Mazes Remain Enigmas of Ancient Indian Art


Archeologist Daniel F. McCarthy is trying to learn as much as possible about a mystery he believes will never be solved.

McCarthy, 42, has recorded and photographed 50 Indian mazes he estimates are up to 3,000 years old in Orange, Riverside, Imperial and San Diego counties.

“I know of no other similar aborigine carvings anywhere else in California, in America or in the world,” said McCarthy, a scientist on the faculty of UC Riverside. He also is one of 12 statewide coordinators for the California Archeological Inventory, a clearinghouse for archeological data operated by universities throughout the state.


The mazes, most of them carved on rocks or boulders, are like those found in puzzle books--patterns of passageways from the outside to the center marked by changes of direction and blind corners.

“Who carved the mazes, when, why and what they represent are all part of the mystery,” said McCarthy, who has been studying the rock carvings off and on for the past 20 years. He first came upon the mazes while studying ancient Indian rock art.

There is virtually nothing in literature about the mazes, he said, only a passing mention of the existence of a few in Southern California and no scientific theories about why they were carved.

“It could be that mazes were an expression of some type of symbolism going on within a particular culture, perhaps among a group of shamans” or Indian medicine men, McCarthy said.” All the mazes are within 150 miles of each other.

“I’m looking at the cultural and geographic distribution site, to see if there is a connection, a relationship with all of them. Contemporary Indians do not appear to know anything about them.”

McCarthy said he is contacting members of the various Indian tribes still living near the mazes to see if their myths and legends will provide any clues.

Nearly all the mazes are rectangular with various patterns, four inches to four feet across and found in mountainous areas dotted with outcroppings of boulders.

The Hemet Maze Stone is in Maze Stone County Park, just west of Hemet, 90 miles southeast of Los Angeles. The 5.75-acre park was dedicated in 1957 to preserve and protect the elaborate, remarkably preserved 3 1/2-foot-square maze.

“Based on pottery shards, ancient tools and other artifacts found at a prehistoric village site in the immediate area, the Hemet Maze Stone has to be a minimum of 500 years old,” McCarthy said.

The boulder on which the maze is carved is covered with a light patina known as desert varnish, caused by natural oxidation. The maze has the coating, indicating long exposure to the elements, but it is much lighter than the patina on the rest of the boulder.

It is hoped scientists someday will be able to use patina as a dating tool. Scientists are just now beginning to evaluate the percentage of change in mineral elements in rocks as a means of dating petroglyphs, carving or line drawing on rocks, and pictographs, rock paintings.

For now, dating rock art is an educated guess based on association with archeological artifacts in the area.

The Hemet Maze Stone was discovered early this century. Legend had it that the maze is the handiwork of lost Chinese sailors who wandered through the area in the 15th or 16th Century.

“That story was totally off the wall, completely out of context with local archeology,” McCarthy said.

There are several other mazes in the Hemet area, including the 2 1/2-foot-square Ramona Maze Stone, similar in design to the Hemet maze. It was found by hikers in 1977 after heavy rains washed away ground cover and exposed the rock on which it was carved.

The rock was later taken to the Town Hall in San Jacinto. Local officials gave it to the Soboda Indians, who live nearby. The maze is now in the custody of tribal leaders.

Ten miles north of Hemet on a large boulder is an extremely complex 4-foot-square maze outlined in red paint. Part of the maze was destroyed by four shotgun blasts in the early 1960s, McCarthy said.

Several mazes were painted red with a mineral coloring after being carved. McCarthy said mazes without paint, such as the Hemet Maze Stone, may have lost their shading because of weathering over the centuries and may be much older than carvings with the aborigine paint.

McCarthy found two mazes four months ago east of Palm Springs. Five years ago hikers found a site with two mazes in a remote mountainous area south of Palm Springs. Since then, McCarthy has found a dozen more of the ancient rock carvings in the area.

“It’s difficult to put ourselves into the mind-set of people who lived here centuries ago, to understand their lifestyles,” McCarthy said.

“But we may never be able to interpret the meaning of these prehistoric mazes. We might discover what their functions were by looking at their relationship to village sites or activity areas. But there will always be a certain mystery about them.”