Petroglyphs – The Legacy of Our Ancestors

Our ancestors memorialised a legacy of themselves that has endured across the centuries, through their art carved in stone, called petroglyphs. Flowing across canyon walls, emblazoning the sides of cliffs, rocks in the desert or on the ground, they display figures that tell us about their world. Petroglyphs are the most ancient and the most stable form of art that humans have ever produced.

Ancient stone artists cut into rock by picking, carving, abrading or incising the surface, using stone tools. And in the extreme north, without large expanses of exposed rock, the Arctic peoples created inukshuks, enigmatic stone figures in lonely places, using stacked rocks and boulders. They stand today as a memorial to the hardiness of humans who lived in those inhospitable realms.
Our ancestors’ rock art does not just depict daily life, but also paints their view of the creation story. We find the same sorts of iconic motifs the world over, no matter the culture. The show us archetypes of humankind receiving help from the sky gods and goddesses, and archaeologists have marvelled at the consistency of these themes world-wide. Some have postulated that they encode a ritual language of picture forms shared by all humans during those prehistoric ages.
Often the art carvings are so huge, and so high up the rock faces, that the artists would have to have built scaffolding, or constructed platforms to hang over the top of the cliffs, much like window washers today. And they would had to have been able to plan their designs out on a small scale and transfer them to the rock, greatly magnified in size. We tend to underestimate the capabilities of our ancient ancestors, but they were just as smart as we are, and mastered the technology of their time, which would be quite mysterious to us now.

Some Famous Petroglyphs

Hawaii – The ancient Hawaiians carved huge, whimsical figures into the lava fields now known as Waikoloa Petroglyph Preserve. One group deemed to be three hunters, depicts large, masculine stick figures, one of which is holding a shield. The legs and particularly the arms are very elongated.

Utah – Ute Petroglyphs in Arches National Park – Nearly everyone has seen these charming figures of men riding horses, surrounding bighorn sheep, and the sheep being herded by dogs. The men have no weapons, and the sheep are not running, so it is possible it is a pastoral scene, not hunting. The cut figures are white, vividly revealed against the dark, purple-gray cliff wall.

The Gods – Giant of the Atacama in Chile – The largest prehistoric human-like figure in the world, etched into the side of Solitary Mountain. It is 86 meters tall and believed to be the deity of the people there 1000 to 1400 AD. The arms are raised in what looks like a blessing, with the head festooned with rays.

The Nazca Lines in Peru, carved into the hard desert surface, cover nearly 400 square miles and consist of about 300 figures. They are composed of extremely long lines, and were never known as anything else, until they were seen from the air when first flown over. The most well-known are massive: a giant spider, a humming bird, and a monkey, all beautifully executed. There is one that incredibly resembles a modern landing strip. The mystery of how they were done and by who, has never been solved. There is even a persistent theory that because they can only be seen from the air, the artists had to have mastered flight, or they may have even been done by aliens!

Petroglyphs are a treasure belonging to all of us. Many countries have taken legal steps to protect and preserve them from weathering and vandalism. This enigmatic art gives us a glimpse into our distant past, and helps us to know who we are and from where we came.

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