Back to the Pleistocene: Adventures with a Forgotten Taos Modern  

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On a November day in 1961, Emma Lou Davis was returning home from an archaeology dig in her usual grunge attire: Shorts, heavy boots and work shirt. Her sweat-sculpted hair stuck out in all directions, her fingernails were grimy, face chapped from the desert wind. Driving along Sunset Boulevard toward her upscale Brentwood neighborhood, she suddenly spotted smoke.

Emma Lou Davis, known as Davie. Photo courtesy of Maturango Museum, keeper of the Davis archives.

She parked on her street—leaving her old dog, Grundoon, in her truck–and jogged past the emergency vehicles and flashing lights to find all that remained of her home and her years as an artist: a black smudge and a mailbox stuffed with bills.

If it had not been for the fire, you might be reading about her today in Hyperallergic and ARTnews. Collectors would be bartering her pieces. Her story would have been made into books and movies. Rock art expert David Whitley once said that Emma Lou lived “perhaps the most adventurous life that I have ever encountered.”

The fire destroyed most of her surviving work as a Taos modern sculptor (she once had a two-person show with the legendary Agnes Martin), sketches she made while working for Buckminster Fuller and her desert paintings made from the cockpit of her little airplane.

When your work is in ashes and you are 55-years-old and have fought alcoholism and authority all your life—what is next? In Emma Lou’s case (friends called her Davie), she turned to the task that had always consumed her: Escaping the hold of modern humanity. “Her life has been an inexorable march backward into the Pleistocene,” said her friend Naomi Wheelock.

Unemployment Compensation,1940. Emma Lou Davis’ New Deal relief on the Wilbur Cohen Federal Building in Washington, DC. Photo by Carol M. Highsmith.

But was there time to travel that distance? Would she get there?

Davie left behind a rollicking autobiography, The Angry Shaman, that was never published because of threatened lawsuits by colleagues who objected to the author’s opinions and her bawdy tales. Fortunately, archaeologist Russell Kaldenberg shared his copy. Kaldenberg–along with well-known California archaeologists Ron May and Breck Parkman–added priceless personal recollections to Davie’s story.

The Bear and the Wolf

Davie was born into an upper middle-class family in Indianapolis in 1905, and moved to New York when her father took a job on Wall Street. From age four or five, she identified as a wolf and then a bear. “Until I was 10, I did not identify as human,” she said. This was not just kids’ play, but something more like shape-shifting. Slipping into the skin of bear came as easily to her as would donning the skin of a 10,000-year-old human decades later. Around age 12, she also skated between genders, identifying for a time as a boy: “I am a free and sexy boy named Emma Lou,” she said.

Emma Lou Davis (left) studying a geoglyph (ground art) in Death Valley, 1981. Photo courtesy of Russell Kaldenberg.

Key to her emerging identity was a fascination with Indians (she gorged on illustrations by paleoartist Charles R. Knight), anatomy and sex. “I had a metal tiger who had balls and I loved them,” she wrote. Her mother told her about a French artist named Rosa Bonheur who painted and sculpted horses, and young Davie insisted on a visit to the Metropolitan Museum of Art—an outing that would influence her life’s course.

Davie had to leave her wolf and bear behind when she left home to attend Vassar College. It was there that she had her first relationships with women and her friends started calling her Davie, a nickname that stuck. (She would marry three times and have relationships with men and women throughout her life.) She became involved in Socialist politics and women’s rights, and joined the Wobblies—the International Workers of the World.

Graduating in 1927, she went on to the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, spending hours with her drawing pad and lithograph crayon at the Philadelphia Zoo.  She later became known for her neo-folk-art sculptures of animals and humans. (Her works are often attributed to Emma Lu Davis.)

She had a troubled relationship with people, calling them “jibbery, jabbery primates given to cruelty and tantrums.” Modern humans—men especially–needed to dominate and control. Her Southern gentry father (a chemist and a banker) often insulted her mother (a graduate in biology from Bryn Mawr who studied music in Paris). Davie’s outrage at the subjugation she witnessed would never leave her. Decades later, she’d be a pioneer in feminist archaeology–though she called her focus “female” not feminist.

