Along the Colorado River, a number of geoglyphs are carved out of the desert floor that are on par with the mysterious markings in the Peruvian desert near Nazca. However, the American “intaglios” are far less famous.
by Philip Coppens
The intaglios near Blythe, along the Colorado River along the California-Arizona border are the American equivalent of the Peruvian Nazca lines. Though never promoted as the airport for extraterrestrial beings, here are nevertheless the same geometric shapes, animals and humans, etched in the soil and best – and some of them only – visible from the sky.
Geoglyphs can be found in a number of locations across the States, but those that rival the intricacies found at Nazca most closely are near Blythe and Bouse, where allegedly over 600 exist – though far fewer – and only the largest – can be located today. The intaglios are found east of the Big Maria Mountains, about 15 miles north of downtown Blythe just west of U.S. Highway 95 near the Colorado River, where it defines the border between Arizona and California.
The Blythe intaglios – meaning “incised designs” – were discovered on November 12, 1931 by Army Air Corps pilot George A. Palmer, flying from Hoover Dam to Los Angeles. However, another story states that he was operating out of an airport at Las Vegas and decided to visit his brother in the Palo Verde Valley, and decided to reach his destination by following a course between the Maria Mountains and the Colorado River, thus discovering the geoglyphs. Palmer wrote: “Near two of the human shapes are figures of serpents and four-legged animals with long tails. One giant, or god, appears just to the have stepped out of a large dance ring.” He referred to the image of a “giant”, 167 feet in length, though there are several humans depicted, the smallest geoglyph measuring 95 feet. The dance ring he referred to is 140 feet in diameter.
Palmer approached Arthur Woodward, Curator of History and Anthropology at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, who asked whether aerial photographs could be taken, which Palmer accomplished in July, with the help of Dr. Charles E. Barrows.
Palmer’s discovery of the Blythe intaglios led to a survey of the area by Woodward. They thus became classified as Historical Landmark No. 101 and referred to as the “Giant Desert Figures”. He dated them, based on the coating of the desert varnish, stating that they were at least 200 years old, perhaps much older.
However, with no resident custodian, the site was quickly subject to decay, whether by tourism or vandalism. Today, a fence is erected to keep people from walking on top of the geoglyphs, but before, a sign that had been erected to draw attention to the glyphs, was then plastered over in an effort to preserve the (very literal!) landmark – though perhaps removing the sign altogether might have been a better option?
In 1957, De Weese W. Stevens, vice principal of the Palo Verde high school at Blythe arranged it that the geoglyphs could be restored. The restoration occurred in accordance with aerial photographs taken at the time of the original discovery 25 years earlier. It was after this work that it was decided that the best protection for the figures would be fences, which were installed around the giant and the quadruped and coiled snake that same year. Amongst the forms manifested at Blythe are long legged horses, one located near the giant, which is oriented northwest-southwest with its head pointing toward the northwest. It measures 54.1 feet from head to tail and its body is 7.5 feet wide. Its legs measure 26.2 feet long and at the end of each leg is a half circle, interpreted to possibly represent a paw or a hoof.
Richard Pourade, of the San Diego Museum of Man, believed that the depiction of horses enabled him to date the complex: “In the desert near Blythe, California, are raked gravel ‘pictographs’ of the Mojave Indians. One of them is a crude representation of a man; the other of a horse. The horse clearly places these gravel arrangements in the historic Indian period, as the original Western horse vanished from the continent many thousands of years ago and only was reintroduced by the Spaniards arriving from Europe.”
In 1966, the role of creators was therefore given to the Mojave Indians, and dated to the post-Columbian times of 1540 to 1800. However, Orville Hope, a horse expert, says that small dwarfish horses did exist in America, and that they were left by the Vikings – thus diverging from the accepted historical story. Interestingly, Hope identified wild herds as existing in the deserts of Nevada, California and Utah – the general Blythe region.
Geoglyphs are difficult to date, so archaeologists have no way of knowing their age. Interestingly, newer research by the University of California, Berkeley has dated the intaglios to 900 AD – thus indeed predating the official reintroduction of the horse in America. This dating is nevertheless quite decisive, as some of the giant figures are also archaeologically associated with cliff dwelling, some of which are 2000 years old – all of which predate Columbus’ discovery of America. It is such evidence that has made the Blythe intaglios yet another archaeological anomaly. How were these geoglyphs created? It is believed that individuals removed the dark desert pavement stones and thus exposed the lighter coloured soil underneath, while white quartz – a sacred rock for local Native Americans and which of course Kumastamo had at the point of his magical spear himself – was used to accentuate the spear of the Boise Fisherman. The glyphs were further accentuated by heaping rocks pulled away from the centre to the edges. Some intaglios are old enough to see the desert varnish that was scraped away from the soil beginning to reappear, as this varnish is due to weathering.
