or cupules? an
attempt at distinguishing cultural depressions at two rock art sites
near Ovalle, Chile.
van Hoek email@example.com
About 50 years ago, there hardly was
any record of prehistoric rock art in the north of Chile, South
America. Up to date however, a wealth of geoglyphs, petroglyphs
and pictographs is known to exist. Well known are the impressive
geoglyphs on the hillsides of the lowland valleys of Azapa and Lluta
near Arica (Van Hoek 2002a; see also my web pages at: Arica)
and the field of petroglyph boulders near the oasis of Tarapacá
in the middle of the Atacama. Also the artistic variation in this
area is enormous. In the heart of the Atacama Desert, at Cerro Unita,
is the approximately 100 metres high geoglyph of a human figure,
possibly representing Wiracocha or Mallku Tarapacá (Chacama
& Espinosa 2001),
while 20km further SE we find small petroglyphs of humans, birds,
felines and camelids engraved on the knee-high boulders of Tarapacá
47 (Van Hoek 2002b; see also my web pages at Tarapacá).
Much further south, in the semi-desert
around Ovalle, a rural town in the Coquimbo Region (Figure 1), impressive
petroglyphs of human figures and "masks" appear on large
boulders in secluded valleys. The same area is also well known for
its rocks with large artificial depressions, often bowl-shaped and
looking like mortars, described in Chilean literature as "Tacitas".
Such "Piedras Tacitas" occur at several archaeological
sites in the Coquimbo Region, especially in the coastal area where
they often co-occur with prehistoric shell middens (Gallardo Ibáñez
1999: 35). However, "Piedras Tacitas" are also found together
with prehistoric rock art in the area around Ovalle (Figure 1).
The most important site, where both "masks" and numerous
"Tacitas" occur together, is El Encanto, a small valley
full of rock art, discovered in 1949 and fortunately a guarded National
Monument since 1979. It is situated 20 km SW of Ovalle (Figure 1B).
Three satellite photos indicating the location of the rock art sites
of the Ovalle area can be seen at my web pages (Ovalle).
Figure 1. General locations of El Valle
de El Encanto and El Valle del Sol, Chile. Figures 1C and
1D based on map 1:50.000, 3030-7115 (San Julian), published
I. G. M. de Chile, Santiago, 1968.
See best resolution graphic at: http://mc2.vicnet.net.au/home/vhra/web/rupestreweb.html
Several researchers have described
the many hundreds of iconic and non-iconic figures and "Tacitas"
at El Encanto (Iribarren 1949, 1954; Klein 1972; Ampuero & Rivera
1964, 1971; Ampuero 1993) and El Valle del Sol (Van Hoek 2000).
Regrettably but understandably, most of the works describing the
rock art at El Encanto mainly focus on the impressive anthropomorphic
figures and the enigmatic "masks" (Figure 2). "Tacitas"
are only marginally discussed, although the importance of those
cultural depressions is acknowledged.
Figure 2. Typical "mask"
engraving just north of Stone 1, Sub-zone II.3, El Encanto
However, during my survey in the
Valle de El Encanto in July 1999, I noticed that there were quite
a few rocks, officially listed as "Piedras Tacitas", that
actually also featured true cupules, without, however, any published
work classifying these depressions separately as cupules. Those
depressions were considered small "Tacitas" or unfinished
examples. Some stones listed as "Piedras Tacitas" did
not even have "Tacitas" at all, but only featured cupules
During the next survey, in July
2000, my wife Elles and I were able to examine another series of
(previously unpublished) rocks with only cupules in El Encanto.
Also the Valle del Sol, a similar but lesser rock art concentration
about 10 km NW of Ovalle (Figure 1B) was re-visited in July 2000,
in order to check if a similar situation occurred there as well.
Indeed, also at El Valle del Sol we recorded more cupule rocks (Van
All these new finds and the notable
differences between "Tacitas" and cupules justify a thorough
review of the two types of hemispherical cultural depressions. The
specific purpose of this paper is to establish that the two types
of anthropic depressions occurring around Ovalle are indeed two
completely different cultural manifestations. Most likely all "Tacitas"
are utilitarian of character and may therefore not be regarded as
rock art, whereas the enigmatic cupules may constitute a distinct
class of rock art. Also the spatial distribution of the two types
of depressions will be discussed in this paper.
The physical environment
The rock art sites of El Encanto
and El Sol are situated in small side valleys of the River Limarí
that runs west and down from the high Andes to the Pacific Ocean
(Figure 1B). The landscape generally consists of hills and low mountains
interspersed with flatter parts of sedimentary rock and/or drift
As is often the case with rock art
sites in the arid or semi-arid areas of Chile, El Encanto and El
Sol are situated in one of the many Quebradas (gorges) that have
been cut out by the erosive forces of rivers. According to Ampuero
(1993: 5) this happened at El Encanto about 50.000 to 100.000 years
ago. Especially in the upper part of El Valle de El Encanto enormous
blocks of granite thus became exposed by the river Espinal (Figure
3) and it is this reddish granite that offered the canvas for the
indigenous groups to place their paintings and petroglyphs upon.
Those groups used El Encanto and El Sol as important stopping places
during their transhumance from the coastal areas to the high Andes
and vice versa. At these stopping places they were certain
to find shelter and water, which allowed plants and trees to grow.
Figure 3. Overall view of El Valle de
El Encanto, Chile, looking east across Sub-zone II.2 with
the towering Andes beyond.
