The sandstone cliffs of Sego Canyon are a spectacular outdoor art gallery of petroglyphs painted and carved by Native Americans peoples over a period of around 8,000 years. They are characterised by more than 80 imposing and haunting life-sized figures with hollowed eyes or missing eyes and the frequent absence of arms and legs. Some claim that the mysterious figures are evidence of alien visitation in our ancient past, while scholars maintain that the strange beings represent shamanistic visions produced in trance-like states.
Evidence of human habitation in Sego Canyon dates back to the Archaic Period (6,000 – 100 BC). But subsequent Anasazi, Fremont, and Ute tribes also left their mark upon the area, painting and chipping their religious visions, clan symbols, and records of events into the cliff walls.
The rock art of Sego Canyon can be characterised according to a number of distinctive styles, and time periods. The oldest art belongs to the Archaic period and dates to between 6,000 BC and 2,000 BC. Some of the most spectacular examples of rock art in the Southwest are attributed to Archaic people. They were nomads, who hunted large and small game animals, and collected and processed wild plants. They did not build permanent habitation structures, but lived in caves and in small brush shelters built in the open.
Within the Archaic period and beginning around 4,000 years ago, we see the Barrier Canyon Style rock art, a distinctive style of art which appears mostly in Utah, with the largest concentration of sites in and around the San Rafael Swell and Canyonlands National Park, but the full range extends into much of the state and western Colorado. Barrier Canyon Style rock art panels are mostly pictographs (painted) but there are also several petroglyphs (pecked) in the style.
Barrier Canyon Style rock art is characterised by large human-like (anthropomorphic) forms, some as tall as nine feet. The identifying features are vacant looking or missing eyes, the frequent absence of arms and legs, and the presence of vertical body markings. They are sometimes seen with antennae, earrings, and with snakes in their hands. The ghost-like images are some of the most unusual forms of rock art seen in the area. One of the most famous images, known as the Barrier Canyon Holy Man, appears to depict some type of spirit figure, which is larger and more important than the figures that surround him.
Another peculiar set of images are the ‘Buckhorn Wash Angels’ or ‘rain angels’ (see picture above), which depict a number of figures who appear to have wings or rays of power radiating from them, although exact meaning is open to interpretation
Beginning around 600 AD and lasting until 1250 AD, the Fremont culture thrived in the region and added their own distinctive style to the rock faces. They were a pre-Columbian archaeological culture which received its name from the Fremont River in Utah where the first sites were discovered. The Fremont culture was adjacent to, roughly contemporaneous with, but distinctly different from the Anasazi culture. They were part-time farmers who lived in scattered semi-sedentary farmsteads and small villages, never entirely giving up traditional hunting and gathering for more risky full-time farming. They made pottery, built houses and food storage facilities, and raised corn. Their petroglyphs also depicted unusual figures and were characterised by sharp edges, square or rectangular heads and triangular bodies.
Fremont petroglyphs in Sego Canyon (Shutterstock*)
Beginning 1300 AD and lasting until 1880 AD, the Ute people inhabited the region of Sego Canyon and carved their own style on the cliff faces. Prior to the arrival of Mexican settlers, the Utes occupied significant portions of what are today eastern Utah, western Colorado, and parts of New Mexico and Wyoming. The Utes were never a unified group within historic times; instead, they consisted of numerous nomadic bands that maintained close associations with other neighbouring groups. The historic Ute rock art is identified and dated by the horse and rider figures. Horses were introduced to North America by the Spanish in the sixteenth century. Other figures, or elements, painted in red and white on the panel include a white bison, a human figure with leggings, several large human figures, and large circles believed to be shields. The Ute people lived freely throughout western Colorado and eastern Utah until about 1880, when they were forced onto reservations.
Extra-Terrestrials or Spiritual Visions?
Advocates of the ancient astronaut theory suggest that the strange figures of the Barrier Canyon style rock art depict extra-terrestrials that once visited Earth. They point to the large, hollow looking eyes and the triangular shaped heads as evidence that the figures were not human. However, others, like researcher Polly Schaafsma (1999) say that they represent shamanistic art associated with ritual activities of the Archaic people. Ms Schaafsma points to the fact that the ‘spirit figures’ are frequently shown holding snake forms, and their torsos sometimes incorporate water/life-giving symbols. The presence of these types of relational (figure/animal) motifs is considered to be evidence that there was a shamanistic tradition alive, at least during a certain period of time, among these Western Archaic people. So what accounts for the unusual features, such as strange eyes, legless bodies, and what appears to be wings?
According to Ms Schaafsma, shamanic practitioners, with the assistance of various spirits, were said to have the ability to travel to celestial realms and the underworld, in order to communicate with ‘purveyors of power’. Hallucinations and visionary experiences characterise the shamanic trance experience, often provoked by the use of hallucinogens.
“With the aid of spirit helpers, tutelary deities, and divine or semi-divine beings, these otherworldly voyagers contact ancestral and supernatural powers in the interests of curing, fertility, divining, successful hunting, battle exploits, and weather control,” she wrote in a paper on the symbology of the Barrier Canyon rock art.
Universally, shamans have communicated their extraordinary experiences through art. Are the Sego Canyon pictographs and petroglyphs another example of this? No one really knows for sure what the images represent or why they were painted. The god-like, imposing and fantastical figures etched onto the cliffs of Sego Canyon remain an enigma and the true meaning behind them may never be unlocked.