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‘These ancient rock paintings are unlikely to be about what was for dinner’

15 December 2020

Guaviare, a department of south-central Colombia, includes the north-western reaches of the Amazon rainforest. One of the most biodiverse regions in the world, this is also a contested landscape: the focus of competing interests, ranging from those of indigenous communities to those of wildlife conservationists. From the mid 1960s until recently, it was also a territory dominated by the FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia), a Marxist group that operated as a guerrilla organisation until a peace accord with the Colombian government was ratified in 2016.

During the 1990s, while the FARC dominated the region, Colombian researchers, led by Carlos Castaño-Uribe and others, were nonetheless able to identify tens of thousands of remarkable rock art paintings and engravings in what is now Colombia’s largest national park, Chiribiquete; it was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 2018. The ceasefire between the government and the FARC in 2016 allowed for more intensive investigation of region, resulting in some of the earliest evidence of human occupation in the Amazon region. More recently, a team led by Gaspar Morcote-Ríos of the National University of Colombia, Francisco Javier Aceituno, of the University of Antioquia, and José Iriarte and Mark Robinson, of the University of Exeter, along with Jeison Chaparro-Cárdenas, also of Colombia’s National University, has been researching an adjacent area, a gateway to Chiribiquete.

Aerial view of the Serrania de Chiribiquete, Colombia.

Aerial view of the Serrania de Chiribiquete, Colombia. Photo: Guillermo Legaria/AFP via Getty Images

Known as Serranía La Lindosa, this region has recently received widespread international attention for its own rock art, newly brought to light by Morcote-Ríos and his colleagues. Some of the tens of thousands of paintings here, which are reported to extend over eight miles, were created perhaps as much as 12,500 years ago. The paintings are found in rock shelters and on the sharply sloping faces of tepuis: limestone table-top mountains that form a striking feature of the Amazonian landscape, a great pale gash in the green of the tropical forest. The paintings, created with a red mineral pigment, depict an astonishing array of fauna, along with humans – many of them armed, as if on a hunt. Many are located high on the rock walls, which would have required the use of ladders or perhaps another type of scaffolding; in the paintings themselves, wooden towers are depicted.

The Serranía La Lindosa paintings are part of an impressive tradition of rock art in South America dating back at least 10,000 years. Other important rock art sites in South America include Pedra Furada in the Serra da Capivara national park in north-eastern Brazil and the spectacular Cueva de las Manos, in Argentina’s Patagonian region. As with the Serranía La Lindosa paintings, the Patagonian examples include scenes related to hunting, in this case for guanacos, small camelids that are closely related to llamas.

Rock paintings at Serranía La Lindosa.

Rock paintings at Serranía La Lindosa. Photo: José Iriarte

Rock art is notoriously difficult to date, since there is usually no organic material in these paintings. Adjacent materials, such as tools made of bone that were used to create the images, can be assessed via radiocarbon testing methods such as accelerator mass spectrometry (AMS). Other approaches include studies of the patina, or accretionary deposits, as well as the iconography itself, usually in conjunction with an analysis of related archaeological material. In the case of the Serranía La Lindosa paintings, researchers have identified certain species in the paintings, including several animals now extinct, such as mastodons, paleolama, and ice-age horses. As with the presence of extinct creatures in the paintings of Pedra Pintada in Brazil, this suggests a date of at least 10,000 or 11,000 years ago. Assuming that the identification of the extinct fauna is accurate – the determination of species can be difficult in prehistoric art – the new research is an important contribution to the study of Late Pleistocene occupations of the Amazon region.

But what of the art itself? The study of the iconography of the Serranía La Lindosa paintings will likely be the focus of considerable debate for years to come. The location of the complex – surely considered a distinct, isolated, and sacred space in the past, as it remains to indigenous communities today – speaks to a subject matter beyond the mundane. The evidence of food remains from the excavation suggests only a partial overlap between what was eaten and what was depicted: these paintings are unlikely to be about what was for dinner. Rather, the imagery speaks to deeper subjects, topics perhaps addressed in part through the administration of psychotropic substances obtained from the abundant plant life depicted in the paintings.

The Serranía La Lindosa paintings also include vivid red handprints on the rock face. Handprints, as well as hand stencils – the latter created by using a tube to blow a mineral pigment over a hand, leaving a ghostly imprint of the human presence – are also prominent features of rock art in Brazil, and, magnificently, at the Cueva de las Manos (literally ‘Cave of the Hands’) in Argentina. There, some 10,000 years ago and for generations after, people climbed to the rock shelter and created a dazzling palimpsest of silhouetted hands using black, red, yellow, and white pigments. Most movingly, some of the hands are small, suggesting that children – perhaps carried on the shoulders of parents – were part of the process. Here, sheltered from the strong winds above the valley of the Río Pinturas, these images remind us of the universal and eternal impulse to leave a mark, fixing an all-too-fleeting existence on enduring stone.

Joanne Pillsbury is Curator of Arts of the Ancient Americas at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.