The White Shaman Mu­ral

Pasatiempo - - PASATIEMPO - Casey Sanchez I For The New Mex­i­can

Perched above the Pe­cos River in South Texas is a cave whose lime­stone walls are painted in an­cient rock art, much of which re­mains vivid some four thou­sand years after its creation by the Uto-Aztecan-speak­ing hunter-gath­erer tribes who once peo­pled this bor­der­lands re­gion. Known as the White Shaman Mu­ral, the 26-foot-long cave paint­ing is a sprawl­ing lime­stone can­vas of lu­nar god­desses, deer deities, fire-sun gods, pey­ote spir­its, and cloud ser­pents. “It may well be the old­est rock art nar­ra­tive in the New World,” said Dr. Carolyn E. Boyd, an ar­chae­ol­o­gist who has been study­ing the site since 1989. “It is a vis­ual text doc­u­ment­ing the birth of the sun and the es­tab­lish­ment of time.”

Boyd is an artist turned ar­chae­ol­o­gist. As a painter on a trip to Texas in 1989, she fell in love with the White Shaman Mu­ral and its masterly bal­ance of color and form painted in red and yel­low, black and white. Over the next few years, she of­ten re­turned to the cave to sketch the an­thro­po­mor­phic spir­its in note­books, hew­ing to an adage that still guides her re­search to this day: What you have not drawn, you have not re­ally seen.

Her pas­sion be­came a vo­ca­tion. She switched ca­reers to pur­sue a doc­tor­ate in ar­chae­ol­ogy from

Texas A&M Univer­sity, fo­cus­ing her re­search on the White Shaman Mu­ral. In 1998, she even es­tab­lished a non­profit — the Shumla Ar­chae­o­log­i­cal Re­search and Ed­u­ca­tion Cen­ter in Com­stock, Texas — to doc­u­ment and pre­serve the re­gion’s sev­eral an­cient rock art sites.

Still, of the many rock art caves to be found in the re­gion, none are as com­plex or vast as the White Shaman Mu­ral, though as Boyd ad­mit­ted, the rock art site’s com­mon name is some­thing of a mis­nomer. “The White Shaman site was named for that re­ally beau­ti­ful 3-foot white fig­ure near the cen­ter of the panel,” Boyd told Pasatiempo. “But it’s just one of many im­por­tant fig­ures at this site. Maybe it’s be­cause it’s so pho­to­graph­i­cally pleas­ing, it’s be­come the cen­ter of the dis­cus­sion. We get drawn by our Western eye to what is big­gest and bright­est in the cen­ter of the mu­ral.”

Her quar­ter-cen­tury of re­search into the mu­ral’s mean­ing com­bined both high-tech ar­chae­ol­ogy — 3-D laser scan­ning and dig­i­tal im­age en­hance­ment — with old-school ethno­graphic re­search into the shared vis­ual and re­li­gious world of the Nahua and Hui­chol peo­ples of Mex­ico. In her most re­cent book, The White Shaman Mu­ral: An En­dur­ing Creation Nar­ra­tive in the Rock Art of the Lower Pe­cos (Univer­sity of Texas Press), she takes the reader panel by panel through a mu­ral whose vis­ual sym­bols com­bine to tell a rich pic­to­rial nar­ra­tive of the for­ma­tion of the un­der­world, the birth of pey­ote, the creation of time, and the es­tab­lish­ment of the heav­ens.

Like Stone­henge, the White Shaman Mu­ral in­ter­acts with its en­vi­ron­ment, its mean­ing chang­ing with the ris­ing and set­ting of the sun. Ev­ery win­ter sol­stice, the set­ting sun casts a shadow that stops ex­actly on the red scarf painted on the neck of the white moon god­dess in the mu­ral’s cen­ter. “Ev­ery sol­stice, she is de­cap­i­tated,” Boyd said. “The fig­ure in the paint­ing loses her power, turn­ing it over to the sun in­stead.” In other words, the moon god­dess is be­headed to sig­nal spring’s im­mi­nent ar­rival. It’s a fate, Boyd said, com­mon to lu­nar deities in the vis­ual iconog­ra­phy of Uto-Aztecan reli­gions.

Boyd seizes upon mu­ral de­tails like this to over­turn the the­ory, still pop­u­lar among many ar­chae­ol­o­gists, that rock art was es­sen­tially the creation of shamans who made the paint­ings un­der the in­flu­ence of hal­lu­cino­genic plants. That’s an ex­tremely short­sighted view, said Boyd, who ar­gues that the White Shaman mu­ral nar­rates a re­li­gious found­ing story that is strik­ingly sim­i­lar to the ones told in Hui­chol and Nahua-speak­ing in­dige­nous Mex­i­can vil­lages to this day. Her own think­ing on the mu­ral has evolved over the decades. In the 1990s, she be­lieved the mu­ral de­picted a pey­ote pil­grim­age, a re­li­gious har­vest of the plant for use in cer­e­monies that is still con­ducted an­nu­ally by the Hui­chol of the Sierra Madre Oc­ci­den­tal range in western Mex­ico. But in the late 2000s, in­spired by the work of Mex­i­can ethno­g­ra­phers, she turned her at­ten­tion from cer­e­mo­nial rit­ual to found­ing myths in or­der to un­pack the paint­ing’s many sym­bols and an­thro­po­mor­phous fig­ures.

