By CyArk

Chumash Painted Cave

Capturing symbolic tradition

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Chumash Painted Cave by CyArkCyArk

Introducing Chumash Painted 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.The walls of this small cave contain some of the only remaining wall art created by the Chumash.

Chumash Painted Cave by CyArkCyArk

Historic Context

With a population of over 15,000 before European contact, the Barbareño Chumash were one of the largest and most influential tribes in California. Likely used during the summer and fall, Painted Cave was located on a major trail linking the Chumash capital Syukhtun, modern Santa Barbara, with other villages through the area. Anthropologists say that these cave paintings would have been used for religious purposes by the Chumash people, though the specific meaning of the images remains unknown. Although the precise dates of the interior paintings aren't known, ceremonial use of the cave was discontinued in the 1700s with Spanish Contact.

Chumash Painted Cave Exterior by CyArkCyArk

Chumash Painted Cave Today

Today the Chumash Painted cave is a part of the Chumash Painted Cave State Historic Park, a state park in California. Established in 1976, the state park preserves the small sandstone cave and is located roughly 11 miles northwest of Santa Barbara. The park itself is 7.5 acres. Because the use of flash photography and graffiti harm the condition of the cave paintings over time, a metal gate has been added to keep visitors at a safe distance. This is one of the only remaining sites where visitors can view original Chumash cave paintings in person and remains a significant site for modern Chumash descendants.

Chumash Painted Cave Detail by CyArkCyArk

Creation of Pigments

The paints used for traditional cave paintings would usually get their vibrant colors from different types of minerals. The Chumash cave paintings feature reds, blues, and whites, which all could have been made using iron-bearing minerals. White was made using limestones, while black would have been made from charcoals. Red was a very coveted color, as it was made from hematite or red ochre. The ground pigments would be mixed with a binder in order for it to adhere to walls, hides, and skin. Some common binders included water, animal fat, or the juices of plants. Paints would then be applied with the fingers, or simple brushes made from hair.

Chumash Painted Cave Detail by CyArkCyArk

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 afterworld. The centipede-like figures were said to illustrate the cause of the death.

Chumash Painted Cave Detail by CyArkCyArk

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.

Chumash Painted Cave Detail by CyArkCyArk

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.

Chumash Painted Cave Detail, CyArk, From the collection of: CyArk
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Style I - Representing the oldest and most difficult to see. Using only charcoal, this style can be identified by the narrow lines and cross-hatching patterns.

Chumash Painted Cave Detail, CyArk, From the collection of: CyArk
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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.

Chumash Painted Cave Detail, CyArk, From the collection of: CyArk
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Style III - The majority of the paintings represent 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 continue the use of black and red while also introducing white diatomaceous clay.

Chumash Painted Cave Detail, CyArk, From the collection of: CyArk
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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.

Chumash Painted Cave Detail by CyArkCyArk

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. 

Chumash Painted Cave Detail by CyArkCyArk

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.

Documentation of Chumash Painted Cave by CyArkCyArk

CyArk Expedition

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 ways of life.

Chumash Painted Cave Park Sign by CyArkCyArk

Additional Resources

For more information on this site, its history and additional resources relating to CyArk’s work please visit

CyArk Chumash Painted Cave Resources.

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This project was made possible by contributions from California State Parks and Santa Ynez Valley Union High School

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