The Journal of San Diego History
Fall 1999, Volume 45, Number 4
Gregg Hennessey, Editor

Book Review

The Cave Paintings of Baja California: Discovering the Great Murals of an Unknown People. 

By Harry W. Crosby. Sunbelt Publications, 1997. Color and b/w photographs, maps, illustrations, bibliography. ix + 246pp. $39.95 cloth.

Reviewed by Sue A. Wade, contract archeologist and historian and winner of the Richard Ruetten Scholarship for history graduate studies at San Diego State University.

The foundation of archaeological research is context. When considering research, the archaeologist first acquires an overview of the region’s natural and cultural environment. What and where were the region’s natural resources — water, plants and animals, and geology? What is known about the prehistoric inhabitants — their settlement and subsistence patterns, their chronology, their cultural beliefs? And what are the current archaeological research questions — in light of what we know, what important cultural research should be addressed? In the United States Southwest, archaeology proceeds within a contextual framework that has been advancing, albeit by fits and starts, for nearly a century. We Southwestern archaeologists rarely find ourselves without a research footing.

By contrast, imagine the archaeological vertigo in contemplating one of the isolated Great Mural sites in the central sierras of Baja California, Mexico. Local lore had provided the only explanation — that the murals were created by an ancient race of giants. In 1971, after being “astonished and overwhelmed” by an impressive mural composition of human and animal figures, Harry Crosby determined “not to leave with so many unanswered questions.” This encounter began a decade-long exploration that documented over 200 rock-art sites in the Sierras de San Francisco, San Juan, Guadalupe, and San Borja, in central Baja California. While an inventory of these sites, The Cave Paintings of Baja California, also conveys the adventure of the discovery and the characteristics of the natural setting. Importantly, the book synthesizes the site documentation to identify artistic features and define stylistic regions. The combination of detailed documentation and synthesis results in a foundational work that will contribute to the natural and cultural contexts framing future archaeological research in the region.

The main body of the work includes a chapter devoted to earlier rock art recordings in the region: from eighteenth-century Spanish missionaries to mid twentieth-century writers and anthropologists. Four chapters provide the site documentation — and one of the book’s most impressive elements — the beautiful color photographs, interpretive drawings, and maps that communicate some of the magnificence of the murals and their environs. Importantly, Crosby’s site descriptions are the indispensable data for his final synthetic chapter. Human and animal figure styles, outline and infill treatments, color, and abstraction distinguish five styles that roughly correspond geographically, north-to-south, with the region’s major sierras. Northernmost is the Red-on-Granite style, almost exclusively life-sized or larger, red painted human figures. The San Francisco style contains the large, vertically half-black and half-red, human figures (“monos”) that are the best known of the Great Mural elements. Further south, the San Borjitas style is predominated by human figures with bulbous bodies infilled with linear elements. The southern Trinidad style is characterized by graceful deer, infilled with geometric patterns and lines. The southernmost Semiabstract style exhibits geometric human and animal forms that are box-like with stick legs and arms. In all areas minor abstract elements occur, including sunbursts, handprints, crosshatches, and spirals, as well as carved, engraved, and drilled pictographs. The majority of the Great Murals are sited in large caves suggesting public ceremonies that probably occurred, given the region’s seasonal resources, in the fall.

The large groupings of representational human and animal forms depicted in the Great Murals of Baja California contrast strikingly with the small abstract and geometric rock art designs that characterize northern Baja and Alta California. Ken Hedges, curator at the San Diego Museum of Man, has identified three styles for the San Diego region and northern Baja California (San Luis Rey, Rancho Bernardo, and La Rumorosa) that roughly correspond with ethnographically and archaeologically defined cultural groups. In contrast with the Great Mural art, these are characterized almost exclusively by abstract, anthropomorphic, and geometrical designs. They are also of a much-reduced scale suggesting that they were for private rather than group ceremonial use. Crosby’s work has provided the site-specific data and regional synthesis that will be essential to framing future archaeological research in central Baja California. Indeed, the Afterword, written by Crosby’s fieldwork companion, Enrique Hambleton, provides some brief highlights of subsequent archaeological endeavors, including recovery of a 3,000-year-old textile fragment in a mural cave. Future archaeological work can address some of the questions posed by the Great Murals. When did the painters inhabit the region? How does the archaeological record reflect Crosby’s identified styles? How was mural painting and ceremony a part of the seasonal settlement pattern? What part did the animals depicted in the murals play in the subsistence strategy? What other ceremonial elements were associated with the mural caves? Future research will rely heavily on the Crosby’s Great Mural Art site documentation and regional synthesis. As such, it is an essential component of the Baja California research library. As well, its beautiful photographs and drawings and easy prose can be enjoyed by any reader who wants to share in Crosby’s discovery of the natural and cultural resources of central Baja California.