Secret Language Man
Salinas anthropologist Gary Breschini spends his work week scouring the backcountry for ancient rock art left by natives. His findings tell a cryptic tale.
Thursday, October 18, 2001
An eagle soars over the wrinkled terrain, banks on an updraft, then swoops down along a rock face. Thick brush clings to the leeward sides of outcroppings; manzanita and wild sage twist in tortured poses learned in coastal winds. There, pocketed between the shadow of rock and snarl of scrub, a cavity in the sandstone lies forgotten. On its walls, superimposed hands tell of some ritual, some Indian ceremony that used the hand stencil or imprint as signature or verification of self. Next to this cluster of signs is a series of painted cryptic images that denote some record: a count of participants, maybe, or the number of ceremonies performed, or perhaps the value of the offerings made.
The mystery of Native American rock art is alive in Monterey County. In over 100 sites scattered in mostly remote regions, the earliest Central California settlers left their marks. In petrographs, or paintings, these people recorded hands, bear paws, turtles, rain clouds and other signs in places considered worship or ritual sites.
Salinas resident Gary Breschini holds a doctorate in anthropology specializing in the prehistoric Indian tribes of Monterey and California. According to him, because of the small number of Indian tribe members and their relatively rapid demise, virtually nothing of the rock art''s significance was recorded or passed down orally. All knowledge of these cryptic symbols is so much educated theorizing based on similar California tribes in similar terrain.
"We really have no idea what the rock art means, and so much of the Indian culture has been lost forever," Breschini explains. "If anyone says otherwise, they''re wrong. We just don''t know."
A survey of these people''s history and the art they left behind tells more than just the story of rites of passage or vision quests. It reveals the heavy hand of the Spanish padres as they destroyed the very tribes they were so piously attempting to save.
Breschini has made the study of these earliest settlers'' history and the remnants of their cultures his life''s work. With fellow scholar-adventurer Trudy Haversat, Breschini regularly explores the rugged terrain of the county''s backcountry, documenting known sites and sometimes discovering new ones. Due to the fragile nature of the rock art, its vital role in ongoing research, and the vandalizing impulse of all too many humans, locations will be only generally described here.
It is largely Breschini''s and Haversat''s work that has endowed us with what we know. Their treatises on the Monterey County Indian groups, not to mention the 10,000 photographs they''ve taken on-site, form a rich legacy that continues to grow. For Breschini, the work is incredibly enjoyable.
"I was raised in the hills, so I feel very comfortable back there. I feel at home in Esselen territory," says Breschini. "I''m not one of those people who can''t wait to get out of there, back to a comfortable house in the suburbs.
"Sometimes I can sense the presence of those people when I''m back there, very definitely feel their spirits around."
Dressed in hat, flannel shirt, boots, and knee-high leather rattlesnake-proof leggings, Breschini sets out regularly to add to what we know and to dispel some of the myths about the Indian cultures. He traverses the same areas the natives did.
The Esselen settled on the Central Coast more than 5,000 years ago, choosing an area that extended from Jamesburg in the upper Carmel River north to Arroyo Seco, and from present-day Soledad in the valley to Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park on the coast. The Esselen formed small subtribes that coexisted in narrow valleys and meadows. Altogether they never numbered more than a few thousand. They adapted to the forbidding terrain with its harsh climatic extremes by following the food sources, primarily acorns, and establishing winter quarters with ample stores of the food gathered during the fall.
The Costanoan groups, including the Rumsen, settled in the areas west, north and east of the Esselen. From the mouth of the Little Sur River north to Monterey Peninsula and Moss Landing and down into the eastern Salinas Valley, the Costanoan practiced a lifestyle more suited to beaches and interior valley than the Esselen''s more mountainous territory.
The Salinan lived in the region circumscribed by Fort Hunter-Liggett, Camp Roberts near Bradley, and the southern Big Sur coast. Like the Esselen, the Salinan''s territory included some of the most brutally rugged topography in the county.
Breschini says forays onto another tribe''s turf were rare.
"These people were respectful of each others'' territory, which included the type of foodstuffs endemic to their regions," says Breschini. "They were very protective of what was in their territory. But if a person had to trespass or venture farther afield, he carried some signal of intention, some sign of his purpose, then people would understand and leave him alone. For instance, a young Esselen might have signaled he was looking for a wife, and thus was allowed to pass."
These tribes lived quiet lives fishing in the streams, gathering seeds, grasses, and their favored acorns, which they ground into meal. The acorns were especially prized, since they could be stored easily for later use. When the blistering summers slowly merged into the bitter cold winters, these families and extended families would situate themselves in sheltered highlands to sit out the inclement weather. With the arrival of spring, they struck out for meadows and thickets to pick shoots and the new growth found there.
The different groups traded what goods they made and food they gathered or caught and prepared. A monetary system using the purple olive snail (olivella) shell as currency served as the basis of their economy. A hierarchy of status based on wealth held the fabric of society together.
In his studies of the 100 or so small rock art sites throughout Monterey County, Breschini has determined that these intimate places were suited for an individual or a few individuals to experience some meaningful rite there. Perhaps young men''s vision quests began at these isolated places; left alone, they each in turn had to face the demons within and without while their elders waited for the ritual to run its course.
Boys and girls were initiated into adulthood early, most likely separately. These rituals were momentous in a person''s life, since they signified one''s ability to contribute to the tribe''s well-being. The dozens of medium-sized rock art sites probably served as places for ceremonies marking the passage from one stage of life to the next of these larger groups.
In contrast to the small and medium-sized sites, the three or four large rock art sites in the county, such as the Salinan National Painted Cave on Fort Hunter-Liggett, were public places. The wide-mouthed, echoing caves that typify these spots acted as amphitheaters or stages for shamans, or storytellers, the most important figures in these primitive societies. Their voices resounded through the clearings surrounding the large sites; they told the histories of the people, interpreted natural phenomena, and explained the people''s place in the cosmos.
