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Archaeologist Dr. David S. Whitley lounges at his mountainside home in Tehachapi, California. / Photo By Laura Quezada

Archaeologist Dr. David Whitley on petroglyphs and those who created them

By LAURA QUEZADA News Review Staff Writer– On the eve of the 10th Annual Ridgecrest Petroglyph Festival on November 4 -5 at Petroglyph Park, we bring you this story.

On September 17, 2023, members of the Maturango Museum were given the opportunity to hear Archaeologist Dr. David S. Whitley’s presentation titled “45 Years in the Cosos, and Still Alive to Talk About It.” As a person who has been fascinated by Little Petroglyph Canyon since I returned to the desert in 2015,  I became a member of the museum in order to hear this presentation and it was well worth it. Whitley shared his brilliantly researched thesis about the meaning and the history of the petroglyphs.  You can see my summation in the September 22, 2023, issue of The News Review.

I couldn’t help but think that his own story needed to be told. I was fortunate to meet with him earlier this month on the patio of his mountainside home. We had a wonderful conversation and he shared part of his own story with me.

But first, I must share his main objective and what he wants people to know about rock art and the people who created it. “It’s important not to think of Native Americans as somehow ‘primitive.’ Yeah, they didn’t have RVs, didn’t have microwaves, but boy, were they smart,” says Whitley. “That’s easy to overlook when you look at how degraded they were through circumstances that they had no control over.”

The man knows of what he speaks. According to the South African Archaeological Bulletin, Whitley is “North America’s (and perhaps the world’s) foremost researcher on rock art,” and he has been described as “one of the brightest minds in contemporary archaeology” in the Norwegian Archaeological Review.

Whitley saw his first rock art when he was eight years old. He and his family were driving from South Carolina to Arizona before they were to move to Panama. Yes, Whitley is from a military family. He says, “My father was a command fighter pilot in the Air Force.” On this trip, they made a stop “at the Petrified Forest National Monument. And it was what they called newspaper rock.” He enjoyed it and didn’t think about it too much.

“The impactful moment for me was when I was 12 and on my first visit to France, where I saw the cave site of Niaux and that blew me away,” he says. “That was just so stunning. And part of it is the accessibility of the art. It is so straightforward. I mean, these are recognizable images of Ice Age creatures. The artistry itself is exceptional. The line work, the depiction, I mean, these were great artists. And that was what really stoked my interest in rock art, seeing that, and then I came home and started reading about it.”  Home at that time was Santa Monica, where Whitley went to high school.

“I just thought it was so remarkable that why not study that? I was more interested in that than, say, Egyptology or classical archaeology. Classical archaeology didn’t grab me as hard, I suppose. So, from an early age, I gravitated towards hunter-gatherers because they just seemed the most interesting and the most mysterious. I mean, it’s civilization in a way of civilization as a civilization as a civilization. They’re great. They’re interesting. I mean, I do find the Aztecs and the Maya completely fascinating. But there’s this old perception, which I try and fight against, that hunter-gatherers represent the origin of human culture and society, which, in essence, is true. So that makes them fascinating at a different level. I mean, the truth is, there were hunters and gatherers in the 20th century, so they’re not all that ancient or far from us in the past and that needs to be recognized. But still, there’s that connection with the deepest of time that is intrinsically attractive.”

He took his interest to UCLA, where he earned three degrees in anthropology and archaeology and a second bachelor’s degree in geography. He went on to work at UCLA for four years as Chief Archaeologist and went to South Africa for two years on a post-doctoral fellowship.  “After that, I came back to California.  I realized I really missed California. And I’ve been here ever since.”

When asked why he decided to study the Coso petroglyphs, he replied, “The Coso petroglyphs are very well known. I first visited them in about 1975. My first project in the Cosos started in 1978. It was the Archaeological Survey required for the development of the Coso Geothermal Resource Area. So that was my first, in a sense, on-the-ground professional work. I returned in 1981 and did my PhD research on the petroglyphs from 1981 to 1982.”

