March 27, 2018

Photo Essay: The Little Valley of Ancient Art and Astronomy

I'd been to Tecate on my first-ever trip to Mexico back in 2008—but only to the city for a tour of the brewery, lunch, and something sweet from the panadería.

I hadn't been back until returning as a guest of Tijuana-based tour company Turista Libre, when I got to venture beyond the city limits of the border town... experience the crown jewel of Baja California’s archaeological sites, the Sitio Arqueológico El Vallecito in the La Rumorosa village of the Tecate Municipality.

El Vallecito—literally, the "little valley"—has been and still is a sacred site for the Kumeyaay (a.k.a. Kumiai or Diegueño, as the Spanish called them) people, whose nomadic tribes spent time here when lower desert elevations were too hot and these higher elevations weren’t too cold.

Their territory once stretched way up into Alta California’s Imperial Valley—that is, when there was nothing keeping them to one side or another of any official boundaries that would eventually come to be.

The bands of hunters and gatherers who spent time here left behind a number of pictographs in mostly red (hematite), black (manganese dioxide), and white (gypsum), though also some orange and yellow.

The Peninsular Range representational rock art is both geometric and cosmic, sometimes seeming to map the sky and the stars (as with the Solecitos a.k.a "little sun" cave).

The cave paintings (a.k.a. pinturas) also depict both human and animal forms (or some combination thereof)—including most famously "El Diablito" (the "little devil who was more likely a deer hunter camouflaged as his game).

Many of them seem somewhat mythical or even supernatural—which stands to reason since the Kumeyaay were renowned for their cosmological beliefs and "sky knowledge," using their markings to communicate significant times of the year like the fall equinox or winter solstice.

There are five caves that are open to the public and marked with signage and historical displays, though many more exist beyond the official trail. Some might've been used as ceremonial sites, based on the soot that still remains overhead.

In this northernmost area of the Sierra de Juárez mountain range, you'll find time-weathered rock formations...

...split boulders...

...and natural cairns...

...but it's not all just geological.

In addition to small granite caves used as shelters (a.k.a. resguardos)... well as the pitted stones used as mortars...

...there's also a multitude of plants that thrive here...

...including piñon pine (from which the Kumeyaay derived pine nuts to grind)...

...agave, cactus, buckwheat, Manzanita, and other natural materials they used for pigment, food, clothing, shelter, rituals and medicine.

But more importantly, this ancient and perhaps prehistoric community seemed to understand something about the cosmos beyond its constellations, and its members tried to communicate that here.

That's what makes El Vallecito something like the Stonehenge of Mexico (or at least of Baja).

But thanks to vandalism, displacement, and genocide of indigenous peoples, we may never know for sure.

Related Posts:
Offbeat Travels in the Offseason: Carrizo Plain
Photo Essay: Garden of the Gods
Photo Essay: Stoney Point, at the Santa Susana Pass

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