5000-Year Old Petroglyphs Vanadlized in Big Bend National Park

Over the holidays, visitors to Big Bend National Park in Texas left their mark in a very dubious fashion. Vandals committed what is being called “irreparable damage” to ancient petroglyphs found within the park and now the National Park Service is asking us for help in tracking these individuals down.

Ancient Art in the Desert

The petroglyphs are located in Big Bend’s Indian Head region. They were carved on a flat stone there somewhere between 3000 and 8500 years ago. The carvings are remnants left by Native Americans who inhabited the mountains, canyons, and desert along the Rio Grande River for centuries. The “Big Bend” in the park’s name refers to the larger curve in the river, which now forms the border between the US and Mexico.

According to Tom VandenBerg, the chief of interpretation and visitor services with Big Bend National Park, The ancient artwork is what archaeologists call “Pecked Abstract Tradition.” That type of petroglyph is characterized by “abstract, complex, geometric shapes and lines.” And while those lines have been on this particular rock for several millennia, they remain distinct, unique, and difficult to miss.

The damage done to the petroglyphs is only the latest act of vandalism in Big Bend. The park has seen more than 50 instances of such behavior since 2015, with rangers continually investigating visitors who may have some knowledge of the acts or are responsible themselves. So far, there haven’t been many leads in this case.

Big Bend National Park
Photo Credit: Michael from Minnesota via WikiMedia

Holiday Vandals

The vandals did leave behind some important clues, however, which may ultimately be helpful in tracking them down. Proving that this wasn’t the work of master criminals, the parties responsible carved their names and the date of their visit into the rock. The inscription that now covers the petroglyphs says: “Issac, Ariel, Norma and Adrian” with “2021” and the date of “12-26-21” alongside it.

The Park Service’s resident archaeologists have seen similar acts of vandalism in the past and are often able to restore the petroglyphs to their original form. For instance, last year someone carved the words “white power” over 1000-year old petroglyphs on public lands outside of Moab, Utah. And in the Track Rock Region of Georgia, another person sprayed graffiti over 3000-year old Native American art.

In this case of the recent carvings in Big Bend National Park, the etchings were too deep, making it impossible to fully restore the ancient art. Efforts to do so are still ongoing, but officials have already stated that the damage is too extensive.

Indian Head Trail Hike

Big Bend’s Indian Head Trail is a short and easy trek that doesn’t draw all that many hikers. The route is less than a mile in length but is somewhat remote, which keeps the crowds to a minimum. The ancient artwork is the main attractions here and the Park Service has signs posted indicating the importance of the petroglyphs. All but the most obsuse visitors would be aware that the carvings are there and would typically understand their significance.

Because the trail is lightly traveled, there is a good chance that the vandals came and went without encountering anyone else along the way. But if someone was in Big Bend on December 26, 2021 and may have seen someone hiking Indian Head, park rangers are eager to hear from you.

If you know anything that can help in tracking down these individuals, you can reach out to the Park Service by phone at 432-477-1187. Alternatively, you can contact Tom VendenBerg using the link to the email form founds on this webpage.

Vandlizing and defacing public lands in the national parks is a federal crime. Hopefully the individuals who are responsible for this dispicable act will be found.

Kraig Becker