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Uncovering The Meaning Of Indigenous Drawings In Missouri Rock Art

Some examples of petroglyphs found in Missouri.
Carol Diaz-Granados
Some examples of petroglyphs found in Missouri.

At many sites and caves across Missouri, there are historical wonders that are more than meets the eye. But experts like Carol Diaz-Granados and Jim Duncan know the significance of the figurative drawings.

Duncan is a scholar of the Osage Nations who’s also worked with the Missouri State Museum and Missouri Department of Conservation, and Diaz-Granados is an anthropology research associate at Washington University in St. Louis.

The duo has researched the rock art — referred to as petroglyphs and pictographs — for more than 30 years. In that time, the researchers have used the Dhegihan Sioux oral traditions to help interpret the symbolism within rock art found in sites throughout the state.

Duncan explained most of the images left in the state are 600 to 1,200 years old. Older ones have disappeared from weathering, but more preserved drawings date back 6,000 years. Petroglyphs are carvings pecked or etched into rocks. Pictographs are paintings or drawings done with pigments or charcoal. There are also sites that have painted petroglyphs.

Diaz-Granados and Duncan joined Thursday’s St. Louis on the Air to discuss how the petroglyphs and pictographs in Missouri came to be and what they tell us about the state's indigenous history.

“When we first started our project, we thought that the rock art was separate from the [archaeological] artifacts that were being found in the ground. But they’re not, they’re very, very much connected,” Diaz-Granados said. “We know it’s not simple graffiti, they’re trying to tell a story or an oral tradition.”

The most common story portrayed “is a Genesis tradition,” Duncan explained. “This business about a ‘Great Spirit,’ it wasn’t something invented by the Jesuits [who interacted with Native Americans]. They were actually talking to an indigenous people that had already the concept of a single powerful force that created everything in the cosmos.”

“It was a different type of monotheism, I think. Religion reflects society and vice versa. But their feeling was more of belonging to a large, complex layered universe where all living things were interrelated,” he added.

Most of the petroglyph sites with rock art depictions are on private property. But Diaz-Granados recommended several public sites to St. Louis-area residents: Washington State Park in Washington County and Thousand Hills State Park in Adair County. Both of these sites are managed by the Missouri Department of Natural Resources. Further information can be found on its website.

Books written by Diaz-Granados and Duncan for more information:

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Alex Heuer, Emily Woodbury, Evie Hemphill and Lara Hamdan. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.

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Lara is the Engagement Editor at St. Louis Public Radio.