I sat at the village kitchen, letting the rising sun warm my sleepy body. While I drank my morning coffee, I listened to birds sing and read an archaeological abstract about the village site. No morning room was ever cozier or more homey than this cave man’s nook.


At the base of Pinyon Mountains near San Felipe Creek in Anza Borrego Desert State Park is the a Kwaymii winter settlement.  The Kwaymii were a band of the Kumeyaay (Tipai) snowbirds that lived seasonally between the Anza Borrego desert floor and the nearby mountains.  Related to who the Europeans named the Luiseño and Diegueño people of San Diego, these people ate (among many other things) acorns from the mountains and agave from the desert.  Adjacent to Big Horn Canyon, the residents of Mine Wash would have also enjoyed plenty of wild large game.

People started grinding food in this bedrock likely started around the year 500 AD, but transient human use of the area goes back more than 6,000 years. It is around the year 500 AD, however, that people began to live in this village annually in winter and participated in a vast trading network that extended to the California coast and the Gulf of Mexico.


What a simple life.  A difficult, short, and subsistence driven life to be sure, but full of family and certainty of ones place in the world.  It is believed that the Kumeyaay actually recognized clannish dominion or ownership of certain territories where they camped seasonally, gathered and hunted.  They also had a sophisticated cosmology that enabled them to read the stars and recognize a calendar of the seasons which was extremely useful for a nomadic people who harvested natural foods from several kinds of environments.  There was a deep sophistication and elegance in their approach to life, unlike our modern ham handed, awkward modernity.  Despite all of our technology, we seem to always be trying to shove square pegs into round holes.  We’ve devolved.  The North American continent used to be full of people who lived so in harmony with the land that basically the only impact they had on it were a few depressions on exposed bedrock.  Europeans showed up and eviscerated the land of its waterways, mineral deposits, and even its air, all so that aggressive patriarchs can build tall monuments with their names on them.  The Kumeyaay were an ancient culture, but not great temple builders.  Nor did they need to be.  They had everything they needed for thousands of years and for them it was enough.


Throughout history, even in advanced cultures like ancient Egypt’s, pacifistic, matriarchal cultures who built the oldest pyramids as power stations were subsumed by more aggressive patriarchal generations who built pyramids as monument tombs to themselves.  The pacifist doesn’t seem to ever win on a cultural level.  It doesnt appear to be true that “the meek shall inherit the earth”, unless you read that statement a little differently.

“The meek shall inherit the earth” only seems to be an in effable, universal truth if you take it as an extemporaneous philosophy, rather than future event. As an event to come, you can always count on the meek were being chased off the earth by the rapacious bullies. But if you read as “at any time you will become quiet and be still, you become the earth and the earth becomes yours.” That makes a lot of sense to me.


Back to the Mine Wash village. There is one boulder outcrop just off the wash that appears to be the main village site, but its a pretty big area and there are a lot of ancient waterways nearby.  I didn’t believe that this one little hillock would be the only sign of life to be found.  After breakfast I thought I’d take a quick jaunt around the base of the mountain and see what else I could find.  I didn’t want to take too long, because there are many other parts of the park I wanted to explore this day.  Pffft.  It is to laugh.  I got so into looking under, behind, over and through every boulder that it took me from sun up to sundown to explore a 1 1/2 mile stretch of desert and I wasn’t bored for a second.

Strong winds here come from the southwest.  Thinking that it made sense for people to want to find shelter from the wind, I decided tour around the northeast side of the hill.  I was rewarded for common sense right away with another collection of rock shelters and morteros. Here, deep in the rocks was a big hidden shelter with LOTS of deep smoke stains on the ceiling.

Rock Shelter with a lot of smoke stains.

I liked the rock pile below a lot.  It looks like one-house size boulder melted over another house-size boulder.  I imagine what actually happened was one giant boulder got a crack in it at some point about a million years ago and water eroded the two pieces down into this rounded sculpture.

A house-size boulder wearing a jaunty beavertail hat.
Bloody nose because I thought I was a lizard.

It was fun to go scrambling around on these granite boulders because I have grippy shoes.  It made me I feel like a lizard. I was actually thinking this at the moment I stepped on a loose boulder and tumbled over like a cartwheel. I landed head first down the hill. I got a bloody nose and scraped the palms of my hands. A lizard popped out of a crack to laugh at me for thinking I’m a lizard. Well, joke’s on him. I have opposable thumbs so let him stick that in his pipe and smoke it.