“With each pass­ing year of study, it has be­come more ev­i­dent that the mu­ral con­tains el­e­ments strik­ingly sim­i­lar to not only Hui­chol creation sto­ries, but to those other South­ern Uto-Aztecan-speak­ing peo­ples — in­clud­ing the con­cepts of repli­ca­tion, com­ple­men­tary du­al­ism, a pri­mor­dial moun­tain in the east from which all life emerged, and of su­per­nat­u­ral and sec­u­lar con­flict as be­ing creative, life-sus­tain­ing forces,” Boyd writes. “While one might ar­gue that each el­e­ment, in­di­vid­u­ally, could be co­in­ci­den­tal, in the ag­gre­gate they are hard to deny.”

If it seems con­tro­ver­sial to sug­gest that a fourt­hou­sand-year-old mu­ral de­picts a re­li­gious story still told to this day in con­tem­po­rary Hui­chol com­mu­ni­ties, Boyd asks read­ers to think of the meno­rah, a can­de­labrum whose sym­bolic mean­ing has re­mained re­mark­ably con­sis­tent and leg­i­ble over five thou­sand years of Jewish life. Be­yond its vis­ual sym­bols, ac­cord­ing to the ar­chae­ol­o­gists, much of the mu­ral’s mean­ing can also be found in its paint col­ors, down to the or­der in which they were ap­plied. Thanks to high-res­o­lu­tion pho­tog­ra­phy and mag­ni­fi­ca­tion tools, her re­search team de­ter­mined that the paints were ap­plied black first, then red, yel­low and fi­nally white.

It is proof, Boyd writes, that the mu­ral was the planned com­po­si­tion of a sin­gle painter, and the ap­pli­ca­tion of col­ors is in ac­cor­dance with Nahua and Hui­chol prin­ci­ples of color. Black came first, as it is “the color of fem­i­nin­ity and pri­mor­dial time.” Red, the color of blood, mas­culin­ity, and fire, came next. Yel­low was ap­plied next, as given its as­so­ci­a­tion with the ris­ing of the sun, along with over­com­ing the black of night and the red of predawn. White al­ways came last, as it sug­gests both the zenith of the sun and tran­scen­dence, signaling the con­tin­u­ing cy­cle of life.

“It’s just mind-bog­gling when you think about how much in­for­ma­tion is car­ried in these mu­rals,” Boyd said. “We over­look that when we fo­cus just on the sym­bols. It’s color and the or­der of ap­pli­ca­tion. It’s what light and shadow do to the fig­ures at dif­fer­ent times in the rotation in the earth. Ev­ery­thing car­ries mean­ing. It’s not just ran­dom.”

Through the Witte Mu­seum of San An­to­nio, which as­sumed own­er­ship of the site this Jan­uary, it is pos­si­ble for the gen­eral pub­lic to visit the White Shaman mu­ral. But per­haps be­cause of the re­mote­ness of the site, only a few hun­dred peo­ple each year take ad­van­tage of a guided tour. Boyd said that other Na­tive Amer­i­can tribes are fa­mil­iar with the mu­ral through oral history and still make oc­ca­sional pil­grim­ages to the rock art cave.

The im­age-driven Me­soamer­i­can mythology on dis­play in the cave may be down­right alien to most of the mod­ern Tex­ans who now live in the re­gion. But as art, the paint­ing is still ca­pa­ble of con­vey­ing much of its core story to any­one in­vested in learn­ing its vis­ual lan­guage. “The method of read­ing that story was handed down gen­er­a­tion to gen­er­a­tion, such that any­one who un­der­stood the gram­mar could read the paint­ings,” Boyd writes. “Then at some point in time, ev­ery­one with that spe­cial knowl­edge moved on, and the mes­sage of the White Shaman mu­ral went into a very long pe­riod of dor­mancy. But as those an­cient artists have shown us, time al­ways re­turns to its place of ori­gin.”

“The White Shaman Mu­ral: An En­dur­ing Creation Nar­ra­tive in the Rock Art of the Lower Pe­cos” by Carolyn E. Boyd, with con­tri­bu­tions by Kim Cox, is pub­lished by Univer­sity of Texas Press.

Ar­chae­ol­o­gist and au­thor Carolyn E. Boyd; top, the poly­chro­matic Pe­cos River style mu­ral at the White Shaman site is ap­prox­i­mately 26 feet long and 13 feet high, photo Ch­ester Leeds; op­po­site page , the White Shaman site was named in the 1980s for this strik­ing 3-foot tall, white an­thro­po­mor­phic fig­ure, photo Jean Clottes; im­ages cour­tesy Univer­sity of Texas Press

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