The rock art may be 12,500 years old
Courtesy of Jose Iriarte
An extensive collection of ancient rock art and archaeological remains found deep in the Colombian Amazon offers a rare glimpse into the lives of the earliest people to inhabit the region.
The images and remains suggest that people lived in the northern Amazon at the same time as now-extinct mega-mammals. They also show that the ancient humans had a varied diet, indicating that they adapted quickly to their new environment.
The as-yet unnamed site in the Serranía La Lindosa, a large, rocky outcrop in southern Colombia, was found by an international team of researchers investigating the Guaviare region. It is the earliest secure evidence of people in the Colombian Amazon, they say.
A wealth of Indigenous artwork has been documented across Guaviare, particularly in Chiribiquete National Park. The artwork documented at La Lindosa is new to science, and appears to be unknown even to local people, according to the researchers. It is remarkable in both its detail and its scale, the team says. The collage of images includes geometric patterns, handprints, people and animals. It stretches across approximately 5 kilometres of rock face, and could take decades to fully study.
The archaeological team – co-led by Francisco Javier Aceituno at the University of Antioquia, Colombia – was thrilled to find depictions of what appear to be now-extinct megafauna alongside more familiar fish, birds and lizards still alive today.
“We knew that megafauna was in the region and went extinct around 10 to 12,000 years before the present,” says José Iriarte at the University of Exeter, UK, and a member of the research team. If people were depicting them in their art, the humans must have been present in the region at least 12,500 years ago, he argues.
Iriarte says it is “quite clear” that a palaeolama, an extinct stumpy-legged, long-necked camelid, is depicted. Other drawings have been tentatively identified as giant sloths due to their unique proportions, and mastodons – ancient relatives of elephants – due to their trunks.
“The realism for South American standards is really impressive,” says Iriarte.
Others are less sure.
“The horses are clear,” says Hans ter Steege, an expert on Amazonian plant diversity at the Naturalis Biodiversity Center in the Netherlands, who wasn’t involved in the research. “But the palaeolama could be a poor representation of a deer to me.”
Further study will be made of the artwork to gain more certainty of the depictions and their age, say the researchers.
However, additional archaeological evidence makes clear that humans were present in the region 12,500 years ago. The researchers have excavated an area at the base of one section of rock face and uncovered evidence of ancient human activity in the form of processed animal bones. Some of the remains occur in layers of dirt containing charred palms that radiocarbon dating shows are about 12,500 years old. The 12,500-year-old layers also contain fragments of ochre similar to that used to draw the rock art.
Establishing the presence of humans during this period — in which megafauna roamed the region and the climate was warming — is significant, says Aceituno.
“The most important thing has been to obtain good radiocarbon dates to specify the early peopling of the area,” he says.
It shows that humans shared the region with immense beasts, but also helps paint a picture of how their world would have looked.
No megafauna remains have been found at the site, perhaps suggesting that humans didn’t hunt the animals or they were processed elsewhere. There were no remains of medium-sized animals like monkeys either, a staple food for Indigenous groups inhabiting the region today. “It could mean they had not developed blowgun technology at this stage to hunt prey in the treetops,” says Iriarte.
Around half the remains were fish — including piranhas — but diets were broad. Reptiles like iguanas and snakes were consumed as well as rodents like paca and capybara.
There is also evidence that various fruits were eaten. The diversity of animals and plants consumed suggests humans adapted quickly to the Amazon, says ter Steege.
Journal reference: Quaternary International, DOI: 10.1016/j.quaint.2020.04.026
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