A sketch from Davie’s unpublished autobiography. “I fell in love with the Upper Paleolithic at age nine.”

Animals were free of domination, and Davie would be, also. Early Man (as the earliest North Americans were called) had the same appeal: Humans in a more natural, animal-like state. There was a lost world of animals and ancient humans “to long for and discover”, she said. This world was made up of colors and primary shapes, elemental forces and unspoiled animal and human nature. Davie was going to find it.

Into the Caucasus

In 1933, Buckminster Fuller invited her to work at his Dymaxion factory, where she mastered tools and the rudiments of abstraction. “Shape simply as shape,” she called it, deeming this “the most instructive six months of my life.” During WWII she worked as a draftsman and designer for Douglas Aircraft in Long Beach.

During the Depression she did PWPA jobs–the New Deal art project–including a post office mural in La Plata, Missouri, and two bas relief sculptures on the Social Security building in Washington, DC. (It’s now called the Wilbur J. Cohen Building.) Davie’s interest in cooperative artists’ groups–a precursor to her commune days in old age–spurred her travels to Russia and China to study artists there.

In China she stayed long enough to learn the language. In Russia, she lived on a farm commune and helped a women’s crew dig the Moscow subway. Living with peasants high in the Caucasus Mountains, walking across Siberia wearing goat-hair socks and sleeping in snow caves at 12,000 feet—Davie now qualified as a certified adventure hero.

After her return home, she focused on sculpting animals in wood and terra cotta, along with abstract and human shapes. She served a stint as artist-in-residence at Reed College in Portland, then taught at the University of North Carolina and studied lithography in Mexico with the Teller de Grafica, an influential printmaking collective.

Emma Lou Davis, Chinese Red Army Soldier, 1936. The piece is in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art.

Emma Lou Davis appeared in the Museum of Modern Art’s “Americans, 1942” exhibition and book, along with Morris Graves, Helen Lundeberg, Donal Hord and others

Davie would go on to have works in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art and the Whitney Museum of American Art. She appeared in a two-person show with Agnes Martin at the Museum of New Mexico in 1955, and was included in the first exhibition of collected Taos Modern works at the University of New Mexico’s Jonson Gallery in 1956—showing alongside Emil Bisttram, Andrew Dasburg, Agnes Martin and other legends.

All of this sounds like a standard “famous artist” bio. Yet few people today recall Davie-the-artist. We don’t know, for instance, how close she might have been to Agnes Martin and the other Taos artists. Most of the clues were destroyed along with her Brentwood house. She doesn’t say a lot about why she left art behind, just that she was “burned out”. She is well-remembered in archaeology circles (her second 23-year career) but lost to art history.

Taos Modern

While digging snow caves and teaching at Reed, she was all the while fomenting rebellion. Like many rebels, she drank. And she tried to stop drinking again and again, making three circuits through Alcoholics Anonymous in her lifetime.

In the 1950s, she moved to New Mexico to try once again to detox from alcohol—along with cigarettes and a failed marriage to her first husband, Bob McGregor. She bought a ramshackle house in Taos Canyon and made adobe fireplaces for her neighbors, ornamenting them with human and animal figures. (Taos residents: Check your chimneys.) After her next husband, Clyde Baker, left her (he was 18 years her junior), she started exploring the surrounding desert and going out on digs with graduate students in archaeology. During her years in her second profession, she said, “I really never stopped being an artist.”

Her love of the desert was jump-started by the aerial view. While still living in LA, she had earned a pilot’s license, eventually buying her own WWII trainer plane.  “Flying is the symbol of powers to ascend,” she wrote. “In a trance, the shaman flies.”

Emma Lou Davis and Daniel McCarthy surveying geoglyphs in Panamint Valley. Photo by Harry Casey.

