Archaeologists uncover “Sistine Chapel of the ancients” in Amazonian rainforest

Tens of thousands of prehistoric drawings have been discovered in the Amazonian rainforest. Spanning an eight-mile cliff face, the collection is one of the largest discoveries of rock art in the world.   

Archaeologists have since dubbed the site in Chiribiquete National Park, Colombia as the “Sistine Chapel of the ancients”. Dating from 12,500 years ago, the red chalk artworks were made by some of the very first humans ever to reach the Amazon.  

Professor José Iriarte, lead the British-Colombian team of archaeologists that made the discovery. “It’s interesting to see that many of these large animals appear surrounded by small men with their arms raised, almost worshipping these animals,” remarked Iriarte about the rock art. “For Amazonian people, non-humans like animals and plants have souls, and they communicate and engage with people in cooperative or hostile ways through the rituals and shamanic practices that we see depicted in the rock art.”   

There are also depictions of fish, turtles, lizards and birds, as well as people dancing and holding hands, handprints and abstract patterns. Dating the artwork was based on the presence of now-extinct animals, such as the mastodon, a relative of the elephant that last roamed South America over 12,000 years ago.  

The breathtaking discovery has been kept secret since 2019 whilst it was being filmed for a major Channel 4 series ‘Jungle Mystery: Lost Kingdoms of the Amazon’ to be screened in December. Some drawings are at such a height that camera crews had to use drones to view them. 

I don’t think people realise that the Amazon has shifted in the way it looks. It hasn’t always been this rainforest,” explained Ella Al-Shamahi, an explorer and paleoanthropologist who presents the series. “When you look at a horse or mastodon in these paintings, of course they weren’t going to live in a forest. They’re too big. Not only are they giving clues about when they were painted by some of the earliest people – that in itself is just mind-boggling – but they are also giving clues about what this very spot might have looked like: more savannah-like.” 

Despite their perilous and inaccessible location, the drawings can now provide a fascinating glimpse into a once lost civilisation and the ways in which our environment has changed. Reflecting on the discovery, Professor Iriarte marvelled “when you’re there, your emotions flow…it’s going to take generations to record them. Every turn you do, it’s a new wall of paintings.”  

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