I continued east around the hill and the third camp I came to gave me a really intense Spidey Sense. The only way I can explain this feeling I get when I just know there’s intense, prehistoric, hidden human activity near is that I get a kind of buzzing electric feeling combined with heated magnetism. Its like the place is psychically glowing, the electrons are moving faster. Its something like when you lick a battery or bite into tinfoil. You’re not exactly on fire with shock, but you know you’re conducting electricity. Well, I was right. This spot was juicy.  Potsherds, manos, stone tools, morteros, rock shelter.  There even seemed to maybe be a midden — a little pit under a rock that had a bunch of discarded broken tools in it.  Another thought I had was, although there were a lot of items in pit, that stuff may have washed into there over time, it may have actually been a little water catchment.

Stone tools.
Metates and rock shelter.
The carvings on the right side of this surface may be a petroglyph.

As I was walking along the wash I started noticing that there were rock piles at various places and they seemed to be collected in kind of circular stacks.  It seemed more than coincidental.  I wondered if I was looking at an agave roasting factory.  I know that cholla and other plants like to grow in the fertile soil left by agave roasting pits and that was certainly happening in many of these stone scatters.


Agave field

There was an odd looking crevice in the sandy hillside so I moved closer to investigate it. It was a very old disused beehive.  In its petrified state, its dark amber colored cells were extremely beautiful.

Bee hive

Cholla are photogenic but deadly, maybe a little like Russian super-spy Melania Trump. (Oh, no she di-in’t!)  A word to the wise, when there are cholla around, dont get all relaxed and start gazing off into the middle distance as you walk. You may brush your leg against an innocent bush that is harboring a little jumping cholla pod and YOW! I was in a lot of pain on this walk from continually being attacked by cholla cactus and other seductively beautiful yet deadly sirens of the desert.

Cholla are beautiful, even cuddly looking, but evil to the core.
A gorgeous gauntlet, spiky obstacle course of a trail.

At one point I had to drop trou and use my tweezers to extract a little piece of cholla spine that had broken off in my calf and was digging itself ever deeper into my skin under my pants.

I returned to the main village campsite and noticed something wonderful.  A compass in stone.

Stone compass

This stone was purposefully oriented so that its natural lines point North South East and west.  It is a perfect directional marker.  My entire visit to this village I’d been thinking about the stars.  There is nothing here, but big sky.  It is a natural celestial observatory and it is certain that anyone living under this sky would become expert at reading it, even worshipping it.  Since this was my first day in the Anza Borrego, however, this stone compass, however, was my first piece of physical evidence that the Kumeyaay did, in fact, understand the sky.  This rock launched my entire next day’s adventure to understand this aspect of the Kumeyaay better.  (See this post: Kumeyaay in the Sky)

Smoke Trees in Mine Wash

As sun was starting to dip over the western mountains I drove up the wash to see what I might find on or near a prominent hill made of boulders in the middle of the open desert a short distance away.  I parked and started walking around the hill to the west.  Pretty soon, bingo!  More grinding holes.  Another camp.


And do you know what was perched on top of a few boulders above the campsite?  One of the Kumeyaay’s favorite totems.  A Vesica Pices/yoni petroglyph boulder.

Yoni petroglyph boulder

I looked at the boulder hill and thought to myself, “Self, if you were a Kumeyaay who wanted to watch the sky, where would you want to be?”  I started scrambling boulders to get to the top o’ the hill.

On the celestial viewing platform at the top of the boulder hill.

Yup.  There it was.  A calendar ring with a large orienting stone outside the main circle that oriented the circle to true East.  My compass there points to magnetic east.  By making the adjustment for true east it puts the orienting stone at exactly the right place.  Incidentally, it also pointed directly to the main village site just off the wash.  A ring like this could have been used to measure solstices and equinoxes, and the fact that it is atop a hill in a small clearing that could have no other purpose other than sky observation and possibly ceremony, I’m certain it was.

Calendar ring

The day’s casualties included: a tear in my favorite jeans, stabbed feet and legs, a bloody nose, my fingertips were so scratched up that the fingerprint reader on my iPhone wouldn’t work, I dropped my GoPro off a tall boulder and cracked the display screen, and at one point I’d forgotten to bring water with me so I had to walk back to the Jeep to get some.  All first-world problems I’d say and small cost for an epic adventure and one day full of learning a tremendous amount a fascinating ancient tribe.  The Kumeyaay have hooked me.  The rest of my trip would be driven by a desire to learn more about these people and their relationship to the stars.

Kumeyaay In The Sky

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