Nice Kitty, But Why Is Your Tail Over Your Back… The Three Rivers Petroglyph Site: Part 3

There are several mountain lion petroglyphs at the Three Rivers Petroglyph Site. Each one has his tail bent up over his back. I don’t have a clue why. And what’s with the arrow?


Peggy and I are still out wandering. So this is my third post revisiting the Three Rivers’s Petroglyph Site in southern New Mexico.

Hunting wild animals for meat provided an essential source of food for the majority of mankind’s existence. While the Jornada Mogollon people at the Three Rivers’ Petroglyph site cultivated corn, hunting remained a vital activity.

Arrows can often be found sticking out of Big Horn Mountain Sheep in petroglyphs. They were a major source of food in the South West.

The Big Horn Sheep petroglyphs at Three Rivers were some of the most sophisticated I’ve seen. It’s rare to see bodies filled in.

A Big Horn head with geometric patterns.

I took this picture of a Big Horn ram in Nevada. He was wondering if he should object to his photo being taken.

Success meant learning as much as they could about the animals that inhabited their desert world: where they lived, what they ate, where they drank, and what trails they used were all important.  The Jornada were excellent trackers, able to read in a few scuffed tracks the story of who had wandered down a trail and what they were doing.

Tracking was a vital skill of Native Americans in hunting, or in being hunted. This was probably the track of a mountain lion.

Definitely human!

There was a close, almost sacred, relationship between the hunter and the hunted. Clans assumed animal names and young people went on vision quests to discover which animal might serve as personal guides. Shamans put on animal cloaks and assumed animal personalities. The gods and the spirits of animals were both honored. (It helped assure they would be around at dinner time.)

Not surprisingly, the petroglyphs found at Three Rivers reflect the importance of the various animals in the life of the Jornada. We discovered numerous bighorn sheep and an unexpected number of cougars. There were also horses, rabbits and coyotes. Horses provided a radical new form of transportation; coyotes were known for their trickery; and rabbits provided an easy food supply.

I featured this cougar in my last post. Again, note the tail over the back.

Another big cat with proud tail.

This cougar came up to sniff us at a wildlife sanctuary in southern Oregon. He looked quite friendly but it was one of those instances I was glad I was on the other side of the fence.

I suspect he would have liked to have had this rabbit in the enclosure with him. Everyone, it seems, likes to eat rabbits. They would have been another important food source for the Jornada.

These two long-eared Jack Rabbits (hares) stopped by our house for a visit a couple of weeks ago. They wanted to know if we had a coyote free zone. I couldn’t make any promises so they moved on.

The arrival of the Spaniards to the New World in the 1500s meant that the Jornada had a dramatic new form of transportation available.

I’ll finish up with this happy songster. (Or maybe it’s not so happy. That could be an arrow.) My next post on Three Rivers is for the birds.








13 thoughts on “Nice Kitty, But Why Is Your Tail Over Your Back… The Three Rivers Petroglyph Site: Part 3

  1. You know this is interesting. How folks around the world are inspired by nature. We read somewhere that there are cave pteroglyphs in the Sahara that depicts animals etc…that lived there thousands of years ago!

  2. I feel like I’m taking an art history class. It wouldn’t have tried to figure out the meaning of these petroglyphs. I would have focused solely on figuring out what in the world they were pictures of! It’s something that I learned about myself a few years ago; that pictures aren’t clear to me. I’m never sure what the artist is trying to draw when I see sketches, or symbols, or anything that should be an icon for something and means something else entirely to me. I had no idea that crosswalk WALK signals were meant to show a person crossing the street. Thank goodness they also printed the word WALK. I need words.

  3. Curt, the tail up over the back is a new one for me as well. It’s always interesting to me that so many ancient petroglyphs have a geometric look to them. Especially when you consider that straight lines in nature are rare, and must have been particularly rare when these petroglyphs were drawn. That’s a head-scratcher for me. BTW, I just finished “Sapiens” by Yuval Harari, which is an excellent book. The author spends a good deal of time discussing development of art and religion in humans – very cool stuff. If you haven’t read, I think you’d enjoy it. ~James

  4. I’ve been watching my cat, and it’s clear to me that she not only doesn’t put her tail over her back, she most assuredly doesn’t want me to move it over her back, either. It doesn’t go that way, and she lets me know about it.

    I did some exploring, and finally found several responses on vet sites that echo this one:

    “According to my vet, this sort of thing, where the tail rests on their back, is a genetic mutation that some cats have. It isn’t painful and doesn’t cause them any harm, it is just a difference in how their tail rests on their body. Most cats cannot pull their tail over themselves in that particular way, as their body structure prevents it, but some cats are born with a mutation that allows them to do this.”

    So, it seems reasonable to me that cats able to do this would have seemed special, or magical, or at least worthy of note to early people, too. What we’re seeing might not be imaginary at all, but a record of those “special cats” that roamed among them.

    • Well thanks, Linda. I now know more about cats. I am amused to picture you trying to move pull your cats tail over her back and the cat responding. I had thought of tomcats that raise their tail straight up when marking a spot, but that isn’t over the back. –Curt

  5. These are indeed terrific petroglyphs! I’m always amazed at the representations because some of them don’t really look anything like the animal I guess someone has said the picture represents. But it’s not for me to identify, just to appreciate. And I do. And I’m doubly pleased that someone or some organization is preserving these for posterity. Nice photos!

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