To the untrained eye, the marks that remain on the rock shelters and caves seem little more than graffiti--stick-figure-like lines painted on the stone, simple geometric shapes painted with pigments found in the area. But there is an undeniable feeling of intent behind them all. At the Painted Cave, one sees the human figure painted in red, surrounded by schematic trees, and a series of lines connected like fish bones. It all feels like a record of a single event repeated, superimposed, over time.
Saved and Destroyed
Whatever idyllic life these Central California people experienced came to an end when the Spanish missionaries arrived. Determined to convert the natives, they implemented the means that would bring the most Indians to their camp.
As Breschini explains, "The Indians practiced imitative magic, ceremonies designed to ensure success of the hunt, to make peace with the spirit of the animal hunted. When the Spanish came riding their horses, with their train of cattle, oxen, sheep and pigs, the Indians were impressed. They wanted to get close to the Spanish. The Indians wanted contact with these powerful shamans."
But Spanish policy toward the natives, not to mention the padres'' baptism round-ups, were the death knell for the culture. The Indians learned more than they wanted to about the Spanish source of power.
"The Spanish introduced glass beads into the Indian economy," clarifies Breschini, "and the Indian economy fell apart. Up to then, it was standard trade items owned and the accumulated shell currency that made an Indian the richest person in the village. There was a rigid, wealth-based social order. But when the Spanish gave an Indian glass beads for doing some work, he would become the richest person in the village overnight. Families of status fell in rank, the social order was upset. It created social and economic chaos."
In 1773, Father Junipero Serra wrote of a huge Indian gathering on Carmel Beach. He and his fellow padres began baptizing them. As Breschini is quick to point out, "The Indians didn''t want to be Christian as much as satisfy their curiosity and learn the secrets of these new people and their domesticated animals."
Within three weeks, the padres had baptized 25 percent of these Rumsen. Within a few years more Indians were baptized members of the mission settlement than not.
"Once baptized, two things happened," Breschini explains. "A baptized Indian became a virtual slave--remember, Spain didn''t separate the Church and State as we do--and was treated as a ward of the state, languishing on the bottom rung of the social order. As new Christians, the Indians were novitiates, members of a religious order, and, therefore, were required to stay at the mission to perform the most thankless tasks. They were free hard labor. Basically, they were captives, and if they ran away, the garrisoned soldiers rounded them up.
"The baptized Indians had to live in the adobe housing provided by the missionaries rather than their own well-designed brush houses. They were forbidden to talk about the sacred rites and the ceremonies associated with them. They had to adopt the Spanish language and lifestyle. Their tribal leaders and, especially, spiritual leaders were blocked from acting out their traditional roles."
The adobe dwellings hosted an array of vermin and diseases, so the Indians became sick and died in huge numbers. As despondency and low morale set in, the Indians'' birth rate plummeted; a high infant mortality rate followed. "In Monterey County alone, 90 percent of the Indians perished under these conditions," says Breschini. "In a way, you could say they died of sadness."
Hands of Time
The Esselen''s intimate relationship with the environment can be seen especially well in one case study, in a cave memorialized in poetry by Robinson Jeffers and a theory put forth by Breschini and Haversat. In a canyon near Tassajara, a cave houses an abundance of handprints. These handprints are different than the type made by dipping the palm into paint then pressing it against the rock wall. They are composed exclusively of more or less parallel white lines.
"The method by which the handprints were made appears to be complex. Many of the figures have slightly blurred fingertips. It is possible that a small amount of white pigment was applied to the fingertips and transferred to the cave wall as a rough gauge of the dimensions of the hand," Breschini explains. "The rest of the lines were then individually painted using a brush."
As Breschini points out, the figures depict both left and right hands, and most are formed by eight to 10 individual white lines. "We don''t know why these handprints were placed on the walls of the cave, or why they were associated primarily with this one portion of Esselen territory. It is possible they were clan symbols applied during initiation rituals. But it is very likely we will never know the answers to these questions," he says.
Breschini and Haversat were struck by a revelation during one trek through that region: the source of the "idea" for the hand style. There is a spectacular rock formation that rises two or three hundred feet above the canyon floor, and can be seen from the immediate area and adjacent ridges.
"The rock formation has the overall shape of the human hand, with a series of vertical grooves weathered into the sandstone defining the fingers. A truly awesome sight, especially when you know of the similar hands painted in the nearby cave," says Breschini.
A comparison of photographs of hands brushed on the cave wall and the sandstone outcropping produces gooseflesh of recognition. Certainly the rock inspired the image!
Study of rock art is a bittersweet business, for the subject matter is disappea- ring over time. The paintings, composed of mineral dyes and animal binders, are exposed to freezing winters, baking summers, wind and rain. They are flaking off, and they continue to do so.
But they''ve also been immortalized, not only in Breschini''s and Haversat''s photographs but in verse. Writing nearly 50 centuries after the first settlers came to Big Sur, Robinson Jeffers penned a tribute to the mysterious art and the even more mysterious artists.
Inside a cave in a narrow canyon near Tassajara
The vault of rock is painted with hands,
A multitude of hands in the twilight, a cloud of men''s palms,
No other picture. There''s no one to say
Whether the brown shy quiet people who are dead intended
Religion or magic, or made their tracings
In idleness of art; but over the division of years
Signs-manual are now like a sealed message
Saying: "Look: we also were human; we had hands, not paws.
You people with the cleverer hands, our supplanters
In the beautiful country; enjoy her a season, her beauty,
and come down
And be supplanted; for you are also human."
--Robinson Jeffers, Hands