Gustavo A. Ramirez on the Rock Art of Burgos, Tamaulipas, Mexico

Peyote, shamans, and pre-Hispanic rock art

At the second meeting of Historic Archaeology at Mexico’s National History Museum, which took place on May 25th of this year, researchers presented the results of their study of nearly 5,000 newly discovered pre-Hispanic cave paintings in the area surrounding the city of Burgos, Mexico. I corresponded with Dr. Gustavo A. Ramirez of the Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia (INAH), who supervised this study. After explaining the discovery of the rock art and their general characteristics, Dr. Ramirez discussed the religious and magical significance of the paintings.

Charles Halton: How were these works of art discovered?

Gustavo A. Ramirez: Although the mural paintings of Burgos, Tamaulipas were known since many years ago, the first time that the National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH), which is responsible for cultural heritage in Mexico, made an official record of them was in 2006. At this time the former chronicler of Burgos municipality, Ms. Cecilia Casas, asked the INAH for an inspection. Burgos is located in Northwest Tamaulipas, on the border with Nuevo Leon.

“Santa Olaya 1 Site." Photo courtesy of INAH.
Santa Olaya I Site. Photo courtesy of INAH.

We recorded three sites which were named Santa Olaya I, II, and III. Santa Olaya is the name of a canyon close to Burgos, whose name was given to the painting’s style for a photographer, years before. Now we know that those paintings spread over many canyons around Burgos, including the San Carlos Municipality.

We returned to the place two more times to continue the survey. But rising violence all over north Tamaulipas kept us away from Burgos for years. In 2010 we went back again to continue the record. This time archaeologist Martha García Sánchez, bachelor of the Autonomous University of Zacatecas, came with me. She decided to do her dissertation on Burgos’s paintings. And during two brief seasons we recorded ten new sites, completely unknown, with the support of Mr. Mario Treviño, our guide, and two students.

CH: Could you describe the forms of rock art within this discovery?

GAR: Paintings were made, with no exception, on rock shelters. The water carved canyons across the mountains of the Sierra de San Carlos have high limestone walls which were used by ancient inhabitants as a canvas for their paintings. But people apparently did not live there; they only used these places for ritual activities.

“Cave of the Indian." Depiction of an “atlatl”or shuttle. Photo courtesy of INAH.
“Cave of the Indian.” Depiction of an “atlatl,” or shuttle. Photo courtesy of INAH.

But the paintings, presumably, are not all from the same epoch. One can observe many layers with similar but different styles, forms, and colors. We can see lines, geometric figures, anthropomorphic, zoomorphic, phytomorphic, and fantastic figures and symbols. There are also weapons such as the “atlatl,” or shuttle, scenes of camps of “tipis”, or mobile houses, and, maybe, astronomic phenomena.

These paintings were delineated in red, black, white, or yellow colors, or a combination of some of them. Another technique used was the petroglyph, which is an image created by removing part of the surface of the rock, by incising, carving, or picking. However, petroglyphs are unusual in Burgos’s rock art.

“A posible camp of tipis." Photo courtesy of INAH.
A posible camp of tipis. Photo courtesy of INAH.

Drawings were made, generally, by using a finger. Apparently they also used some kind of thin brush, possibly a feather, a stick, or even a brush made from human hair. Sometimes they painted the wall surfaces with the whole hand. Other times lines were made, seemingly, with a small piece of mineral or carbon, similar to a stick of chalk. Although the techniques used to produce images were the same, forms and styles probably belong to different peoples and time periods.

CH: What are some of their magical and religious aspects?

GAR: The most important aspect of the paintings is what they mean. Yet, it is almost impossible to know exactly what those ancient symbols imply even if they appear to be similar to other paintings throughout the world. This is because similar forms do not always mean the same thing for different people; above all when there are spatial and temporal distances between them. Nevertheless, it is possible to get an approximate understanding of the function that they had, and from that, we can arrive at their meaning.

"Cave of the Indian." Photo courtesy of INAH.
“Cave of the Indian.” Photo courtesy of INAH.

First of all, these paintings are not art in the same way that we currently define it. These paintings weren’t made for decoration, or to reflect emotions, ideals, or concepts which concern humankind. They were made to meet a need. What kind of need? Well, I think a spiritual need, or a need of health, or food, or security. In some cases, they recorded a special event, such as an astronomic occurrence, a historical happening, a meeting of tribes, a war, or an account of days.

On the other hand, in ancient times people believed in the great power of symbols and colors. This means that only few and specialized persons could use them. Very few people knew the secrets to make the colors, where to get the indicated minerals or clays, how to powder and mix them with fats, oils, and other ingredients. This had to be a very specialized activity, a secret work reserved only for shamans, healers, or magicians.

Red is a special color and it is predominant in Burgos’s paintings. It is known that in most cultures red has an important meaning, linked to death, to the sun or to power, and is related to blood, for obvious reasons. This color was obtained from rocks with high content of iron, like hematite. Those minerals, to our knowledge, don’t exist in the region. They came from some distance away, like the mines of Guadalcázar or Querétaro, 300 or 400km south, by trade.

Other colors like black are easy to produce by burning wood to make charcoal, or white, by burning limestone which is abundant. Yellow is a mystery. We don’t know how they obtained it, but many limestone walls show yellow zones of the same tonality as the figures. So we can infer that they contain a yellow mineral which was extracted to produce this color.

