Petroglyph’s Rock Art or Rock Writing?


Black Mountain Petroglyph Site

Black Mountain Petroglyph Site

Native American tradition combined with scientific decoding methods indicate that “rock art” is really a sophisticated form of writing. The life-long research into Native American petroglyphs by LaVan Martineau, an orphan adopted into the Paiute tribe of southeastern Nevada and southwestern Utah, has resulted in detailed interpretations of the rock writings. His work, culminating in an interpretation of the famous Hopi Prophecy Rock, demonstrates a much greater information content in these picture-based drawings than was previously recognized. Martineau’s research implies the existence of early ideograph-based writing systems that could convey detailed meanings without including phonetic sound-based components.

LaVan Martineau was uniquely prepared to take the first bold steps not only toward showing that the so-called Native American “rock art” was really rock writing, but also actually beginning to decipher their messages. Let us take a brief look at his unusual background, which did not include university degrees in the subject which he pioneered, nor any related fields.

Adopted Paiute LaVan Martineau, a Caucasian orphan born in 1932 in the Cedar City, Utah area, became a Paiute following the death of his parents when he was 10 years old. LaVan had been good friends with many of the tribe since his early childhood when their village was located within the city limits. After he became an orphan with no relatives close by, a local Paiute man invited him in a matter-of-fact way, “Come, be my son.” LaVan readily accepted. Over the course of a lifetime, LaVan became thoroughly immersed in the culture and language of his adoptive people and eventually developed a sophisticated system for deciphering Native American petroglyphs.

Contrary to the prevailing view in academia, LaVan boldly argued that there was more — much more to the strange figures that embellish the rocks and cliffs of the country than the artistic scribbling of ignorant savages. The man who adopted him, Edrick Bushhead, was single and handicapped. He had suffered an accident that removed one arm at the shoulder. He barely survived through small jobs and lived in an 8 by 10 foot sheep wagon. Yet, he invited LaVan to live with him according to the religious and cultural code of the Paiutes that all orphans be provided for. Bushhead remained a father figure to LaVan all his life. Although LaVan was baptized into the LDS church as a child, other members of his family were not active members. His first real association with the church was through the Boy Scouts in Cedar City, Utah. He thrived on this activity and became an Eagle Scout in 1950. Mainly through his efforts and connections with the Paiutes living in Cedar City, the Explorer Troop specialized in Native American dance. Many of the older Paiutes taught the Explorers the dances and they performed throughout southern Utah. Eagle Valley Pete Many of the Paiutes in the Cedar City area were originally from the Eagle Valley region along the Muddy River in Nevada, 100 miles west of Cedar City, that had been settled by latter-day saints including Eldon Lytle’s great-grandfather Charles Lytle starting in 1865. In fact, LaVan’s first wife, Doris, who had died giving birth to their second child, was a descendant of the original Paiutes of Eagle Valley including the colorful “Eagle Valley Pete.” While examining the petroglyphs in the area, LaVan visited Farrell Lytle, Eldon Lytle’s brother, in 1999 in Eagle Valley shortly before LaVan’s death and became better acquainted with his wife’s genealogy. LaVan Martineau learned from the Paiutes that rock writing was based on many of the gestures used in Native American universal sign language. Sign language consisted of a few hundred gestures that could be combined together to communicate complex ideas between the various Native American tribes. Their spoken languages were so very different as to preclude any verbal communication, but the sign language was universal from the Paiutes of Utah, to the Pawnees of Nebraska or the Iroquois in New York.


Black Mountain Petroglyph Site

Black Mountain Petroglyph Site



Even though tribes such as the Paiutes worked diligently to preserve their culture and pass it on to their children, the generations on the reservation had taken their toll, and almost all of the knowledge of how to read the “rock writing,” or tumpe po-op in Paiute, had been lost.

LaVan served as an air traffic controller in the Air Force during the Korean war where he was very active in the servicemen’s LDS branch. Several of his close friends at the base were involved in cryptography (the encoding and decoding of secret communications) for the Air Force. LaVan was fascinated by the principles of this mathematical science and, as he also had the required high security clearance, learned all he could about what was at the time a top secret field.

