Archaeologists on the ERC project LASTJOURNEY have discovered spectacular rock pictographs in three separate rock shelters in the Guaviare Department of Colombia. The drawings, made around 12,600 and 11,800 years ago, provide proof the Amazon rainforest’s earliest inhabitants lived alongside now-extinct Ice Age animals such as giant sloths and mastodons.
“These really are incredible images, produced by the earliest people to live in western Amazonia,” said Dr. Mark Robinson, an archaeologist in the Department of Archaeology at the University of Exeter.
“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 recognize today.”
“The paintings give a vivid and exciting glimpse in to the lives of these communities,” he said.
“It is unbelievable to us today to think they lived among, and hunted, giant herbivores, some which were the size of a small car.”
Dr. Robinson and his colleagues from the LASTJOURNEY project found the ancient paintings in three rock shelters at Cerro Azul, Limoncillos and Cerro Montoya archaeological sites in the Serranía La Lindosa, on the northern edge of the Colombian Amazon.
The vibrant red pictures were drawn using mineral pigments, in particular ochre, which provides them with their characteristic reddish-terracotta color.
They were produced over a period of hundreds, or possibly thousands, of years.
The most abundant motifs recorded by the team are anthropomorphic, zoomorphic, and geometric and plant themes.
Many of them depict hunting and ritual scenes, showing humans interacting with plants, forest and savannah animals.
Among the most abundant zoomorphic figures are deer, tapirs, alligators, bats, monkeys, turtles, serpents, and porcupines, among many others.
Importantly, the rock paintings depict what appear to be extinct Ice Age megafauna.
They include images that appear to resemble giant sloth, mastodon, camelids, horses, and three-toe ungulates with trunks.
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 Cerro Azul, Limoncillos and Cerro Montoya rock shelters are far from modern settlements and trails, but were known to some local communities, who helped the researchers explore them.
“These rock paintings are spectacular evidence of how humans reconstructed the land, and how they hunted, farmed and fished,” said Professor José Iriarte, also from the Department of Archaeology at the University of Exeter.
“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.”
The discovery is described in a paper published in the journal Quaternary International.
Gaspar Morcote-Ríos et al. Colonisation and early peopling of the Colombian Amazon during the Late Pleistocene and the Early Holocene: New evidence from La Serranía La Lindosa. Quaternary International, published online April 29, 2020; doi: 10.1016/j.quaint.2020.04.026
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