Ancient Petroglyph Makers
Of The Northern Sierra

by Bill Drake
Copyright 2018

When most people think of petroglyphs (images carved on stone), they think of the Southwest. Not many people realize that northern California has numerous petroglyph sites, many believed to be several thousand years old.

Archaeological evidence suggests that most of the rock art in this region was created by people who were part of what is called the Martis Complex. Their name comes from Martis Valley, near Truckee, California, where their artifacts were first found along Martis Creek by archaeologists Robert Heizer and Albert Elsasser in the early 1950s. It would not be technically correct to refer to these people as a tribe or as the "Martis Indians," since they tended to travel in loose-knit groups without the characteristics of a tribe.

The Martis are identified by certain traits, including the preference for basalt for their stone tools and the use of mortars and pestles. They hunted with spears and atlatls. The atlatl came to America over 10,000 years ago. This ingenious tool was in use before the invention of the bow and arrow. It consisted of a stick with a crook on the end which was used to propel a spear-like dart with considerable force. The dart traveled as fast as 100 miles per hour.

These prehistoric people were what archaeologists call "hunters and gatherers." Former Tahoe National Forest archaeologist Hank Meals has pointed out the inadequacy of this term, since it can connote human beings of questionable intelligence who wander around the land eating berries and killing game. "Hunters and gatherers" were very intelligent and highly adaptable people who knew far more about their environment, including the use of plants, and the behavior of animals, than people in our modern world will ever know.

The Martis spent their summers at higher elevations in the Sierra and their winters in the lower elevations, and they reoccupied winter villages and base camps over long periods of time. Their artifacts have been found in western Nevada (including the land around Carson City and Reno) and in northern California (Plumas, Sierra, Nevada, Placer, and El Dorado Counties). They inhabited this region from 3,000BC to 500AD, sharing the land with eagles, big horn sheep, grizzly bears, rattlesnakes, mountain lions, and other creatures that most of us today have little or no contact with. (Their occupation of just northern California is dated from 2,000BC to 500AD.)

There are over ninety Martis petroglyph sites. With the exception of one or two that are publicly known, their locations are kept confidential because of the danger of vandalism. At some of the Martis sites, contemporary names and initials have been carved in the rock right next to, or on top of, designs that date back to the Egyptian pyramids, degrading an irreplaceable cultural resource for ego gratification.

The rock art designs found at these sites attributed to the Martis were categorized as "Style 7: High Sierra Abstract-Representational" by archaeologist Louis Payen in his unpublished masters thesis in 1966. Most of them are abstract. The images include circles, spirals, wavy lines, sun-like designs, serpent-like images, and figures resembling bear and deer tracks. Hard stones were used to peck out the shape of the images. A lighter color just beneath the surface of the rock often helped the forms stand out.

The art is frequently found in locations that afforded a view of the surrounding mountains and valleys, places that allowed the Indians to observe game or other Indians from a distance, and that were of great scenic beauty. Horizontal or gently sloping bedrock was preferred for the designs, unlike the vertical surfaces most often used in the Southwest. The Martis are not known to have made pictographs, or images painted on rock.

It is not possible to know what the individual images meant to the ancient petroglyph makers, even in the case of the few designs that we can make some association with, such as images of rattlesnakes and deer tracks. Since the Indians saw a world that was permeated by Spirit, everything they did, including creating rock art, probably had some sort of spiritual meaning or relationship.

The overall purpose of the northern Sierra's ancient rock art is also a mystery. Archaeologists believe that most cultures that created rock art did so for a variety of reasons, such as to create hunting magic (to have success in hunting); define territory; record events and stories; depict family and clan totems; monitor the position of the sun or other heavenly bodies; and create images related to spiritual life or shamanic activity.

People who study rock art believe that it was created for a purpose and was not the result of random "doodling." It also was not created as "art" per se. In fact, the term "rock art" is very inadequate. As author Malcolm Margolin has pointed out, native people tended to do everything with a sense of "art," even when making baskets for cooking or arrows for hunting. In general, they did not have a separate area of their life that was "art" and therefore totally different from other areas, just as they did not segment only a part of their life as pertaining to the spiritual realms.

Archaeologists believe that 1500 years ago the Martis concentrated their population to the eastern end of their territory, near the Reno and Carson City areas, and became the ancestors of the Washoe Indians.

Although the Martis have not lived in the northern Sierra for centuries, the images on stone that they left behind, hidden among forests and mountains, remind us of a time when human lives were much more intertwined with nature than our own.

About the Author:

Bill Drake lives in Nevada City, California. He has been interested in Native Americans for over fifty years, since he was eighteen. In the 1970s he taught high school classes related to Native American history, culture, religion, and politics. In 1991, he co-founded Friends of Sierra Rock Art to protect the ancient petroglyph sites in the northern Sierra. It is the first non-professional organization to have received the Society for California Archaeology's prestigious Helen C. Smith award for contributions to California archaeology. Drake has studied rock art and Native American cultures throughout the western United States. He has done numerous presentations related to rock art and native cultures for state park docents, school children, and the general public over the past 25 years.