Styles and themes

Nevada’s rock art shows the different choices artists made in themes and subjects depicted, and how these subjects were portrayed. Across the state, abstract motifs that are highly ambiguous in meanings and references were, throughout time, the most abundant motif types portrayed. The themes and subjects of prehistoric Nevada rock art are generally not directly apparent to external observers—the art may have portrayed important social and religious themes, or significant scenes from everyday life, but it does this in ways that, without insider commentary, we cannot apprehend. This may have been a meaningful, deliberate choice on the part of Nevada’s prehistoric artists; by choosing ambiguity, prehistoric artists would have made information about rock art's meanings the subject of a special knowledge. This highlights that rock art’s symbolism was culturally significant and mostly not intended to simply depict events in daily life.

Identifying regional and chronological differences in rock art styles may allow archaeologists to identify differences in cultural uses and cultural affiliation. The broad cultural context of Nevada is generally a long continuum of hunter-forager groups practicing varying economic and settlement systems, punctuated in eastern and southern Nevada by a period of semi-sedentary horticulture. Stylistically distinctive portrayals of the human form (anthropomorphs) and animals (zoomorphs) appear to accompany these changes in economic and settlement practices in southern and eastern Nevada. Similarly, archaeologists have attempted to find whether rock art can be related to changes in hunter-forager practices.


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Long description

Curvilinear and rectilinear motif types are the two most common abstract styles and are widely distributed throughout the Great Basin culture area. The curvilinear style is characterized by its emphasis on curved lines and forms, such as circular motifs (circles, concentric circles, connected circles, dots, “starbursts,” etc.), wavy lines, and meanders. The rectilinear style is composed of straight lines, angular designs, and perpendicular forms, such as grids, rectangles, squares, triangles, lines, cross-hatching, rakes, etc.  Both, rectilinear and curvilinear styles co-occur at Nevada rock art sites and were made as petroglyphs (pecked, engraved, abraded, and scratched) and as pictographs. These two styles always accompany other rock art styles in the region and appear to have been made from 10,000 BP until contact with Euroamericans). These styles are strongly associated with Archaic hunter-forager cultures in the Desert West but are also present in styles associated with Fremont and Puebloan groups, though not as visually prominent to external observers.

Less common are schematic and naturalistic depictions that sufficiently resemble real-world objects that their references can be identified. Designs that apparently were intended to represent humans (anthropomorphs), animals (zoomorphs), tools, weapons, and hunting scenes have particular resonance for contemporary observers as the “meaning” of this class of rock art motifs can, at one level, be inferred from simply identifying their subject and themes. Most common are humans portrayed as stick-figures and bighorn sheep depicted with curved horns. These are sometimes combined as hunting scenes where a human bearing a bow and arrow is placed beside a bighorn sheep motif. Interestingly, hunting scenes where atlatls are portrayed are virtually unknown in Nevada and very rare in general. Atlatls, when they are portrayed with anthropomorphs, are usually shown being held but not being used. In a few cases rock art depicted dart points—a very rare example of the portrayal of items of material culture that can be identified.

Bighorn sheep are by far the most common animal species depicted in Nevada rock art. The distribution of bighorn sheep motifs is more pronounced in eastern and southern Nevada and, although present throughout the state, seems less common at sites in the north and the west. Other animals portrayed in rock art include deer, elk, lizards, coyotes, and mountain lions. The prominence of bighorn sheep in rock art perhaps attests to this animal’s symbolic importance in prehistoric cultural thought as it was not a staple of the prehistoric diet. Small mammals (rabbits, marmots, ground squirrels, etc.), were probably more important sources of meat and deer and antelope were also hunted. Plants, which at all times, made up the bulk of prehistoric diets, are very rarely identified in Nevada rock art.

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Some stylized depictions of the human form are found that that are regionally restricted in distribution and are formally distinct styles of anthropomorphs. In southern and eastern Nevada these are associated with archaeological remains of Fremont and Ancestral Puebloan cultures (ca. 1500-800 BP)—semi-horticultural cultures with variable reliance on harvesting of wild plants and animals. The rock art of these cultures portrayed the human form variously as hourglass shapes, rectangular shapes, or as triangular bodies lacking legs. Often these forms have bodily adornment (headgear, “horns,” or jewelry), or internal decoration that might represent clothing.

Uncertain in its age and cultural affiliations is the Pahranagat anthropomorph style, which is only found in the Pahranagat Valley area of southeastern Nevada. Traditionally the style is dated to the late Middle and early Late Archaic based on associated archaeological remains and the fact that some figures wield atlatls. This style comprises two distinct types of anthropomorphs. One is a rectangular form internally decorated with grids, dots, or geometric motifs, “fringed” by short vertical lines. It often lacks a head but has stick-figure legs and short arms sometimes bearing an atlatl-like object. The second type has a solid-pecked ovoid or rectangular body, large eyes (indicated by using negative space), and a line protruding from its head; their arms are portrayed downturned and with long fingers.

One distinctive abstract style of rock art is found in southern Nevada, distributed along the Colorado River drainage south of Las Vegas Valley and into the Arizona Strip, and extending westwards into the eastern Mojave Desert. Known as the Grapevine Canyon Style, it is composed of symmetrical and rectilinear elements forming complex geometric motifs that use negative space as essential components of their designs. These include visually prominent, large rectangular and circular forms internally decorated with straight lines, denticulated lines, or wavy lines; and H-like and I-like shapes that are outlined; and outlined diamond chains. This style is believed to be Late Archaic in age, based on its associated archaeological contexts.

Overall, based on the themes and subjects that can be identified in Nevada rock art, it seems that prehistoric artists were not trying to provide a simple reflection of their daily lives or the content of the natural worlds in which they lived. Nevada rock art is not “representational” in the sense that it is an art of the everyday; instead, it is an ideological presentation of how prehistoric peoples perceived their social and natural worlds, and presenting an imagined, idealized worldview that served the social needs of these cultures.

Around 2500-1200 years ago.
The cultivation of a wide range of plants in small plots of mixed crops. Agriculture, in contrast, focuses on one primary crop farmed in large fields of single crops.