Remarkable depictions of ancient South American horses found in “Sistine Chapel of the ancients”

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Professor José Iriarte with some of the cliff artworks in Colombia.

A treasure trove of 12,500-year-old rock art dubbed the Sistine Chapel of the ancients includes remarkably detailed portrayals of horses.

The recently discovered art in the Colombian Amazon provides crucial insights into early human colonisation in South America and how it shaped the continent’s diverse culture and environment.

The vast expanse of rock paintings in the forest were found in a mountain region called the Serranía de la Lindosa.

The paintings can be found in strategic locations across a 13km stretch of cliffs.

The cliffs on the riverbank of the Guayabero River can be reached only after a two-hour drive from the city of San José del Guaviare, followed by a four-hour trek.

There are tens of thousands of paintings, according to Professor José Iriarte, of the University of Exeter in England, who believes it will take generations to record them all.

The spectacular rock art most likely represents the earliest artistic expressions of the ancient Amazonian inhabitants.

The drawings, likely first made around 12,600 and 11,800 years ago, were identified during landscape surveys. They depict geometric shapes, human figures, and handprints, as well as hunting scenes and people interacting with plants, trees and savannah animals.

The vibrant red pictures were produced over a period of hundreds, or possibly thousands, of years. Some are so high, and inaccessible, special ladders crafted from forest resources would have been needed and they would have been obscured from view for anyone visiting the rock shelter. Today, they can only safely be viewed by drones.

There are drawings of deer, tapirs, alligators, bats, monkeys, turtles, serpents, and porcupines, as well as what appears to be Ice Age megafauna.

There are depictions of creatures resembling a giant sloth, mastodon, camelids, horses, and three-toe ungulates with trunks. These native animals all became extinct, probably because of a combination of climate change, the loss of their habitat and hunting by humans.

“The pictures are so natural and so well made that we have few doubts that you’re looking at a horse, for example,” Iriarte says.

“The ice-age horse had a wild, heavy face. It’s so detailed, we can even see the horse hair. It’s fascinating,” said the professor, who leads the British-Colombian project team.

“It’s interesting to see that many of these large animals appear surrounded by small men with their arms raised, almost worshipping these animals.”

Excavations in the soil around the shelters that the artworks decorate have revealed one of the earliest secure dates for the occupation of the Columbian Amazon and clues about people’s diet at this time, as well as the remains of small tools and scraped ochre used to extract pigments to make the paintings.

Communities who lived in the area at the time the drawings were made were hunter-gatherers who fished in the nearby river. Bones and plant remains found during the excavations show they ate palm and tree fruits, piranha, alligators, snakes, frogs, rodents such as paca and capybara, and armadillos.

The paintings also provide further evidence of the impact early human communities had on the Amazon’s biodiversity and their adaption to climate change.

At the time the drawings were made temperatures were rising, starting the transformation of the area from a mosaic landscape of patchy savannahs, thorny scrub, gallery forests and tropical forest with montane elements into the broadleaf tropical Amazon forest of today.

The rock shelters are a long way from modern settlements and trails, but were known to some local communities, who helped researchers explore them.

The research was carried out by Gaspar Morcote-Ríos, from the Universidad Nacional de Colombia, Francisco Javier Aceituno, from the Universidad de Antioquia, José Iriarte and Mark Robinson, from the University of Exeter, and Jeison L. Chaparro-Cárdenas from the Universidad Nacional de Colombia.

“These really are incredible images, produced by the earliest people to live in western Amazonia,” Robinson said.

“They moved into the region at a time of extreme climate change, which was leading to changes in vegetation and the make-up of the forest. The Amazon was still transforming into the tropical forest we recognise today.

“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.”

The rock shelters are exposed to the elements, meaning other paintings in the Amazon discovered by experts have been damaged and the pictures are unclear.

The early communities had exfoliated, or peeled, the rock using fire to create smooth surfaces for their art.

These new discoveries are in shelters more protected through overhanging rock, or the wind and rain blowing in a different direction.

Iriarte says the rock paintings provide spectacular evidence of how humans reconstructed the land, and how they hunted, farmed and fished.

“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.”

Experts carried out the excavations in 2017 and 2018.

The largest set of paintings was found at Cerro Azul, where there is a total of 12 panels and thousands of individual pictographs depicting humans, animals, plants, handprints and geometric shapes. Paintings at Cerro Montoya and Limoncillos were more faded.

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