The White Shaman Mural
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