Ancient history comes to life in the Chihuahuan Desert. For seven suns, a young man toiled tirelessly to earn the respect of his elders and to win the heart of the girl he wished to marry. He collected rare desert flowers to present to his newfound love and her father. He climbed to the top of the two highest mountains in search of game, bringing back to camp a variety of deer, antelope, and rabbits, along with fish from the Rio Grande and other local streams. But his proudest accomplishment was no more than a quarter mile from his people’s camp. Tucked away in the shadows of the mountains, protected from the desert’s blistering sun by a ring of craggy cliffs, his final masterpiece took shape. Every evening for five months, using a hard, sharpened stone, the young man chiseled into a rock depictions of his favorite animals. Under reddened skies, with beads of sweat dripping from his brow, the young man let out a sigh of satisfaction. On the rock appeared an elk, an antelope, and a fish. Using pine cones he had collected from the needle spires of the Organ Mountains, he formed a large circle of fire to surround this new tribute to his love, and her father. News of this soon broke out and the people of the camp arrived to see the glowing memorial. They sang with joy and praised the young man, as he took his new love’s hand. And such might be the origin of a modern-day petroglyph site we find today in Doña Ana County.
A petroglyph—derived from the words “petro,” or “rock,” and “glyph,” to “carve,” or “carving”—is essentially just that, a rock carving. Dozens of such sites exist in Doña Ana County, although most people are not aware of their location, and no one truly knows their meanings. “Most of the petroglyphs in our area are believed to be from the Mogollon period of about 2,000 to 800 years ago,” says Alex Mares, a Native American anthropologist and New Mexico park ranger. “What makes this imagery powerful is thinking of the people who left it there—thinking about their lives, their culture, and their interaction with the same land we live in today.”Alex, who worked at Hueco Tanks State Historic Site in El PasoCounty for nearly two decades—”a place where all known cultures of the Southwest are represented”—now works as a park ranger at Leasburg Dam State Park in neighboring Radium Springs.
Texas and Southern New Mexico for nearly four decades, and often leads group hiking tours. Through Southwest Expeditions, an outdoor heritage and adventure tourism company based in Mesilla, he has led a variety of researchers, government officials, Native American groups, and individuals and families in Doña Ana County.“The people who left these images were very knowledgeable of their environment, a lot more than we are today,” Alex says. “They knew every insect that walked the ground, the mammals that surrounded them, the creatures in the water, the birds in the sky—they knew their purpose, routine, habits, and where they lived, from pupae to adult form. It was critical to their survival.” With such knowledge came the desire to share it, express it, celebrate it, and pass it on to future generations, often in the form of petroglyphs and pictographs, Alex says. “All of these sites have meaning, but I would say some have more significant meaning than others,” he says. “Some of them reference the stories of the peoples’ origin, others have to do with hunting and hunting rituals, and others were probably offered in prayer and ceremony. We see a lot of symbolism out here that we think has to do with fertility, and bringing rain. You can’t have a bunch of game animals to hunt without having a bunch of rain.”Alex says local and regional archaeologists and anthropologists believe the oldest of the petroglyphs and pictographs in Doña Ana County to be from the Desert Archaic Period—from 2,000to 4,000 years ago—but sites exist that may be as recent as 120 to 130 years ago, left by the last free-roaming Apaches to inhabit the area. “There is not an effective dating methodfor petroglyphs,” he says, “They are getting more precise, however, in dating pictographs. Some of the pigments have organic matter that can be dated; rock carvings don’t. Even then, they can usually only date certain colors in pictographs,which are painted rather than etched.”Archaic and the later Pueblo people alike chose specific sites, and rocks, in which to carve their images, opting for a certain type of rock that was heavily coated in desert varnish.