Thirty years ago, on a fishing trip to the San Rafael wilderness outside Santa Barbara, Campbell Grant peered into a long-abandoned Chumash Indian cave and glimpsed his future.
In zinfandel reds and chalk whites, pictographs of animals, celestial objects and medicine men danced across the cave walls, images that were old before Columbus crossed the Atlantic.
"I was hooked," the 79-year-old artist recalls. "I wanted to find the next one. They were being eroded and vandalized, and I wanted to save them for posterity."
From that decisive moment came a lifelong passion for American Indian rock art and six books, including the 1965 classic "Rock Paintings of the Chumash." The first published work on the subject, it records pictographs from 62 coastal mountain sites between San Luis Obispo and Malibu, including many in Ventura County.
Last week, Grant's three-decade quest culminated in a show of his painted renditions of Chumash rock art at the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History. Entitled "Cave Paintings of the Chumash as Recorded by Campbell Grant," it runs through April 3 and marks the first time in 24 years that the collection has been exhibited.
"Campbell is one of the grand old men of California rock art," said Ken Hedges, chief curator of the San Diego Museum of Man. "He established the credibility of rock-art studies as a legitimate scientific field."
While there is a growing interest in rock art--seminars with field trips are offered through UCLA's extension program--much of the ground-breaking work was done by people like Grant. When he began his research in 1960, armed with grants from the National Science Foundation, the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History and an archeological research foundation, there were only 18 known Chumash rock art sites.
He finished the project in 1964 with a list of 80 sites--some depicting scenes up to 30 feet long. The 22 paintings on display at the Santa Barbara museum capture the most vibrant and reflect years of sleuthing in scrub forests and rock formations, remote hills and high desert.
Grant pumped every source he could find, from local ranchers to forest rangers and hunters. He took two-day burro trips into the remote back country of Ventura and Santa Barbara counties, hacking through the undergrowth with machetes to clear away cave entrances. One time, he sweet-talked an ornery, gun-wielding rancher into letting him explore his property.
The sweat and toil paid off. At one particularly memorable site in the Santa Ynez Mountains, Grant and his son--he often took family members along--found pestles sticking out of mortars used by the Chumash to grind acorns. It looked as if the Indians were coming back at any minute.
And Grant felt as Vasco Nunez de Balboa must have felt upon first setting eyes on the great Pacific Ocean.
"It just blew my mind. We knew very well that we were the first Caucasians to see it," Grant said.
Another time, on a backpacking trip near the Sespe Condor Sanctuary in Ventura County, Grant heard a fluttering noise, looked up and spied a condor no more than 30 feet above him. Man and condor gazed at each other with surprise, then, with a giant rush of wind and flapping of wings, the condor took off.
One time, a local hunter took him to a site in Santa Barbara's remote hills that the man had stumbled across 35 years earlier while tracking deer.
And ranchers would write him and say, "I have something you may be interested in seeing, but I don't want a lot of people coming around," Grant recalls.
The 3,000 or so mixed-blood descendants of the 15,000 Chumash Indians who once flourished in Ventura, Santa Barbara, Los Angeles, Kern and San Luis Obispo counties provided him with no new information, Grant said.
Because of disease, mistreatment at the hands of white settlers and invasion of their ancestral lands, the Chumash culture today is virtually destroyed, Grant said. Although the Indians are embracing their heritage and working to preserve it, scholars say no one knows exactly how to interpret the cave art.
What is known is that the rock paintings, which are thought to be 500 to 2,000 years old, recorded significant cultural and sacred events, depicting shamans, animals, insects and celestial occurences.
Scholars believe that some paintings were ceremonial pleas to the spirit world for fertility or rain. Others may have recorded a kind of creation myth, and still others depicted vision-quests undertaken at puberty. In his research, Grant concluded that many paintings were done by the shamans, or medicine men, who may have been under the influence of the hallucinogen jimsonweed in their attempts to commune with the supernatural.
To acquire the bright colors needed for these paintings, the Chumash ground minerals such as limonite and hematite, mixed them with water, animal fat or plant juice and daubed the cave walls with elaborate narratives in yellow, white, black, red and blue-green paints.