Tens of thousands of cliff drawings dating back to the Ice Age have been revealed on nearly eight miles of cliff faces in Colombia’s Amazon rainforest. Archaeologists are calling the discovery “the Sistine Chapel of the ancients.”
Dating back as far as 12,500 years ago, it is one of the world’s largest collections of prehistoric cliff paintings. The red-ocher murals depict an incredibly wide array of creatures, from humans, horses, tapirs, fish, alligators, turtles and birds to extinct species including giant sloths, mastodons, camelids and three-toe ungulates (hooved mammals) with trunks.
“We’re talking about several tens of thousands of paintings. It’s going to take generations to record them,” José Iriarte, an archaeologist at Exeter University, told the Guardian. “Every turn you do, it’s a new wall of paintings.”
Iriarte and his British-Colombian team discovered the first of the enormous trove of images in 2017 but kept it a secret while continuing to work. Previously, the remote area — requiring a two-hour drive from San José del Guaviare and a four-hour trek through the forest — was inaccessible to outsiders during Colombia’s 50-year civil war. The Serranias of Chiribiquete and La Lindosa opened up to scientific researchers after the 2016 peace treaty between the rebel guerilla group FARC and the Colombian government.
Archaeologists believe that the artists who created the images were among the first humans to live in the western Amazon. At the time, the area was transforming from a landscape of savannahs, thorny scrub, and forests into the tropical rainforest of today. The researchers published some of their findings in April in the journal Quaternary International.
The prehistoric artists chose smooth rock walls sheltered from rain as a canvas for their detailed paintings. Some of the images are so high up on the cliff walls that the researchers had to use drones to photograph them.
“These rock paintings are spectacular evidence of how humans reconstructed the land, and how they hunted, farmed and fished,” said Dr. Iriarte in a Exeter University statement. “It is likely art was a powerful part of culture and a way for people to connect socially. The pictures show how people would have lived amongst giant, now extinct, animals, which they hunted.”
In 2018, the Colombian government declared the Serrania La Lindosa as a new protected archaeological site, and there is hope that the site will be one day be opened up to the public.
The cliffs are a natural, open-air gallery, in contrast, say, to France’s famous Lascaux cave art, which had