This study was to prove crucial for what would become his life’s work, deciphering the meanings of the rock writings. 2. Ideographic Writing System LaVan Martineau’s rock writing work is of particular interest to linguists because it appears to confirm the existence of strictly ideographic writing systems lacking any phonetic (sound) components. Native Americans, regardless of the very different languages that they spoke, could reputedly read the writings and understand the historical narrative or religious allegory in great detail from a few simple figures.

It would appear that the origins of such writings may predate other writing systems, which are either alphabetic (like English, Spanish, Latin, etc.)

logographic/syllabic (Chinese/Japanese), or incorporate auxiliary phonetic symbols to augment ideographs (Mayan and Egyptian Hieroglyphics). An ideographic writing system corresponds to a concept of language that has emerged only recently in modern linguistics, namely, that the words that we write or speak are merely an outward expression of the real thing, which real thing constitutes a “language of mind,” as it were. In ideographic writing, symbols may be viewed as representing the conceptual formatives of mind language directly (visible mind). In contrast, writing systems that are phonetically oriented represent the articulation of the outward forms (visible speech). Ideographs are also called ideograms, and ideographs which look like little pictures of the concept are sometimes called “pictographs.” The ongoing research by John Pratt into the meanings of the constellation symbols and their interaction with other constellations in the heavens is another example of ideographic writing.

Most of us were taught in school that primitive people began using simple picture writing, but that as mankind progressed, alphabets were invented to represent the sounds of words, being a huge step forward because it allowed a hundred thousand words to be represented with only a handful of symbols. Without question, the alphabet is indeed a wonderful creation, but let us consider for a moment the power of pictures. Not many years ago, most cars in America had a gauge on the dashboard with the English word “Fuel” written on it. Now most of them have a little standardized picture (icon or pictograph) of a gasoline pump there instead.


Cannan Gap Petroglyphs

Cannan Gap Petroglyphs



Why was that change made? Was it a step forward in communication, or backward toward a primitive picture writing system? What do you think? Computer Icons Formerly, our modern computers mostly used alphbetic instructions. Today we see a rather standardized set of icons that have replaced many of those words. Which do you prefer, Windows or DOS? Was the graphical user interface a step forward or backward? National Park Pictographs We think that most would agree that the icons are a step forward for several reasons. First, they allow people speaking many languages all to easily learn the icon because it is usually a picture similar to what is in their mind when they think of their word for it. That is, gasoline pumps look very similar worldwide. Secondly, a few simple icons can be very easy to learn. Have you seen very young children click on computer icons long before they can read? Some are clicking away confidently before they can even speak much. The process of learning to read an alphabetic language is painful indeed. First one usually learns to speak the language, associating sounds with concepts. Then one memorizes a set of alphabetic symbols to represent those sounds. Finally one memorizes the sequence of letters to represent those sounds, which (in the case of English) might often break the phonetic rules of how those letters are supposed to sound. So we go to a lot of trouble to convert our thinking into a lot of sounds and then back to the mental concept again. Icons and ideographic writing short-cuts all those mental transformations by directly linking mental image to mental image. After reading this article, you will be able to read at least a few common petroglyphs without knowing how to say the word in any particular Native American language. You can think of the word in your own language. Thus, one picture is indeed worth a thousand words. In this case, that can mean one word in a thousand languages.

Thus we think that at least some forms of ideographic writing have the potential to represent a superior method of communication.

The Pioneer Plaque

The Pioneer 10 spacecraft was the first modern vehicle to leave the solar system. It contained a plaque which many good minds worked on to represent a message from all mankind to any creature who might find it someday. It was all done pictorially because we can’t expect all extraterrestrials to speak English (as seems to be required of “educated” terrestrials). If you found the plaque, how much could you deduce about the earthlings who were trying to communicate to you?


Newspaper Rock

Newspaper Rock

Deciphering the Glyphs

Now let us turn to the actual process Martineau used to learn to read the glyphs. It was based on the scientific principles of cryptography (both encoding and decoding) and especially of cryptanalysis (decoding only). We can follow his train of thought and see how the meanings gradually unfolded.