Training in a little Cessna, she did solo runs from Santa Monica to Tucson. She had a boyfriend there who was a potato farmer. She studied the colors of the desert over Gila Bend and the Kofa Mountains: Ultramarine, cobalt, cerulean, silver. “Enormous blocks and slabs had been littered around by some gigantic child. As the sun rose, the blocks took spectacular shapes as orange light moved up their faces.”

The cockpit radio murmured a comforting code–daa daadit ditt–as she made abstract drawings of arroyos and thunderstorms, one eye on the instrument panel. Below her, “a plateau older than the ice age was being carved into a 3D jigsaw puzzle with buttes and spires.” In the air, Davie was getting a feel for the Deep Time that would consume her the rest of her life.

Another view of the desert—this time from the ground—opened to her on the archaeology surveys she embarked on. Stringing orange surveyors’ tape around stakes in a Pleistocene Lake Valley in the afternoon, she found something like her childhood nirvana. It was “me and the other bears”, she said.

Her co-workers got used to seeing her doing field work naked. (“Any human not bare-assed and uncombed is in costume,” she wrote.) Former California state archaeologist for the BLM, Russell Kaldenberg remembers Davie riding a three-wheel motorized cycle through the Palen Dunes, naked.

Studying Stone

She took basic anthropology courses at the University of New Mexico in 1957—doing her thesis on Native pottery design at Mesa Verde National Monument–then moved on to UCLA for her doctorate, awarded at age 59. The relatively new field of archaeology was then dominated by men, and Davie’s peers often attempted to thwart her, reawakening her childhood rage against paternal authority.

Rebelling against the experts, she began to craft her own vision of the profession. She mocked the “freeze-dried scholars” and their obsession with stone tools, saying: “The little obsidian doodads didn’t do that much for me. I chose to work with the climate, with the weather, with the earth itself.”

In 1965 she teamed up with Death Valley artist Sylvia Winslow and the two surveyed the giant ground figures, or geoglyphs, of the Panamint Valley in a small airplane. This early religious art portrayed mythical power animals and water serpents. Davie’s earlier travels in China and her study of Chinese iconography–along with her work on design plans at Douglas Aircraft–aided her in interpreting the figures.

Emma Lou Davis and Danny Showalter at China Lake. Photo courtesy of Ron May.

The proper practice of archaeology–in Davie’s view–was nothing less than shamanism. “It was clear to me that the scientist must become the psychic,” she said. Between jobs she called herself an “unemployed lady shaman”. She abandoned the prevailing mechanistic paradigm for something more mystical. (Imagine if Agnes Pelton had become an archaeologist.) Using psychedelics and exploring trance states, she traveled through genders and species to open “some upper world of intense perception.”

When she located a promising Pleistocene scraper or arrowhead, she sang to it “like an Eskimo sculptor with a fresh block of ivory singing: ‘Who are you? Who lives in there?”

Davie in her role as curator at the Museum of Man in San Diego. “People are natural ancestor worshippers, revering the bones and teeth of the unknown ancient ones.”

Davie was walking boldly into New Age territory here: Marianne Williamson meets Early Man. She inevitably suffered ridicule from her peers. Her radical views could not obscure her scientific cred, however, and in 1966 she landed a prestigious job as curator at the Museum of Man (now called the Museum of Us) in San Diego. She was eventually fired because her bosses were fed up with her growing obsession with the Pleistocene Lakes country. Saying goodbye to the academics, she turned her focus to “the most creative thing I’d ever undertaken.”  That thing was the Pleistocene shoreline of China Lake.

Early Man at China Lake

In 1969, two brothers named Dick and Bill Fagnant walked into the Museum of Man in San Diego with a shoebox full of sandblasted obsidian points and other artifacts they’d found on the China Lake base. Davie, working as curator at the time, opened the box and inhaled in surprise. Here were mammoth teeth from a creature that went extinct 10,000 years ago.

The Naval Air Weapons Station China Lake–on the northwestern edge of the Mojave Desert, abutting Death Valley–preserves almost a million acres of desert rock art and artifacts in an area larger than Rhode Island. Its off-limits status has protected the artifacts from looting and destruction. What caught Davie’s attention was the ancient system of lakes where saber-toothed cats, mammoths and Early Man once roamed. At the end of her life, she’d say that everything important to her could be found here on an extinct lake on the California desert.

