Ancient Rock Carvings of the Central Sierra: The North Fork Indian Petroglyphs

Willis Gortner Portola Press  1984   183 pages  (half of the pages are drawings)

Ancient Rock Carvings is an exploration of the rock carvings on Donner Summit. Although the book focuses on the petroglyphs of the North Fork of the American River, the Cedars in particular, it applies also to other nearby rock carvings on the Sierra Crest as far as Meadow Lake or just over the ridge from the North Fork on the Yuba River.  The most accessible rock carvings of the type talked about in the book are just off Old Highway 40 at the first curve below the Rainbow or Donner Summit Bridge.  There you will find a 20 Mile Museum sign and a monument.

Willis Gortner was an amateur archeologist with a home in the Cedars on the North Fork of the American River.  His objective in writing the book was to answer the who , what, where, when, and how of the rock carvings he found on his many explorations.  To answer those questions Gortner saw himself as a detective using clues that would develop a complete picture.

In his exploration for clues Gortner covered a number of different subjects: how the petroglyphs were made, who made them, their age, meaning, location, and reasons behind  He ends with his conclusions.

An example of the depth of his study is Gortner’s discussion of the petroglyphs’ age and how that can be determined.  If you can pin down who did them, you can get an approximation of age.  You can study the patina of the rock carvings compared to the surrounding rock.  For example Gortner discusses the names carved into rocks around the Cedars done by tourists at the Summit Soda Springs Hotel a hundred years ago compared to the Native American petroglyphs in the same areas.

“By contrast, the immediately adjacent but much more ancient Indian rock carvings appear consistently weathered with a dull stain re-appearing in the incised lines, though  not nearly approaching the depth of color of the pink crust of the granite bedrock itself.  Obviously, the petroglyphs at this site are many hundreds of years older than the “modern” carvings…” 

One can also do carbon-14 dating on artifacts or fire remains nearby.  Finally, one can analyze spear and arrow points found nearby.  Their styles changed over the ages so if carvings can be linked to a particular style, then age can be determined.

All of the methods are indeterminate but taken together, especially following the analysis of spear points, Gortner feels the petroglyphs on Donner Summit could be 3,500 years old.

Gortner’s discussion of the petroglyph locations is interesting.  Different from other petroglyphs in other areas, Donner Summit petroglyphs are always on open bedrock outcroppings with views of major peaks.  They are never on vertical faces or on boulders.  They are on granite as well as basalt.  That said, Gortner did not know about some possibly even more ancient petroglyphs on a boulder in one spot in Summit Valley.  Other than that all the dozens of rock carving spots in the Summit and environs conform to his analysis.  They were also probably  located on seasonal game migration routes.

“With no exception, each of the sites that were discovered was within 20-30 feet of a magnificent view of an important mountain, and frequently a panorama of the peaks—Mount Lincoln, Crow’s Nest, Anderson Peak, Tinkers Knob, Granite Chief, Needles Peak, Lyon Peak, Snow Mountain, and Devils Peak.  Any outdoor person at such a spot will be thrilled by such a sight; the prehistoric Indians who left these petroglyphs must have had some of the same feeling of awe, or it was incorporated in their religion.”

The second question people ask, after age, is about the meaning of the petroglyphs.  They were probably not doodles given the difficulty of making the glyphs and the time required.  Gortner discusses possible meanings and uses: astronomical, artistic, record keeping, maps, personal or cultural records, instructions, passage of time, or totemic.  They are all symbols and there are very few animals or humans among the abstracts.  The symbolism is obscure but because so many of the elements are repeated within sites and site to site, they “must have had meaning to the prehistoric tribes there.”

“A more likely interpretation of many symbols is that they reflect the family totem…” is Gortner’s preferred meaning.  Maybe, maybe not.  We’ll never really know.  No Native Americans have any knowledge of the meaning of what their ancestors did, assuming the current Washo are related to the Martis Culture. The meanings are lost to history.  In this area Gortner could have done a better job by including in his analysis of meaning shamanistic meanings.  That gets short shrift.  For example, might the many bear glyphs be prayers for good hunting or records of kills rather than or in addition to being totems?

Gortner does make a cogent argument regarding meaning by contradicting some experts who said they cannot be maps.  Gortner shows that at least at a couple of sites meanderings on the granite match the river and possible game migration routes.  For example, the graphic here just above to the right, shows a nine food long petroglyph juxtaposed to a tracing of the North Fork of the American River.  The dots represent a few petroglyph sites.

This is a professional treatise even though Gortner was only an amateur.  He cites many sources and explores the different subjects completely.  In reading Gortner’s analyses of the different subjects we learn a lot of interesting facts. For example, in discussing how the glyphs were made he quotes a source explaining how long it took to make rock carvings.  They took 30 to 115 minutes at 126 pecks to the minute with a lizard requiring 15,000 blows of a rock against the “canvas” where the petroglyph would be.

Before the bow and arrow, spears were used as well as atlatls (spear throwers).  An atlatl thrown spear is only good for 20—30 yards but a bow and arrow has improved accuracy and can go for 70-80 yards.  That improves hunting and changes technique.  That may have caused societal changes as well.

These petroglyphs are so old they probably predate the bow and arrow.   Once the bow and arrow came along, hunting patterns and hunting grounds changed.  The people did not frequent the petroglyph sites of old and they did not continue the tradition elsewhere.  Maybe they did not need the symbols anymore because hunting became less difficult?

The glyphs were produced by the Martis Culture, possible the ancestors of the Washo of what is today Nevada.  The Summit area was a meeting place for the Maidu (Nisenan), Miwok, and Washo whose historical boundaries came together at the Summit.  At the summit the California Indians traded shells, obsidian, and acorns for dried fish from Pyramid Lake.

One final fact shows just how difficult petroglyph production is – in case you want to try it out.  On a hardness scale of 1-10 with talc being one and diamonds being ten, granite rates at 6-8

Mr. Gortner died some years ago and his book is out of print.  It can be purchased on Amazon, though scarcity has raised the price.  A search for the book on the internet will also tell you which libraries it is in so you can dive into local petroglyphs there.  The family has not agreed to any new editions.

This is the only book about petroglyphs specific to the Donner Summit and so if you are interested in the subject, this is the book to get from the library.  That reading may also encourage you to look for his other book, The Martis Indians: Ancient Tribe of the Sierra Nevada.

Another source to look at is a PDF by the USFS, "Style 7 Rock Art and the Martis Complex."