The Petroglyphs of La Pintada, Jalisco, Mexico

In April of 2015 I visited the small pueblo of La Pintada not far from Tomatlán in Jalisco, Mexico.  My objective was to see ancient artwork in the form of the impressive petroglyphs found there. After finally finding La Pintada and then driving around in the pueblo for a while, I finally found them.

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As the third of the three maps below shows, the petroglyphs aren’t far from the road.  The problem is that there’s an irrigation canal between the road and the petroglyphs.  I’m not a long jumper and I didn’t feel like wading, so I looked for another way to reach the petroglyphs for a closer look.

On the other side of the canal I rode into the pueblo where a woman asked if I was looking for something.  When I said I was trying to find a way to get to the piedras pintadas, she told me to wait for just a second.  She then went and fetched a fellow who would serve as my guide.

When my guide and I got to the rocks, it gave me a better look at what was visible from the road and I also got to see some things not visible from the road.

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As can be seen, most of the petroglyphs were spirals and concentric circles.  As can also be seen, there was also a large rectangular figure carved on vertical surface.   For me, there was nothing recognizable inside this rectangle and my guide speculated that maybe it had served as a map at one time.

Anyway, these are just the more prominent and easily accessible petroglyphs.  A systematic survey of the area revealed a total of 97 petroglyph rocks.1

Next, my guide led me to another area where he speculated that the former inhabitants ground food and at least occasionally visited after dark.

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The shallow depressions are found throughout the Americas and are quite typical of those used for grinding maize and other things. While my guide suggested that the smaller diameter holes may have supported torches, I wonder instead if they might have been used for pounding hard seeds, for instance, as a step in the process for making pinole.

So who was responsible for making the petroglyphs and when did they make them?

Sometimes with petroglyphs there is relatively clear evidence of who the artists were.  Good examples can be found not far from La Pintada. La Pintada lies in the Río Tomatlán River Valley.  Within this valley, scientists have located 747 boulders with rock art. With one exception — the unique and fascinating pictographs of La Peña Pintada2 — all are petroglyphs.1

Almost all surface artifacts in close proximity to these 747 boulders can be traced to the Nauhuapa phase of occupation* (A.D. 1300 to 1525 and even into the colonial period).1,3  In a few cases, boulders with petroglyphs were even part of these people’s houses. All of this suggests that these same people were the artists.

There are a few instances, however, where surface artifacts in proximity to rock art are predominantly from the Aztatlán phase of occupation which began around 1215 A.D.1,3  In these cases, the Aztatlán may have been the artists.

Until recently, the situation at La Pintada has been less clear.1 A nearby excavation found pottery sherds traceable to three prehispanic phases of occupation in the area: the Capacha, the La Pintada (named after the location), and the Aztatlán. By far the most abundant sherds were from the La Pintada with Capacha and Aztatlan sherds being much less common.

Before I talk about which is most likely responsible for the petroglyphs, I think it’s worth taking a moment to reflect a little on who these people were.

The Capacha Culture (1500 to 800 B.C.) was found along the Pacific coast from Sinaloa to Colima although elements can also be seen in the Rio Balsas Depression of Guerrero.4 These people intensively exploited marine resources but also farmed maize. Their pottery was very distinctive with what appear to be links to northwest South America (click here for a video in Spanish).

The affinities of the people of the La Pintada phase (400 B.C. to A.D. 300)1 to the greater cultures of the time are unclear.  They were contemporaries of the  “shaft-and-chamber tomb” culture that occupied a semicircular band through the highlands of Jalisco whose ends broadened upon reaching the coasts of Colima and Nayarit.4  Their external ties, though, seem to be strongest to the Autlán-Tuxcacuesco area in the mountains of southwest Jalisco.   At La Pintada, intensive craft production along with the presence of exotic shells and minerals suggests that trade was important for these people.  It is estimated that around 1000 people lived at La Pintada at that time.

The Aztatlán Culture (A.D.200 to 900 in its initial phases with its greatest development and expansion from A.D. 850/900 to 1350)5 ranged from Tomatlán, Jalisco northward to Sinaloa and occupied the river valleys of the coast. Here they practiced extensive floodplain agriculture.4  They grew and exported various tropical plant products like cacao and cotton and also specialized in various crafts. During their tenure, they became a significant part of the trade route for items from the American Southwest like turquoise that previously had moved along the eastern slope of the Sierra Madre Occidental.

So which of these cultures is most likely responsible for the art at La Pintada? To see what the current thinking is, I emailed Dr. Joseph B. Mountjoy, the archaeologist who has done most of the archaeological research in the Río Tomatlán River Valley and who also done work at various other sites in western Mexico.  In his reply, he pointed out that nobody so far has been able to definitively link the Capacha Culture to rock art.  Also, while there is Aztatlán pottery sherds at La Pintada, they are so few in number that he doubts that the Aztatlán had much of a presence at the location.  This argues against them being the artists.

Conversely, in his own recent work at two locations not far from Puerto Vallarta, Dr. Mountjoy has found petroglyphs in association with contemporaries of the La Pintada phase of occupation.  This suggests that the inhabitants of La Pintada at this time could very well be responsible for the artwork. If so, the La Pintada petroglyphs could be at or around 2,000 years old.

Visiting La Pintada

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There is nothing like a visitor’s center at La Pintada.  You will need to park in the pueblo and ask around for a guide.  Be sure to pay your guide.  I think I paid around 200 pesos for the services of mine.

*Phase of occupation refers to the time that a particular culture occupied the Tomatlán River Valley.

References and Sources

1Mountjoy, Joseph. 1987. Antiquity, Interpretation, and Stylistic Evolution of Petroglyphs in West Mexico. American Antiquity 52 (1):161-174.

2Mountjoy, J.B. 1982. An interpretation of the pictographs at La Peña Pintada, Jalisco, Mexico. American Antiquity 47 (1): 119-126.

3Mountjoy, J.B. personal communication, 17 November 2018.

4Beekman, C.S. 2010. Recent research in western Mexican archaeology. Journal of Archaeological Research 18: 41-109.

5Aztatlán, Periodo Clásico. 2017. Retrieved 18 November 2018 from https://www.mexicoescultura.com/actividad/184181/aztatlan-periodo-clasico.html.

Mountjoy, Jospeh. 1987. Proyecto Tomatlán de salvamento arqueológico: el arte rupestre. Colección Científica, Arqueología, no. 163, INAH, Mexico.

Instructor of Tropical Rainforest and Canopy Ecology for the Institute for Tropical Ecology and Conservation (ITEC).

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