• Michael Van

Seminole Canyon / White Shaman Cave

Updated: Feb 21, 2019

I have twice had the fortune and pleasure to travel with my father to central France for the specific purpose of seeing some of the oldest known paintings in the world – some as old as 30,000 years ago – at sites such as Fonte Du Gaume, Peche Merle, Rouffignac, and the replicas at Lascaux2. It is the location of these epic murals deep inside of caves that has preserved them from mother nature in a sometimes eerily fresh state.

Photo © Don Hitchcock
Woolly Mammoth of Rouffignac Cave

As it turns out, there are also some cave paintings preserved along limestone caverns in my home state of Texas – and right within the confines of Seminole Canyon State Park. A beautiful west Texan landscape cut out by the Pecos river flowing into the Rio Grande – the country of Mexico well within eyesight.

The name "Seminole Canyon" may surprise you as It did me, thinking Seminoles were in Florida. Alas, the Black Seminole Scouts served throughout Texas during the Texas-Indian Wars especially as it came to navigating hostile territories, including the locale of the caverns and campsite, giving it the name.

Black Seminole Scouts

Unlike in France where the paintings are protected deep within caves (crawling on your knees deep) that were sealed off naturally, the paintings at Seminole Canyon are vulnerable to the elements. Dust, Wind, Rain, Sunshine all beat down on its integrity... for somewhere between 4,000 and 2,000 years ago. To put in perspective, the Great Pyramid of Giza was also constructed roughly 4,500 years ago.

Still, what remains from the effects of the elements is quite beautiful and astonishing.

Cave Paintings at Seminole Canyon State Park

Cave Paintings at Seminole Canyon State Park

This final image depicts 3 figures with the central one raising its arms much like a bird or in a gesture that today we would associate with encompassing and gathering.

Aside from medium and choice of canvas, these share very little with the paintings adorning the inner caves of central France. These are not realistic depictions, they are very much abstracted. These are anthropomorphic - the 30,000 year old paintings in France almost exclusively depicted animals - and did so accurately and realistically. What was the artist or artists trying to convey here? Is this a sign of friendship? family? or of ruthless dominion? Of a desire to fly? To educate and tell a story? At the very least, I think we can agree that the peoples roaming modern day Southwest Texas were cultural. They had free to time to do this. They were able to spare valuable animal proteins and fats to make these. And being "hostile" and cultural are not mutually exclusive. I do think this was a rough time to live.

Only minutes away from Seminole Canyon State Park is the Witte Museum White Shaman Preserve, which houses, in my opinion, a better preserved and better imagined mural of cave paintings. The docent was also particularly engaging and knowledgeable.

Gate at White Shaman Preserve

This one was a little harder to access...

...but that's half the fun. Here we have the White Shaman murals!

White Shaman Rock Art

That central white figure that reminds me of Towelie gives the mural its namesake. Again a very abstracted depiction of a person. You'll notice the same shaped figures, smaller, and upside down next to the white figure. Why are they upside down? That's usually not a pleasant position to be in. Or perhaps we are viewing this from an aerial view and they are all just lying down. My visceral reaction is that these smaller dark figures have just been dropped by the larger white one -and it's a painting right on the edge of a cliff.

And while the namesake gives importance to the one white shaman figure - I am aesthetically much more inclined to look at this other portion of the mural:

Is this another person being hung upside down? To the right is that a hide? An ant-like figure? A curation of U shapes with no particular meaning? Again my mind leads to a more morbid destination. But I can only take away that our not too distance ancestors, not too dissimilar from ourselves in thinking ability, had something important to say that they wanted to make permanent. The permanence/longevity of the message is intentional (they mixed animal fat with pigments to preserve it). My Deep Thought then is - without an alphabet, what message do I feel is important enough to outlive me - and how do I convey that both purposefully and tastefully?

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