Davie in the field at China Lake. She was happiest “living in the thorn-scrub dust like a scorpion.”

The Fagnant brothers’ shoebox ultimately drew her into the biggest ongoing battle in archaeology: When did humans first arrive in the Americas? One camp–the “Clovis blockheads” as Davie called them–put the time stamp at about 13,000 years ago. To enter the ring, you tried to push back this date.  When Davie saw the items in the shoebox, she applied for an Antiquities Permit, the pass that would admit her to the competition and to the sanctified grounds of the Naval Weapons Station.

Not long after, on a cold day just before Christmas—when most people her age were shopping for the holidays–she was walking back and forth in the wind on a protected bombing range in the desert. She followed the faint stain of the ancient shoreline, using her shaman skills to connect with the former residents. She was not interested in the prevailing myth of mighty male Elephant Hunters. She was looking for all the People of the Marsh, as she called them. The net-setters and egg-gatherers, the men and the women.

She concentrated on moving back and forth in time as she taught her students: Imagine the “muddy gumbo” of peat and marshes in a wetter era when humans foraged here, then flash to the dry desert present. Back and forth, back and forth. (The method earned her the nickname “The Sherlock of Shorelines”.) “The last of the saber tooth cats and the first of the humans drifted in and out of this valley as transients during an uneasy time,” she wrote. The humans’ uneasiness–then as now–was due to a changing climate. “A challenging existence was everybody’s lot.”

Family Group, 1940 Emma Lou Davis’ New Deal relief on the Cohen Federal Building. Photo by Carol H. Highsmith.

In the afternoon light Davie saw it: A brown toe-bone, almost metallic in its antiquity. Could it be one of the large extinct animals? Then she found the tool, a chipped scraper. The juxtaposition of bones and scraper told her this was a mammoth butchering site. “People!” she shouted to her teammates. When she found this tool—suggesting human presence far before the prevailing date for Early Man in California–her childhood dream of “lost worlds” was fulfilled. The incineration of her life’s artwork was nothing compared to this victory. “I’m hatching a completely new model of New World prehistory,” she said.

Setting back the date for Early Man to as much as 40,000 years, as Davie did, was the equivalent of a major show at MOMA in the art world. A coup. The glory was brief and the rebukes harsh. The Museum of Man dissed her; colleagues began calling her Crazy Old Lady Davis. Her scholarly articles were rejected (though she published more than 70 during her career). She was criticized for being too personal in her academic papers, for her writing style–which at times resembles Ursula Le Guin. The message from the men: “Muzzle this gal.”

Social Experiments

At the time she was fashioning new models of prehistory, Davie also was experimenting with new models of human society. She’d always been uneasy in marriage and relationships, and as an aging woman she founded a commune in an old Scripps family mansion in Balboa Park. There she staged legendary hot tub parties with academics, students and Sexual Freedom League swingers in attendance, along with occasional police visits. It might sound like a schtick—an attempt to appear outrageous–but Davie was after something deeper. San Diego archaeologist Ron May attended the parties and says Davie used the nudity and free love the way she did all things: “to break barriers and open minds. Davie saw herself as the leader of her own social experiment,” he says.

Emma Lou Davis at China Lake, a still from a Navy film made in 1975. Courtesy of NAWS China Lake film archives.

There was always a yearning human behind the brazen show. Davey admitted she felt old and out of place at the swingers’ events. (She attended her first Sexual Freedom League meeting with her arm in a sling after a breast biopsy.) “Like myself,” she wrote, explaining her reasons for attending the event, “everybody is lonely and everybody needs love.”

San Diego archaeologist Ron May at age 22, on a test unit at Bobcat Rockshelter in the Sierra Juarez, Baja. He worked the project with Emma Lou Davis, who was his greatest mentor.

