Home Page  |  News  |  Events  |  Links
Online Articles : by Author  |  by Subject  |  by County
  Timelines  |  Site Names  |  Maps  |  Glossary  |  Everything Else   
<==Previous Page



Albert Knight

September 10, 2001


It is unfortunate that very little published information is available on the rock art of the Southern California Channel Islands, whose inhabitants were related (in varying degrees) to mainland peoples, some of whom were known to have created beautiful and elaborate rock art (specifically the mainland Chumash). Some of the information that is available is listed in Rock Art of the Chumash Area, by Georgia Lee and C. William Clewlow, Jr. (1979), but several other references also exist. The author of this paper thought it prudent to consolidate the currently known information and make it available to other researchers. It is presented with the hope that it will form a basis for, and/or contribute to, any additional research by anyone studying the rock art of the Channel Islands, etc.

The best overall information on the rock art of the northern group of islands can be found in Orr (1968:103-104). I have found no inclusive comments about the rock art of the southern island group. However, Richard Quist's article on Torqua Cave (CA-SCAI-32), on Santa Catalina Island, remains the best article about a particular rock art site on any of the Channel Islands, north or south. Santa Catalina seems to be the island that has the most extant rock art (i.e., both pictographs and cupules). Several researchers have described "The Cave of the Killer Whales," on San Nicolas Island, the only island with petroglyphs. Minor pictographs appear on Santa Cruz (which also has some cupules) and Santa Rosa Islands. Pit and Groove cupules are apparently present only on Santa Rosa Island. Rock art is apparently absent from San Miguel, Anacapa, Santa Barbara and San Clemente Islands. I hope that other researchers find the following information useful.


Anacapa Island

This island (or islands) is very small and rises very steeply from the sea. There is nowhere on the island that is suitable for the creation of rock art of any kind.

San Miguel Island

Rock art is apparently absent on this small low island.

Santa Cruz Island

Julian Steward provides information on rock art on Santa Cruz Island as follows:

129Pc. Santa Cruz Island, Santa Barbara County. Mr. Ronald Olsen, University of California, has kindly furnished us the following information concerning the pictographs on the island: "No petroglyphs were observed on the island. Pictographs were noted at only one place. In a cave on the north shore were perhaps 50 such, painted in red ochre on the walls and roof. None of these were elaborate. Common forms are stripes arranged in groups of two to ten, and irregular smears of red on smooth portions of the rock. A few simple crosses and rake figures also occur. An ash deposit of two to six feet in depth forms the floor of the cave, showing a considerable period of occupation. In this deposit were found mortars, pestles, asphalted pebbles, and asphalt blocks all resembling comparable objects in normal Chumash shell heaps. Many of the pictographs have been partially obscured by blackening from fires built beneath." [Steward 1029:109].
Rogers notes the presence of "cupule sites (pp. 41, 43, 114-115); cup markings in association with ceremonial areas (p. 386); and one pictograph cave (p. 305)" (Lee and Clewlow 1979:17). Finley (1951) refers to the site as "the Orizaba Pictograph (Olsen's) Cave," and states that the pictographs are rectilinear and are present on one wall and on the ceiling of the cave. Phil Orr stated that there are petroglyphs present at Olsen's Cave (1968:103), but he was using "petroglyph" in the old sense of referring to any rock art, and not specifically as regarded painted rock art. Grant (1965:75-76) shows the general location of this site, and says: "On the islands there are two sites" (i.e., pictograph sites; one on Santa Cruz and one on Santa Rosa; Grant's comments refer to the northern group of islands only).

Santa Rosa Island

Orr (1968:103-104) states that there are (or were) petroglyphs at "Jones Cave on Santa Rosa Island," and that these "consist of a few round dots and some vertical scratches or grooves . . . in no apparent design, although the round dots do occur in a more or less straight line or in groups and one set of grooves has a slight resemblance to a malformed four-tined fork. It is my opinion that rather than being art work or ceremonial symbols, they are merely abrasion grooves for grinding shell or bone." Here Orr seems to be describing "Pit and Groove" cupules. Orr also states that faint red and black pigment was reported by Grant (1965) "at the headwaters of Rancho Viejo Creek on Santa Rosa" (1968:103). Grant shows the general location of this pictograph site on page 75.


San Clemente Island

No references to rock art on this island were encountered during research.

San Nicolas Island

The "Cave of the Killer Whales" was first described by Orr (1951), who stated that "at least nine killer whales have been carved into the sandstone . . . Three are in a conventional or horizontal position and the others are vertical, with heads up." Orr also noted the presence of "stone pipes and effigies found in the form of killer whales on San Nicolas" and stated that "this is the only example known on either islands or mainland where the killer whale is used as a petroglyph design" (1951:2). Orr later (1952) states that he believes that the creation of the rock art may precede both the Chumash and the Canalino cultures. Reinman and Townsend (1960) note the presence of traces of red coloring "which may or may not be aboriginal: and state that "Aside from the sea mammal designs, there are straight lines, zigzags, and 'Vs'" (Lee and Clewlow 1979:17).