Though the Blythe geoglyphs are the most famous, they should not be seen in isolation. Other geoglpyhs are located east of Calexico, in the Yuha Desert. They are known to have been used in rituals commemorating myths, and for purification with ceremonial dances. The sites were destroyed by vandalism in 1975, but were reconstructed by the Bureau of Land Management and Imperial Valley College of El Centro, California in 1981 – though some vandalism occurred afterwards once again.
On the Arizona side of the river near Parker (Bouse) is the intaglio of a rattlesnake with twin rocks representing its eyes. The glyph is almost 150 feet long. The Bouse complex also has a famous human geoglyph, known as the “Fisherman”. This intaglio is the most controversial one, as some believe it was only carved in the 1930s, though the consensus view is that it is much older.
The figure is an enormous human shape with outstretched arms. The story that revolves around it says that the God Kumastam(h)o shoved a spear into the ground as his people were desperate for water. Though water did surface, it ran north, away from the desert. Kumastamo needed three more tries before he was able to get the water to run south-southwest to the desert, where it was needed. Then he took the very powerful quartz point of his great spear, dragged it across the dry earth, carving the path for the water to follow, creating what is now known as the Colorado River. No wonder therefore that the various depictions around the human are traditionally interpreted as a spear, as well as a sun shinning over his head, and a fish swimming below a water-like image. As one might imagine: our “Fisherman’s” fishing rod is a spear. The “Blythe complex” has a total of six distinct figures, in three locations. Each complex has a human figure, and two of the sites have an animal. There are depictions of serpents and quadrupeds, though some of the geoglyphs have been lost in recent decades. In World War II, General George S. Patton used Blythe as a desert training area and tanks and other equipment and movements destroyed some of the intaglios. Some of the damage remains visible today on aerial photographs.
The “human giant” of Blythe has received most attention. The human figure is oriented north-south with its head pointing toward the south. It has visible knees and elbows. Woodward’s research found that another such figure had been discovered in 1909 in the Pima country near Sacton, Arizona, on the north branch of the Gila River, which the Pima tribe called Haakvaak, or Hawk-Lying-Down. Another such giant being can be found in Winterhaven, south of Blythe.
Outside of this region, a single point of comparison is the Serro Unitas in Chile, an anthropomorphic giant, whose shape is nevertheless better executed. Frank Joseph also points to a life-size human figure in British Columbia. There, the Coast Tsimhian Indians speak of a man who fell from heaven, and left proof of his fall at an unusual rock. This story is usually interpreted as relating the adventures of a shaman during his shamanic flight, who flew in the sky and fell back to earth; where he fell, he left his imprint. The Native American’s flying hero was Metlakatla and a man-sized carving of the Metlakatla figure sometimes appears on rock outcrops.
According to Mohave and Quechan tribes of the lower Colorado River area, the giant represents Mastamho, the Creator of Earth and all life. Mastamho – i.e. the above mentioned Kumastamo – was the deity that was said to have created the Colorado River, and most of the intaglios obviously occur along this river. As to why there are several complexes along the river: some intaglios are thought to have been stations on a Yuman pilgrimage route. This ran from Avikwal (Pilot Knob) at the southern end of the river near Yuma (Arizona) – the spirit house where the dead dwell – to Avikwa’ame (Spirit Mountain or the Land of the Dead), further north (Newberry Peak, in the southernmost tip of Nevada, near Laughlin), the site built by Mastamho, and from where he created the world. Next, he plotted the death of Sky-Rattlesnake, an evil spirit and the source of dark powers, by cutting off his head. Finally, Mastamho turned himself into a fish-eagle and flew off into oblivion.
Mastamho, Kumastamo is same as the Hopi Fire Clan deity Masau’u. They identified this deity with the constellation Orion and it is remarkable how this constellation is indeed often depicted as a giant either waving a club or spear, whether in the New or Old World.
