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Writing on the Walls

Susan Hough

Voices of the Earth

The roots of the Cahuilla Indians trace back to the Palm Springs area—and to the nearby canyons where the searing desert heat is buffered. The native legends describe Tahquitz Canyon, just south of Mount San Jacinto, as the home of Tahquitz, an immortal and malevolent being who steals the souls of young women who dare venture too far into the canyon at night. His growlings account for the rumblings sometimes heard emanating from the mouth of the canyon. One version of the "Tahquitz legend," published in 1950, mentions an earthquake explicitly:

No sooner had her lips sounded the last syllable of the feared name (Tahquitz), than there was an explosive-like rumble from the direction of Tahquitz Canyon. It grew steadily louder until it became a deafening roar. The earth shook and quivered underfoot. Rocks tumbled loose and started landslides. Clouds of dust curled into the overhead darkness.

Almost all of the petroglyphs within Tahquitz Canyon have been erased by vandalism, but surviving remnants of one prominent image near the mouth of the canyon appear to depict a large shaman and, tellingly, a snake.

Could a giant earthquake have taken place recently enough to have shaped the oral traditions of the Cahuilla Indians? Probably. Many small quakes take place in the area. Two journalists who live near Tahquitz Canyon reported to me that rumblings from the canyon frequently precede ground shaking from earthquakes. And various geologists, including Tom Fumal of the U.S. Geological Survey and Kerry Sieh from Caltech, have found evidence that four or five large earthquakes have taken place along the San Andreas fault at Thousand Palms Oasis, near Palm Springs, in the last 1,200 years.

The most recent large earthquake there appears to have been in the late 17th century, with a preferred date of 1676 ± 35 years. Interestingly, this is close to the inferred date of the last great earthquake in the Pacific Northwest, which Kenji Satake, now a seismologist with the Geological Survey of Japan, and his colleagues were able to fix precisely to 9 p.m. on January 26, 1700. They used ancient Japanese tide-gauge records of the resultant tsunami, which, after several hours' delay, struck on the other side of the Pacific. It only makes sense, then, that an earthquake might figure as prominently in the stories of the present-day Cahuilla as does the 1700 event in legends of the tribes of the Pacific Northwest.

Similar but somewhat less colorful legends are told by the Southern Diegueno tribe, for whom the Superstition Mountains featured prominently in their oral traditions, as Carl Strand pointed out in 1980, when he was a geology student at San Diego State University. The very name of the mountains reportedly resulted from an earthquake that occurred during a tribal ceremony. Here also, other legends describe moans and terrible sounds emanating from caverns, which were believed to be the home of a great and evil serpent that changed the very face of the mountains with his writhings.

These highlands abound with petroglyph sites, many featuring zigzag lines. Rock art sites are so abundant in the Superstition Wilderness area that some scholars once proposed that the natives must have had a great deal of free time on their hands. Although this explanation is discredited by serious archaeologists today, it does testify to the prevalence of the petroglyphs.

To earth scientists, the legends about this area and about Tahquitz Canyon immediately ring true, to the extent that we know that both areas experience frequent earthquakes. The San Andreas fault runs through the heart of the Coachella Valley, in which Palm Springs is located, and just a stone's throw (so to speak) from Tahquitz Canyon. And the Superstition Mountains are surrounded by active faults, including the highly active San Jacinto fault system to the east.

California's earliest residents would have almost certainly experienced earthquakes that were similar in overall rate to those seen in recent times. This fact, combined with surviving lore, the locations of petroglyph sites and the nature of the drawings themselves, starts to make the conclusion almost self-evident. It would be more surprising if earthquakes, and other attendant phenomena, did not figure prominently in the ancient depictions.

And so I found myself with an indirect but intriguing inference—one that speaks to the complex interplay between the natural world and the spiritual beliefs of earlier cultures. I also found myself with an argument that didn't seem to fit any scientific journal that I could find. I talked with a couple of archaeologists, who didn't seem particularly receptive to the idle musings of a seismologist with no expertise in the subject matter. Within my own community, I suspected there would be interest but also skepticism. My ideas are not what a seismologist would consider "science."

 That the natural environment shapes culture is well accepted. And although scientists recognize such things and often champion the need for "interdisciplinary investigations," we still find ourselves lacking the scholarly infrastructure—and sometimes maybe the right mindsets—to pursue them. So instead of publishing peer-reviewed papers on such topics, people like me satisfy the urge to broadcast our offbeat ideas in other ways. We give talks, offer bits of the argument in books or, as I'm doing here, share our observations in the popular press. Perhaps it is fitting that we are, in a sense, emulating earlier peoples who carved their messages into the very walls of California. One scarcely dares to hope that our stories will last as long.

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