10 Places to Find Petroglyphs
From the dawn of time, humans have felt compelled to interpret their environment with art—and by carving it in stone, they ensured it would last through the centuries. Etched into the surface of caves, canyon walls, and hillsides, these petroglyphs (as opposed to “pictographs,” or paintings on rock) are more than just graffiti from the ancients—anthropologists see them as cultural history and, most often, sites of religious importance to their makers. Most are still considered sacred sites by their descendants, which makes it even more imperative to protect them. Here are 10 outstanding petroglyph sites that have survived—so far.
In the barren Atacama Desert of northern Chile, the Cerros Pintados—or “Painted Hills”—displays more than 350 figures of humans, animals (mostly alpacas and llamas), and intricate abstract symbols on some 66 panels carved, sculpted, or painted onto 3.2km (2 miles) of bare hillsides. The scale is often titanic—one human figure is 100m (328 ft.) high. Dated between a.d. 500 and 1450, the geoglyphs have been damaged by illegal mining, erosion, and unsupervised tourism.
The first carvings here were made in Paleolithic times (40,000–10,000 b.c.); the most recent were chiseled at the beginning of the 20th century. In the 1990s, a dam project nearly submerged these long-hidden carved boulders and canyon faces along 17km (11 miles) of the river Coa, in northeast Portugal, but it was prevented by an international protest campaign. Carvings are still being excavated in this little-known archaeological gem.
It’s the world’s largest collection of petroglyphs—and neighboring industrial developments are killing it. Pollution generated by local petrochemical plants on the Burrup Peninsula is dissolving the natural varnish of the rock faces, into which ancient Aboriginals chiseled some 250,000-plus figures, more than 10,000 years ago. You can find these engravings—many of them extraordinarily beautiful—incised on boulders and rock outcrops all over the peninsula. Go early in the morning, before the rocks get too hot. www.burrup.org.au.
Just northeast of Sydney, this park full of gum trees and rainforest also has several panels of Aboriginal rock art carved into the relatively soft Sydney basin sandstone. A 2.5km (1.5-mile) trail to the basin leads you past the best-known ones, featuring kangaroos, emus, and wallabies (note the hunters’ boomerangs).
Actually 40 miles (64km) long, this eastern Utah canyon is like a drive-through gallery of more than 10,000 petroglyphs, carved into its black rock face around a.d. 1000 to 1200 by the long-vanished Fremont Indians. Hunters, shamans, horses, elk, snakes, turkeys, bighorn sheep, owls, and even centipedes are depicted; the best is a large hunting scene in Cottonwood Canyon.
On the outskirts of Albuquerque, Pueblos and other prehistoric Native Americans carved some 25,000 pictures into the dark basaltic boulders of this volcanic escarpment along the Rio Grande. Despite a number of lawsuits, the city enlarged two highways through the monument close to the Boca Negra Canyon, the most visited section of the park. tel. 505/899-0205. www.nps.gov/petr.
On a shelf of pahoehoe lava rock the size of a football field, some 3,000 intricate figures carved by ancient Hawaiian artists make up the largest rock art site in the Pacific, a site full of mana, or spiritual power, for the Hawaiian people.
A sacred site of unparalleled cultural importance to the Hopi people and a vital resource for archaeologists, Tutuveni has suffered much damage by vandals and souvenir hunters. Spray-painted graffiti has destroyed approximately 10% of the symbols that are carved into the stones here, which record more than 1,000 years of Hopi history and culture. Hopi Cultural Preservation Office: http://www8.nau.edu/hcpo-p/visitorInfo.html
In the stark red Namibian desert, these 6,000-year-old rock engravings created by the San bushmen of the Kalihari almost seem to glow under the desert sun. Whereas most bushman art in Africa (at Tsodilo in Botswana, and several sites in South Africa) is painted, here nearly 2,000 figures are carved onto open rock faces, including elephants, rhinoceroses, ostriches, and giraffes.
Only 55 miles (89km) from Las Vegas, this dramatically eroded Mojave rockscape preserves a set of stunning 3,000-year-old rock carvings by Pueblos and prehistoric basket makers. A mere .5-mile (.8km) loop trail through Petroglyph Canyon reveals panel after panel of slick dark rock etched with astoundingly expressive figures—big-horned sheep, dancers, birds, and suns.