The valleys of El Encanto and El Sol
actually are "hidden" places. Both sites have in common that they
are bordered on one side by extensive higher plains and on the other
side by conspicuous hills. The hills south of El Encanto (marked
+ in Figure 1C) constitute the only elevation
in a wide area around the site. This small range of hills not only
is easily recognisable from a long distance (and may therefore have
served as a point of orientation for travellers); it also offers
shelter against the colder winds from the south (Klein 1972: 11).
By executing their symbolism on
the rocks, the naturally formed valley was gradually transformed
into an important spiritual "place". According to Tilley
(1994) a "place" is a specific defined topographical location
at which human activity is focussed. This happened at El Valle del
Sol and other sites in the area, but especially at El Encanto, which
had an unusualness that set it apart from other sites and neighbouring
valleys (Klein 1972: 9, 11). For that reason, only El Encanto developed
into a regional focal point of major importance, which resulted
in an above average and still unexplained number of "Piedras
Tacitas", a wealth of sophisticated iconic art and, often neglected
in rock art studies, a small range of simple cupules.
To avoid confusion, it is necessary
to clearly define cupules, as not every cultural depression in a
rock surface should be regarded as rock art. Unfortunately there
is quite some uncertainty in Spanish literature about the translation
of the word 'cupule'. Costas & Novoa (1993: 23) describe cupules
as "cazoletas", pequeños hoyos hemisféricos
de planta circular y fondo cóncavo - también conocidos
como "coviñas" y "fosettes". Also the word "hoquedades"
has been used (Van Hoek 1997: 37). The situation in South America
is even more confusing. For example, Querejazu Lewis (1998: 48)
distinguishes between "cúpulas" - true cupules, and
"morteros" - grinding hollows. Other Bolivian researchers
use the word "cúpulas" but make a distinction between
"cúpulas auténticas" - true cupules and "cúpulas
utilitarias" - grinding hollows, the latter also known as "batanes"
or "moledores" (Methfessel & Methfessel 1998: 36). Chilean
literature often seems to make no distinction between utilitarian
and non-utilitarian anthropic depressions and labels every cultural
depression as "tacita".
To bring the Spanish terminology
more in line with the universal term "cupule", I would like to suggest
to use the Spanish term "cúpula" to indicate all non-utilitarian
anthropic depressions between 2cm and 10cm, and "morteros"
to indicate the larger, utilitarian anthropic depressions like grinding
hollows and to avoid the word "tacita". However, in this
paper the word "tacita" will be used to indicate the large
cultural depressions in the Ovalle area as described in Chilean
literature. Thus it will be possible to focus the discussion on
the distinction between "Tacitas" and cupules.
What is a cupule? In their discussion
about cupule engravings from Jinmium, northern Australia, Taçon,
Fullagar, Ouzman & Mulvaney offer a useful definition of the
cupule (1997: 943). A true cupule is a cup-shaped non-utilitarian
and definitely cultural mark that has been pecked or pounded into
a rock surface. Although a true cupule never has been formed by
nature, it is possible and even likely that, like in many places
around the world, natural hollows have triggered the execution of
anthropic (cultural) depressions (ibid. 1997: 961).
Cupules normally average 5cm in
diameter, but there are also smaller and shallower cupules of around
2cm, as well as larger ones measuring up to 10cm. Although most
cupules are circular, they occasionally appear in oval- or kidney-shapes.
Cupules occur world-wide in several (archaeological) contexts from
almost every prehistoric and historic period of human history. Their
meaning is often both intangible and manifold.
However, cupules are not to be confused
with grinding hollows that are often much larger (they may range
from 10cm to over 30cm in diameter). Grinding hollows are abrasion-formed
depressions (natural or cultural of origin) used for processing
food, dyes or other material, whereas the meaning of cupules often
remains obscure. Although many grinding hollows are circular and
deep like large basins, also elongated depressions occur. Grinding
hollows are not necessarily deeper than cupules; at El Encanto several
rather shallow examples were noticed (Figure 6, blue arrow). Another
distinction is that cupules may appear on horizontal, steeply sloping
and vertical surfaces and on large and small outcrops or boulders
alike, whereas grinding hollows almost exclusively are found on
rock surfaces that are horizontal or nearly so.
In essence, also the "Tacitas"
near Ovalle appear to be grinding hollows or mortars. They are often
very large and average 15cm in diameter (ranging from 10cm to 40cm)
and usually are strikingly deep. Although most "Tacitas"
are perfectly circular, there are quite a few oval and rectangular
shaped basins (and these usually are rather shallow and may have
had different origins or functions).
Another characteristic of "Tacitas"
is their smooth appearance; clearly they have been abraded or polished
either by executing them or by using them for whatever reason. Most
"Tacitas" appear on large surfaces that are horizontal
or nearly so. Some smaller stones with "Tacitas" also
occur and only one example (rock 4 in square F6, Figure 5) is severely
tilted. This exceptional position however, may have been the result
of natural forces like earthquakes, torrential rains or even lightning
(Sven Ouzman 2002, pers.com.).
The differences with cupules are
too obvious to uncritically classify the cupules of El Encanto as
small "Tacitas". There are also several reasons to refute
the idea that all cupules are unfinished "Tacitas", as
Klein (1972: 103) suggest for smaller cupule-like depressions at
the most elaborately engraved "Piedra Tacita" in El Encanto
(his E-28a; my number 10 in Figure 7). The most obvious reason is
that some stones with cupules are actually too small to offer space
for a "Tacita" to develop, especially the smaller dome-shaped
rock with only one cupule on the rounded top. Another reason is
that there are some rocks where cupules are clustered too close
together to allow space for one of them to develop into a basin.
