Travel Guides Crafted by Experienced Archaeologists & Historians

Rock Art in Mexico

Deep in the Sierra de San Francisco of Baja California is a concentration of some of the world’s most extraordinary rock art sites. The so-called Great Mural paintings, made by hunters and gatherers before the arrival here of Jesuit missionaries in the 17th century. What makes the depictions of humans and animals on the walls and ceilings of rock shelters here so extraordinary is their size. In many instances they are larger than life. A group of these sites, in the Zona Arqueológica de la Sierra de San Francisco, were placed on the UNESCO list of World Heritage Sites in 1993, and are open to the public. But these are not the only rock art sites in Mexico, and certainly not the only sites that are accessible to the public. Others may be easier to get to, but are in equally spectacular settings. The petroglyphs on the beach in La Meseta de Cacaxtla Protected Natural Area are one example. Crashing waves on the outcrop of volcanic basalt rock present a unique locale for viewing some 600 individual engraved images thought to be around 1,000 years old.

Rock Art Sites in Mexico

El Vallecito

Over 23 different sets of petroglyphs and paintings are known from the caves at El Vallecito (‘The Little Valley’), six of which are open to the public. Comprising both anthropomorphic figures and geometric designs, they represent examples of what archaeologists term the La Rumorosa style, so-called after the region in which they are found. Researchers believe that hunter-gatherer bands were probably responsible for creating these artworks, perhaps the ancestors of today’s Kumiai (Kumeyaay) people, an indigenous community who have long exploited the resources in the adjacent pine forest.

Ixtlán del Río (Los Toriles)

The settlement of Ixtlán del Río, which is also known locally as Los Toriles (‘The Bullpens’), was key to the ‘Copper Route’ during the Epiclassic and Postclassic periods. At least 14 groups of buildings can be found here, encompassing 93 mounds scattered over an area a little over 80 hectares. Among the noted architectural features is one of the few historic circular buildings in Mesoamerica and a range of petroglyphs carved into the rock. Also present are several shaft tombs that have been investigated by archaeologists.

La Pila del Rey Petroglyphs (Altavista)

Also known as Altavista, this petroglyph site is still an important ceremonial site for members of the Huicholes, an indigenous people who live along the Sierra Madre Occidental range. It is thought that these rock engravings were made by Tecoxquin people who lived here around 4,000 years ago, although their precise function remains elusive. Over 2,000 engraved rocks have been found here, scattered over an area of some 80 hectares. A set of signs in both Spanish and English guide the visitors along the path, providing information and historical context.

Las Labradas

Las Labradas boasts around 600 petroglyphs carved into volcanic boulders scattered along the coastline, often on the beach itself. Archaeologists believe that some of the carvings may date from as far back as 3000 BC, although many were produced between 750 and 1250 AD, in what archaeologists call the Aztatlán Period. A range of image types are present, including depictions of humanoid and animal forms but also geometric shapes, spirals, and crosses. Reflecting its value, Las Labradas is now a candidate to become a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Sierra de San Francisco Great Mural Rock Art

A UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1993, the Sierra de San Francisco Archaeological Zone is one of Mexico’s best locations for seeing rock art. Hundreds of caves containing paintings have survived, preserved by the dry environmental conditions and their comparative inaccessibility. Depicting a range of different humans and animals, often in a fairly realistic style, the images at this site represent part of what archaeologists call the Great Mural tradition. They were created by a hunter-gatherer community who lived in the area between 100 BC and 1300 AD.

Rock Art Museums in Mexico

National Museum of Anthropology

Opened in 1964, the Museo Nacional de Antropología is Mexico’s largest museum and contains an impressive collection of archaeological and anthropological material from across this culturally diverse country. Material on display comes from all of Mexico’s major heritage sites and ranges from the giant stone heads carved by the Olmecs to objects that ancient Maya had cast into the Sacred Cenote at Chichén Itzá. From a reproduction of Teotihuacan’s temple of the feathered serpent to reproductions of the great mural rock art of Sierra de San Francisco. The iconic Aztec Sun Stone recovered from Zócalo square in Mexico City is also on display in the museum.