Texas Archaeologist Unlocks Mystery Behind the Pecos River Pictographs

Editor's note: This article was originally published in January 2017

Within caves along the Pecos River in West Texas, you'll find mysterious ancient rock art known. The drawings could be more than 2,000 years old, and the names of their creators have been lost to time. However, one Texas archaeologist thinks she has begun to understand their meaning.

Carolyn Boyd has been studying the Pecos River pictographs since the late 1980's. She literally wrote the book on the subject. Two books, in fact. The most recent of which was just published last year. The White Shaman Mural suggests that the prehistoric cave drawings at the White Shaman Preserve have a story to tell. Now, after over 20 years of studying the art, Boyd thinks she's learned enough about the pictographs to begin to tell it.

The Texas Observer has the story. Boyd made a discovery in the West Texas desert in 2012 that was pretty significant. She realized that the paintings were done methodically, even ritualistically. Before she started studying the cave drawings, the scientific community at large considered the pictographs historically compelling, but mostly random and unconnected. Boyd's breakthrough proved otherwise.

Using a digital microscope, Boyd and other scientists noticed a pattern in the paint; red over black, red over black, yellow over red, yellow over black, white over yellow.

"That says that everything carried meaning," Boyd said. "Not just the symbols that go on the wall, or the relationship of one symbol to another, not just the color of the symbol — even the order of the paint carries meaning."

It was an unprecedented discovery. The pattern showed that the paintings were intricately purposeful and significant to the people who made them. They were likely ritualistic in their creation, using very specific pigments in a very precise order to create these drawings. They were not just cavemen making doodles. In fact, Boyd surmised they were most likely telling the creation story of the early tribes that made them.

"They had a language far richer than our own when it comes to describing the stars and the landscape around them," she said. "They were just as cognitively capable as you and I."

To learn more about Boyd's incredible discoveries, read the clip by the Texas Observer and check out Boyd's book, The White Shaman Mural.

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