A third reason is the appearance of true cupules on vertical rock
surfaces. And last but not least, why ignore the possibility that
cupules have been manufactured as a separate petroglyph tradition
in this long-inhabited area? In my opinion, some cupules may have
preceded the "Tacitas"-tradition. It is even conceivable
that the presence of cultural cupules triggered the execution of
"Tacitas", although the role of natural depressions may
not be ruled out. Although it can never be proven, it is also possible
(and even quite likely) that "Tacitas" replaced some cupules.
As the focus in this paper is on
cupules, it has not been attempted here to differentiate between
the several types of iconic (see Klein 1972) and non-iconic art,
both of which are labelled as "other rock art only" in
this survey and on the maps.
On the contrary, it was considered
more important to distinguish between "Tacitas" and cupules
and whether these depressions appeared in combination or singly.
Although we have surveyed most of the "Piedras Tacitas", there remained
an element of doubt whether all "Piedras Tacitas" only
had basins or were (once) combined with cupules. Some stones were
covered by earth or were overgrown; a few were untraceable. Also,
in some cases "Tacitas" may have replaced cupules. On the detail-maps,
these doubtful examples have the same symbol as the stones where
"Tacitas" are definitely combined with cupules.
Figure 4. Two "tacitas"
and atypical ring of short radials on rock 3, Zone I, El Encanto.
A possibly important and intriguing
aspect of the rock art in this valley is that never a combination
is found on any one "Piedra Tacita" with the standard
forms of the "other rock art", like anthropomorphs or
"masks". Cupule stones also seem to have been avoided
by other types of rock art. There are two exceptions. In one case
(rock 3 in Figure 5; possibly E-44a) we found many "Tacitas"
and a small number of cupules together with one enigmatic ring (about
50cm in diameter) of short, radiating grooves of much worn character.
This design is unique to the whole area. The area enclosed by this
ring of short radiates (Figure 4, between the two orange arrows)
may have functioned as a culturally defined space, especially reserved
to receive the product of the two grinding hollows that adjoin it.
There is one other notable exception at Stone 2 in Zone II. There
we find some cupules (but no "Tacitas") next to iconic
rock art. For the rest cupules always appear singly, or only in
combination with "Tacitas".
The cupule rocks of El Encanto
The rock art at El Encanto is, apart
from a few outlying engraved rocks, heavily concentrated in two
Zones (numbered I and II in Figure 1D, and shown in detail in Figures
5 and 7). I created those two zones as they are distinctly spatially
separated. A large stretch of land divides the two zones without
neither notable rocks or rock art. Zone I, dominated by an enormous
boulder called El Gran Peñon, is situated at lower altitude
near the west end of the valley where the river exits through a
rather narrow gorge. Moreover, Zone I has fewer engraved stones
and the iconic art is less impressive, whereas Zone II proves to
have been the major focal point of the area, as it features the
great majority of the engravings and also the most sophisticated
Although it is clear that the art
in both zones is definitely associated with the river Espinal, it
must be noticed here that the course of the river may have changed
during the ages, especially in the wider and flatter parts of the
gorge. I will return to this aspect later.
I hesitated to use the old E [Encanto]-numbering
used by Klein (1972) in this paper, as these E-numbers were not
assigned consistently. In some cases the whole rock with several
petroglyphs was assigned only one E-number; in other cases each
individual petroglyph was given a separate E-number. Although the
old E-numbering appears in paint on most of the rocks, the E-numbers
are often indecipherable. Moreover, quite a few new unnumbered cupule
rocks were located during our surveys. Also the new numbering by
Ampuero (1993) did not take in all the engraved rocks. I therefore
decided to use my own numbering on the distribution maps in this
paper. Only in a few cases I will state the old E-number used by
Klein (1972) for easy reference.
Also in Zone I
the art is clearly focussed on the river. Only at squares F5-F6
(Figure 5) there is a string of decorated rocks running uphill.
Possibly it lines a mostly dry river course. Most of the other "Piedras
Tacitas" are clearly associated with the river Espinal. A few
"Piedras Tacitas" are actually located in the present-day
stream, but this position need not reflect the prehistoric situation.
Figure 5. Distribution map of Zone I,
El Encanto (Based on Klein 1972).
Cupule stones are scarce in zone
I. We could spot only one small flat stone with one large cupule
(rock 2 in Figure 5). It just possibly could have been intended
to become a "Tacita". More importantly, there are two
rocks with true cupules only (in square D6 in Figure 5). A medium-sized
(roughly 160cm wide and 100cm high) rounded boulder (with E-50 painted
on one side, but numbered 1A by me) has one distinct cupule carved
on its top and a large number of worn cupules (from 4 to 8cm in
diameter) heavily clustered on its rough south edge (Figure 6),
but clearly spatially separated from the single cupule on the top.
There are no "Tacitas" on this boulder, although there
is plenty of space on its flat top. The boulder heavily suffers
from exfoliation (a common weathering process of granite), and,
as we shall see, this possibly forms a reason for the execution
of the cluster of cupules.
Figure 6. Boulders 1A
and 1B, Zone I, El Encanto. 10 cm scales.
Flush with the ground and roughly
one metre to the SE of 1A lies a horizontal slab, numbered 1B by
me, with four large oval "Tacitas", one rather shallow
(Figure 6, blue arrow) and four smaller circular ones. This stone
also features two cupules, 6cm in diameter (yellow arrows). Again
1m to the SE, my wife Elles noticed three small cupules (all 4cm
in diameter) on the almost vertical SW facing flat surface of a
smaller boulder (1C). The cupules (8 to 11cm apart) are set in a
triangle, only 40cm above ground level. There are no "Tacitas"
on this boulder, nor can it ever have been the intention to develop
a "Tacita" out of one of these cupules. An interesting
aspect of both rocks 1A and 1C will be discussed further on.
