MARINE CORPS AIR GROUND COMBAT CENTER, TWENTYNINE PALMS, Calif. --
The Combat Center not only possesses a long military history, but also contains a cultural history dating back between 10,000 and 12,000 years.
Before the United States was even an idea, Native Americans inhabited lands the Combat Center now stands on today. The people who inhabited this area left artifacts and petroglyphs, commonly known as “rock art” behind.
Petroglyphs are found at multiple sites aboard the Combat Center, but the main site containing the most art is the Foxtrot site, a site protected from destruction or development on the National Register of Historical Places. This site depicts nearly 2,000 images found on 63 panels on 50 rocks.
“From what we know from the history of the Native Americans in the area, the Serrano, Chemehuevi, Cahuilla and Mohave Indian tribes were in the area during European contact and are assumed to be responsible for most of the rock art,” said Nicholas Chamberlain, an archeologist for the Natural Resources and Environmental Affairs office aboard the Combat Center. It is possible other tribes who have left the area could be responsible for some petroglyphs as well, Chamberlain added.
“The groups in the desert were highly mobile,” said John Hale, also an archeologist for the NREA. “It is difficult to tell who made the rock art when.”
While the petroglyphs continue to draw interest, they still retain their mystery. No one has been able to interpret the petroglyphs with 100 percent certainty, Chamberlain said. Some are recognizable images of animals and stick figures of people, but there are many abstract images which are simply lines and squiggles.
“At the Foxtrot sight, probably 90 percent of the images are abstract, and 10 percent are representational,” Hale said. “Almost everything in Native American culture had a spiritual meaning. Most likely the abstract symbols have a religious meaning.”
Even obvious images keep archeologists guessing. Images depicting certain animals, such as a picture of a big horned sheep, can also hold many explanations for the purpose of its construction, Hale said.
One purpose could be what is called “hunting magic,” where one would draw the animal they sought to kill before the hunt as a symbol of good luck or a prayer to the spirits for a good hunt. Another reason could be in celebration of a good kill, where the animal is drawn after the hunt. In Native American culture, certain animals were viewed as spirits or godlike symbols. The big horned sheep could be a symbol of a religious practice as well, Hale added.
As for the abstract symbols, one can only guess at its significance, whether spiritual or as a symbolic marker for the tribe’s inhabitance, no one really knows for sure.
“Everyone has their own interpretation, and they all believe it’s the right one,” said Leslie Glover, an archeologist at the NREA office.
Cultures in the desert not only moved locations frequently but as time passed, styles, beliefs and art work changed, thus modernizing their symbols, making the artist hard to identify and keeping the Combat Center’s petrolyphs shrouded in mystery.
“All we have is oral histories from the inhabitants; nothing written down,” Chamberlain said, knowing that stories, although true at one point, change over time and turn to myth.
While the meanings of the symbols can only be speculated, at the history of them is a tale waiting to be told.
The Marine Corps, being proud of its own history, sees the value of preserving the history of the area’s ancient cultures.
“The Marines take protecting them seriously,” Glover said. “The area is off limits, showing there is a certain respect for other cultures among the Corps.”
Marines and sailors aboard the Combat Center may run across sites like the Foxtrot site during training events, which is how the site was originally discovered.
“If you see them, by all means check them out, appreciate them, but don’t damage them,” Hale said. “The Marine Corps is very conscious of its stewardship of this history, and it is federal law to preserve them.”
There are 1,895 archeological sites on base, and 11 of those are petroglyph sites.
The sites are all considered restricted areas, but there are hundreds of other petroglyph sites in the area to explore, Hale said.
Anyone interested in learning about the archeological finds aboard the installation can call the Archeology and Paleontology Curration Center at 830-1196.