Accessible Only By Boat, Panther Cave Offers Another Example of Lower Pecos Rock Art

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A large mountain lion-shaped figure, the namesake of Panther Cave, lies on the far right side of the rock wall.

Brendan Gibbons / Rivard Report

A large mountain lion-shaped figure, the namesake of Panther Cave, lies on the far right side of the rock wall.

AMISTAD NATIONAL RECREATION AREA – Behind the bars of the fence enclosing most of its rock shelter, the panther has waited in a lunge position for possibly the past few thousand years.

The big cat dominates the rock wall mural left by a hunter-gatherer culture that once moved throughout the limestone canyons that make up this region where the Rio Grande meets the Devils and Pecos rivers. The panther, likely a mountain lion, faces the other human- and animal-like figures, including another, smaller panther whose pigments have faded over the millennia.

This is Panther Cave, one of the most important rock art sites left behind by the Archaic people of the Lower Pecos. Accessible only by boat, the rock shelter holds a mural with figures that bear common motifs found at many of the roughly 200 rock art sites in the region, according to archaeologists with the National Parks Service and Shumla Archaeological Research and Education Center, a nonprofit group dedicated to studying and codifying the paintings.

Other important rock art sites in the area include White Shaman panel, owned by the Witte Museum, and Fate Bell’s Shelter at Seminole Canyon State Park and Historic Site, whose southern boundary lies across the canyon from Panther Cave. All were painted by a culture that lived in the area between 4,200 and 1,500 years ago.

“You can just imagine people in there together reading that panel together, learning from it, and having these times where they’re experiencing this kind of community,” Jessica Lee, Shumla’s executive director since 2015, said in a phone interview this week.

In early April, Jack Johnson, park archaeologist for Amistad National Recreation Area, brought the Rivard Report and two other visitors behind the gate that protects the rock art panel from would-be intruders.

To get there, he guided a boat more than 45 miles across Amistad Reservoir, formed by a dam built on the Rio Grande in 1969. The trip ended at a floating dock with a staircase that ascends to the rock overhang.

In the shade of the rock, Johnson demonstrated the use of prehistoric weapons like the atlatl and a boomerang-like device called a rabbit stick. Both were weapons that helped prehistoric peoples kill animals that would have been some of their only sources of vital protein and fat.

Jack Johnson, park archaeologist for Amistad National Recreation Area, demonstrates the use of a rabbit stick, a primitive weapon likely depicted on the walls of Panther Cave.

Brendan Gibbons / Rivard Report

Jack Johnson, park archaeologist for Amistad National Recreation Area, demonstrates the use of a rabbit stick, a primitive weapon likely depicted on the walls of Panther Cave.

Rock art isn’t the only thing left behind in this area. Johnson said the most common archaeological site he finds is a rock midden, the remnants of an oven where the people who once lived there would have cooked their food. Plant foods included prickly pear, sotol, and lechuguilla.

“There’s a lot of sites of everyday people trying to turn this land into calories,” Johnson said.

That would have been a constant task in a semi-arid region with a landscape that would not have allowed for the kind of farming practiced by other Native American peoples.

“The climate here is too unpredictable, too variable” for farming, Johnson said. “These guys stayed hunter-gatherers.”

This kind of lifestyle made creating these rock murals a communal sacrifice. Painting them would have required carrying around rocks used to make the pigments and hauling water in baskets – they had no pottery, Lee said. Animal fat, probably from deer or another ungulate that would have been a precious food source, was also a crucial ingredient in mixing the paint.

“Any mother would say [that] if it is more important that the child knows what is being painted and remembers it and feels it in their heart and experiences it through art, if that’s more important than eating for their life and their longevity, that’s something,” Lee said.

As Johnson demonstrated the prehistoric weapons, figures loomed behind him painted in black, red, yellow, and white that seemed to be holding similar weapons. Many of them also carried more inscrutable shapes, such as spiky balls in their hands and feather-like ornamentation on their elbows and hips.

“We see if everywhere and we see it very consistently,” said Lee about the spiky ball, which she and her colleagues call a “power bundle.” Superficially, it resembles the pod of a Datura plant, known for its psychoactive properties among some indigenous peoples of the Southwest and northern Mexico.

