Published: December 18, 2009
Ridgecrest, Calif. — We were inside Restricted Area R-505 of the Naval Air Weapons Station China Lake, rolling in a minivan across the vast salt pan of an extinct Pleistocene lake on our way to see a renowned collection of ancient rock art. On the console between the seats was a long-range two-way radio. It was there so that our escort, a civilian Navy public affairs officer named Peggy Shoaf, could keep abreast of where and when any bombs would be dropped — or launched, or whatever — so that we wouldn’t be there when it happened.
Some of the rock paintings at China Lake Naval Air Weapons Center near Death Valley have been dated as far back as 16,000 years ago.
Established in the summer of 1943 in the heat of Allied offensives in the Pacific, China Lake is the Navy’s premier weapons testing range and its largest real estate holding. “Every weapon being used overseas right now was tested here,” Ms. Shoaf said. The property comprises 1.1 million acres of Mojave Desert north of Los Angeles and west of Death Valley, including the Coso Mountain range and an active volcanic field that is one of the largest producers of geothermal electricity in the country.
The base is a haven for wild horses, burros, rattlesnakes and scorpions. It is also home to a complex of remote canyons holding the greatest concentration of ancient rock art in the Western Hemisphere, known as the Coso Petroglyphs.
With us rode David S. Whitley, an archaeologist and expert on prehistoric rock art and iconographic interpretation. Having visited hundreds of sites all over the world, including Lascaux and Chauvet in France and the Côa Valley in Portugal, he believes the Coso Petroglyphs to be one of the most important rock art sites on earth.
Mr. Whitley estimated that there may be as many as 100,000 images carved into the dark volcanic canyons above the China Lake basin, some as old as 12,000 to 16,000 years, others as recent as the mid-20th century.
Floating across a landscape strewn with more than a half-century’s weapons-testing debris — observation towers, armored vehicles, projectile-riddled shipping containers — I tried to fathom that people had been coming here and making art since at least 90 centuries before the founding of Rome.
“It was a very different place then,” Mr. Whitley explained, conjuring the end of the last ice age, 18,000 years ago, the melting of glaciers, the system of saline lakes across what is now called the Great Basin. “This had water over 100 feet deep,” he said. Mammoths, saber-toothed cats and giant Pleistocene bison still roamed the upland peninsulas.
Then, progressively, and with big ups and downs, the climate grew hotter and drier. The lakes and big animals disappeared, the pinyon and juniper woodlands moved up in elevation, and life for humans got significantly more difficult. And yet for many thousands of years thereafter people continued to carve figures and designs into the rocks.
We turned onto a washboard gravel road and 12 minutes later came to a small parking area, 49 road miles inside the base’s main gate at the edge of Ridgecrest. On this November day the thermometer read 43 degrees, but the air was still and the sun felt warm. We shouldered our lunches and camera gear and walked out along a path made of interlocking plastic tiles laid down in recent years so that Shoshone tribal elders could reach the site without having to struggle in the soft sand. Almost immediately we were in what is known as Little Petroglyph Canyon.
Everywhere we looked, for a mile or so down canyon, there were images pecked or scratched into the rock faces: stylized human figures in a variety of headgear, stick figures with bows and arrows, dogs or coyotes, bear paws with extra digits, all manner of abstract geometric patterns, zigzags and circles and dots, and hundreds upon hundreds of what looked like bighorn sheep, some small, some larger than life size.
Theories abound as to what the images might mean — all but the most recent, that is — or why they were put there. Some archaeologists believe that the images are evidence of simple hunting rituals. Mr. Whitley sees in them nothing less than the origins of human creativity and religion.
He theorizes, based on his research, that the petroglyphs are the work of generations of shamans, or medicine men, who traveled here (from all over what is now the southwestern United States) to fast and smoke native tobacco, to hallucinate or have visions, and to render their hallucinations on the rock. Perhaps the goal was to make rain. Perhaps it was to impress upon their followers a sense of the supernatural. Either way, where some might see a dearth of material wealth and technology, Mr. Whitley sees evidence of cognitive sophistication.
“We think of intelligence as expressed in iPods and the latest iPhone,” he said. But technology is often a poor substitute for knowledge: “Drop any of us in Death Valley and unless we had an RV fully stocked with all sorts of supplies we’d be dead in a week,” he said. The people who came before us, on the other hand, were adapted to this environment, so they could survive with nothing but what they could find or make, in a way that, he said, “runs counter to our technological materialistic view, is probably more admirable, and certainly more sustainable.”
For a time, after 9/11, civilian visits to the petroglyphs were suspended. “There’s always a risk when you let civilians into a secured area,” Ms. Shoaf said. But she said she felt the place was too precious for the public not to have access. So she rewrote the protocol to show the commanding officer how it might be possible to allow tours and still protect the base’s security. He agreed. More than 1,100 civilians visit the site every year, either on tours available to the public or as part of private tours with command-approved escorts arranged through Ms. Shoaf’s office.
We rested near the southern end of the canyon, sitting on the rocks in the sun and tucking into our lunches. I looked at one particularly elaborate frieze of images and tried to imagine what it would be like to spend four days here without food, smoking a native plant and thinking about the cosmos. I tried to imagine the distance between myself and the person who made those images. Then we stowed our garbage in our packs, made our way back up to the minivan and headed down to the base’s armaments museum, evidence of more modern human creativity of a different kind.
IF YOU GO
Public petroglyph tours are available through the Maturango Museum (100 East Las Flores Avenue, Ridgecrest, Calif.; 760-375-6900, maturango.org) $35 per person for nonmembers; $25 for members of museum and the Friends of Last Chance Canyon (tflcc.org).
Arrangements can be made through the Naval Air Weapons Station China Lake itself by calling the public affairs office at (760) 939-1683. The base’s Web site has information about the petroglyphs and the tours, which carry a number of restrictions, at navair.navy.mil/nawcwd/nawcwd/recreation/petroglyphs.htm.
Tours are held on weekends and holidays. Certain Fridays are available for school tours. All tours are subject to cancellation on short notice because of military testing, security concerns or the weather.
Visitors are responsible for finding two command-approved escorts, arranging car pools and for filing all necessary paperwork. Up to three groups of 20 are allowed in the canyon each weekend day. No children under 10, and no pets.
Only American citizens are now allowed to go on tours, and proof of citizenship is required for participants 16 and older.
Also on the base is the U.S. Naval Museum of Armament and Technology (760-939-3530, www.chinalakemuseum.org).