You may remember reading an article or two in UK newspapers about a new rock art discovery in Colombia, which the papers called the “Sistine Chapel of Ancient’s Rock Art”. Well, the articles were not entirely accurate. They gave the impression that this was a new discovery and had been unseen till a UK tv channel crew and archaeologists got there to make a documentary. This is not true. They ignored the fact that Colombians have known about this for a very long time. After the article was published in the UK, it was picked up by international media, all of whom also neglected to mention that this was not a new discovery but something that has been part of Colombian history and culture for decades. Here’s the story.
Let’s start from the beginning. As hunter-gatherers crossed the Bering strait into the new world and moved south, they encountered the Amazon Rainforest. We now know that they colonized the rainforest and its diverse, sometimes even harsh environments, as they expanded southward – eventually colonizing all of South America, including Colombia. It has been estimated that these people arrived in the Americas between 13,000-11,000 years ago during the Late Pleistocene and start of the Holocene.
Guaviare is a region in south-eastern Colombia, between the north-western edge of the Amazon rainforest and the Orinoco plains. In this biodiversity rich landscape can be found the biggest collection of rock art in the Americas – in Serrania de La Lindosa and Chiribiquete National Park. These rock paintings have held immense cultural, archaeological, and perhaps even sacred value for the indigenous people from the area, long before the tv documentary.
A new study, published in March 2021, provided further archaeological evidence that Serrania La Lindosa was colonized between 12,600 to 11,800 years ago. The study highlights thousands of remains of fauna, flora, stone artefacts and mineral pigments, associated with the extensive and spectacular rock pictographs that adorn the rock shelter walls.
The largest and oldest paintings reside in Colombia’s largest national park: Chiribiquete, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The word Chiribiquete itself means “hills where it is drawn” in the language of the indigenous Karijona people.
Locals have also known about the rock art in the Serrania de La Lindosa over 100km away from Chiribiquete, which has been studied by academics for decades – from at least since the 1940s. In fact, some of the first photographic evidence of the cave paintings is from 1949 and since the 1960s, approximately a dozen expeditions have been organised by various institutions. So, no, this was NOT a new discovery. In 1987, the La Lindosa – Angosturas II National Protective Forest Reserve was established by the Government of Colombia to protect the ecosystems of the area.
The rock art tradition in South America goes back to at least 10,000 years. However, this does not mean that the La Lindosa rock art is from that time too. It is extremely difficult to date rock paintings but other organic material, such as bone tools used to create the paintings, can be radiocarbon dated. In addition, the animals depicted in the paintings can provide clues to the time the murals were created. For example, certain species of extinct animals, such as mastodons, giant sloths and ice-age horses have been identified in the Serrania de La Lindosa pictographs by researchers. This indicates that they may be from 10,000 to 11,000 years ago – some of them may have been created 12,500 years ago. However, some researchers think they are much more recent – depicting fear and conflict after the arrival of the conquistadors. For example, some murals depict dogs eating humans – and dogs arrived in the Americas with the Spanish colonizers. Other scientists think they depict fauna native to the rainforest today.
Furthermore, in Chiribiquete and Nukak Nature Reserve, there are reports of uncontacted tribes that are still painting in the caves and on the sides of mountains. The same wall may have 12,000-year-old paintings next to 400-year-old paintings. Because the paint is a mineral oxide, there is no way of telling how old they are. Whatever their age, the tens of thousands of paintings in Serrania de La Lindosa, have been and still are a crucial part of Colombian history.
They reportedly extend over eight miles and are found in rock shelters, as well as on the slopes of limestone table-top mountains. The beautiful representations of human expression created with red mineral pigment, depict a wide diversity of animals and human figures, in addition to handprints and hand stencils.
These photographs that you can see are of murals from two sites in Serrania de La Lindosa. The first site is Cerro Azul or Blue Mountain, an archaeological site excavated between 2014-2015 and 2017-2018. The excavations provided evidence of occupation from 12,200 years ago. Data collected from here gives evidence of its first inhabitants and their interaction with the environment. There are multiple rock shelters with thousands of rock paintings depicting human figures, geometric patterns, handprints, hunting scenes, rituals and humans interacting with savannah plants, forests, and animals such as deer, tapirs, alligators, bats, monkeys, turtles, snakes, and porcupines. Some of the figures seem to represent climbing tower-like structures and humans jumping from a high place while secured with vines or ropes around the ankles. This could illustrate how they managed to paint on top of rocks and then descend from there.
The second site from where the paintings were photographed is Raudales Rio Guayabero, a site on the Guayabero river. In a canyon along the river, the rock art depicts tapirs, lizards, pregnant women, ladders, and ritual dances.
The community in the area has protected the paintings for decades and now they hope to promote a tourist project in Raudal, a small town along the Guayabero River. Indeed, the Colombian government is considering creating an archaeological park to protect the 60 sites that have been identified in the area to date.
All these photographs were captured by a friend of mine who visited both Cerro Azul and Raudales Rio Guayabero in July 2021. And just looking at the photos, I am full of wonder at this artistic expression of humanity. I can’t even imagine what my friend must have felt when she saw them for the first time!
All images and video clips of Serrania De La Lindosa and Raudales Rio Gauayabera credit: Luisa Fernanda Lema Velez, Consoltora en temas ambientales (Environmental Consultant), Colombia Images of Maps: Wikimedia I hope you enjoy the post and video. You can subscribe to the You Tube Channel for more on science, history and nature and please do check out the website and follow on social media: Twitter // Instagram // Facebook // Reddit. You can check out the audio podcast on: Apple Podcasts // Stitcher // TuneIn // Spotify Title music: Hovering Thoughts by Spence (YouTube Music Archive)