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Steamboat Magazine

Etched in Stone: Rock Art of the Yampa Valley

07/25/2016 04:49PM ● By Dan Greeson

Bear-related imagery, like these bear prints, are remnants of the Yampa Valley Utes' "Bear Dance" (a spring fertility ritual). Photo by Douglas Wipper.

By Douglas Wipper and Dan Greeson

Every stone in the Yampa Valley tells a story. Each scrape and groove on a rock’s surface can speak volumes about the past – some left by the lumbering crawl of glaciers that formed this valley, others shedding light on past humans’ sacred rituals and their primal struggle for survival. 

Summer hikes in the Yampa Valley can be incredibly beautiful experiences, traversing lush, rolling hills and lakes flanked by fields ablaze with brilliant wildflowers. If you look for the right clues, your hikes can take on a whole new layer of wonder and historic revelation in the incredible petroglyphs, or rock art, of the Yampa Valley. 

It’s been more than 10,000 years since the first wandering humans arrived in the Yampa Valley, and these early settlers created rock art by pecking off or scratching a rock’s patina (a layer of oxidized minerals that darken the stone’s surface). Over time, these scraped surfaces re-oxidize and the images slowly begin to fade, but many are still visible to us thousands of years later. 

Next time you go on a hike, consider trying something new: imagine your surroundings as they may have appeared in past millennia. What was once a fertile river could now be a dry canyon, a lake could be a desolate basin and so on. Searching for those areas that would attract life long ago brings us one step closer to locating rock art. 

Petroglyphs are often found near stone shelters, water sources and bountiful hunting and gathering areas. Some sites are found at the junctions of ancient trails that were used to migrate between villages and prime hunting locations. 

Rock art sheds light on the artists’ relationship to their environment and gives us glimmers of understanding about ancient peoples’ worldviews and survival techniques. The subject matter of the Yampa Valley’s rock art is deeply rooted in the most basic requirements for human life: food, fire and shelter. Images of wild game, maps, hunting tools and reproduction are central players in the valley’s rock carvings. 

Guessing the meaning behind a petroglyph can prove almost as difficult as determining its age. Sympathetic magic – a superstitious belief that you can influence an object through another item that resembles it – is a possible explanation for many animal-related images in the Yampa Valley’s rock art. For example, it’s likely that early humans would sharpen tools on the walls beside pictures of wild game in hopes that it would bring good fortune in future hunts. 

The Yampa Valley’s Utes included bear prints in their rock art, a testament to the role the bear played in Ute culture. Each year, the Utes would hold a huge “bear dance” in early June in order to show respect for the bear and gather strength from the animal’s spirit. 

Regardless of how one interprets the Yampa Valley’s petroglyphs, they are priceless historical resources. These carvings show us which animals roamed and were hunted in the Yampa Valley thousands of years ago and reveal the beliefs and agriculture methods of the valley’s later inhabitants.

Despite being literally set in stone, petroglyphs are fragile. People who carve initials on top of rock art have caused irreparable harm to many Yampa Valley sites. Bullet holes have marred many rock art sites as well. It can be so rewarding when your detective skills come to fruition and you connect to the past through a panel of rock art – please don’t ruin the experience for others by climbing on or defacing these historic treasures.