“Around 90 percent of the time, they chose rocks they knew would patinate,” Alex says. “If they broke through that desert varnish, or patina, the rock underneath would be a lighter color, creating a clear image. For pictographs, there was a lot of variety in how they would create them. They would make brushes out of human hair, the natural fibers found in Sotol and Lechugilla plants, and other plants.” Petroglyphs around Las Cruces share similar motifs, some of which are more common during certain time periods, allowing researchers to more accurately predict the date of their creation. “You see a lot of human figures in the Archaic period. They call them anthropomorphic: their bodies are triangular or rectangular shaped. You’ll also see plenty of bighorn sheep, deer, elk, antelope, and other mammals from this time,” he says. “In the late Archaic era, the artwork begins to change, and one of the beliefs is that a new bloodline came and inhabited the area.” The Mesilla Valley and surrounding mountains were mostly inhabited by the Mimbres and Mogollon peoples, as well as other early, ancestral Puebloan people, Alex says. “Those early Puebloan people are ancestors to many people still in this area, such as the Tigua from Ysleta Del Sur Pueblo in El Paso County.” Researchers estimate that sometime between 1100 and 1200 AD, the Mesilla Valley experienced a severe drought—one that lasted 40 to 50 years, if not more,and drove many Native people to other places. “During that period, two things probably happened,” Alex says. “The Mogollon returned to a hunter/gatherer system of survival, and many of them abandoned the greater Southwest altogether. They went North, others went South, and some went into the forested mountains of the Gila and Old Mexico. One thing is for sure, there was a big change in the local population,” he says. The most recent New Mexico petroglyphs likely come from the Apache people right around the same time as Spanish explorers came up from the South, Alex predicts. “They began to leave their own images, and this is where you start to see sites that depict images from their contact with Europeans, such as horses and strange beings,” he says. Alex estimates that there are upward of 50 “sites” containing petroglyphs and pictographs in Doña Ana County, although he admits that many are probably still undiscovered. There is no cohesive effort to catalogue and record the existence of such sites, mainly because of lack of funding and access issues. “Many of these sites deal with time, the interaction between earth, sun, moon and stars. These sites are still considered sacred and powerful to modern Native Americans.” Alex says. David Soules, a lifelong as Cruces resident and avid outdoorsman, says he spotted his first rock drawing on a hunting trip, and didn’t think much of it until stumbling upon several more sites later in life. “The very first petroglyph I saw was while I was hiking deep into the Uvas (Las Uvas Mountains),” David recounts. “A friend of mine and I had walked pretty far to get a deer out, and that’s when I saw a drawing on a rock, right in the middle of nowhere. We thought it was obviously old, and Native American, but that’s as far as our interest went.” It wasn’t until David gained a heightened interest for land protection and conservation that he began to understand the cultural and historical value of these images. “At some point I asked myself, ‘What is there here to protect?’ That made me start actively talking with friends and family about these petroglyph sites and if there might be more,” David says. “So, I started looking, and for the last couple of years, I’ve gone out specifically looking for additional sites. It has been a tremendous journey. I am continuously stunned and fascinated.” David says the search for local petroglyph sites has added a new element of adventure during hikes with his family. “Being drawn into petroglyphs has given my wife and my family a whole sense of intrigue that’s inspired us to continue this lifelong journey,” David shares. “I have literally taken my 80-year-old-plus parents and in-laws to some of these sites, as well as some youth groups whose wonderment is contagious. I try to share the concepts of conservation with them, including putting things back for future generations to enjoy.” Part of a once-future generation is Angel Peña, a 25-year-old graduate student at New Mexico State University. Inspired by Las Cruces’ natural beauty, Angel decided to study anthropology after originally moving from El Paso to study music. “I fell in love with this place, I’m sad to say I’m not a true local when people ask,” he says. “I started hiking out here because I wanted something recreational to do and I didn’t have much money. That’s when I learned I could drive 10 minutes in any direction and be completely alone in natural surroundings. It was curiosity that kept me going back.” As an anthropology graduate student, Angel now spends between six to seven hours out in the Chihuahuan desert and surrounding mountain ranges each day. “I absolutely love it,” he says. “My favorite part about being out there is the potential for discovery. You could go out one day and discover a historical site, an Archaic petroglyph, an old ranch house, stray remnants from World War II bombing targets, and a lot of other really cool stuff. You can almost count on discovering something new every time you go out and explore around here.” Angel makes the same recommendation for all hikers, whether novice or experienced, young or old: “Carry a backpack, first aid kit, hand radio, at least a gallon of water, and always a good meal or snack.” As to where to hike, “For beginning hikers, I would ask them, ‘Are you more into geological beauty like the big peaks and cliff faces, or are you a history buff? Do you want to learn more about places with historical importance, or are you into ancient archeology and history? With those questions answered, you can easily pick a place to go,” he says.
By Gabriel Vasquez