The Journal of San Diego History
Summer 1976, Volume 22, Number 3
James E. Moss, Editor

Book Reviews

The Cave Paintings of Baja California. The Great Murals of an Unknown People. Written and photographed by Harry Crosby. Other illustrations by Joanne Haskell Crosby. Salt Lake City: Copley Books, 1975. Bibliography. Glossary. Illustrations. Index. Maps. 174 pages. $18.50.

Reviewed by the distinguished ethnohistorian Dr. Miguel León-Portilla, a frequent contributor to this journal. Dr. León-Portilla, of the Instituto de Investigaciones Históricas of the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, has done extensive research and travel in Baja California. Among his publications is the definitive edition of the valuable Historia Natural y Crónica de la Antigua California by Miguel del Barco (1973).

Rock art, perhaps better described as rock magical art — the cave paintings and the petroglyphs of Baja California — for the first time attracted the attention of some Jesuit missionaries around 1750. Thanks to Father Miguel del Barco’s Historia Natural y Crónica de la Antigua California, we have the transcription of two early accounts about the paintings given by the missionaries Joseph Mariano Rothea and Francisco Escalante. Not many more references to these paintings or the petroglyphs have come down to us from the 18th century. Little more knowledge was gained about this matter in the next century. Two names only ought to be mentioned in that context, those of the Dutchman Herman F. C. Ten Kate and of the Frenchman Leon Diget, who in the eighties visited independently different portions of the peninsula and left significant reports on the native paintings and petroglyphs.

A recent happening is the new enthusiasm to know more about the rock art of peninsular California. Its more immediate antecedents were the publications, in 1951 and 1954, made by the Mexican anthropologists Javier Romero and Barbara Dahlgren to present the results of their research in the cave of San Borjitas, not far from Mulegé, in the Sierra de Guadalupe. Obviously a much larger number of persons became acquainted, some years later, with the several books written by Erle Stanley Gardner about Baja California and its treasure of native pictorial art. Among those who accompanied Gardner, the archaeologist Clement W. Meighan was responsible for a more scholarly dissemination of knowledge about the paintings. The new facilities to reach Baja California, the completion of the transpeninsular highway, finally have been instrumental in fostering a growing interest, sometimes sensationalistic in nature, to see the paintings and also to know more about them.

My purpose is here to describe briefly and to evaluate a new book which I consider a substantial contribution to the subject: The Cave Paintings of Baja California, written and photographed by Harry Crosby. The author is not an archaeologist nor a historian nor a prehistorian; he is an intelligent and responsible person, a good writer, excellent photographer, a man endowed with an inquiring mind who has devoted several years to exploring large portions of Baja California. He has been in search of knowledge not only about its rock art but also on the vestiges left by the first European settlers, including specifically the King’s Highway, El Camino Real, that, two hundred years ago, linked one mission to another.

First we ought to say that in Crosby’s work there is no trace of sensationalism. After a brief introduction, dealing with the historical antecedents, the author devotes his first chapter to “The First to Find Them.” His presentation and comments about previous contributions constitute a resume of the history of what was known about the paintings. The four following chapters are designed to cover the many important areas rich in cave paintings within the central area of the peninsula.

The two first areas, the Sierra de San Francisco and the Sierra de Guadalupe, are located in the northern part of the recently created State of Baja California Sur. The Sierra de San Juan is, as the author points out, “astride the 28th parallel, which divides the states of Baja California (North and South).” Finally, the fourth area, that of the Sierra de San Borja, extending from the Bahía de Los Angeles on the north to El Arco on the south, embraces in part the lower end of the northern State. In dealing with each one of these Sierra areas Crosby offers a relevant geographical description, resulting mainly from his first hand observations, together with precisely drawn maps in which major and minor painted sites are shown. Many extraordinary photographs in color of the paintings in the different areas enhance the value of the book, being a visual introduction to and a testimony of the creations left by “the painters.” To better portray the force of expression, the sense of composition inherent in these old artistic achievements, carefully prepared sketches are offered. Other maps, on a more reduced scale, are designed to give more detailed information about certain regions within each one of the mentioned four areas.

Crosby’s prose, while giving attention to many pertinent anecdotes, carefully describes different painted sites, many more than one would expect. The various kinds of figures, human and of different animals, their distinct positions, colors, scene compositions, possible meanings, sacred, magical and artistic, receive always studied consideration. The possibility of detecting various styles becomes also a subject of discussion. At the same time the author is conscious of the limitations inherent to his work. He writes for instance:

. . . no matter what is learned about the paintings, and from them, it is clear that they are only a single piece of the archaeological record, the whole of which is virtually unstudied . . . (p. 90).

And underlining at the same time the importance of any serious approach to the paintings, he rightly continues his comment with the following statement to which we also subscribe:

The Great Murals, unlike many humbler artifacts, express a timeless genius which speaks to us even out of context. These works will find an independent audience as art for art’s sake. (p. 90).

In the last chapter of the book, “Who Were the Painters?” a relevant discussion is introduced about when, how, and by whom the great murals were produced. Interesting, though not very convincing to me, is the hypothesis of correlating an astronomic event, that according to various European and Chinese sources took place in 1054 A.D., with a painting appearing on the roof of a slit cave in the Arroyo del Parral (Sierra de San Francisco), where a circle is represented “with rays like a conventional sun symbol, quite close to a larger moon-like object” (p. 167). More reasonable, it seems to me, is the author’s final though only tentative assertion that the cave painting period “was about a thousand years in length and that it extended from 500 A.D. to 1500 A.D.” (p. 169).

A significant contribution in many respects is this work of Crosby. Its magnificent color illustrations, its maps and descriptions of the sites studied, its carefully elaborated reflections and hypothesis, its easy reading quality, will attract the interest of a large number of readers-professionals concerned with the history and prehistory of Baja California and others, many more, in permanent love with the peninsula and with its magnificent rock art, which magically “speaks to us even out of context.”