About 400m further east is the beginning
of zone II (Figure 7). This area offers more interesting information
regarding the distinction between "Tacitas" and cupules.
Three sub-zones may be distinguished. The first sub-zone features
a linear group of "Tacitas" and cupules, stretching SW-NE
for roughly one hundred metres (from square L2 to O1 in Figure 7).
The second sub-zone is centred on two rock-shelters at Q1, and last
but not least there is sub-zone II.3 (named the "Santuario"
by Klein 1972), which stretches from O1 to O3.
Figure 7. Distribution map of Zone II,
El Encanto (Based on Klein 1972).
The most striking aspect of this
group is the absence of "other rock art" elements, like
"masks", anthropomorphs and non-iconic elements. This
anomaly may be related to the linear character of the group and
this phenomenon may have a special explanation, to which I shall
return further on. Some "Piedras Tacitas" in this sub-zone
have the odd cupule (one, rock 11 in Figure 7, also seems to have
a number of roughly parallel (natural?) grooves).
Figure 8. Rock 7D, Sub-zone II.1, El
However, one group (numbered 7A
to D) in this row is most interesting. Two adjoining horizontal
flat stones (site 7D; old numbering E-26) have five "Tacitas",
but also feature some definite cupules: at least six cupules (and
faint traces of more; yellow arrows in Figure 8) of different sizes
(but usually rather small) on the east slab, and one on the west
slab. What makes this group interesting, however, is a (natural?,
cultural?) row of three boulders just north of 7D. One small rounded
boulder (7C) has two weathered but definite cupules on its top (Figure
9, blue arrows).
Figure 9. Rock 7C, Sub-zone II.1, El Encanto.
Its larger neighbour (7B) has at
least seven cupules on its rough, horizontal top (Figure 10) and
may be more traces of cupules plus four possible cupules on its
south facing vertical face.
Figure 10. Rock 7B Sub-zone
II.1, El Encanto.
Immediately west of 7B is a longish
boulder (7A) with two definite cupules on its crest and possible
traces of others (Figure 11). Especially 7A and 7C are not suitable
to ever have been intended for "Tacitas".
Figure 11. Boulder 7A, Sub-zone II.1,
Near the east end of sub-zone II.1
is a more dispersed group of "Piedras Tacitas" and cupule
stones. Rock 6C (E-22) is horizontal and flat and bears the typical
"Tacitas" plus four possible cupules. But rocks 6A and
6B nearby are again small and rounded boulders, each with one definite
cupule on the top. Other similar stones near this group also show
traces of one or two worn cupules. None of these smaller stones
will ever have been a suitable candidate for a "Tacita".
A situation similar to group 7 is
found at the east end of sub-zone II.1. Here, group 5 (which may
as well be considered to be the north end of sub-zone II.3) comprises
a linear setting of cupule rocks lining a path leading to the river.
This path may have developed from the many tourists that visit the
site, but it equally may be very ancient. Most conspicuous is a
flat horizontal slab (5B in Figure 7; E-28a) with three "Tacitas"
and one cupule of 5cm in diameter. Only 2 metres north of 5B is
a small flat boulder (5A) with one definite cupule, whereas some
10 metres to the south are two small rounded boulders, one (5C)
with a faint depression on top; the other (5D) with a small but
definite cupule on its west slope. Especially 5D is not suitable
for a "Tacita".
This area is interesting for its
two "abrigos" or rock-shelters of huge granite
boulders. Interestingly, a small boulder (or the top of a larger
one) is embedded in the path leading from the river to "abrigo
2" and to a huge granite boulder with a large anthropomorphic
figure that overlooks the small boulder (9 in Figure 7; possibly
E-2a). On its rounded top are the worn remains of at least five
cupules (Figure 12). The largest cupule is 7cm in diameter. The
position of this boulder in the path may be significant, as most
likely the path is very ancient.
Figure 12. Boulder 9,
Sub-zone II.2, El Encanto. 10 cm scale.
On the other side of the river and
part of a cliff-like tongue of rough outcrop land is a medium-sized
block (100cm wide) of coarse granite (rock 8 in Figure 7; possibly
E-3) on which my wife Elles noticed three cupules. The largest cupule
measures 8cm in diameter. The cupules form a triangle (compare with
rock 1C in zone I) on its vertical, east-facing surface, also near
the lower edge of the stone (Figure 13). Again, this is a most unlikely
place for a "Tacita". It may be significant that this
boulder overlooks the river and simultaneously the path to "abrigo
2" and its cupule rock (and also "abrigo 1").
A large rock with "Tacitas" to the NW (rock 12) has also
a few cupules.
Figure 13. Boulder 8, Sub-zone II.2,
El Encanto. 10 cm scale.
Here we find the biggest and most
important concentration of rock art, mainly comprising anthropomorphs
and "masks". However, the basic premise, resulting from
my observations at Zone I, is repeated in Zone II: there proves
to be a strict spatial separation of stones with "Tacitas"
or cupules and stones with other types of rock art. Only in one
case there is a combination on one stone of cupules and other types
of petroglyphs. This rock will be fully discussed further on.
It may be significant that most
of the "Piedras Tacitas" and the cupule rocks of sub-zone
II.3 seem to border the heavy concentration of rocks bearing
"other rock art". Already described are the small cupule
rocks at groups 5 and 6 at the north end of this sub-zone. Two similar
stones (3 and 4 in Figure 7), each with one worn cupule on their
rounded tops, were noted by my wife at the "entrance"
to the jumble of huge rocks that I prefer to call the "cascade".
