Around 1,500 years ago, on the fringe of one of the most inhospitable environments on Earth, humans still managed to make a living. With the Atacama Desert to their back, these pre-Hispanic communities turned to the ocean, hunting seals and hammerhead sharks but also tackling much larger prey such as sperm whales with nothing more than a simple harpoon and sea lion skin boat.
And while these people were not out on the water, they recorded what they saw around them. Using ochre paint, they created some of the only ancient rock art depicting marine animals – including whales, dolphins, swordfish, and squid – known anywhere in the world.
Ancient rock art, daubed on the walls of cliffs and caves from Africa to Europe to Australia by our long-dead ancestors, tends to focus on the mighty beasts that once ambled across the grasslands and crept through the forests. This is likely because the art that has survived is found inland, and the people who created it were simply drawing what they encountered.
This makes the intense red sketches found coating the rocks in the El Médanoin ravine along the South American Pacific coast all the more incredible. Nowhere else has such a detailed and graphic representation of ancient hunter-gatherers exploiting marine creatures been seen before.
The art is therefore critical to our understanding of how pre-Hispanic people survived in such challenging environments, as well as giving incredible insights into ancient hunting techniques.
The location of El Médanoin, as well as a recently discovered second ravine called Izcuña – the focus of a new paper published in Antiquity – is an environment of extremes. To the east lies the world’s most arid desert, while to the west is one of its richest oceans. Sandwiched in the middle, and relying on freshwater springs that bubbled up along the coast, people somehow made a living here for thousands of years.
The unique paintings that they created help us understand how, as they not only depict the animals that lived along the shoreline, but also how they hunted them. The drawings show that individual figures stood in small boats or rafts, with a harpoon line connecting both hunter and prey.
These lines are usually connected to the whale or dolphin's head, pectoral fins, and middle, but almost never to the tail, while some of the larger prey have multiple lines indicating “intense and complex open-ocean hunting expeditions,” suggest the researchers. Archaeological digs have revealed harpoons with detachable heads crafted from wood, with lines made from seal skin. The boats were also created from sea lion skin, stitched together with hundreds of cactus spines and cotton thread.
Interestingly, the hunts are depicted as solitary events, with only a handful showing more than one boat. This implies that it was a specialized, solitary and individual activity, practiced by only a few.