Rock paintings near the Rio Grande contain hidden messages about a mysterious 4,000-year-old religion. Now one archaeologist has learned to read them. (Article preview; full text for subscribers only.)
From the May 2012 issue; published online for subscribers only on May 31, 2012 (I'm not a subscriber so I could only see part of the article)
The region known as the Lower Pecos is an arid 21,000-square-mile expanse of southwest Texas and northern Mexico surrounding the confluence of the Pecos River and the Rio Grande. The land is barbed with cacti, teeming with rattlesnakes, and riven with impassable canyons. But more than 4,000 years ago, these barrens were home to a flourishing culture of hunter-gatherers, creators of some of the world’s most complex and beautiful prehistoric rock art. The literal meaning of those paintings had been dismissed as an unsolvable mystery—until recently.
Boyd parks at the bottom of the canyon. In her early fifties, with high cheekbones and dark hair pulled back under a hat, she is both elegant and hardy, like a pioneer woman from a classic Western. She sets a brisk pace up the side of the canyon. Her destination is Delicado Shelter, one of some 300 shallow caves in the region known for paintings of human figures, deer, canines, felines, birds, rabbits, snakes, and other desert animals. Boyd, an archaeologist and director of SHUMLA (Studying Human Use of Materials, Land, and Art), an education and research center in Comstock, Texas, will spend the afternoon scouring the shelter for insight into the ancient residents and their spiritual world.
Through decades of dogged work, Boyd has also developed a system to understand this enigmatic art. Working like a detective, she discovered a symbolic code that reveals narratives in the paintings, which she believes can be read, almost like an ancient language. Just as finding the Rosetta stone in Egypt enabled linguists to decipher ancient hieroglyphs, these paintings help unlock the secrets of a majestic religious system that blanketed Mesoamerica nearly four millennia before the arrival of Columbus. Boyd has discovered that myths and rituals similar to those written in the rocks have survived in the Huichol, a modern tribe now living in the mountains of western Mexico, and in other cultures throughout Mexico and the American Southwest...