Subscribe to Archaeology

Rock Art of Comanche Warriors

In New Mexico's Rio Grande Gorge, Barnard College archaeologist Severin Fowles and his team have recorded hundreds of panels of barely visible rock art left by Comanche around a basin known as the Vista Verde site. Groups of Comanche traveled to the area from the Great Plains during the early eighteenth century to take part in raiding or trading expeditions. Many of the panels depict warriors on horseback fighting other Native Americans or capturing horses. Unlike most rock art, which often represents timeless, ritually important subjects, these panels appear to depict real-life events, perhaps traced on the rocks by warriors eager to remind their fellow Comanche of their brave exploits. Below are tracings Fowles and his team made of some of the panels, which were scratched onto basalt boulders.




This detail of a panel at the Vista Verde site may depict a single Comanche engaged in feral horse raiding. In the upper left corner the warrior is visibly on horseback, with his headress flowing behind him. The wild horse to the immediate right appears to have a lasso around its neck, and the larger horse below may have an arrow lodged in its body. At the bottom of the panel are semi-circle abrasions around a natural hole in the rock. They may depict hoove prints around a watering hole, represented by the hole. According to tradition, one Comanche horse raiding tactic was to capture feral horses while they gathered around sources of water. 







This panel appears to depict a Native American, probably Comanche, raid in progress at a tepee encampment. The mounted warrior on the lower left has lines connecting him with another figure. This could be a representation of the act of "counting coup," or physically touching your opponent in battle without a weapon, which was considered the greatest act of bravery a Plains Indian could commit in battle. The Comanche were known as fierce warriors. The very word "Comanche" comes from a Ute term that translates as "anyone who wants to fight me all the time." Outside some of the teppees in this panel are circles on top of three or four lines. These probably represent personal shields, which Plains Indians rested on tripods outside their tepees to represent their owners. 





Reminiscent of a football coach’s chalkboard diagramming plays this rock art panel depicts several different warriors on foot wearing headdresses and bearing shields. To the upper left the initials “E.T.” are visible, a reminder that cowboys, herders, and modern tourists have left their own graffiti on the same boulders used by the Comanche. Lines likely depicting the act of counting coup connect several of the warriors on this panel.  




Some two-dozen tepees are depicted on this boulder, which seems to show Comanche warriors mounting their horses, perhaps in preparation for a raid or trading mission to a nearby settlement. Depictions of tepees are one of the most common scenes found around the Vista Verde site, and it’s possible this panel is a sketch of the site itself. 






Feature Article:
Searching for the Comanche Empire