Thousands of ancient rock art paintings have been discovered in a remote part of the Amazon rainforest showing the earliest inhabitants of the rainforest living alongside some of the Ice Age giants of the time.
The incredible discovery – one of the world’s largest collections of rock art – stretches across nearly 13 kilometers (8 miles) of cliff face in Colombia, and features some of the oldest known paintings of humans interacting with animals such as mastodons, a prehistoric relative of elephants.
First excavated back in 2017 and 2018, the discovery was kept secret as it was filmed for a new television series on lost Amazon civilizations for the UK’s Channel 4, set to air in December. The paintings are thought to have been produced over a period of hundreds, or even thousands, of years dating back to between 12,600 and 11,800 years ago.
The largest set of vivid red paintings, set across 12 panels and featuring pictographs of humans, plants, animals, handprints, hunting, and geometric patterns, was found at Cerro Azul on the northern edge of the Colombian Amazon. Two other sites at Cerro Montoya and Limoncillos were more faded. Some of them were so high, special ladders would have to have been constructed to paint them.
There are depictions of extant animals such as bats, monkeys, alligators, deer, tapirs, turtles, and porcupines, but of great import is what the researches think are some of the most realistic depictions of now-extinct Ice Age megafauna, including mastodons, giant sloths, camelids, and three-toed ungulates (in the family of rhinos and tapirs) with trunks.
“The paintings give a vivid and exciting glimpse into the lives of these communities. It is unbelievable to us today to think they lived among, and hunted, giant herbivores, some which were the size of a small car,” said Dr Mark Robinson from the University of Exeter and the LASTJOURNEY project, who was part of the team that found the artworks, in an emailed statement.
The grounds around the rock shelters were also excavated, revealing clues about the people who lived there during this time, confirming some of the earliest known occupants of the Colombian Amazon. Bones and plant remains showed these communities were hunter-gatherers who ate palm and tree fruits, as well as snakes, frogs, capybara, armadillos, and paca, Dr Robinson and colleagues revealed in a study published in Quaternary International. They also fished in nearby rivers to capture piranha and alligators. Small tools were also found, as well as scraped ochre used to extract pigment to make the red paint.
“These rock paintings are spectacular evidence of how humans reconstructed the land, and how they hunted, farmed, and fished," said Professor José Iriarte, also of Exeter, who led the team. "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.”
It's thought people exfoliated the cliff faces using fire to create smooth surfaces to work on. However, many rock shelters are exposed to the elements, meaning pictographs will have been lost, faded, or weathered away. Luckily, the new discoveries were protected by overhanging rock offering some shelter or we may never have seen them.
You can see the incredible rock art in all its glory in The Jungle Mystery: Lost Kingdoms of the Amazon, which will air in early December on Channel 4 in the UK (TBC for other countries), fronted by British paleoanthropologist and explorer Ella Al Shamahi.