Principles of Cryptanalysis

Petroglyphs recording a fight between the snake and badger clans over a water hole. One of the first principles of cryptanalysis is to collect and order detailed samples of the communications to be decoded. LaVan studied on-site thousands of samples of petroglyphs, initially in southern Utah and then later throughout the Southwest and also other parts of the country. Another principle is that the same symbol must be interpreted in as consistent manner, such that predictions can be made for interpreting future discoveries. One does not need a top secret clearance to recognize here the basic scientific method that after a theory is proposed to explain one set of glyphs, that model can be tested on another set to check for the accuracy of the predicted result. All of Martineau’s critics of whom we are aware totally overlook the truly scientific aspect of his work. They assume he is merely speculating and discount his work solely because of his lack of what they consider acceptable credentials. For several years he made little progress and most of his attempts to assign meanings to the symbols could not be consistently applied to another occurrence of the same symbol.  However, a major breakthrough occurred with what he calls “locator glyphs.

Locator Glyphs

Locator petroglyphs: “Go up a short way and turn right.” A “locator glyph” is a specific rock writing that points a person passing nearby to a hidden rock panel where the main story is told. Extensive rock writings, called a “panel,” would often be in a hidden position where the rock face was suitable to engrave many writings on and protected somewhat from the elements. Small locator glyphs, LaVan found, provided the specific function of giving directions to locate the panels. Fortunately, they also gave basic clues to decode the symbolic composition and linguistic rules of the writing.

The spiral is to be traversed clockwise going from the outside top of the spiral and following it clockwise to the center of the spiral. It means “go up” and can be thought of as looking down on a hill and seeing a spiral path to the top. A similar spiral where a clockwise traversal would go from the center to the outside would mean “go down” (always go clockwise). The short line means “a short distance.” The line curving to the right starting from the top means “go to the right.” Fortunately, these locator glyphs are often also important parts of the larger, more complex panels. Once meanings could be assigned to the small locator glyphs, and checked against whether they give the correct directions and also against other similar locator glyphs, these meanings could then be the first steps toward decoding the complex panels.


Parowan Gap Pertoglyphs

Parowan Gap Pertoglyphs

It is the predictive power of cryptanalysis that makes it a science. For example, one need only check a large sample of locator glyphs to see if, in the case the indicated panels are above or below the locator, the spirals are consistent in indicating “go up” or “go down.” Moreover, one could verify a lack of such spirals for panels on the same level. It would be another big step for an independent researcher to perform such a simple study to confirm or refute Martineau’s claims for this one glyph. If even one such interpretation were firmly established by the scientific community, then the entire concept that the glyphs were meant to be read and understood would be validated.

 Flash flood warning Locator glyphs led LaVan to understand a similar kind of petroglyph that gives both a history and a warning of an event like a flash flood.  The spiral that goes clockwise from the middle to the outside means something going down (in contrast with the “going up” spiral going clockwise from the outside to the middle). The large dot after the spiral indicates that the flood got bigger as it came down the hill. The line goes through two dots. These two dots are related to the sign language symbol for passing through. The location of the petroglyph is often indicated by two dots or the dots in other instances may line up with other locations that the petroglyph refers to. The final large dot after “passing through” indicates the seriousness of the flood. On another rock near by where the flood passed by is a figure of an upside down man, meaning one or more people died. After finding a similar rock inscription in Arizona that also was near a gully with ample evidence of flash floods, LaVan theorized more meanings for these still simple, limited context glyphs that became keys to interpret more complex writings.

Moon Flower Petroglyph's

Moon Flower Petroglyph's



Modern Location and Navigation Symbols  

 American road signs On our modern highways, we see every day the advantages of road signs that give warnings or provide important highway information much as these locator glyphs point the traveler to the rock writings locations. These modern pictographs warn of winding roads, steep grades, intersection of roads, wild animal crossings, merging traffic and pedestrian walkways. Sometimes one very simple icon takes many words to describe.  Some of our pictographs are very similar to those of the Native Americans. We see them and understand them so easily that we often do not even realize that we are “reading” an ideographic language. In America, text or numeric information is often included in these signs such as the steep grade or speed limit signs. In Europe, the road signs are more iconic containing less language specific text because of the many languages spoken in the countries that use these common road signs. There is an official international committee to standardize these symbols to become a truly worldwide ideographic language.

Hunting Scenes?

Artistic rendition differs from a simple icon. Many scholars believe that most rock writings involve hunting scenes or involve “hunting magic” to get game because four footed animals in various positions are depicted in almost all petroglyphs.