The river runs through this chaos of tumbled rocks and flows into
a rather deep pool immediately west of it. There is a strange aspect
about this pool that will be discussed further on.
Touching the two rocks with the
finest depictions of "masks" (Figure 2; E-15) is a medium-sized
block (95cm by 200cm) with a horizontal upper surface featuring
two parallel quartz veins. Its position (marked 1 in Figure 7),
accessibility, and its size and shape (especially the flat upper
surface) suggest that it might have been used as a ritual platform.
This idea is enhanced by the presence of cupules on its upper surface.
However, only in certain light it became obvious that this boulder
was marked in a remarkable way. Along the two accessible edges was
carved a line of possibly up to eighteen cupules measuring 6cm in
average diameter (Figure 14). All cupules are severely weathered.
Only seven examples clearly showed up in slanting sunlight, also
because the morning dew concentrated in these deeper examples (Figure
Figure 14. Boulder 1, Sub-Zone II.3,
El Encanto. 50 cm scale.
Figure 15. A. Boulder 1,
Sub-Zone II.3, El Encanto. 10 cm scale. B.
This typical setting of cupules
reminded me of the large boulder at Loaa Site 110, feature
BU1, Kahoolawe Island, Hawaii (Lee & Stasack 1999:
146-7). There, most of the 32 cultural depressions have been carved
likewise along two of its edges. Another interesting quality of
feature BU1 will be discussed further on.
The importance of the "cascade"
as a focal point in the valley is also confirmed by another most
interesting rock (marked 2 in Figure 7) that is almost adjoining
Rock 1. It is situated at the bottom of the "cascade"
and actually lies in the stream itself. It is a large plate of granite
(roughly 3 by 6 metres) with a smooth undulating upper surface.
Even a conspicuous quartz vein is worn extremely smooth by fluvial
action. The rock is sheltered on three sides by large blocks of
stone, forming a sort of natural niche, a convenient place for private
rituals. One block partially overhangs the plate on its south end.
Just west of its open side is another (undecorated) large plate
in the pool that is most suitable as viewing platform or gathering
place for a small group of people.
Stone 2 has a most interesting collection
of petroglyphs and, to my knowledge, is the only rock in the whole
valley where non-iconic and iconic petroglyphs (including at least
one depiction of a "mask" or a "head-dress")
are found together with cupules.
Figure 16. The eastern
part of Rock 2, Sub-Zone II.3, El Encanto.
Near its east end and east of a
shallow natural basin is a worn ring mark with faint radiating grooves
and other extremely faint cultural grooves (Figure 16, blue arrows).
South of this group and almost covered by the overhanging block,
on a south sloping part, are two worn cupules (Figure 16, yellow
Figure 17. The middle section
of Rock 2, Sub-Zone II.3, El Encanto.
Q = quartz vein. 10 cm scale.
Near the centre and just east of
the most conspicuous quartz vein are at least three shallow cupules
in a row (diameters 4, 3 and 10cm). These three cupules (Figure
17, yellow arrows) are severely weathered which may point to great
antiquity, but equally, running water during wetter periods may
be responsible for the worn character of all the engravings on this
Figure 18. The southern panel on Rock 2,
Sub-Zone II.3, El Encanto. Framed: the position of the cupules
shown in Figure 17.
Near its SW end, overlooking the
water of the pool, is an interesting collection of ringmarks, some
associated with small cupules and radiating grooves (Figure 18 -
framed: Figure 17). On the very NW edge of rock 2 is a faint petroglyph
of a "mask" or "head-dress" (Figure 19), comparable
with other petroglyphs in the area (inset), and some other indecipherable
figures. It must be noted that all groups of petroglyphs on rock
2 occupy spaces that are well separated from each other. Perhaps
this rock was considered so important because of its location that
subsequent cultures decided to add their symbolism only at this
rock, respecting the other symbols by using different parts of the
rock. Other rocks with cupules and/or "Tacitas" were clearly
avoided (possibly out of respect).
Figure 19. The "head-dress"
on Rock 2, Sub-Zone II.3, El Encanto. Inset: a similar example
from El Encanto.
The cupule rocks of el Valle del Sol
This rock art site is located approximately
24 km to the NE of El Encanto and north of the river Limarí
(Figure 1B). Although the rock art in this small gorge (numbered
S [Sol]-1 to S-58 in paint on the rocks; again, the numbers are
often indecipherable), is not that extensive and sophisticated compared
to El Encanto, it is of general importance, also in the scope of
Because of a bottle-neck in the
Quebrada Talhuén, erosive forces exposed a large number of
boulders and outcrops of different rock types, roughly 70 of which
were decorated with mainly non-iconic line-figures such as ringmarks
(some with keyhole grooves comparable with the example from El Encanto,
Figure 18). Only a few (doubtful) anthropomorphic figures and one
possible animal (camelid?) occur (Van Hoek 2000: Fig. 8).
Figure 20. The bottleneck of the Quebrada
Talhuén, El Valle del Sol, looking east across the
"meseta" with the Cerro del Manganeso (1070 m) beyond.
Apart from two outlying decorated
rocks near the south end of the gorge, three concentrations of decorated
stones may be distinguished: small boulders on the western hill-slopes;
much fragmented outcrops on the eastern cliffs (Figure 20) and a
remarkable group of cupule rocks very near the stream in the centre
of the gorge (Figure 21B). Again, only the cupule rocks will be
The central group is dominated by
a large grey coloured outcrop on the west bank (rocks 1 and 2 in
Figure 21B; numbered with paint S-54 to S-56). Rock 1 borders a
small pool that possibly is a semi-permanent feature of the gorge.
