LAKE ISABELLA, Calif. — The city dwellers reached the granite bluff in the Mojave Desert just before dawn. Moments later the winter sun spilled over the southern Sierra Nevada, illuminating wall paintings of animals, celestial objects and medicine men, drawings that were old before Michelangelo painted the Sistine Chapel.
"I felt an immediate connection," said Rowena Jeans of Palos Verdes, who had risen at 2 a.m. to visit the Indian rock art site as part of a UCLA archeology class. "I could visualize the Indians painting it. This was probably a holy place," she said.
Such scenes are commonplace these days as hobbyists, scholars and even advertising agencies rediscover rock art--enigmatic images that early American Indians carved on cave walls and drew on rocks from Tallahassee to Tacoma.
In Southern California, where the Chumash Indians left some of the nation's most intricate drawings, aficionados make pilgrimages each weekend to gaze, scribble notes, take snapshots and even videotape their findings. Some rock art sites are a 20-minute hike from the nearest dirt road; others are visible from freeways, if one knows where to look.
Rock art also has carved out a place in popular culture. Computer firms use cave drawings in software advertisements. Scholars use it to help teach California history. Fans sport rock art ties, T-shirts and personalized license plates.
The interest in rock art stems in part from the popularity of primitive cultures, Southwest art and alternative religions. For scholar and amateur alike, the drawings provide an insight into what the nation's first residents thought and how they saw the world.
"Rock art is a visual image that people can respond to. It shows that some human being was there," said New Mexico archeologist and rock art author Polly Schaafsma.
The artwork comes in two forms: petroglyphs--carved into stone--and pictographs--paintings in red, white, blue, black or yellow made from a mixture of ground minerals, plant juice, animal fat and water. Often the drawings depict anthropomorphic figures with uplifted arms, celestial objects, horseshoe shapes and radiating circles.
Scholars have yet to fully understand or date the drawings, although they now agree that the artwork recorded significant cultural and sacred events and may go back 2,500 years.
"It's strange and different, and that ambiguity is tantalizing. It leaves room for speculation, and people like that," Schaafsma said.
Rock art also attracts vandals. And since most of the drawings lie in unprotected or remote sites, scholars are fearful that much rock art is being destroyed. The drawings have been used for target practice, dynamited for roads or chipped off cave walls and taken home as souvenirs.
Painted Rock on the Carrizo Plain near San Luis Obispo, a huge, horseshoe-shaped rock with hundreds of paintings is riddled with graffiti and bullet holes. As far back as 1904, Santa Barbara residents installed a padlocked gate across the entrance to Painted Cave in the San Marcos Pass to deter vandals, whose scribblings there date back to 1887.
"We're swimming in prehistoric art here in the Southwest and the neglect of it has just been criminal. In Europe it would have been protected and studied as a national treasure," said Ike Eastvold, president of the Friends of the Albuquerque Petroglyphs in New Mexico.
The petroglyphs have other influential friends. Manuel Lujan Jr., the recently appointed U.S. secretary of the Interior, says he is intent on protecting the Indian sites.
A former congressman from New Mexico, Lujan supports legislation introduced in Congress last month to establish the first rock art national monument in Albuquerque's West Mesa, which has 15,000 petroglyphs, the most of any major city.
'Link to the Past'
"Rock art is our link to the past and it's important that we work to preserve it," Lujan said through a spokesman.
Scholars see the proposed legislation as an important step in legitimizing this art form, which once was considered a kind of graffiti.
"It wasn't so long ago that rock art was considered the lunatic fringe of archeology," said Ken Hedges, chief curator of the San Diego Museum of Man and himself a rock art scholar. "Now it's become a credible field that has the attention of both the general public and the scientific community."
Scholars say that descendants of the American Indian tribes that once flourished throughout Southern California can provide them with little information because disease and mistreatment at the hands of white settlers have virtually destroyed their cultures.
"The California people do not have a history, it is long gone," said Lupe Lopez, a California-raised Indian of Aztec heritage who hosts "The American Indian Hour" on cable TV.
She sees rock art as one of the few remaining links with her past.
"They are very real to me. To destroy them would be to annihilate the heritage of an indigenous people and the people themselves," she said.