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Prehistoric rock art in the Amazon is the "Sistine Chapel" of a vanished civilization

By Elizabeth Rayne
Ice Age: The Meltdown

Breathtaking ancient murals have emerged everywhere from the sands of Egypt to caves in France and Indonesia, but this one managed to hide in a rainforest — which was not always a rainforest — for thousands of years.

Some 12,500 years ago, the Colombian Amazon was a very different environment from the humid tangle of vines and branches it is now. That can be seen in the incredibly lifelike images dancing across a Late Pleistocene mural that was discovered in the Serranía La Lindosa by archaeologists after the area had been surveyed by a satellite. While the mural is alive with extant flora and fauna, such as bats and tapirs, depicted on the stone, there are also mastodons, giant sloths, paleollamas, and other Ice Age creatures that have long since gone extinct.

There is a reason this prehistoric masterpiece, which is too new to even have a name yet, is now being called the “Sistine Chapel of the Amazon.” This wonder was actually first found in 2017 but kept a secret until now. It will be the star of the upcoming BBC documentary Jungle Mystery: Lost Kingdoms of the Amazon.

“The results increase our understanding of the global expansion of human populations, enabling assessment of key interactions between people and the environment that appear to have lasting repercussions for one of the most important and biologically diverse ecosystems in the world,” said researcher José Iriarte, who led a study recently published in Quarternary International.

The rock wall is so high it is thought that the artists who illustrated it in red ochre must have used some sort of ladder to reach such heights. Just as impressive is the realism of the humans and animals that have been forever immortalized. The research team observed an Ice Age horse that was so realistic, even the hairs on its body were visible. Among the animals are human figures, including a dancer forever frozen just as she is about to turn. Handprints on the wall are an echo of a forgotten people who seem to be somehow reaching out to us through the eons.

It was the extinct animals depicted on the stone that told Iriarte’s team how different the Amazon must have been then. Enormous things like mastodons are simply too huge to survive in a such a dense jungle.

Perhaps the artists meant for these depictions of their lives and surroundings to be immortal. They chose a site rain could not get to, and fine-grained rock that they had painstakingly exfoliated for a smooth canvas. Satellite evidence of previously undiscovered rock art caused the archaeologists to ask the Colombian government, which is still in a state of unease, for permission to explore. That was not the only drawback. Potentially lethal snakes that can kill with one bite slither in the understory, which was nervously navigated for five hours before reaching the mural.

While this is far from the first rock art to be found in the Amazon, it might be the most elaborate. Its sheer scale demands years upon years of study. Rock art from long-vanished civilizations often depicted scenes from everyday life that might seem surreal to us now. Back then, seeing a mastodon lumbering around was probably about as common as deer crossing the road. Both humans and animals seem almost as if they are leaping from the rock. The vivid red ochre they are drawn in was a pigment commonly used in Pleistocene and Holocene art and funerary rituals.

The mural “presents the first data from the region, dating the timing of colonization, describing subsistence strategies, and examines human adaptation to these transitioning landscapes,” said Iriarte.

Such a realistic snapshot from the distant past is eerie, in a way. Tens of thousands of years from now, what will people think of our civilization from the artifacts we leave behind? It really makes you wonder.

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