Chumash Painted Cave
Capturing the symbolic tradition of the Chumash

History of the Cave

Alaxuluxen, the Chumash name for the Chumash Painted Cave State Historic Park is situated on the edge of the traditional Barbareño Chumash territory, which ranged from the Pacific coast to the foothills and southern slopes of the Santa Ynez Mountains.

With a population of over 15,000 before European contact, the Barbareño Chumash were one of the largest and most influential tribes in California. Today’s modern city of Santa Barbara, at the base of the Santa Ynez Mountains, was the capital city of the Barbareño, then called Syukhtun.

A major trail led from Syukhtun over the San Marcos Pass to villages in the interior Santa Ynez Valley, passing by Painted Cave along the way. Bedrock mortars found not far from the cave indicate that the cave site may have been seasonally visited during the summer and fall.

Although the precise dates of the interior paintings aren’t known, ceremonial use of the cave was discontinued in the 1700s with Spanish contact. However, the connection to the cave has not been lost to the Chumash today. The name of the cave, Alaxuluxen, comes from current Chumash elder Ernestine Ygnacio-De Soto’s great-great grandmother, Maria Ygnacio, who was the daughter of the last wot or chief of Syukhtun. Since the founding of the park in 1976, the cave remains available to this continued legacy of the Chumash people. 


Sleeping Symbols

The tradition of passing down the meanings of the cave paintings has largely been forgotten over the three hundred years since European contact; however, several interpretations have been argued.

One of the earlier, and considered outdated theories from the late 1800s, was an interpretation that the circular designs were bundles of tied blanket bundles.  Another interpretation, proposed about the same time, comes from Chumash elder Ernestine Ygnacio-De Soto’s great uncle, Pedro Ygnacio. Pedro learned from his elders that the paintings represented tomols, or canoes taking the souls of the dead to Shimilaqsha, the after world. The centipede-like figures were said to illustrate the cause of the death.

Current interpretations reflect a deeper understanding of Chumash culture and religious practices. Recent research has indicated that the artists of the paintings may have been those of the ‘antap society, a spiritual community consisting of high ranking members. The paintings may represent celestial beings, such as the sun, moon, and the stars and were painted during ceremonies in order to maintain balance in the celestial world.

Following this interpretive approach, astronomer Katherine Bracher focused her study on one specific scene, a triangular grouping of three circles. Her calculations suggest that this grouping may represent a specific date in which a total eclipse occurred at the site on November 24, 1677.  

Though the meanings are currently unknown, Chumash elder Ernestine Ygnacio-De Soto describes the Chumash culture and language as sleeping, not lost. 

Painting a Cave

Although the dates of these paintings are unknown, close studies have revealed an understanding of their evolution and dates relative to each other. Looking closer at the pigments, researchers have identified four unique styles and ages.

Style I
Represents the oldest and most difficult to see. Using only charcoal, this style can be identified by the narrow lines and cross-hatching patterns.

Style II
Overlaying much of style I are thick red lines made from ground ochre painted in geometrical patterns. Now fainter than Style III, there are several areas in which Style II shows widespread cross-hatching.

Style III
The majority of the paintings represents Style III and show more complex imagery such as the circular designs, anthropomorphic figures with out-stretched arms, the black and white banded figures, and what have been described as centipedes. Colors used continue the use of black and red while also introducing white diatomaceous clay.

Style IV
The least prolific style, Style IV doesn’t appear to have its own specific artistic style, but rather adding to and maintaining imagery of Style III. Examples include adding “teeth” to some of the circles in bright ochre. The importance of this style is that the meaning of Style III had been maintained and even reinforced.

Eroding a California Masterpiece

The greatest threat to these paintings can be immediately detected upon approaching the cave. On all sides of the iron gate and climbing up the sandstone cliffside are the carved initials of hundreds of past visitors dedicating their “I was here.” Inside, the cave bares historical markings in a similar fashion, some with dates, “July 7, 1945,” all of which are equally destructive. Another threat can be seen along the ceiling of the cave where a large blank space divides the two sides of the painted ceiling. Slowly, in small crumbling pieces at a time, the ceiling is giving way due to wind erosion. This gap is only getting larger where once the entire ceiling was covered with paintings. Eventually, time will remove all evidence of the importance this place once held.

In order to best protect and preserve this site, CyArk, our technology partner at Santa Ynez High School, California State Parks, and Chumash elder Ernestine Ygnacio-De Soto have collaborated in the 3D documentation of the cave and surrounding environment to provide a point-in-time reference for conservation, education, and awareness of the Chumash culture and historical life ways. 


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