The Sistine Chapel of the Ancients: Archaeologists Discover 8 Miles of Art Painted on Rock Walls in the Amazon

All images by José Iri­arte

Over twelve thou­sand years ago, some of the first humans in the Ama­zon hunt­ed, paint­ed, and danced with the mas­sive extinct mam­mals of the ice age: giant sloths and armadil­los, ice-age hors­es, and mastodons…. How do we know? We have pic­tures, or rock paint­ings, rather–many thou­sands of them made around 12,500 years ago and only recent­ly “found on an eight-mile rock sur­face along the Guayabero Riv­er the Colom­bian Ama­zon,” Hakim Bishara reports at Hyper­al­ler­gic. The pre­his­toric won­der has been dubbed the “Sis­tine Chapel of the ancients.”

The dis­cov­ery, made last year, was kept secret until the release of a new doc­u­men­tary air­ing this month called Jun­gle Mys­tery: Lost King­doms of the Ama­zon. Palaeo-anthro­pol­o­gist Ella Al-Shamahi, pre­sen­ter of the Chan­nel 4 series and a mem­ber of the team that found the site, explains why it may be hard to imag­ine such great pre­his­toric beasts lum­ber­ing through the rain­for­est.

Their exis­tence in this rock art offers a clue to major cli­ma­to­log­i­cal shifts that have occurred in the region over mil­len­nia. As Al-Shamahi tells The Observ­er:

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.

“We’re talk­ing about sev­er­al tens of thou­sands of paint­ings,” says the team’s leader, José Iri­arte, pro­fes­sor of archae­ol­o­gy at Exeter Uni­ver­si­ty. “It’s going to take gen­er­a­tions to record them.” The rock wall art illus­trates many extinct species, includ­ing pre­his­toric lama and three-toed hoofed mam­mals with trunks, as well as real­is­tic depic­tions of mon­keys, bats, snakes, tur­tles, tapirs, birds, lizards, fish, and deer. Remains found near the site offer clues to the ancient peo­ples’ diets, which includ­ed piran­ha, alli­ga­tors, snakes, frogs, and “rodents such as paca, capy­bara, and armadil­los,” Bishara notes.

Many of the images are paint­ed to the scale of hand­prints left in many places along the wall, and some are much larg­er. Researchers were par­tic­u­lar­ly sur­prised by the method of com­po­si­tion. Some of the art is so high up it can only be seen by drone. “I’m 5ft 10in,” says Shamahi, “and I would be break­ing my neck look­ing up. How were they scal­ing those walls?” It appears the artists used some form of rap­pelling. There are “depic­tions of wood­en tow­ers among the paint­ings,” reports The Guardian, “includ­ing fig­ures appear­ing to bungee jump from them.”

Fur­ther study in the com­ing decades, and cen­turies, will reveal much more about how the paint­ings were made. The why, how­ev­er, will prove more elu­sive. Iri­arte spec­u­lates they served a sacred pur­pose. “It’s inter­est­ing to see that many of these large ani­mals appear sur­round­ed by small men with their arms raised, almost wor­ship­ping these ani­mals.” The pres­ence of hal­lu­cino­genic plants among the paint­ings leads him to com­pare the paint­ings with con­tem­po­rary Ama­zon­ian peo­ple, for whom “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.”

What­ev­er their pur­pose, the over 100,000 paint­ings on the eight-mile wall con­tain an immea­sur­able store of infor­ma­tion about ancient Ama­zo­ni­ans’ cre­ativ­i­ty and inge­nu­ity. They also add, per­haps, to the moun­tain of rock art evi­dence sug­gest­ing, Bar­bara Ehren­re­ich argued recent­ly, that before orga­nized war became the dom­i­nant prac­tice of civ­i­liza­tions, “humans once had bet­ter ways to spend their time.” The pub­li­ca­tion of the research team’s find­ings is avail­able here. See more images of the site at Hyper­al­ler­gic and Design­boom and watch the first two episodes of Jun­gle Mys­tery: Lost King­doms of the Ama­zon here.

via Colos­sal

Relat­ed Con­tent:

A Recent­ly-Dis­cov­ered 44,000-Year-Old Cave Paint­ing Tells the Old­est Known Sto­ry

Archae­ol­o­gists Dis­cov­er the World’s First “Art Stu­dio” Cre­at­ed in an Ethiopi­an Cave 43,000 Years Ago

Was a 32,000-Year-Old Cave Paint­ing the Ear­li­est Form of Cin­e­ma?

40,000-Year-Old Sym­bols Found in Caves World­wide May Be the Ear­li­est Writ­ten Lan­guage

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness


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