He then elaborates on his views of the intelligence of indigenous people. “It’s pretty obvious that the Coso Range, Panamint Valley, and Death Valley are extreme environments. They’re as close to extreme as you can get in the Americas. The Native Americans did okay there. And it’s because of their cognitive capability, their mental capacity, their intelligence, their knowledge, their cultural knowledge that they were able to transmit down the line from person to person.

“That contrasts both with the long-term historical view of native Californians, that historical view being that they were diggers that were barely human, to put it bluntly, but that was a product of historical genocide and marginalization in the most extreme ways. In fact, they were every bit human like us. So my principal agenda in my research, which really sort of just developed over time, but I’ve been very much aware of it for 30 years because I guess it probably really emerged when I was teaching, has been to demonstrate that these people were every bit our equals. They just were involved in a world that is very, very different than our own.

“We can’t evaluate them. We can’t score their level of sophistication based on our standards. No, they didn’t have complicated tools. No, they didn’t live in heavily densely populated areas. But they survived in the most extreme environments in ways that we could not due to their mental knowledge, their intelligence, and their learning. That’s kind of the primary point, but where this applies to petroglyphs is the fact that their symbolism and their beliefs were every bit as complicated as ours, as complex.

“Let me put it this way: the standard archaeological reaction to bighorn sheep petroglyphs, putative hunters shooting sheep, etc., has always been ‘Oh, that’s hunting magic, because all these people could be concerned with was their stomachs, their food.’ Their ethnographic accounts don’t support that at all. And it implicitly promotes this idea that these were simplistic child-like primitive people.”

Modern man doesn’t understand their symbolism. “There is zero reason why it should not be as complicated, as involved, as detailed, as deep as ours. My interpretation of the meaning of the motifs of the petroglyphs comes out of the ethnography. It was not something that I came up with on my own, but it proves that. It puts a hard stop to it. Now, these were not simple people. They were heavily, heavily, heavily impacted by historical events and degraded in a horrible way. But we have to look beyond that and see the depths of their sophistication and culture, which are just different than ours.”

Whitley has traveled all over the world to study rock art. He says, “France, Spain, Italy. South Africa, Australia, Chile, Guatemala, Mexico, all over the United States.” He can elaborate on how not all rock art is shamanistic, with the individual interacting with the supernatural,  but it is still religious.

I was curious as to which was the most arduous journey to get to rock art. He replied, “I’ve been to some of the French caves that are open for public visitation, and it’s very, very unusual to get into, and going into them was essentially a caving experience, meaning we were crawling on our stomachs through the mud through narrow passageways, and things of that nature, but it was absolutely worth it. In fact, for one example, we had to paddle a little boat into a cave because there was a river coming out of it before we could get even to the entrance. So that’s one example of difficulty accessing the site.” He was going to tell more stories, but I said I like the Indiana Jones nature of this one. He replied, “I was in this cave in Puerto Rico. It wasn’t that hard to get in. But once we did, I got into this chamber, and the ground was completely covered with cockroaches. I thought, ‘Is this an Indiana Jones movie? Not that they’re dangerous but they’re creepy.’”

Today, Whitley is enjoying life. “I am writing up my summary of the Cosa, which is making me very happy. It’s been a long time coming. And it’s giving me an opportunity to go in certain new directions, pull together different ideas, and at least figure things out, whatever it is, some people don’t. But writing for me is always partly the mechanics of writing, partly the creativity of writing, but also, to large measure, the discovery process because you’re thinking about these things intensively. So that’s my current project.”

We hope we will again have the opportunity to hear a Dr. Whitley presentation. For now, let’s remember his main message and take it with us when we go to the Petroglyph Festival to enjoy Native American cultural expressions. “These were not simple people. These people were every bit our equals. They just were involved in a world that is very very different than our own.”