For many years LaVan puzzled at the wide variety of these symbols. Many of these drawings were assumed to be depicting bighorn mountain sheep, often where no mountain sheep were to be found.  . To LaVan’s amazement, after many years he discovered that the function of the quadrupeds, whether sheep, goats or horses, was to show action and movement in the writings and to add modifier attributes to that description. “In reading rock writings, then, it is very important not to confuse quadruped action with actual quadrupeds.

Decoding the meaning of the ubiquitous “hunting symbols” proved to be another great breakthrough in decoding the rock writings.

Arcs attached to animals represent various forms of motion. “Many guesses assigned to this symbol always failed to withstand stringent cryptanalytic tests. It was not until the meanings of double-lined (open), and widened symbols were determined that the purpose of this particular horn became obvious. Open . . . indicates empty space, and by extension nothing there, taken off, and related meanings. This comes from the sign-language sign wiped off, in which the right palm sweeps the left in a motion as if to wipe it off.”

Kane Creek Petroglyph's

Kane Creek Petroglyph's


America’s Rosetta Stones

The Rosetta Stone contains the same record in 3 languages. In 1799 a stone with writings was discovered that contained a decree of an ancient king that was written in Egyptian hieroglyphics, Egyptian demotic script and Greek. This stone was found near Rosetta, a village in Egypt on the Nile River, and became known as the Rosetta Stone. This discovery allowed linguists to finally begin to decipher the complex Egyptian writing system.

The next key to deciphering the rock writings came from what LaVan would call America’s versions of the Rosetta Stone. Even with the progress that he had made, much of what compex panels depicted remained unknown to LaVan Martineau. Then he realized that certain panels and what he understood about them so far seemed to relate to known historical events, such as the Native Americans meeting with the Dominguez-Escalante expedition in 1776. There were versions recorded of these events in our history books and also in the memorized songs and stories of the tribes.

These parallel versions could then be used to further decode panels because the same story had been told in three languages.  One of the most interesting of these “Rosetta Stones” describes Kit Carson’s 1863 campaign to defeat the Navajos, who had been raiding settlements for many years, and take them to a reservation in Fort Sumner in eastern New Mexico. Kit Carson’s 1863 defeat of the Navajo. The rock writing describing this history had different word order and syntax, rock writings were not ordered in any particular way, such as our English left to right written format. In order to understand a panel, the entire panel had to be decoded. Related concepts are usually clustered together and sometimes the flow of information will be left to right or right to left in parts of the panel. This approach to telling a story with petroglyphs is like the interactions between adjacent constellations in the sky that are used to also tell a story.   This is a 43:1 ratio of rock writing symbols to English alphabetic character symbols and almost a 10:1 ratio of rock writing symbols to English words. LaVan Martineau’s explanation of this petroglyph and two other less complicated ones at the same location takes eleven pages.

Bloomington Petroglyph's

Bloomington Petroglyph's


Only by painstaking research over many years and by studying thousands of examples from many places in the country was LaVan Martineau able to decipher this method of writing.

LaVan only would include in his publications interpretations that he was confident were right because they were based on many examples. These American “Rosetta Stones” provided a giant leap in further understanding the rock writings.

Reformed Egyptian Compactness For latter-day saints, any reference to a writing system that can achieve impressive levels of compression brings to mind Moroni’s comments about reformed Egyptian. And now, behold, we have written this record according to our knowledge, in the characters which are called among us the reformed Egyptian, being handed down and altered by us, according to our manner of speech. And if our plates had been sufficiently large we should have written in Hebrew; but the Hebrew hath been altered by us also; and if we could have written in Hebrew, behold, ye would have had no imperfection in our record (Mormon 9:32-33). In one study, a Hebrew translation of fourteen pages of the English Book of Mormon text could be written on one 7 x 8 inch page that is the estimated page size for the golden plates. If reformed Egyptian were even more compact than that, then it might also have a compression ratio similar to the 43:1 character ratio of rock writing to English text in this example. The paradigm of using simple pictograms with complex interpretations as they interact with other pictograms certainly could be used in other situations than just petroglyph-based rock writing on cliff walls.

