'Sistine Chapel of the ancients' rock art discovered in remote Amazon forest

Tens of thousands of ice age paintings across a cliff face shed light on people and animals from 12,500 years ago

One of the world’s largest collections of prehistoric rock art has been discovered in the Amazonian rainforest.

Hailed as “the Sistine Chapel of the ancients”, archaeologists have found tens of thousands of paintings of animals and humans created up to 12,500 years ago across cliff faces that stretch across nearly eight miles in Colombia.

Their date is based partly on their depictions of now-extinct ice age animals, such as the mastodon, a prehistoric relative of the elephant that hasn’t roamed South America for at least 12,000 years. There are also images of the palaeolama, an extinct camelid, as well as giant sloths and ice age horses.

These animals were all seen and painted by some of the very first humans ever to reach the Amazon. Their pictures give a glimpse into a lost, ancient civilisation. Such is the sheer scale of paintings that they will take generations to study.

The discovery was made last year, but has been kept secret until now as it was filmed for a major Channel 4 series to be screened in December: Jungle Mystery: Lost Kingdoms of the Amazon.

The site is in the Serranía de la Lindosa where, along with the Chiribiquete national park, other rock art had been found. The documentary’s presenter, Ella Al-Shamahi, an archaeologist and explorer, told the Observer: “The new site is so new, they haven’t even given it a name yet.”

There are numerous hand prints among the images on the cliff face, similar to these at the nearby site of Cerro Azul.
There are numerous hand prints among the images on the cliff face, similar to these at the nearby site of Cerro Azul. Photograph: Marie-Claire Thomas/Wild Blue Media

She spoke of the excitement of seeing “breathtaking” images that were created thousands of years ago.

The discovery was made by a British-Colombian team, funded by the European Research Council. Its leader is José Iriarte, professor of archaeology at Exeter University and a leading expert on the Amazon and pre-Columbian history.

He said: “When you’re there, your emotions flow … We’re talking about several tens of thousands of paintings. It’s going to take generations to record them … Every turn you do, it’s a new wall of paintings.

“We started seeing animals that are now extinct. The pictures are so natural and so well made that we have few doubts that you’re looking at a horse, for example. The ice-age horse had a wild, heavy face. It’s so detailed, we can even see the horse hair. It’s fascinating.”

The images include fish, turtles, lizards and birds, as well as people dancing and holding hands, among other scenes. One figure wears a mask resembling a bird with a beak.

Palaeo-anthropologist Ella Al-Shamahi, the presenter of the Channel 4 series.
Palaeo-anthropologist Ella Al-Shamahi, the presenter of the Channel 4 series. Photograph: Marie-Claire Thomas/Wild Blue Media

The site is so remote that, after a two-hour drive from San José del Guaviare, a team of archaeologists and film-makers trekked on foot for around four hours.

They somehow avoided the region’s most dangerous inhabitants. “Caimans are everywhere, and we did keep our wits about us with snakes,” Al-Shamahi said, recalling an enormous bushmaster – “the deadliest snake in the Americas with an 80% mortality rate” – that blocked their jungle path. They had been delayed getting back, and it was already pitch black.

They had no choice but to walk past it, knowing that, if they were attacked, there was little chance of getting to a hospital. “You’re in the middle of nowhere,” she said. But it was “100%” worth it to see the paintings, she added.

As the documentary notes, Colombia is a land torn apart after 50 years of civil war that raged between Farc guerrillas and the Colombian government, now with an uneasy truce in place. The territory where the paintings have been discovered was completely off limits until recently and still involves careful negotiation to enter safely.

Al-Shamahi said: “When we entered Farc territory, it was exactly as a few of us have been screaming about for a long time. Exploration is not over. Scientific discovery is not over but the big discoveries now are going to be found in places that are disputed or hostile.”

The paintings vary in size. There are numerous handprints and many of the images are on that scale, be they geometric shapes, animals or humans. Others are much larger.

Many of the paintings are very high up, similar to these at the nearby site of Cerro Azul, some so high they can only be reached by drones.
Many of the paintings are very high up, similar to these at the nearby site of Cerro Azul, some so high they can only be reached by drones. Photograph: Marie-Claire Thomas/Wild Blue Media

Al-Shamahi was struck by how high up many of them are: “I’m 5ft 10in and I would be breaking my neck looking up. How were they scaling those walls?”

Some of the paintings are so high they can only be viewed with drones.

Iriarte believes that the answer lies in depictions of wooden towers among the paintings, including figures appearing to bungee jump from them.

He added: “These paintings have a reddish terracotta colour. We also found pieces of ochre that they scraped to make them.”

Speculating on whether the paintings had a sacred or other purpose, he said: “It’s interesting to see that many of these large animals appear surrounded by small men with their arms raised, almost worshipping these animals.”

Observing that the imagery includes trees and hallucinogenic plants, he added: “For Amazonian people, non-humans like animals and plants have souls, and they communicate and engage with people in cooperative or hostile ways through the rituals and shamanic practices that we see depicted in the rock art.”

Al-Shamahi added: “One of the most fascinating things was seeing ice age megafauna because that’s a marker of time. I don’t think people realise that the Amazon has shifted in the way it looks. It hasn’t always been this rainforest. When you look at a horse or mastodon in these paintings, of course they weren’t going to live in a forest. They’re too big. Not only are they giving clues about when they were painted by some of the earliest people – that in itself is just mind-boggling – but they are also giving clues about what this very spot might have looked like: more savannah-like.”

Iriarte suspects that there are many more paintings to be found: “We’re just scratching the surface.” The team will be back as soon as Covid-19 allows.

Jungle Mystery: Lost Kingdoms of the Amazon starts at 6.30pm on Channel 4 on 5 December. The rock art discovery is in episode 2, on 12 December


Dalya Alberge

The GuardianTramp

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