To take a trip through Nevada's Valley of Fire is to travel back in time to another world, a world of shamanic trances, plumed serpents and dancing bird men
The shaman’s drum rattles like a desert sidewinder as he etches dream-quest visions into the sandstone. Plumed serpents. Trapezoidal beings with huge saucery eyes. Lizard men. Bird men. Throngs of them. Wildly dancing... and only 55 miles northeast of Las Vegas!
They race over the rock like Vegas at rush hour. Scenes of migrations and battles. Puberty rites. Hunters hurling atlatls at the kill. The shaman’s crystal gouge, pecking and scratching through the centuries, as Gypsum Period people - Uto, Aztec, Anasazi, Fremont, Shoshone, Paiute, Pueblo, Chemehuevi and Mojave - come and go through Nevada’s Valley of Fire.
The petroglyphs in this molten Martian landscape in the Mohave Desert were the newspapers of the day. Images for humans to ponder thousands of years hence. You have to be in a trance to decipher them, and as our guide to Nevada’s first State Park points out, the deadly nightshade Datura stramonium - also known as jimson weed and zombie cucumber - is blooming nearby in the sands along this Petroglyph Canyon trail. What did the shaman see, travelling with his narcotic devil’s weed through astral realms? These petroglyphs with the cavernous staring eyes - are they astral visions, or astral visitors? Area 51 in Roswell, New Mexico is just up the road.
If I stare too long I could become one of those rock art nuts doomed to wander from glyph to glyph - 700 sites recorded in Southern Nevada alone! - hearing voices and seeing things emanating off the rock. Dragging around acoustical gizmos to measure the resonance of petroglyphic echos. Comparing the phallic protuberances of those humpbacked flute-players – Kokopelli - tooting on the rocks. Gathering at rock art conventions to discuss rock art styles - Anasazi, Jornado, Mogollon Red, Great Basin Abstract - and delivering grand academic papers on the impossibility of interpreting the images.
As we scramble up to get a good look at the cliff face, our guide explains how researchers attempt to date rock engravings. They measure the thickness of the “desert varnish”, a deposit of carbonates, sulphides and oxides, which over time becomes a thick varnish. They study erosion factors, chronology of styles and the images themselves.
Images of atlatls - stone-weighted wooden spears with ends like giant crochet hooks - offer a big clue. Horses rode in to North America with Hernando Cortez in 1519. But atlatls have been used for at least 19,000 years! Old Cro the Magnon Man hurled them at great woolly mammoths, and they were popular in Europe in the Upper Paleolithic 14,000 years ago. Aztec warriors are always depicted hurling them at something. And the Spanish conquistadors were rightly terrified, because atlatls pierced armour like toothpicks impaling cocktail olives. In Nevada, archaeologists found a wooden atatl that was 8,500 years old. The Valley of Fire’s Atlatl Rock is said to be one of the finest prehistoric renderings of an ancient spear-thrower in North America.
Climbing slowly up the steep iron steps to get a closer look at the sheer cliff face, busy with serpents, lizards, eagles, bighorn sheep and the atlatl, it dawns on me why I’m so fascinated by this Stone Age Internet. Future visitors to Earth will find only the plastic and metal of our junked motherboards and monitors. The words and pictures that scrolled across their screens - intelligent or inane expressions of our high-tech civilisation - will be gone forever, ephemeral bites and bits of light particles flung into space. But here is hard copy, patiently chiselled, scraped, pecked into basalt. The tribal elders and rock art nuts are right in their fight to preserve it.