“Cave of the Indian." Photo courtesy of INAH.
“Cave of the Indian.” Photo courtesy of INAH.

Forms are the other important aspect of these paintings – they contain the essence of their artistic and ideological significance. But it is hard to understand at first glance if some of them are associated – forming groups or scenes – or if they are isolated elements. But a way to understand the process by which they were painted is to imagine a scene where a sick person is taken to the foot of a rock shelter where the shaman or healer will invoke the natural forces or the ancestor’s spirits. For the healing ritual, the shaman might have ingested some plants, beverages, or even animals which are psychotropic and even hallucinogenic. Some of those substances could be eaten by the sick person and his companions as well. Furthermore, chants were sung and dances performed.  When a shaman was in an altered or ecstatic state he likely began to draw figures on the wall – symbols and signs that would help heal the patient. Within the paintings, we can see depictions of peyote. This is a sacred hallucinogenic cactus that grows in the region. The Huichol people still makes pilgrimages of hundreds of kilometers to Real de Catorce, at San Luis Potosi, which is not very far from this rock art, to gather and eat it in rituals.

This scenario could be repeated with petitions to ensure a good hunt, the triumph over enemies, to get the advice of the ancestors or spirits of natural forces, to predict the future, or to interpret dreams, etc. To our knowledge, colonial sources do not mention beliefs concerning gods or a special character within hunter gatherer tribes of northeastern Mexico. So we can accept, until we have new information, that these people had animistic beliefs.

Santa Olaya 1 site. Photo courtesy of INAH.
Santa Olaya 1 site. Photo courtesy of INAH.

The shaman was likely responsible for writing down outstanding events. He possibly read them for the people or for the tribe’s chiefs, in order to remember such events for future generations, or to inform them about situations that they ignored, like the presence of different peoples. Two of those paintings are very interesting. In one of them we can see the mountains under a starry sky. In the middle over the mountains a strong line rips the sky … is it a comet? The other shows a row of tipis, the typical mobile and conical houses of the Plains Indians. What does this mean? That the inhabitants lived in these kinds of houses and they made portrayals of their camps, or that they were visited by different peoples which came from far away, from the North American plains. We know that the Comanche tribe reached the Rio Grande region. Maybe they came further south at some time, to Burgos’s region. Not here, but in south Tamaulipas, there are paintings depicting the arrival of Spaniards in the middle of the 18th century, riding and wearing hats. Surely, those were situations that worried them.

CH: Could you explain some of the presumed animistic beliefs of the people who produced the paintings and how these beliefs appear in the rock art?

GAR: Ancient peoples of northeastern Mexico believed that all things – including animals, plants, rocks, mountains, rivers, etc. – contain a soul which has magical powers. Shamans or healers may take the spirit of such things and force them to comply with his self-will, through rituals and ceremonies. By painting the thing’s spirit on a wall, for example, they could capture powerful spirits to invoke them with spells, substances, and performances.

Peyote Cactus  (image from Wikimedia Commons)
Peyote Cactus. Wikimedia Commons.

Huichol people believe that the sacred cactus, peyote, has a spirit named “humito,” or little smog. When they eat it, humito causes people to confess their sins and repent, which purified them and restored their health.  As I said, the peyote is depicted in the Burgos paintings. I think that with these paintings they were trying to capture the spirit of the peyote on the walls.

CH: How would the records of astronomical events have functioned within their culture and religious practice?

GAR: It’s hard to figure out how ancient people could use this. I think that they registered such events, like a comet’s appearance, because it was outstanding, and caused fear between inhabitants. So the shaman could just “take a picture” of it, to show to the others what happened.  Moreover, it is believed in many cultures that comets presage misfortune. Aztec people, who are descendants of the northern hunter gatherers, had the same beliefs. When Emperor Moctezuma II saw a comet over the great Tenochtitlan, he freaked. After a while, Spaniards came to fight. So, it’s possible that the appearance of a comet or a meteor caused fear and awe, forcing people to perform rituals to avoid misfortunes.

Not here, but in another site – Boca de Potrerillos, Nuevo Leon – there are many prehistoric astronomical markers related to the sun’s positions (like sunrise and sunset). Possibly, these depictions are linked to hunting and gathering activities. In any case, these markers indicate that those ancient peoples had a rudimentary knowledge of astronomy and its basic utility.

CH: Are there any conservation efforts intended to help preserve the art, and are paintings accessible to scholars and/or the general public?

GAR: When we started the survey in 2006, we had the intention to make a Management Plan in order to research and to conserve the first three sites, and to develop the necessary facilities to visit them. But very soon, Burgos and the surrounding area became dangerous due to drug trafficking. At the present, conditions do not permit us to undertake a large scale plan for cultural resources conservation and tourism management. Nevertheless, when times are better Burgos has great potential to develop as a touristic route of cultural and natural interest. This region is embedded within the Sierra de San Carlos, which has vast natural resources and gorgeous landscapes that are almost intact since colonial times. In addition to the outstanding rock art, it has historical monuments, traditions, music, and the warmth of its people, making the region of Burgos a place worth knowing.

Special thanks to Jarett Hall for assistance obtaining permissions from the INAH for the photos.