About 10,000 years ago, ancient peoples occupied rock shelters and deeply recessed caves tucked into canyons along the Pecos and Devils rivers. They left behind some of the most complex and diverse rock art sites in the world. Over 300 paintings, created between 3,000 and
4,000 years ago, sprawl across the limestone walls of these hidden rock shelters. Some of the multi-colored scenes spread more than 100 feet and depict characters twenty feet tall. The oldest images, known as Pecos River style, are the most common and often feature shaman rituals representing journeys to the spirit world. Some of the shamans are painted to look like they are ascending; others appear to be hovering with protective out-stretched arms. Panthers with great long tails leap across the limestone canvass and splay fierce claws among rabbit, snake, and crab-like shamans. In later work beginning about 500 B.C., fertility rituals, copulation, and birthing scenes are depicted.
Hundreds of petroglyphs (images carved, pecked, or cut into stone) have been discovered on gently sloping bedrock on private property in this area and are mostly geometric and abstract designs created about A.D. 1000. Work continues to remove sediment revealing older, more graceful techniques, including motifs of atlatls (spear throwers that pre-date the bow-and-arrow) as well as animal tracks and human footprints.
The artistic styles evolved slowly over time among these isolated people living in a small region near the Rio Grande. From 1600 to 1800 Spanish explorers and Plains Indians began to make forays into the region, bringing disease and warfare. Researchers know of the intrusion because of changes in the art, which depicts the novelty of domestic livestock and the impressions of a people who wore little clothing upon seeing hats, boots, weapons, and the armored horse. Although no missions were established in the Lower Pecos, structures appear similar to missions topped with a Christian cross. Then the destructive consequences of disease, warfare, and starvation brought by the outside invasion appear in scenes of soldiers, horsemen, and destroyed churches.
The introduction of the horse culture seems to explain the appearance of more recent art in lower canyon levels near water supplies and access to grazing areas away from the steep cliffs of earlier pictographs. The scenes depict hand-to-hand combat, horse theft, thunderbirds and sun symbols.
Since the 1920s researchers ranging across all the disciplines have been studying the art and the lifestyle of the ancient canyon-dwellers who for thousands of years did not cultivate crops, but sustained their livelihood by hunting and gathering. Although more than 250 sites in Texas are known for prehistoric pictographs, only the Lower Pecos Canyonlands exhibit a rock-art tradition of a single group of people over an extended period of time.
For centuries, the arid environment preserved the wall art as well as the grass beds, baskets, mats, string bags, and sandals made from fibers of native plants such as lechuguilla, sotol, and agave—priceless evidence of the culture of the prehistoric era. Modern treasure hunters began destroying and defacing the art, and it was not until the 1930s that archeological expeditions began collecting the materials primarily for display in museums. Serious research and efforts to protect the sites began in the late 1950s when Mexico and the United States made plans to construct the huge Amistad Dam at the confluence of the Devils River and the Rio Grande in the core of the Lower Pecos Canyonlands. When the dam was completed in 1969, its reservoir spread over 69,000 acres, covering much of the prehistoric treasures.
Study and preservation have continued, and today visitors enjoy guided tours to the Fate Bell Shelter conducted by the Seminole Canyon State Park & Historic Site. Every Saturday through May, San Antonio’s Witte Museum Rock Art Foundation leads White Shaman Tours. Or visit the Witte Museum’s second floor to see life-size exhibits of the Pecos River culture and more than 20,000 artifacts from the ancient sites.