Reading the White Shaman Mural

Paintings in a Texas canyon may depict mythic narratives that have endured for millennia

Monday, November 06, 2017

In the Lower Pecos Canyonlands of southwest Texas, a mile upstream from where the Pecos River flows into the Rio Grande, the White Shaman rock shelter is carved into a cliff face at the end of a limestone canyon. Here, in a small alcove, a 26-foot-long collection of pictographs stretches across a smooth wall that faces west. The pigments have faded over time, but a dense profusion of surreal figures, some highly abstract, others seemingly human or animal-like, are still visible. The setting sun can intensify the figures’ yellow and red colors, while a full moon illuminates white images, including the elongated headless human figure that gives the site its name. Similar rock art figures, some up to 20 feet high, decorate more than 200 rock shelters within a 90-mile radius around the confluence of the Pecos and the Rio Grande. Hunter-gatherers who lived here from about 2500 B.C. to A.D. 500 created these paintings, which belong to a tradition known today as the Pecos River Style.


These fantastical pictographs have long defied easy interpretation, and many archaeologists have resisted speculating about their meaning at all. Some believe the often bizarre images were made by shamans to recreate hallucinogenic visions they experienced while under the influence of stimulants. In recent years, Texas State University archaeologist Carolyn Boyd, a former professional artist, has proposed that they represent something much more complex. She has put forth the theory that the pictographs at White Shaman, and perhaps other Pecos River Style paintings, record the beliefs of ancient peoples whose descendants still live in Mexico today. What’s more, Boyd is convinced that by using scientific and ethnographic methods, we can begin to understand these narratives. “These are painted texts,” says Boyd. “I think we can read them, just as the people who created them must have read them.”

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