Only six certain cupules (and a few doubtful ones) are found, widely
scattered on several horizontal parts of this much fractured and
stepped high outcrop (Figure 21C: diameters of cupules stated; drawing
not to scale). The only certain cupule on rock 1 is carved very
close to the river/pool (Figure 22).
Figure 22. Single cupule on Rock 1, El
Valle del Sol, with the pool (or river - direction of flow
indicated) below. 10 cm scale.
Only the two largest examples of
the complex are in a position that would allow "Tacitas"
to develop. Touching the outcrop at its west end is a medium-sized
boulder (rock 3) with one distinct cupule and another possible one,
both rather shallow but recognisable by a lighter (more recent?)
patination (Figure 23, black arrows). On the west side is a depression
(similarly patinated as the boulder) that also may be a cupule (Figure
23, yellow arrow).
Figure 23. Rock 3, El
Valle del Sol, looking east across the grey bulk of Rock 2
and the river beyond. 10 cm scale only applies to rock 3.
On the other side of the river/pool
is a large horizontal, fractured slab (rock 4) with three large
cupules (8, 9 and 10cm in diameter), possibly intended to become
"Tacitas". About 4m to the north of it is a medium-sized
boulder (rock 5) with one shallow cupule (8cm) on its south sloping
surface. This cupule has also a lighter patina.
One of the striking differences
with El Encanto is that "Piedras Tacitas" are almost lacking
completely at El Sol. Apart from the doubtful "Tacitas"
on rock 4, there are only two rocks with definite "Tacitas"
(compare with more than 80 rocks at El Encanto!). One (rock
6) is a large, irregular and much fractured outcrop with three "Tacitas"
with a depth and diameter of 12cm on its horizontal upper surface
Figure 24. Rock 6, El Valle del Sol,
showing three distinct "Tacitas". 10 cm scale.
Outcrop 6 continues further SW and,
under a tree, appears as rock 7 featuring one distinct "Tacita",
13cm in diameter and 14cm in depth. The vertical NW-face of this
rock shows a remarkable collection of about eighteen "cupules"
averaging only 2cm in diameter and of negligible depth. They were
recognised because their light brown colour contrasts clearly against
the reddish background. Although they look artificial, they could
be impact-marks caused by large pebbles hitting the rock face when
the stream was in full force. Their clustering on a reddish part
of the rock, however, and their similar dimensions suggest a possible
anthropic origin however.
On the opposite hill-slope is another
group of decorated rocks, three of which are rather small boulders
that have cupules as well as very faint traces of other decoration.
On the upper undulating surface of rock 8 are two much worn cupules
with the same patina as the rock-surface and two faint ovals with
a lighter patina. Rock 9 has one distinct cupule (with a clearly
differing lighter patina) and one faint circle on its vertical,
east-facing surface. On the almost vertical, north-facing surface
of rock 10 is one lighter patinated cupule, surrounded by a faintly
pecked ring and traces of another ring mark, all most likely added
later. This rock rests on a small ledge of grey outcrop rock on
the rather steep slope below the main group. Some (or even most)
boulders in this group may have been dislocated.
Between the two groups is the riverbed
covered by sand, pebbles and some boulders. One large irregular
and water-worn boulder (rock 11) has four much weathered cupules
on its south-facing grey surface, 3, 4, 7 and 8cm in diameter and
all rather shallow. Especially the larger ones show a darker patina.
To the NW is a flat square boulder (rock 12) with one rather deep
cupule of about 7cm in diameter, possibly intended to become a "Tacita".
Archaeological evidence from excavations
in the valley makes it acceptable that most of the iconic
art dates from the so-called El Molle period (Ampuero 1993). It
has also been established that the majority of the iconic
art in El Encanto and El Sol and indeed in a large area from Illapell
to La Silla (Figure 1B) belongs to the El Molle Culture, which roughly
dates from 300 BC to AD 800 (Ballereau & Niemeyer, 1996; Niemeyer
& Ballereau 1996). The people belonging to the El Molle Culture
probably consisted of small mobile groups of agriculturists and
pastoralists that followed the ancient paths of the earlier
hunter-gatherers. These earlier groups practised a form of transhumance.
In the spring they moved from the coast towards the high ground
of the Andes. Some of the river-gorges in the lower foothills were
important stopping places on their way up and down the mountains.
Importantly, most researchers (Klein 1972: 10; Ampuero 1993: 22;
Gallardo Ibánèz 1997: 35) agree on the theory that
the "Tacitas" are the oldest cultural manifestations in
stone in El Encanto: "Consideramos las Piedras Tacitas o
Piedras Morteros como elementos culturales más antigos del
lugar" (Klein 1972: 103). For several reasons (grinding
food or mixing colours or some unknown ritual) these migrating groups
of early hunter-gatherers probably made the first typical basin
stones, called "Piedras Tacitas" (Klein 1972; Ampuero
1993). However, Klein also acknowledges the possibility that these
"Tacitas" have been used and re-used by subsequent cultures,
like the El Molle and Diaguita societies (Ampuero 1993: 22).
Yet it is often stated that there
is a relation between the "Tacitas" and the petroglyphs
of the El Molle Culture (Ampuero 1993: 9). In a directional relationship
of symbolic development however, it is better to suggest that the
art of the El Molle Culture is associated with the "Tacitas",
not the "Tacitas" with the El Molle art. The imagery of
the El Molle Culture originated in this valley because of the very
special natural qualities of this impressive locus and possibly
also because of the presence of the conspicuous "Piedras Tacitas".