Friends throughout her lifetime saw past the bravado. One of many accomplished professionals who admired Davie is Palm Springs anthropologist Lowell Bean. He was a penniless young man when he went for his first interview at the Palm Springs Art Museum (as it is now called) for a curator job. Davie gave him a pep talk and bought him a suit. In a tribute written after her death, Bean praised her “brilliant scientific mind” and said: “She was a source of affection, friendship and encouragement.”

Explorers Club

In 1981, at age 75, Davie got a call from oceanographer Sylvia Earle inviting her to become one of the first women ever admitted to the venerable Explorers Club, a Manhattan-based adventure society founded in 1904. The honor would be a lifetime zenith to most, but to Davie it was just an asterisk. That same year, she had a heart attack and a mastectomy.

As she grew more fragile, she became frantic to protect the Pleistocene Lakes and to expand on her research. (To this day, her China Lake Early Man dates have not been confirmed nor have they been disproven. Like so many other Early Man breakthroughs, the findings remain in limbo.) Davie started her own Great Basin Foundation and endowed it with her own wealth to continue the work on Early Man after her death. But the bequest was frittered away by the directors who used the money for real estate investments near the border.

Along with creating the Foundation, Davie began hammering out her autobiography with her friend Naomi Wheelock acting as editor. Davie wrote in the introduction: “This is the story of a bad-acting woman, a fighter, a non-conformist who broke loose.”

In 1982 a stroke left her bedridden, her left side paralyzed. When archaeologist Breck Parkman visited for an interview, he found her bedroom decorated with photos of bare-chested young men in the field.

Emma Lou Davis died in 1988 in San Diego, at age 82. When Ron May arrived at her memorial at the Museum of Man, he was astonished to see 200 or so weeping people—most of whom he had never met before. Davie made May and others feel as if each was the center of her universe. “We were her children, whom she called her thousand points of light,” he said. After the service the Points of Light met at Davie’s house for a party. She left specific instructions for a Mariachi band and a drink she invented called Kickapoo Joy Juice.

Her caretakers relayed that Davie had been afraid of death at the end, despite her fearless march into unknown realms. Her ashes were scattered over the ancient lakes of the Mojave. She did make it back to the Pleistocene after all–back to her bear and wolf, back to the People of the Marsh.

Thank you to California archaeologists Russell Kaldenberg, Ron May and Breck Parkman for your vivid and generous recollections of Emma Lou Davis. Thanks to archaeology curator Barbara Bane and history curator Elaine Wiley at the Maturango Museum in Ridgecrest. The museum holds extensive archives on Davie and her work at China Lake. Thanks to Christy Porter for help with the images. For more on Emma Lou Davis’ New Deal murals, see this video by Kelsey Gustin:

Emma Lou Davis’ book on the ancient Californians. One of her many nicknames was The Mojave Maverick.





22 comments for “Back to the Pleistocene: Adventures with a Forgotten Taos Modern  

  1. The most amazing story you have told yet, Ann! Wow, wow, wow. More compelling than any novel. And of course Sylvia Earle recognized her importance, another great scientist and pioneer. Find a way to publish the manuscript!!!

  2. Thanks Susie! I do want her manuscript (there actually are two versions) to be published and will be talking to publishers who specialize in archaeology, to start with. If anyone has ideas on how to get Davie’s memoir into print, please send ideas!

  3. Ann, you have done it again! You are an intrepid searcher for the hidden truths of the Mojave and Colorado deserts. I think this one tops all the others. Would love to have known this unique person. Thank you for preventing her so vividly.

  4. Ann
    You told a remarkable story about a remarkable human being. It brought to my mind the time Davey, or Davie as she was known during the Pleistocene, picked me up in her Mercedez Benz and we drove to Panamint Valley. Talking about the lakeshore and lakeshore people. I suggested we stop near Ballarat at a place named Post Office Springs. We bought sandwiches at the Ballarat store and she pulled out a bottle of wine. We watched all of the wildlife using the water, egrets, ducks, pelicans and other waterfowl. An occasional Jackrabbit, a fox, raven and squirrels were drinking water and eating. She asked “Russ do you know what we are watching?” It is a Paleo Grocery Store. The lakeshores of all of the Pleistocene lakes were the grocery stores for the old people. Thank you Ann.