The Native Americans are also able to explain that animal figures represent Hatakulya, one of two mountain lions/persons who helped in the creation. This begs a question: what some have seen as a horse: could it instead be a lion? If so, it would make sense within the creation myth, which had no need or room for a horse, and it would annihilate the problem that no horses roamed America at the time when the intaglios were carved.
Furthermore, below the animal geoglyph at Blythe is a spiral figure. It measures 23 feet in length and is oriented northwest-southwest and has a maximum width of 8.8 feet. Though some have wondered whether this spiral might represent a coiled snake, the answer might be far simpler: spirals indicate places of emergence/creation and noting that we are confronted with the depiction of a creation myth, the giant, lion and spiral of Blythe all fit snugly within this context. Within the same framework, another human geoglyph is sometimes ascribed to being Kaatar, the Creator god’s evil twin brother. In ancient times, sacred ceremonial dances were held in the area to honour Mastamho and the geoglyphs formed part of the sacred landscape and pilgrimage between the Land of the Death and the Place of Creation. Shamans were believed to re-experience and witness these mythic events of the creation and thus obtain their powers. Anthropologist Alfred Kroeber wrote in 1925 that “It is of [Mastamho’s] house [on the Place of Creation] that shamans dream, for here their shadows were as little boys in the face of Mastamho, and received from him their ordained powers, confirmed by tests on the spot.” The sacredness of Newberry Peak is underlined because at the foot of this “Spirit Mountain” is the Grapevine Canyon petroglyph, the site where the shamans came to to have their vision quests.
The north-south pilgrim’s road was named Kwatcan, the “first trail to the homeland”. Author Gary David has pointed out that the Hopi word for “track” is kuku’at and that the word for “grandfather” is the near homophone kwa’at. He wonders whether the suffix -can is a variant of “ka”, part of the word kachina, the Hopi spirits, of which Masau’u was one. Either way, the pilgrim’s route would thus be known either as “Spirits of the Track” or “Spirits of the grandfathers” and brings to mind the dead-straight leylines of Western Europe, which the research of Paul Devereux has been able to show are spirit tracks too – paths allegedly chosen and flown both by the spirits of the ancestors, and the shamans trying to contact the Otherworld.
As such, we find that at the ceremonial stops along the kuku’at, of which Blythe was one, a shaman would instruct the pilgrim in mythic history and re-enact mythical events, including the creation of the world. Dr. Jordan Detzer, a University of California (Berkeley) archaeologist, has therefore concluded: “These intaglios were shown great reverence, as the natives used them for the performance of dances and mysterious, shamanist rites, always beseeching heavenly deities for help.” Spirit Mountain Interestingly, one tribe, the Patayan, are held to be responsible for the Blythe intaglios. They lived in the region from ca. 700 to 1550 AD. What is little known, is that the Colorado River actually inundates its flood plains annually, leaving behind fertile deposits of silt. The flood pains were therefore extremely rich – like the Egyptian Nile after its inundation – and, like in Egypt, this in sharp contrast with the surrounding desert.
This annual flooding allowed the Patayan to raise corn, beans and squash in the river’s silt deposits. Of course, relying on the annual inundations rather than a system of irrigation canals provided less stability than the latter option. Hence, they moved frequently in response to the seasons of inundation, planting, harvesting and hunting, often seeing the flood plain campsites of one year swamped by the river during the following year.
However, whereas it is a geological matter of fact that the Colorado behaves like the Nile, what is less easy to explain, is that the creation myth, focussing on Mastamho, and specifically how the river was hung between a place of death and a place of creation, mimics the Egyptian stories of the Egyptian deity Hapi and his relationship with the Nile almost to the most intricate detail. A quick Google search will already reveal how Hapi is described as “God of the Nile, Fertility, the North and South”. Equally, the “Mound of Creation” in Egypt was the Heliopolis complex, which incorporated the Gizeh plateau, believed to have been the true mound of creation, from which Atum had created the world. That plateau is famous for its pyramids, and though no pyramids are located along the Colorado River, it is known that atop Avikwa’ame, legend says, there was a great house name Aha-avulypo, or “Dark Round House”.
Interestingly, in Egypt, there are no known temples of Hapi, though his statues and reliefs are found in the temples of other deities. Fortunately, the Patayan were more “into” Mastamho, which means that today, we can see his depiction in the wonderful geoglyphs along the Colorado River.