Willi Kunz
The petroglyphs of the North American Indians

Man always felt the need to perpetuate his imagination in stone. Traces of it can be found in the form of rock drawings and cave paintings throughout the world. Well known are those of Altamira (Spain), Lascaux (France), Val Camonica (Italy) and in the Sahara Desert. An exceptionally large number of petroglyphs and pictographs can be found in North America. I for the first time encountered these legendary drawings of the American Indians during an extended trip through the North American West.

Initially, it was their formal qualities and the integration of sign and nature that fascinated and inspired me. The figures and forms seem to be playfully arranged and are reminiscent of the sign language of Klee, Miro and Calder. Many are created with great care and craftsmanship, while others appear more like sketches.

Technically, there are two different types of drawings: the petroglyphs are carved or chiseled into the rock, while the pictographs are painted with earth- and plant colors. In sheer numbers, the Petroglyphs predominate. In some places we find thousands of them; ranging from small, isolated inscriptions to vast groups arranged on huge, overhanging rock walls.

Depending on the geographical location, stylistic differences can be distinguished. In many cases, we find styles of different eras very close together or even superimposed.

The Rocky Mountains states of Utah, Nevada and Arizona proved particularly rich in petroglyphs and pictographs. Most of the sites are geographically very remote and can only be reached on foot. Interesting areas such as the Canyon de Chelly in Arizona, which is part of a Navajo Indians reservation and is a nature preserve, can only be visited with local guides.


A chronological classification of the petroglyphs and pictographs proves to be difficult. The radiocarbon test method often employed by archeologists has only limited use, since the measuring devices hardly react to the very low color substances in the pictographs. Other methods prove to be imprecise because extreme weather conditions strongly influence the patina and erosion of the rock.

In some instances it was possible to obtain a chronological overview through the objects depicted in petroglyphs. For instance, in Coso-Range, California, arrows and arches later replaced the Atatl, a spear-throwing device used by hunters between 1000 and 500 BC. It was concluded that these petroglyphs must be approximately 2500 years old.

The relative small numbers of pictographs suggests that being exposed to severe weather conditions destroyed many of them.


Just as difficult as the chronological classification is an explanation of these pictographs representing human figures, animals and objects. We also find geometric symbols such as dots, concentric circles, circles, spirals, zigzag lines, mazes and grids in ever-new constellations. Their meaning can only be presumed, since we look at them temporally, culturally and socially removed from the context of creation. They may have been created for documentary, informative, religious or purely artistic reasons. They can be past or future-oriented, such as the depiction of a successful hunt or an upcoming warfare.

It is assumed that the signs have been created for communication purposes and not as pure figurative art. Certain common design features and the absence of details such as backgrounds, mountains, trees, etc. characterizes them. In any case, they cannot be compared with a contemporary sign language.

Surprisingly, archaeologists and historians have shown little interest in this important component of North American cultural history. One of the few who researched petroglyphs intensively was Colonel Garrick Mallery; he began to systematically record them around 1886. His monograph “Pictographs of the North American Indians”, published in 1893, is still regarded as one of the few standard works in this field.

First published in German in Typographische Monatsblätter 1/1978