Archaeologists like Carolyn Boyd at Texas State University are working to discover what the power bundle figure truly means, Lee said. Even the figures that appear to be holding weapons can’t be automatically assumed to be hunters. With no written language and much work left to do to uncover the mythology of those who painted the panels, it’s difficult to assume much of anything about the art’s meaning, she said.

What is obvious, she said, is how the same motifs repeat themselves in rock art sites across the Lower Pecos Canyonlands. Through microscopic imaging and radiocarbon dating, Shumla has also found that each mural was painted in the same order – first black, then red, then yellow, then white. That and other clues indicate the methodical effort that went into their creations.

Lee compared the murals and their importance for that culture to the significance of the Sistine Chapel to the Judeo-Christian world. Lower Pecos people seeing the murals would likely have known exactly who each figure was, the way many of us know when we’re looking at a painting of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden.

“You know exactly who those people are, you know that the snake can talk, you know what the tree is for, you know why she’s holding an apple, and you know what she’s about to do,” Lee said. “You know what their kids’ names are going to be. You know they’re about to put clothes on.

“When [Lower Pecos people] walked into these shelters, they knew everything about each one of these figures,” she continued.

Though some of the art has survived for thousands of years, much has also been lost. In an effort to catalog and preserve its records in as comprehensive a form as possible, Lee’s staff is using high-resolution imagery to digitally record all of the art they can before it fades.

Some of Panther Cave's figures stand relatively isolated, such as this yellow human-like entity.

Brendan Gibbons / Rivard Report

Some of Panther Cave’s figures stand relatively isolated, such as this yellow human-like entity.

They call their work the Alexandria Project. So far, they’ve documented 138 sites, she said.

“Unfortunately, we can’t keep it on the wall,” Lee said. “It’s so fragile, hanging by a thread on those limestone walls. … This is our way of making sure that this library of Alexandria is not burned to the ground and lost forever.”

For the most part, their work stops at the border. On the U.S. side, these murals extend north from the Rio Grande for approximately 30 to 35 miles. Lee said they extend at least that far on the Mexican side, and possibly farther.

“Right on the border in Mexico is not a safe place to be, and we just cannot go there,” she said.

That’s why they’re working with archaeologists with Mexico’s National Autonomous University of Mexico and its National Institute of Anthropology and History to use the same methods to document Archaic sites south of the border.

“So we can have the full picture without the Rio Grande boundary, which wouldn’t have been a boundary in the past,” Lee said.

6 thoughts on “Accessible Only By Boat, Panther Cave Offers Another Example of Lower Pecos Rock Art

  1. Thanks for drawing attention to the spectacular rock art sites in the Lower Pecos Canyonlands. This concentration of ancient murals constitutes a world class archaeological landmark; there is nothing like it in North America. One can visit Fate Bell Shelter and Witte Museum’s White Shaman site on a day’s round trip from San Antonio. To know more about the people who painted these spectacular murals, visit the Kittie West Nelson Ferguson People of the Pecos Gallery on the second floor of the Witte Museum.

  2. It is the case that fieldwork in Mexico is very difficult today. Happily, Solveig Turpin, an archaeologist who has worked in the Lower Pecos since the 1980s (and continues today) has conducted extensive research relating the imagery of the Lower Pecos to archaeological sites in northern Mexico.

    This work has been published for some time and reveals an astounding expansion of the knowledge of Lower Pecos pictographs. I am really surprised Ms. Lee (extensively quoted in the article) is apparently unaware of this research? Surely the institutions in Mexico Ms. Lee mentions will appraise her of much of this collaborative work that has been accomplished over the many years.

    So, for those interested, in addition to numerous articles on the subject , there is a published volume on this topic by Turpin that has been distributed in Texas (a bilingual edition) called “El arte indigena en Coahuila”/ “The indigenous art of Coahuila.” The pictographs of northern Mexico that have been extensively documented in this publication (and others) are breathtaking and well worth checking out.

