The 36,000-acre Fish Slough Area is a place where geographic isolation, geology, climate, and hydrology have created a rare and irreplaceable ecosystem. The petroglyphs are thought to be between about 1000 and 8,800 years old, and possibly made by the ancestors of the native Paiute-Shoshone people who still inhabit the valley.
Fish Slough is a lush oasis in an arid landscape known as the Volcanic Tableland. The wetland and part of the Volcanic Tableland totaling 36,000 acres is designated as an Area of Critical Environmental Concern (ACEC) to recognize, maintain, and enhance its unique resource values. Fish Slough Petroglyph panel and the Bishop Petroglyph driving loop are located just north of the town of Bishop, California in the northern end of the Owens valley.
Violent geologic events are the natural forces underlying Fish Slough’s subtle beauty.
Glowing hot rhyolite ash flowed like a scorching avalanche out of the Long Valley Caldera 760,000 years ago, destroying every living thing in its path and blanketing the landscape several hundred feet deep for miles around. “Prints and tracks are common at sites worldwide…In the Great Basin, small human footprints were attributed to the Water Baby, a diminutive human spirit who lived in springs and pools and served as a particularly potent spirit helper for shamans.” – David S. Whitley, author of A Guide To Rock Art Sites
The pyroclastic flow fused to create the porous white, pink and tan rock called Bishop tuff that makes up the Volcanic Tableland.
Faulting action warped and cracked the gentle slope of the Tableland, lifting some parts and dropping others.
The smooth surface broke into blocks that eroded into jagged or oddly curving forms. The small round bumps that dot some parts of the Tableland are the result of fumaroles of hot water and steam that vented from the cooling ash flow and hardened the tuff so that it resisted erosion.
Fish Slough’s abundant resources naturally attracted Native Americans to the area. Food sources included various wetland and desert scrub plant resources, waterfowl, deer, pronghorn, rabbits, freshwater mollusks, and the native desert fishes. Fish were caught by using plant derived poisons and fishing nets, and by dragging baskets through the water.
Circles and connecting lines in a balanced and aesthetic icon are characteristic of this style of petroglyph.
You can find many prehistoric rock art sites in the Fish Slough ACEC. The curvilinear style is characterized by its emphasis on curved lines and forms, such as circular motifs (circles, concentric circles, connected circles, dots, “starbursts,” etc.), wavy lines, and meanders. Their meaning has many interpretations, often associated with shamanic or hunting magic.
One theory speculates a relationship may exist between these carvings and hunting rituals since game trails are found near many petroglyphs sites. More recent evidence suggests they were the work of shamans communicating with the spirit world.
The prevailing styles, as classified by archaeologists, are Great Basin Curvilinear, and Great Basin Rectilinear. Petroglyphs like these occur throughout the Southwestern Great Basin, which extends eastward to Arizona.
The Fish Slough site has a few dozen petroglyphs, all are entoptic patterns; geometric designs perceived during the first stage of a shaman’s altered state of conciousness. Bisected circles are common here. They might portray vulva-form motifs or a schematized drawing of an atlatl, an accelerating device used to propel a spear.
At the beginning of a shaman’s spiritual journey, he is supposed to be swept up into the sky by a whirlwind, which aids him in his quest. The association of these designs with focused spiritual power implies their creator used this energy in a healing capacity.
The vertically bisected circle has to do with a females coming of age. “Theses patterns symbolize a sexual association with the shaman’s altered-state experiences, equating their entry into the supernatural with sexual intercourse.” – David S. Whitley, author of A Guide To Rock Art Sites