’s opposite side?


“At each site,” she answers, “one asks that question.” In certain cases, the choice of location seems obvious. “Some of these murals are near what were probably well-traveled trails, overlooking places where food and water could be found year-round.” Yet other cave paintings, she goes on, “exist up narrow, almost impassable box canyons. No one would go to those places unless they knew the paintings were already there.”


“That’s just one of the conundrums drawing me back here,” Crosby interjects. “Fundamentally, we’re asking ‘What were the artist’s motivations?’” He smiles and shrugs. “Be careful: you can spend a lifetime chasing that question.” That night, after 60 punishing minutes of driving up a dry riverbed to a wooded campsite deep inside the mountains, Gutierrez, Crosby, Steinmetz and I continue our speculations around a camp table over steaming bowls of beef stew. The paintings, Gutierrez says, exist inside a territory 300 miles north to south, and 25 miles east to west, within the perimeters of the peninsula’s mountain ranges.


Yet, while the murals are similar in size and overall technique, they also exhibit four distinct stylistic variations. In the north, throughout the Sierra de San Borja, they are monochromatic, realistic silhouettes of human figures, rendered in red. Moving south to the Sierra de Guadalupe—where we are now—the images take on new motifs, including the flechas we spied today. Here, the figures are ocher and white as well as red and black. They are often depicted wearing quirky headgear, spiky jester-like caps we can only assume had cultural or religious significance. And there are animals—bighorn sheep, for instance, and eagles. And sea creatures, from whales to manta rays.


Farther south, colored shading of figures, in crosshatched patterns, makes its appearance. Finally, in the southern foothills, the murals—while still large and well proportioned—evolve into blocks of textured color, highly abstract, barely recognizable as humans or animals.


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