A very, very long time ago nomads roamed the Great Basin deserts. Compelled by the circumstances of their unfriendly environment they wandered. Hunting and gathering provided the basis for their lives. Very little is known about these archaic people but a few facts are certain. They suffered unimaginable hardships in their arid home, which differs little now from then in most fundamental respects. In summer the sun was relentless and merciless and insects tormented them constantly. In winter the cold froze them, sometimes to death. Hunger and thirst were often their daily companions. They stood by helplessly and watched their children die slowly from disease, malnutrition, and starvation. As adults they lived short lives and then they too died, frequently from accidents or injuries, occasionally as the victims of predation, both from animals and other humans. But they fostered some of the most remarkable artists the world has ever seen.
The archaic people who chose south-central Utah as their home were contemporary with the Egyptians or even older. There is evidence that they may have been present and eking out their existence 7,000 years ago or more. They did not leave pyramids as their memorials. They were too few in number and working too hard to remain alive to erect stone monuments. These ancient ones are known almost exclusively through the images with which they decorated the walls of the desert canyons they traveled. The art in their large and distinctive panels is referred to as Barrier Canyon style. Some of the images were painstakingly pecked into the rock but more commonly they were painted with assiduous, loving care on the sandstone canvas, using pigments that have defied weather and the millennia. The figures are usually enormous, life-sized or larger, and often abstract, at times other-worldly. Certain figures are easy to recognize as they depict desert bighorn sheep, elk, deer, and other animals and plants that, now as then, are native to the area. Other images defy interpretation. The art of these ancient ones speaks to us, but in a language we no longer understand. Their message is forever lost.
There is a Barrier Canyon style panel in Buckhorn Wash, a water-carved corridor that gently rises from the San Rafael River through thick layers of rock to the desert above. It looks now very much as it must have looked then. People come and go, plants live and die, but the rocks change little and the autumn sky is just as blue, the October sun as friendly. The wash bottom is lined with Fremont cottonwoods, mostly sporting the beautiful brilliant golden leaves with which they decorate themselves at the end of every summer. I share the panel with a small flock of dark-eyed juncoes, mountain dwellers that have fled as winter besieges their home. The mural is roughly fifty yards long. It takes time and a bit of care before one can begin to take it all in, but the juncoes and I are mostly undisturbed in our studies.
The panel shows a number of things but it prominently features humans interacting with snakes. Mostly likely these are rattlesnakes, which abound in this area. It is difficult to imagine that the figures represent more benign reptiles and yet the humans approach and handle them, willingly and with seeming respect. I am always unavoidably and irresistibly drawn to one particular scene in this mural: a coiled serpent rears upward, to shoulder height, as a human throws or offers it – something, but what, exactly, is obscure. I do not understand this scene but I am perpetually fascinated by it. Various interpretations have been offered but truly, no one knows what it means. Our lives are immeasurably easier, less painful and more convenient than those of the ancient ones, but at what price? What have we lost? What could we have learned from a people who revered snakes rather than feared them?