Sharon K. Brauman, 10.6.2004

The ancient Martis Indians spent winters in the foothills and plains on both the eastern and western sides of the North-Central Sierra Nevada, and summers at higher elevations in the mountains. Several Martis sites near Reno and the Carson River on the east to Oroville and Auburn on the West have been radiocarbon dated, providing dates ranging from 1770 B.C. to 800 A.D. The Martis Indians made the petroglyphs found in the upper reaches of the North Fork of the American River, Cultural materials found at Martis Indian sites along the river as well as radiocarbon dating indicate these North Fork petroglyphs date from 1700 B.C. to 950 B.C., the period when the Martis culture flourished most.

Forty-six petroglyph sites have been identified in the upper North Fork area. These sites are located near the North Fork or its tributaries anywhere from the source of the North Fork at Mountain Meadow Lake down ten miles to the Royal Gorge. The vast majority, however, are found within the three mile stretch downstream starting at the Chickering site. All the sites are near game trails, and not commonly near campgrounds. The large Chickering site, however, is located near a major Martis Indian campground.

The North Fork petroglyphs are distinctive because 1) they appear only on bedrock in flat, horizontal or gently sloping rock outcrops (not on boulders or vertical cliffs as typically found in the Southwest), and 2) they provide a view or panorama of important mountain peaks (Anderson Peak and Tinkers Knob on the Sierra crest are visible from the Chickering site).

The North Fork sites contain some 1600 petroglyphs and over 1000 individual symbols. A great many sites contain only a few petroglyphs. The Chickering site with hundreds of petroglyphs is the largest. Almost all the North Fork petroglyphs were pecked instead of scratched, largely in the granite, some in basalt; a few incorporate basalt inclusions in the designs.

Petroglyph symbols at Chickering are representative of those found throughout the North Fork sites,. Many more petroglyphs are curvilinear in style than angular. The most frequently occurring symbols at Chickering can be classified under:

  • Circles – concentric, connected, divided, spoked, etc.
  • Paws – often resembles a bear paw, with a large palm and short claws
  • Sun discs – circle with several lines radiating from its perimeter
  • Rakes – horizontal line with shorter (often wavy) lines extending vertically down
  • Enclosed grids
  • Wavy or zigzag lines

There are very few recognizable animal and human figures at the North Fork. The one identifiable grizzly bear paw and the six foot long rattlesnake at Chickering are unique.

The meaning of the individual symbols is mostly unknown or speculative. However, by overlaying petroglyph sketches on contour maps, Willis Gortner has done a convincing job of showing that five of the wavy lines found at one Pinehurst site about a half mile downstream from Chickering are probably trail maps. These trail maps could have been used less for guiding than for their religious/ceremonial significance, such as in a shaman ceremony for a successful hunt.

The primary purpose of the petroglyphs is generally thought to be religious, magical, or ceremonial, and not just doodling. Several symbols at Chickering are consistent with this purpose. The unique grizzly bear paw and rattlesnake figures are most suggestive of shaman, or tribal priest-doctor, symbols. The bear shaman, rattlesnake shaman, and weather or rain shaman had important magical or ritual significance, at least for historical tribes in the area. Human stick figures (one with a robe, one holding something) also suggest some ceremonial meaning. Finally, the association of a number of cross-hatched (indicating mating in historic times) carvings suggest the panel site was used for puberty or fertility rites.

Some symbols are probably more of a personal record. Thus, the common and more easily identifiable symbols, the paw and rake, are likely family totems of hunters, i.e., symbols or emblems indicating their tribe or clan. The bear paw (not the grizzly bear paw) might be a totem for a family of the “land moiety” and wavy lines a totem for a family of the “water moiety.”

There is no evidence to suggest that the symbols record 1) astronomical events/observations (e.g., eclipse, meteor shower, summer solstice, etc.), 2) environmental events (e.g., floods, fire, game migrations, etc.), or 3) counts (e.g., the passage of time or a calendar).


Willis A. Gortner, Ancient Rock Carvings of the Central Sierra: The North Fork Indian Petroglyphs, Portola Press, Woodside, California, 1984.

Willis A. Gortner, The Martis Indians: Ancient Tribe of the Sierra Nevada, Portola Press, Woodside, California , 1986.