  3. Thank you for the lovely article, Brendan. I echo Dr. Shafer, and encourage everyone who is interested in this area’s incredible cultural heritage to come learn about it, see it, and teach our next generations to be good stewards of it.

    Also, I regret to mention that lake levels on Amistad have dropped since the author’s visit, preventing even boat access until the reservoir comes back up again. Visitors interested in bringing their boats to Panther Cave should first call the Amistad National Recreation Area front desk for current conditions, (830) 775-7491 x 0. For more information, please see:

    https://www.nps.gov/amis/learn/historyculture/howtorockart.htm

    Blackbird, I am certain Lee intends no omission or disrespect toward Turpin, whose body of work in the region is foundational. Lee was merely talking about a project her organization is presently engaged in.

    Lee is correct – there is simply far more known about sites north of the Rio Grande. Although the southern half of the region below the Rio Grande covers as great or greater an area than that in Texas, only a fraction as many Pecos River Style rock art sites are known within it.

    In her excellent 2010 book which you mention, Turpin writes (p.41) that 35 Pecos River Style sites are known. That is in contrast with the approximately 200 known on the US side (out of 300+ known rock art sites here of various styles). Turpin also writes (p.27-28) “…our understanding of [Coahuila’s] prehistory is derived from the few relevant archeological studies and the broader context of arid lands adaptations and world-wide rock art studies. Since so few surveys and excavations have been done in the area now called Coahuila, it is necessary to incorporate information from adjacent states, most specifically Nuevo Leon and Texas” and she then goes on to detail that paucity of research. Turpin expects (and I and anyone else I’ve spoken with fully agree) that there are “surely scores more” Pecos River Style sites south of the Rio Grande, undiscovered (p.41).

    In contrast, research north of the Rio Grande has been far more intensive and carried out for much longer, some of which is outlined here:

    https://www.texasbeyondhistory.net/pecos/before.html

    followed by Drs. Shafer and Bryant’s work at Hinds Cave:

    https://www.texasbeyondhistory.net/hinds/index.html

    And here are a few of Turpin’s many important contributions from the 80s to today:

    https://utexas.academia.edu/SolveigTurpin

    There have of course been numerous other projects, theses and dissertations written on the region over the years, which I will not list here. My point is merely that Lee is correct about the current state of research in Coahuila, and that takes nothing at all away from Turpins numerous and notable contributions on both sides of the Rio Grande.

    Beyond Shumla’s important rock art documentation work mentioned in the article, Texas State University is and has been very active in the area for the past several years with a number of exciting projects:

    https://www.txstate.edu/anthropology/centers-projects/ancient-sw.html

    and

    https://aswtproject.wordpress.com/

    Best regards,

    Jack Johnson

    • Thanks Jack! This is great! Finally a serious discussion and one finely tuned to the nuances of archaeological research that may provide future visitors with a more expansive knowledge base concerning the LP.

      PLEASE be clear, I was referring to the omission made by the JOURNALIST that created the misunderstanding concerning the images in northern Mexico and Ms. Lee’s statements. (Since the information now exposed was not in the original article, well what is one to think? The reader is left with the idea northern Mexico was virtually unexplored.)

      However, if my critical commentary has to lead to this outpouring of information for the public (Thank you!), then I considered my goal here to have been achieved …. with some kindly help from you of course.

  4. Hi blackbird, thank you for reading. Jessica Lee is definitely aware of Solveig Turpin’s research and brought it up in the interview. Unfortunately we aren’t always able to include everything in the final story. I’m glad you mentioned Turpin’s work so that others reading this can check it out if they want to.

    • Hi Brenden,
      I am glad to hear it. Yes, I understand one cannot include it all, but this omission ( the fact of Turpin’s and others prior work) is a critical one because it changes the meaning of Lee’s statement and leads one to think that the images of northern Mexico are largely unknown or undocumented. The public needs to know that there is a wealth of information out on this subject, and thankfully it was conducted before the political and social variables have emerged to make this work now unfeasible and probably for quite some time in the future. The stories of these prescient archaeologists who worked in northern Mexico, way ahead of their time, is, I think, quite deserving of a new story in itself.
      Just sayin….!

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