Rozaire and Kritzman (1960) note the presence of "faint traces of a pictograph." McCawley, however, illustrates several pictographs (1966), and notes that "The figures are executed in black pigment and may represent killer whales. The cave was once extensively decorated with petroglyphs (rock carvings) depicting sharks, fish, and various geometric forms: undoubtedly the naturally damp conditions within the cave have caused the deterioration of much of the artwork" (caption to Plate 2). McCawley also states that "The most unique and outstanding example of Gabrielino pictographic rock art is a panel of carvings representing fish and killer whales that once decorated the Cave of the Whales . . . This panel has deteriorated through natural erosion; it is now preserved at the Southwest Museum" McCawley 1966:83, 140). This site had also been described a few years earlier by Rozaire and Kritzman (1960), by an anonymous author (1960), and by Hall (1960; this is basically a reprint of Anonymous 1960). Grant (1965) mentions "some faint black marks in a cave on San Nicolas Islands." These are undoubtedly the same killer whales illustrated by McCawley.

Santa Barbara Island

There is nowhere on this small island that is well suited for the establishment of rock art. The small size of this island suggests that if any rock art had been present it would have been reported by now.

Santa Catalina Island

The most elaborate extant pictographs on the Channel Islands are located at Torqua Cave (CA-SCAI-32, also known as Holder's Cave). This site was first mentioned by Charles Holder in 1910. Nelson Leonard recorded the site in 1976. Richard Quist described and illustrated the site, which has about 25 red pictographs, in 1978. Motifs include anthropomorphs, a sun-symbol, and the "aquatic" motif. Quist provides only outline illustrations, but he informed me that his sketches do not adequately illustrate the paintings, which are mostly very faint. Quist noted that: "Most of the paintings are done in solid red but a few are outlined . . . The designs are very unusual . . . few of them resemble figures which are found at other California sites" (1978:40). These pictographs appear to represent a unique Santa Catalina Island style. The pictographs at Torqua Cave are painted on rocks of the Franciscan Formation series, which on Santa Catalina Island are occasionally made of steatite. Elsewhere on the island Franciscan Formation outcrops are host to several sites with cupule components. These include: CA-SCAI-92, CA-SCAI-94, CA-SCAI-104, CA-SCAI-120, and CA-SCAI-127. The rock art sites of Santa Catalina Island are summarized in Knight (1998).


Anonymous. 1960. San Nicolas, Isle of the Lost Woman. In Odyssey of the Santa Barbara Kingdoms, pp. 51-53. Pacific Coast Odyssey Publications, Monterey.

Finley, R.S. 1951. Notes on the Orizaba Pictograph (Olsen's Cave), Santa Cruz Island, Santa Barbara, California. National Speleological Society, Stanford Grotto, Monthly Report 1(10). Palo Alto.

Grant, Campbell. 1965. The Rock Paintings of the Chumash: A Study of a California Indian Culture. University of California Press, Berkeley.

Hall, Thorne. 1962. San Nicolas, Isle of the Lost Woman. Odyssey of the California Indians, pp. 21-22. Pacific Coast Odyssey Publications, Monterey.

Holder, Charles Frederick. 1910. The Channel Islands of California. A.G. McClurg and Co., Chicago.

Knight, Albert. 1998. The Rock Art of Los Angeles County, California. Unpublished manuscript on file at Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History, Department of Anthropology.

Lee, Georgia and C. William Clewlow, Jr. 1979. Rock Art of the Chumash Area: An Annotated Bibliography. Institute of Archaeology Occasional Paper No. 3. University of California, Los Angeles.

McCawley, William. 1966. The First Angelinos--The Gabrielino Indians of Los Angeles. Malki Museum/Ballena Press Cooperative Publication.

Orr, Phil. 1951. Cave of the Killer Whales. Museum Talk, Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History, Santa Barbara.

Orr, Phil. 1954. Who Painted Painted Cave? Archaeological Survey Association of Southern California Newsletter 2(2):7-8.

Orr, Phil. 1968. Prehistory of Santa Rosa Island. Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History, Santa Barbara.

Quist, Richard. 1978. Channel Island Pictographs. Journal of New World Archaeology 2(4):40-45. University of California, Los Angeles.

Reinman, Fred M. and Sam Joe Townsend. 1960. A Petroglyph Cave on San Nicolas Island. Archaeological Survey Annual Report 2:101-106. University of California, Los Angeles.

Rogers, David Banks. Prehistoric Men of the Santa Barbara Coast. Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History, Santa Barbara.

Rozaire, Charles E. and George Kritzman. 1960. A Petroglyph Cave on San Nicolas Island. The Masterkey 34(4):147-151.

Steward, Julian H. 1929. Petroglyphs of California and Adjoining States. University of California Publications in American Archaeology and Ethnology 24(2). Berkeley.

Entire contents Copyright 2001-2011 by Coyote Press. All rights reserved. CALIFORNIAPREHISTORY.COM, CALIFORNIAPREHISTORY.NET, CALIFORNIAPREHISTORY.ORG, and the CALIFORNIAPREHISTORY MASTHEAD are all trademarks of Coyote Press, Gary S. Breschini, and Trudy Haversat. Back to the Top