"Most of the petroglyphs in our area are believed to be from the Mogollon period of about 2,000 to 800 years ago," says Alex Mares, a Native American anthropologist and New Mexico park ranger.
"What makes this imagery powerful is thinking of the people who left it there-thinking about their lives, their culture, and their interaction with the same land we live in today.
Alex, who worked at Hueco Tanks State Historic Site in El Paso County for nearly two decades-"a place where all known cultures of the Southwest are represented"-now works as a park ranger at Leasburg Dam State Park in neighboring Radium Springs.
He has been exploring and hiking West Texas and Southern New Mexico for nearly four decades, and often leads group hiking tours.
Through Southwest Expeditions
, an outdoor heritage and adventure tourism company based in Mesilla, he
has led a variety of researchers, government officials, Native American groups, and individuals and families in Doña Ana County.
"The people who left these images were very knowledgeable of their environment, a lot more than we are today," Alex
"They knew every insect that walked the ground, the mammals that surrounded them, the creatures in the water, the birds in the sky-they knew their purpose, routine, habits, and where they lived, from pupae to adult form.
It was critical to their survival."
With such knowledge came the desire to share it, express it, celebrate it, and pass it on to future generations, often in the form of petroglyphs and pictographs, Alex
"All of these sites have meaning, but I would say some have more significant meaning than others," he
"Some of them reference the stories of the peoples' origin, others have to do with hunting and hunting rituals, and others were probably offered in prayer and ceremony.
We see a lot of symbolism out here that we think has to do with fertility, and bringing rain.
You can't have a bunch of game animals to hunt without having a bunch of rain."
says local and regional archaeologists and anthropologists believe the oldest of the petroglyphs and pictographs in Doña Ana County to be from the Desert Archaic Period-from 2,000 to 4,000 years ago.
But sites exist that may be as r ecent as 120 to 130 years ago, left by the last free-roaming Apaches to inhabit the area.
"There is not an effective dating method for petroglyphs," he
"They are getting more precise, however, in dating pictographs.
Some of the pigments have organic matter that can be dated; rock carvings don't.
Even then, they can usually only date certain colors in pictographs, which are painted rather than etched.
Archaic, and the later Pueblo people alike, chose specific sites, and rocks, in which to carve their images, opting for a certain type of rock that was heavily coated in desert varnish.
"Around 90 percent of the time, they chose rocks they knew would patinate," Alex
The Mesilla Valley and surrounding mountains were mostly inhabited by the Mimbres and Mogollon peoples, as well as other early, ancestral Puebloan peoples, Alex
"Those early Puebloan people are ancestors to many people still in this area, such as the Tigua from Ysleta Del Sur Pueblo in El Paso County."
Researchers estimate that sometime between 1100 and 1200 AD, the Mesilla Valley experienced a severe drought-one that lasted 40 to 50 years, if not more, and drove many Native people to other places.
"During that period, two things probably happened," Alex
"The Mogollon returned to a hunter/gatherer system of survival, and many of them abandoned the greater Southwest altogether.
They went North, others went South, and some went into the forested mountains of the Gila and Old Mexico.
One thing is for sure, there was a big change in the local population," he
The most recent petroglyphs likely come from the Apache people right around the same time as Spanish explorers came up from the South, Alex
"They began to leave their own images, and this is where you start to see sites that depict images from their contact with Europeans, such as horses and strange beings," he
Alex estimates that there are upward of 50 "sites" containing petroglyphs and pictographs in Doña Ana County, although he
admits that many are probably still undiscovered.
There is no cohesive effort to catalogue and record the existence of such sites, mainly because of lack of funding and access issues.
"Many of these sites deal with time, the interaction between earth, sun, moon and stars.
These sites are still considered sacred and powerful to modern Native Americans," Alex