These basin-stones no doubt will have inspired the newcomers and
they decided to execute their own range of petroglyphs on boulders
and outcrops near to these "Tacitas". The decision
not to place their imagery on these "Piedras
Tacitas" was, in my opinion, intentional. Probably they would
still have used those "Piedras Tacitas" and possibly one did not
want to mix the new and the old functions/symbolism of the place,
especially as "Tacitas" may have been used for more practical
Cupule stones may have been ignored,
either because most cupule rocks were considered not suitable for
their type of petroglyphs (too small, too coarse or too near to
the ground level), or because cupules were respected for their antiquity
and symbolism. The latter may account for the absence of petroglyphs
other than cupules on rock 1, Zone II, El Encanto, although its
decorated surface is directly overlooked by several of the finest
"masks" of the valley.
Although indeed cupules frequently
represent the oldest surviving rock art of an area, Robert Bednarik
rightly argues however, that often cupules only seemingly represent
the oldest rock art motif, simply because they have a good chance
to survive, being more deterioration resistant (1996: 126). Unfortunately,
up to date there has not been any effort to obtain dating evidence
for any of the petroglyphs of El Encanto. Therefore, nothing can
be said with certainty about the dating of the cupules and "Tacitas"
in this area. Only stylistic characteristics and some rare instances
of superimposition of the iconic rock art repertoire give
some clues as to a tentative chronology as suggested by Klein (1972).
We have noticed however, that many
"Piedras Tacitas" also feature cupules (Figure 8) and
moreover that cupules often occur solely on small rocks (Figure
12) and on vertical faces (Figure 13). "Tacitas" could
therefore have developed after the manufacturers of the cupules
acknowledged the special qualities of the place. The presence of
cupules (or natural basins) could even have triggered the execution
of "Tacitas". If this were true, this would make the cupule
the oldest surviving rock art element of these valleys.
However, Ampuero (1993) acknowledges
the idea that also the rock paintings at El Encanto may represent
an artistic expression that could predate the petroglyph tradition
of the El Molle Culture. Although only a few rock paintings (mainly
in the colour red) survived, there once were possibly many more
rock paintings in this valley (Ampuero 1993: 15). In general, mortar
stones resulted from the processing of food, fat or ochre or other
substances used to make dyes. It is therefore acceptable to suggest
that (some of) the "Tacitas" in El Encanto may also have
been used to produce the colouring for the rock paintings.
In order to provide a reliable chronological
framework for the rock art repertoire in the area around Ovalle,
it would be most welcome to obtain dates for especially the cupules
and the "Tacitas" at El Encanto and El Sol, for instance
by way of microerosion analysis (Bednarik 1997), or by micro-excavation
techniques (Watchman, Taçon, Fullagar & Head 2000). For
that purpose, detailed information especially on the general petrography
of the area is needed, as well as geochemical information of the
types of patination observed at the several cultural depressions.
However, as such scientific analyses involve inspection by specialists,
I will have to leave this job to future researchers.
However, this survey makes it acceptable
that possibly cupules constitute the first elements of rock art
around Ovalle after all. Indeed, the cupules at El Sol and especially
at El Encanto are mostly extremely weathered and often have the
same patination as the rock surface. This may point to great antiquity.
However, it must be emphasised here that patina or desert varnish
can form quite rapidly in some cases (Lee 1992: 27; Whitley &
Also important is the fact that
there never appears iconic rock art on any of the stones with cupules
or "Tacitas" and that only once (at rock 2 in Zone II)
a 'combination' is found of cupules with iconic art (although on
separate panels). Also this spatial distinction strongly suggests
a chronological distinction between the cupules and de iconic rock
art of the El Molle culture.
What is almost certain however,
is that the siting of the cupule stones (and also of the "Piedras
Tacitas") is water-related. It has been noticed earlier in
this paper that most of the cupule stones are very near the stream,
mainly to the north of it (this spatial preference may relate to
the accessibility of the site, which is easier from the north).
However, the linear group of "Tacitas" and cupules at
Zone II, El Encanto (squares L2 to O1 in Figure 7), seems to form
an exception, as many of the stones in this row are 50m distant
from the present-day river/pool.
This fact, and the linear character
of this group brings me to suggest that possibly the course of the
river Espinal is nowadays different to the prehistoric course. I
already mentioned the jumble of large blocks at the "cascade".
Many of these blocks have sharp edges and clearly have been broken
a long time after the valley was formed. My initial thought was
that the undermining by the erosive forces of a small waterfall
caused the collapse of the stone plates, but Klein (1972: 9) suggests
that an earthquake was responsible (possibly both factors acted
together). Whatever the cause, it is possible that there once existed
a prehistoric pond behind (east of) a natural dam and waterfall,
and that, at one time, the main course of the river was forced to
take another direction. Just possibly the prehistoric stream once
ran past the linear group of "Piedras Tacitas" and cupule
stones as suggested in Figure 25, which may explain the presence
of these cupules and "Tacitas" relatively far from the
present-day river. The general distribution of "Tacitas"
and cupules in this area seems to support this idea. It is worthwhile
to have also this possibility checked in the field by the proposed
Figure 25. The possible prehistoric course
of the river Espinal, Zone II, El Encanto.
There is however another strange
aspect about the hydrography of the area. Describing Zone II, Klein
(1972: 9) does not mention the pool that is so conspicuous
nowadays. Instead, he includes photographs of dry ground in front
of the "cascade" (1972: Figs 1 and 2). Simultaneously
he acknowledges that tectonic forces may have caused irregularities
in the course of the river. More importantly, he states (1972: 10)
that the stream disappears in the chaos of rocks and follows an
underground course that re-appears in Zone I, near the "Gran
Peñon". It is therefore safe to suggest that, especially
at Zone II, tectonic forces may have repeatedly changed the course
of the river Espinal, and this possibly once caused a linear group
of petroglyphs to develop along a prehistoric and since long abandoned
course of the river. The remarkable absence of "other rock
art" in this linear group may imply that the river changed
its course again before the El Molle culture arrived in the valley.
