Archaeologists have uncovered an extensive spread of ice-age rock art in the Colombian Amazon, composed of thousands of images depicting mastodons, giant sloths and other extinct creatures, and presumably the lives of the people that recorded these very scenes.
Painted in vivid, earthy ochre on the hills above three rock shelters at the archaeological site of Serranía La Lindosa on the northern edge of the Colombian Amazon, the 12,500-year-old paintings cover an 8 mile (13 kilometer)-long “canvas”, and were created while the region was undergoing major changes due to the dramatic shift in the global climate. The rise in temperatures at that time caused the local landscape to shift from a patchwork of savannas, thorny scrub and forest into the lush tropical rainforest that we see today.
The images depict a variety of animals such as deer, tapirs, alligators, bats, monkeys, turtles, serpents and porcupines, alongside other creatures that have long since disappeared from the region, including camelids, horses and three-toed hoofed mammals with trunks. The paintings have also captured the likenesses of animals that have gone extinct altogether, such as giant sloths and automobile-sized armadillos.
“The paintings give a vivid and exciting glimpse into the lives of these communities,” according to co-researcher Mark Robinson, an archaeologist at the University of Exeter. “It is unbelievable to us today to think they lived among, and hunted, giant herbivores, some which were the size of a small car.”
Detailed rock paintings of prehistoric animals such as these can offer valuable clues to paleontologists: modern-day researchers typically have to coax clues as to what long-extinct animals were like solely from their fossil remains, but many gaps in our knowledge of these enigmatic species can be filled in with the records made by ancient eyewitnesses who experienced these creatures as part of their everyday lives.
The people that made the paintings also recorded images of themselves, with hunting scenes, celebrations, handprints, and other interactions with the world and animals around them, frozen in time on the rock face.
Excavations in the rock shelters below the paintings show that their inhabitants were some of the earliest settlers in the region, and between the paintings and the remains left in the shelters the researchers have been able to reconstruct their lifestyles, including a diet of palm and tree fruits, piranhas, alligators, snakes, frogs, rodents such as paca and capybara, and armadillos.
“These rock paintings are spectacular evidence of how humans reconstructed the land, and how they hunted, farmed and fished,” study co-researcher José Iriarte, an archaeologist at the University of Exeter, said. “It is likely art was a powerful part of culture and a way for people to connect socially.”
The paintings also feature many examples of what archaeologists refer to as “phosphenes”, images of repeating waves, dots, zig-zags, grids and other such geometric patterns that appear visually, typically when one’s eyes are closed, although they can appear with open eyes when the individual is in an altered state of consciousness. These paintings occur in prehistoric art and modern indiginous cultures from virtually every corner of the globe, and are assumed to be recreations of what their respective community’s shamans might be seeing during their vision quests.