Reactions to Martineau’s Work Archeologists and historical linguists today generally do not recognize deep meanings or allegories in the petroglyphs, which are found especially in the southwestern area of the United States. Eldon Lytle’s brother, Farrel Lytle, is a retired research scientist who developed X-ray spectroscopy techniques in the aerospace industry. Since his introduction to LaVan Martineau’s work in 1999, Farrel has both studied and traveled widely to learn and examine petroglyphs throughout the southwest as well as researching dating strategies for the various writings. As he has attended technical conferences, Farrel has found that Martineau’s research and conclusions are still as controversial as they were when they were first published in the 1970’s.

Detractors As you might imagine, when LaVan Martineau began to publish his work, not having any formal academic credentials, controversy swirled around him. William D. Hyder of the University of California at Santa Cruz presented a paper in 1988 at the 15th annual conference of the American Rock Art Research Association (ARARA). This paper, entitled “Some Problems in the Use of Sign Language to Interpret Rock Art,” is a good summary of many of the arguments against Martineau’s work. Dr. Hyder begins by saying that “Julian Steward was the first American anthropologist to publicly lament the array of fanciful ideas and pseudo arguments proposed to explain or interpret rock art. He argues that ‘when competent archaeologists can be enticed to set aside their spades long enough to ponder petroglyphs, we may expect a much better understanding of this interesting subject.’ Over 30 years have passed and little has changed.” Hyder rejects the notion that Martineau could know that the rock writings were related to sign language through his adoption into the Paiute tribe and their tribal traditions and knowledge. In evaluating some of Martineau’s sources, Hyder notes that “None of these early sources should be relied on without careful consideration of their goals, their sources, and the appropriateness of their data to your particular question. This same desire to ‘defend the American Indian’ drives the more recent work of Martineau (1973:xiii). He implicitly accepts the assumption that unless native Americans have a system of writing, then they are somehow inferior to other peoples (Martineau 1973:167). Nonsense! The history of human culture is far more complex than a simplistic division between literate and nonliterate cultures.”



In saying this, Hyder is playing social politics. While it may be politically correct in the anthropological community to claim that all cultures are equally sophisticated and advanced, nothing could be further from the truth. Preliterate peoples lack the fundamental technology for exchanging information in situations where people are divided by time or place. Education in a preliterate society is limited to apprenticeship — personal contact. Education in a literate society has no bounds. Hyder does not mention the step by step analysis, the many, many examples, tables and especially the “Rosetta Stone” chapters in LaVan’s book. He is stuck on square 1, whether it is writing or art, or at most the simple locator examples, for which he does not even really consider the extensive evidence. One popular book totally ignores Martineau’s work by lumping it together with that of rank amateurs. The author of Prehistoric Rock Art, who considers himself a highly qualified expert, being an engineer and tech writer, states in 1982: “And despite all such earnest efforts by a few, it could safely be said that the serious scientific study of canyon country rock art has still not begun. . . . [Then alluding to Martineau’s work:] Such “researchers” have little trouble finding whatever they wish to find in the crude scratchings of prehistoric cultures barely sophisticated enough in graphics concepts to make recognizable two-dimensional images by banging rocks together. But truly qualified scholars, trained in the rigors of the scientific method, will find rock art baffling . . .”

Cats Claw Canyon Petroglyph's

Cats Claw Canyon Petroglyph's

In other words, if the true scientific scholars can’t make heads nor tails of the figures, then we can be absolutely sure that rank amateurs have no chance. And if card-carrying scholars can’t read them, then no one can, and hence they are not writing at all but only “scratchings.” His incredible bias against the intelligence of the Native Americans invalidates his own work as not at all objective.   Supporters However, if we look at the web site of the Utah Rock Art Research Association and other sites, we see many indications that Martineau’s work is not only being taken seriously today, but is being defended. John S. Curtis’ paper entitled “Is it Really Art?” in the 12th annual symposium of URARA in 1992 presented a strong defense of Martineau’s arguments that these petroglyphs are “rock writings” and not just “rock art”: “It is well known that the Indians had no formal written language. However, they had words in their language for writing and reading in the sense that writing was the making of records that could be read by others and that reading was the interpreting and understanding of these written records (Martineau 1973). In spite of this understanding, the white society has coined the phrase “Rock Art” to describe, collectively, petroglyphs and pictographs.