  5. Ann, I would start by contacting Sylvia Earle, who is still alive and active. Perhaps the Explorers Club, too, given the history.

  6. I have never heard of Emma Lou Davis, but I love her now. It’s mind boggling how many amazing stories there are to be rediscovered. And you, Ann, are so wonderful at telling them. Thank you!

  7. A remarkable life and I can feel her energy from the great narrative you have shared.
    Her manuscript should certainly be published. I would think any California History
    Association ( or literature ) wouldn’t be worth their salt if they didn’t support the
    publishing of the manuscript. Another Gem! Thanks Ann.

  8. Davie’s story is the stuff that legends are made of and you’ve done such a wonderful job of telling it.

  9. Beautiful to read of Emma Lou Davis life journey, that she followed her soul compass the whole goat trail! Thank you for caring and writing about such mighty truths, dear Ann!

  10. Thank you Ann for the introducing me to a fascinating person who led a rich and unusual life. Emma Lou Davis–been wonderful to meet u.

  11. Thank you for the fine job you did writing this article. I first met Davie in 1968 working with her on a site in the Julian area some tine in 1968 and worked with her at China Lake. Over the years I believe everyone who knew her developed their favorite “Davie” story. I have. The unfortunate result is that she often becomes not the “character” she strived to be, but rather a caricature. Your article will help to put the caricature to rest.

    Her research was impeccable and often groundbreaking. Her PhD focused on the Black Range in New Mexico. It was as groundbreaking as her research at China Lake. I always felt it was my good fortune to have known Davie and was allowed to share just a small portion of her life.

  12. Wonderful, just wonderful! No ideas for a publisher except that if you can’t find one do a pre-order and /or a fundraiser and self-publish but either way put me on the list for a copy!


  13. I’m wowowow’ing with Susie. Leaves me speechless or nearly.
    “Female not feminist”
    “Freeze-dried scholars”
    “It was clear to me that the scientist must become the psychic”

    And so beautifully researched and written, Ann.
    I agree it’s your best yet. You are that dedicated shamaness to whom such
    miracles come. Thank you so much.

  14. Quite the desert rat–and those brownies! Pictures of nude men on her hallway walls, hot tub, ATV injury in the dunes, sensitivity map of early human sites in the California Desert, president of the Society for California Archaeology–the list goes on–what a character and friend!

  15. Surveying in the Mojave one year (late 60s?) — “Whew, it’s hot,” she said. And off came her vest and her shirt, vest returned and the survey continued as if nothing unusual had happened. As a nudist, I didn’t mind, but the others were bug-eyed. What could be more natural than that, she thought. Skin browned with desert sun, carrying on through the day. Observing pot drops and animals and wind patterns. As the first archaeologist EVER to receive the Society for California Archaeology Lifetime Achievement Award, it indicates what her colleagues thought of her. Remarkable in every way, that was Davey.

  16. I didn’t know about Emma Lu Davie until I read her autobiography in the MoMA catalogue for Americans 1942. What a wonderful artist! I am gutted to hear that most of her artwork was destroyed in a fire at her home. Thank you for fleshing out the latter part of her amazing career. I would love to see more images of her drawings and sculpture prior to 1960.

  17. Thank you Ann – and great seeing Russ, Ron and Stan here! Last time I saw Davey was the fall of 1980 – she picked me up in her (white?) Mercedes and the two of us drove out to the desert for the day. She educated me about “paleosol” surfaces and the wisdom of putting a second diesel fuel tank into her vehicle and filling it up in Tijuana…….unbeknownst to me at the time I already knew of her unconventional yet brilliant life style – her late night parties on the 1200 block of Concord Street in Point Loma raised eyebrows with her neighbors, one of whom was one of my relatives who used to generically mention them to us…..little did I know at the time that this was Davey!

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