Keyhole Canyon Petroglyphs and Creation Mythology

Keyhole Canyon is located about halfway between Las Vegas and Searchlight, outside the town of Nelson in the Eldorado Mountains. While it is unknown who carved the petroglyphs at Keyhole Canyon, scholars do agree that the Mohave, the Paiute, and the Anasazi/Pueblo were the main groups in the region thousands of years ago.

Mark Harrington, famed archaeologist of the Lost City on the Virgin and Colorado rivers, believed the Zunis (a western Pueblo tribe that may have mixed with Yuman tribes) had once called the region directly north of Las Vegas their home. With their strong mythological roots, it is possible that their beliefs influenced the people who actually carved the rocks or they made forays south of Las Vegas themselves.

While overlooked as a tourist site when compared to Grapevine Canyon, Valley of Fire, and Red Rock, which are more easily accessible, Keyhole Canyon is a unique site because of the unusually large, round, geometric glyphs that cover several rock faces. These glyph symbols match up perfectly with other glyph patterns in the Southern Nevada region.

The over-emphasis on geometric glyphs and the shortage of representational figures at Keyhole Canyon is an interpretive challenge. As with Grapevine Canyon, many archaeologists interpret the mysterious symbols as stemming from the Creation Mythology of the Native Americans who lived in and around the region. In this case, that would mean the Mojave, Paiute, and Anasazi/Pueblo. Creation Mythology consisted of four main evolutionary phases: early creation, the age of the god-people when spirits ruled, the rise of the animal-people when animals were men, and the conquest of the world by modern human-people.

Legend says that when entering a trance state, the Indian shaman threw himself into the invisible world where all these ancestors of the modern human-people remained imprinted on the fabric of the spirit realm. Then the shaman brought back the images he had seen and re-created them on the surrounding rocks. By using this Creation Mythology as the general setting for understanding the meaning of the rock art, the following tentative explanations can be given:

The Circle: The source of everything, the highest level of spirit

The Bisected Circle: When in combination with a male phallus, this is a female glyph symbolizing the separation of the human-people into man and woman. When in combination with astral glyphs, the notion of the feminine takes on a cosmic level. In Pueblo mythology, the twain worlds, or two, are created before the terrestrial world. That is, the first manifestation from the empty circle, or spirit, is dual, or the bisected circle. In Mojave, Paiute, and Pueblo mythology, the Grandmother of Many, who preceded Coyote, is one of the earliest god-people.

The Cross within the Circle: As already noted, the circle represents highest spirit. The four arms of the cross correspond to the Native American sacred number 4 or completion. For example, the number 4 consistently appears: 4 worlds or ages, 4 Old Men, 4 directions, 4 solstices/equinoxes, 4 migrations, 4 colors, 4 divisions of night, 4 sacred mountains, 4 daughters of Coyote, 4 times for Coyote to repeat an action before he is finished. In Creation Mythology, what is being completed is the evolution of the human-people. Therefore, the cross within the circle symbolizes highest spirit evolving and completing itself through the separation of the human-people into male and female.

While these interpretations are tentative, the Creation Mythology approach goes beyond the previous notions of rock art as mere doodling (an unlikely thesis because the same symbols appear over thousands of miles) or as hunting magic (another unlikely thesis because the Keyhole Canyon petroglyphs do not depict big hunting scenes).

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