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Sonoran Refuge: Revelations in the Rock

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NGS/Waitt grantee Silvina Vigliani explores the canyons of the Sierra Prieta in the Mexican portion of the Sonoran Desert. Her quest: To locate and determine the significance of rock paintings made by native peoples centuries ago.

Within these emblematic—and sometimes enigmatic—figures, Vigliani searches for clues to traditional beliefs and practices before the arrival in the region of the first Europeans, and to how these evolved after European contact.

Indigenous people found refuge from Spanish soliders in the maze of the Sonoran's stony canyons.

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Riders on horseback and crosses on canyon walls reflect a time of “conflict and contact,” says Vigliani. More deeply discolored artwork includes abstract images, animals, and mythical figures, an artistic expression of more ancient times.

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Many of the paintings are located near tinajas—secondary canyons and other deep depressions in the rock where rainwater collects. Because paintings appear so frequently near these precious, remote, and often nearly inaccessible sources of freshwater in the desert, Vigliani believes tinajas served as important locations for shamanistic rituals and spiritual communication.

Native paintings also appear in caves and on dry canyon walls. Vigliani hopes to determine why they’re found where they are, and to decipher what the paintings reveal about the people who made them.

Photographs by Silvina Vigliani

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