This is a particularly unfortunate term since it not only denies the Indian ideas of what petroglyphs and pictographs are but it is a scientific abomination. The first rule of any scientific inquiry is that it must be done objectively. It is difficult to imagine anything less objective than naming the object of your studies with one of the conclusions which might be reached as a result of your studies.

It would be a great thing if a result of the increasing respect that many now have for LaVan’s work could help encourage the publication of more of his basic research notes and other writings by his Paiute family. This data on thousands of sites with detailed tables and notes would be a great treasure that might even help convince some of his critics as to the scientific basis for his studies and conclusions. LaVan Martineau interpreting petroglyphs.

Paiutes Honor Martineau Farrel Lytle became acquainted with Martineau in 1999 shortly before LaVan’s death from cancer on February 25, 2000. In that short period of time, Farrel was able to accompany LaVan to visit many of the petroglyph sites in the Eagle Valley area of the Muddy River in Nevada. At the time of LaVan’s death, a Sing was held for him at the Shivwits tribal hall/school in Sham, Utah a few miles west of St. George. The purpose of this event was to honor the man and his accomplishments and to sing him on his way to the next life. Farrel and his wife, Manetta, attended and were profoundly impressed by the spiritual depth and sensitivity manifested by those in attendance.

The “Hopi Life Plan.

Hopi Prophecy Stone One of the highlights of Lavan Martineau’s original 1973 work is a detailed interpretation of one of the most sacred petroglyph panels known to the Hopi tribe. It is known as the Hopi Prophecy Stone or Hopi Prophecy Rock, shown in Figure 7. The Hopi themselves call it the “Hopi Life Plan.”

We will include a portion of LaVan’s interpretation of this important panel of rock writings. Symbol a represents the Creator pointing down close to the ground from where the Hopi claim to have come. The short vertical lines near the Creator’s hand b represent the Hopi people. The Creator is holding in his left hand “the life plan” or “trail” c upon which the Hopi are to embark. Near this hand is a circle d which represents “holding” of the entire continent in trust for the Creator, as he had instructed. (Since this photograph was taken, viewers of this panel have added a bow to the right hand of the Creator which was not apparent when Martineau surveyed the carving.) Point e on the trail or life plan represents a time when it was predicted by the Creator that the Hopi would digress from the true path given to them and pursue another way. The square f is said to represent Oraibi, and the line or path g coming down from the square represents the false path of the wicked Oraibi . . . The figures h standing upon the false path represent the wicked themselves. Older Hopi claim that heads have recently been added to these symbols, for they remember a time when no heads existed on these figures. The absence of heads would represent the punishment or death that the wicked must undergo as a result of following the false path. The two zigzag lines I stemming from the false path represent the careless and different paths to permanent destruction pursued by the wicked. . . . Symbol k is the true path of everlasting life, symbol l, which is shown at four points along this true path. The incorporation of the symbol old age (a cane) with life (a branching corn leaf) represents everlasting life. . . . The Hopi say that they are gourds which are shaken, thus representing three great wars or shakings that will transpire before the everlasting life is reached. The last circle represents the “final war” of purification in which all evil will be destroyed. At point n on this panel the false path connects with an everlasting life symbol, showing that some may return to the true path and to everlasting life. The two zigzag lines which extend beyond this point of possible return to the path of everlasting life thus truly indicate permanent destruction, since the wicked have gone beyond this point of no return. Symbol o, at the end of the path is the great spirit holding an everlasting life symbol in his hand. He is shown waiting here at the end of the trail just as he was shown at the beginning of it. For this reason he is called the first and the last.[35] 6. Conclusion The story of LaVan Martineau’s lifelong effort to decode Native American rock writings is inspiring. It is as though this unlettered amateur has done almost single-handedly for petroglyph writing what has taken scholars many years to do for equally puzzling ancient languages. His diligent efforts to prove that “rock writing” is not just “rock art” has uncovered solid testable evidence to support the tribal traditions that the symbols carved into the rocks are not just mindless scribblings or creative art, but a sophisticated language based on simple symbols that were used by many native American tribes. This language format, set up without the traditional restrictions of a spoken language, may allow us to broaden our definitions of language to include other non-spoken picture and icon-based communication systems.

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Published on April 14, 2009 at 3:46 PM  Leave a Comment  

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