The presence of water in a suitable
geographical place on a path through several different ecological
zones from coast to the high Andes not necessarily is the only reason
for the execution of cupules at El Encanto. There may have been
another, more specific reason for some of the anthropic depressions
in the area. There are notably instances, world-wide, where certain
rocks, the so called "lithophones" or rock gongs, were
noted (and often marked) for their acoustic qualities (Taçon,
Fullagar, Ouzman & Mulvaney 1997: 946). It must be emphasised
here however, that cultural depressions in lithophones are definitely
not the result of casual use. Such cultural hollows are quite intentionally
shaped features involving well-targeted percussion. By definition
however, such utilitarian percussion-depressions will be regarded
neither as true cupules nor as rock art.
Sound certainly was important in most
prehistoric societies (see the web site of Steven Waller). Throughout
southern Africa for instance, there are rocks on which clusters
of randomly executed peck marks are found, "not created as
things to be seen, but as the residue of certain San rituals at
which the production of percussive sound such as hammering or drumming
was required" (Ouzman 1998: 38; 2001). Huwiler (1998: 148)
discusses the function of several "lithophones" of Zimbabwe,
called Mujejeje locally. These granite rocks are still ringed to-date
to make contact with the ancestors, which are buried nearby. His
book also contains a CD-ROM with no fewer than six recordings of
the surprisingly varied sounds produced at one of these "Mujejejes".
The enormous rock art site of Twyfelfontein, Namibia, has several
rocks with possibly rock art related acoustics and several spots
with fine echoes (Twyfelfontein).
At Balepetrish, on the northern
shore of the island of Tiree, Scotland, I once visited the "Ringing
Stone". This is a large boulder that is pitted with large but
rather shallow basins, covering almost every surface. When hitting
this rock with a pebble that is kept in one of the basins, a bell-like
peal is heard. These depressions most likely originated because
of the frequent use.
In a deep shelter at Bhimbetka,
India, there is a boulder (with seven, probably very old cupules)
that is supposed to be a rock gong, but this quality is now severely
questioned, (Bednarik, Kumar & Tyagi 1991: 34) although these
researchers confirm the existence of true "lithophones"
I already mentioned BU1, the large
boulder on Kahoolawe Island, Hawaii, with its typical
arrangement of large cultural depressions around its edges, resembling
stone 1 at Zone II, El Encanto. Surprisingly BU1 is also special
because it resonates with a bell-like peal when tapped (Lee &
Stasack 1999: 146).
It may now be significant that at
least two stones at El Encanto, 1A and 1C in Zone I, are remarkable
for having a certain acoustic effect when being (carefully) tapped
with a pebble. The acoustic property is only evident at those parts
that clearly have been affected by exfoliation, a natural weathering
process, characteristic for granite. Although the ongoing exfoliation
process may have developed the acoustic effect after the
manufacturing of the depressions, it may be significant that the
heavily clustering of small cultural depressions is found only on
an "acoustic part" of boulder 1A, whereas the single cupule
is found isolated on the "silent" top. Also the triangle
of depressions on boulder 1C is found on an acoustic part very near
ground level, while the upper part of the vertical surface is "mute".
It is possible that still other "acoustics" exist in the
valley or have been transformed into "Piedras Tacitas".
Possibly, ritually produced petro-sounds were an important aspect
of prehistoric life at El Encanto.
Although Chile abounds in rock art,
both iconic and non-iconic, it is surprising to notice how scarce,
even rare, cupules are at some major rock art concentrations. For
instance, the cliff site at Rosario, Lluta, has no cupules at all,
although many rock panels feature natural depressions (some possibly
worked on and some definitely incorporated into a design) that may
have triggered the creation of the art. Further south, of the more
than four hundred petroglyph boulders at Tarapacá 47, only
two boulders feature one artificial depression each, too few to
speak of a cupule tradition.
Therefore, the occurrence of a relatively
large number of cupule rocks near Ovalle may be regarded as an exception,
especially as other rock art complexes of the El Molle culture seem
to be bereft of cupules (Ballereau & Niemeyer, 1996; Niemeyer
& Ballereau 1996). For that reason, the possibility that the
cupules at El Encanto and El Sol are executed by a different culture
than the El Molle and for different reasons must be seriously taken
The main target of this survey was
to see whether it was justified to consider the cupules in those
two valleys as a class of cultural depressions that are distinctly
different to the "Tacitas".
Indeed, the relatively many new
finds of authentic cupules, especially those on small rocks or on
vertical surfaces, confirm that the majority of the true cupules
in this small part of Chile can no longer be classified as small
or unfinished "Tacitas", even when such cupules are larger
than average. The relatively large numbers of cupules, together
with their specific spatial distribution pattern, make it justifiable
to consider this group to be the remains of a modest regional cupule
tradition. This survey also made it acceptable that cupules appeared
during the initial stages of exploration and occupation by the early
hunter-gatherer groups. Therefore, the cupules at El Sol and El
Encanto may even pre-date the "Tacitas".
I would like to thank my wife
Elles for her assistance during fieldwork at El Valle del Sol and
El Valle de El Encanto in 1999 and 2000. I would like to thank Matthias
Strecker for his most useful suggestions. I am also indebted to
the curator of the Archaeological Museum of La Serena, Gaston Castillo,
who kindly informed us about the rock art at El Valle del Sol.
comments? Write to: firstname.lastname@example.org
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to quote this paper /
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