Meanings and explanations

Archaeologists are unable to explain the meanings of individual rock art motifs and designs and have instead tried to explain the general social contexts that rock art was used in. Over the years a consensus has developed that rock art was part of prehistoric ceremonialism and functioned as a cultural symbolism that expressed important sociocultural principles and values.


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Long description

The earliest general explanation of Nevada rock art was that it was made in sympathetic magic rituals, where prehistoric artists sought to exert magical control over the subjects depicted in the art. It was argued that the generally harsh environment of the Desert West would have prompted hunter-forager populations to seek magical assistance to secure their economic survival. Rock art would have functioned to increase the number of game animals, aid in their hunting, and ensure that other critical resources were abundant in the environment. Rock art found in association with hunting features (e.g., blinds or projectile points), or along game trails, or at good locations for ambush sites was seen as evidence of hunting magic rituals. Similarly, bighorn sheep, deer, and other animals portrayed in rock art were seen as depictions of desired game animals.

More recently Nevada rock art has been suggested to have been made and used by ceremonial specialists (shamans) to record significant trance experiences, to acquire supernatural powers, and express cross-cultural shamanistic themes. Mental imagery (entoptic phenomena) experienced in shamanistic trance states is suggested to resemble geometric design types in rock art, while naturalistic portrayals of animals and humans are viewed as expressing shamanistic themes. For example, animal motifs are argued to portray shamanic spirit-helpers through whom shamans received their powers, and hunting scenes are explained as metaphors of entering trance states as cross-culturally shamans describe entering a trance state as “like dying.” Rock art sites that played shamanistic functions are assumed to be specialized in their distribution, located away from settlement sites and areas visited for acquiring resources, situated in hard-to-reach secluded places that are private in setting (e.g., small caves and rock shelters).

Many rock art sites are found in association with the remains of residential and economic activities, rather than being found predominantly at hunting locales or places that match the physical landscape characteristics of shamanistic sites. Milling equipment, lithics scatters, rock rings, middens, and pottery are variously found at rock art sites in Nevada, indicating that rock art often occurs in or near residential areas, resource procurement places, and along routes. It seems that much rock art was encountered by a broad cross-section of society, rather than restricted to hunters or shamans. As the relationship between rock art and the settled landscape becomes better understood, it will be possible to outline how rock art was used in daily social life. Rock art is a symbolic resource that people would have referenced in interpreting the theories of being that structured social life and explained the natural environment.

Although rock art is a prominent form of prehistoric archaeology it only makes up a small portion of the known archaeological record for the state. It is specialized in its distribution in the sense that only some settlement areas or hunting locales have rock art associated with them. What made these places and their activities different from the residues of settlement and economic practices that do not have rock art? Is it possible to identify stylistic and thematic variation in rock art that is associated with different archaeological site types and landscape contexts? These questions can only be answered by future research as, even today, much of Nevada’s rock art record remains poorly described and its attributes not well-known. Nevada’s rock art sites were culturally meaningful places in prehistoric and ethnohistoric social landscapes that can contribute insights into the influence of social and symbolic practices in settlement and economic patterns in the past.
Traditional doctors or other specialists who use their masterery of spirits or supernatural entities for a range of social purposes, such as healing or finding lost objects.
Visual percepts experienced independent of an external light source.