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File:Tom Mix dendroglyph.JPG
Portrait in aspen tree of Tom Mix, dated 1936, Santa Fe National Forest, Río Arriba County, New Mexico

Arborglyphs, dendroglyphs, silvaglyphs, modified cultural trees, or aspen carvings are tree carvings made in the bark of aspen trees by shepherds, many of them Basque and Irish American, throughout the Western United States. They have been documented across northern California and in areas such as Boise, Idaho and Steamboat Springs, Colorado.[1]

A project run by the USDA Forest Service in 1997 to record and study arborglyphs in the Fremont National Forest of Oregon is documented here.

Researchers in Boise, Idaho have also reportedly documented arborglyphs in their area.[2]

In the West the preferred carving tree is the aspen, which has a lifespan of only about 85 years on average.

Arborglyph and Native America: Ancient Astronomers

The glyph on the "scorpion tree" viewed from Painted Rock in Carrizo Plain, California shows the counterclockwise rotation of stars around Polaris and appears to portray Ursa Major in relation to Polaris

Paleontologist Rex Saint Onge recognized that the tree was carved by Native America when he stumbled upon it in the fall of 2006. Located in a shady grove atop the Santa Lucia Mountains in San Luis Obispo County, the centuries-old gnarled oak had the image of a six-legged, lizard-like being meticulously scrawled into its trunk, the nearly three-foot-tall beast topped with a rectangular crown and two large spheres. "I was really the first one to come across it who understood that it was a Chumash motif," says Saint Onge, referring to the Native America Chumash Tribe who painted similar designs on rock formations from San Luis Obispo south through Santa Barbara and into Malibu.

He quickly learned that the constellation's placement during sunset could be used to tell the seasons and that the Chumash people also revered this astronomical relationship in their language and cosmology. "It's the third largest constellation in the sky and they saw it every single night for tens of thousands of years," says Saint Onge. "It was like the TV being stuck on the same channel playing the same show nonstop." It became increasingly obvious to Saint Onge that the arborglyph and related cave paintings weren't just the work of wild-eyed, drug-induced shamans — which has been a leading theory for decades — but that the ancient images were deliberate studies of the stars and served as integral components of the Chumash people's annual calendar. "This gives us an insight into what the indigenous people of Central California were doing," says Saint Onge, who published his theory last fall in the Journal of California and Great Basin Anthropology. "It wasn't just the daily simpleton tasks of hunter-gatherers. They were actually monitoring the stars."

Further in "Time", Matt Kettman on Feb.09/2010 writes "Tree Carving in California: Ancient Astronomers" Saint Onge isn't the first to speculate that Chumash paintings might have astronomical implications. The anthropologist Travis Hudson did so back in the 1970s with his book Crystals in the Sky, which combined his observations of rock art with the cultural data recorded nearly a century earlier by legendary ethnographer John P. Harrington.


  1. Kelly Bastone, "Aspen Diaries", "Steamboat Magazine", Summer 2005
  2. John Bieter, the executive director of the Cenarrusa Center for Basque Studies at Boise State University, inspects an Aspen
  • J. Mallea-Olaetxe, Speaking Through the Aspens: Basque Tree Carvings in California and Nevada, Reno: University of Nevada Press, 2000.
  • James B. Dekorne, Aspen Art in the New Mexico Highlands, Santa Fe: Museum of New Mexico Press, 1970.
  • Matt Kettman Tree Carving in California: Ancient Astronomers in Time, 2010

External links