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Spectacular Ice Age rock art found in Colombia

December 21, 2020

Archaeologists have discovered tens of thousands of prehistoric paintings of animals and humans in a remote area of Colombia. Some now-extinct animals are depicted, meaning the art is likely more than 12,500 years old.

Rock paintings in La Lindosa
Image: Jörg Denzer

These are rock paintings that take your breath away: Stretched across almost 12 kilometers (8 miles) of cliff face, there are geometric shapes along with tens of thousands of images of animals and humans, including fish, turtles, lizards and birds, people dancing or holding hands, figures with masks, and lots of handprints.

Rock paintings in La Lindosa
The most fascinating thing is how incredibly detailed and lifelike some of the paintings are.Image: Jörg Denzer

Animals that have long since become extinct, such as giant sloths, Ice Age horses, or the palaeolama, a type of ancient camel, are also depicted.

Rock paintings in La Lindosa
It is already clear that it will  take decades for all the pictures to be documented and analyzed.Image: Jörg Denzer

There is even a picture of amastodon, a prehistoric relative of the elephant that has not inhabited South America for the last 12,000 years. These paintings would seem to make it clear that the rock art was created more than 12,500 years ago.

Archaeologists found pieces of ocher that were scraped off to make the images, which are painted in a reddish terra-cotta color.

Rock paintings in La Lindosa
Some of the paintings are so high up on the rock face that they can be viewed only with drones. Image: Jörg Denzer

Kept secret for a documentary

The fascinating rock paintings were discovered in 2017 by a British-Colombian team of researchers, but the sensational find was kept secret ahead of a British Channel 4 series being shown in December, "Jungle Mystery: Lost Kingdoms of the Amazon."

It is not surprising that this Ice Age art has remained undiscovered for so long: The site is located in the Serrania de la Lindosa mountain range in the middle of the Colombian jungle, about 400 kilometers southeast of the capital, Bogota. On satellite images, the area around the Serrania de la Lindosa simply looks green; to the north, the Rio Guaviare meanders through the dense Amazon rainforest.

Men and women dressed in camouflage clothing carry machine guns in the rainforest
During the civil war, FARC rebels claimed the areaImage: picture alliance/AP Photo/R. Abd

To compound the difficulty of getting to the site, the region was controlled by FARC rebels until not so long ago and was thus completely inaccessible to archaeologists. Not until very recently, after the FARC guerrillas and the Colombian government finally negotiated a ceasefire following 50 years of civil war, were archaeologists able to venture into the remote area.

Similar paintings in Chiribiquete National Park

The images are strongly reminiscent of the more than 20,000 rock paintings discovered years ago in neighboring Chiribiquete National Park.

A small group of people stand below rock paintings in Chibiriquete National Park
More than 20,000 drawings of animals and humans were also found in ChibiriqueteImage: Leonardo Munoz/Agencia EFE/imago images

These paintings prove that people lived in the area as far back as 19,000 years ago and decorated rock faces with scenes of hunting, dancing and eating.

In addition to depictions of humans, there are also images of deer and elk, porcupines, snakes, birds, monkeys and insects. However, most of the paintings of animals and humans in the Chiribiquete National Park, which is a World Heritage Site, are in small, difficult-to-access caves at high elevations.

Rock paintings in Colombia
The newly discovered rock paintings are similar to the paintings in Chiribiquete National ParkImage: Guillermo Legaria/AFP

Archaeologists hope the recent sensational find will give them new insights into the lives of people in the Amazon region during the Ice Age. The paintings will not only provide more information on the animals and plants that existed at that time, but also give clues about how people communicated with each other and what shamanic rituals they had. It is already clear that it will  take decades for all the pictures to be documented and analyzed.