The mysterious secrets of the rock art of Guaviare

The mysterious secrets of the rock art of Guaviare

The ancient rock paintings of the Serranía La Lindosa in Guaviare department were declared a Protected Archaeological Area last month. This important initiative – carried out by the Colombian Institute of Anthropology and History, an arm of the Ministry of Culture – ensures greater protection for the various sites surrounding the departmental capital of San José del Guaviare, as well as allowing archaeologists and anthropologists further scope to study them. But what is the story behind these mysterious rock paintings – one of the greatest concentrations of rock art in the world – and who painted them?

The pictograms1 of the Guaviare region are spread out over several key sites dotted throughout the Serranía La Lindosa and the Guayabero River basin. Three of these sites are also accessible to visitors: Cerro Azul, Nuevo Tolima, and El Raudal. All three are located within a couple of hours of the urban centre of San José. Nuevo Tolima is probably the easiest to access, and it’s easy to combine a visit there with other Guaviare highlights such as the Ciudad de Piedra and Pozos Naturales swimming holes. Cerro Azul takes two hours to reach along a muddy, unpaved road, which can become almost impassable in a regular vehicle during the wet season, while El Raudal can be visited via a boat trip through the boulder-strewn canyons of the Guayabero River. 

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The exact age of these pictograms is open to debate, and numbers from anywhere between 1,000 and 10,000 years have been suggested. It has even been posited that similar paintings discovered on the walls of the isolated massifs of Chiribiquete National Park – which straddles the southern border of Guaviare and Caqueta departments – are as many as 20,000 years old. Unfortunately, carbon dating is impossible as the pictograms of Guaviare and Chiribiquete were painted with “mineral-based materials derived from iron oxide rather than the charcoal used in European rock art.”2

These materials are also the reason why the paintings seem so fresh and vivid, even after thousands of years in the heat and humidity of the jungle: these mineral-based iron oxide pigments – coupled with the skill involved in their preparation – apparently last much longer than charcoal based ones. And their creators weren’t stupid: the sites chosen for the art are large walls sheltered by overhanging cliff faces, offering further protection from rainfall.

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Something magical happens when you first experience the rock paintings of Guaviare; as you round the final corner on the hike up, scrambling along the ragged rock face, brushing aside vines and towering jungle ferns, and finally lay eyes upon the vast wall of blood-red images. You may have seen photos of the paintings, but nothing can quite prepare you for seeing them in person, drawn there thousands of years ago, staring back at you from the ancient past.

I remember well the first time I saw the art of Nuevo Tolima in 2016: I couldn’t believe the scale, how well-preserved the paintings were, and, above all, how vivid and alive they still seemed, so many millennia after they were first daubed upon the rock face.

You could stare at the painted walls of Nuevo Tolima, Cerro Azul, or El Raudal for hours and still not manage to properly inspect every single piece drawn there. The paintings also offer clues about their origins and age. One of the largest drawings on the walls of Cerro Azul seems to show a giant sloth, more than ten times the size of a line of human figures to its left.

It strongly resembles a species of the Megatherium genus of giant ground sloths – the size of elephants – which roamed the forests of South America from the Early Pliocene to the late Pleistocene. These giant sloths likely went extinct – due to the rapid expansion of human hunters – around 10,000 years ago3.

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Was this giant sloth painted up on the walls of Cerro Azul by someone who saw one with their own eyes, or drawn from inherited cultural memory; a giant creature of ancient legend, stories of which were passed down from generation to generation? Certainly, the exaggerated scale of several of the animals depicted at the various sites suggests origins of thousands of years. Whoever painted these evocative images achieved a realism and sense of place that you would struggle to find in most “sophisticated” modern art – there’s an immediacy to the pictograms, an exuberant and almost living quality, that makes them seem to speak from the ancient rock; voices from a forgotten past.

But it was the hands that struck me the most; hidden among the hundreds of images of animals and shapes are small handprints. Not that different from those paintings you used to make at pre-school by covering your hands in paint and pressing them against the paper, these handprints upon the stone seemed to me to possess greater power than the other drawings.

They are the most direct connection to their creators of any of the other paintings on those jungle hills – the hands of a forgotten Indigenous people literally pressed up against the rock face to create them. They are protected, so touching the paintings is forbidden, but it almost feels as if you could somehow summon the ghosts of the past by pressing your own hands to the shadows of theirs. I refrained from doing so, but have always been sorely tempted.

And maybe the ancestors of their creators are closer than we think: as I walked down from Nuevo Tolima in 2016, a family of Nukak-Makú people emerged from the jungle. The story of the displaced Nukak is a long and sad one4, and these people had left their temporary camps around San José del Guaviare to return to a nomadic lifestyle in the forest.

They spoke to me in a language I could never hope to understand, and I bought a handwoven bracelet from a lady with close-cropped hair, curious eyes, and a baby monkey on her shoulder. She delicately tied the threads of the bracelet, and when she was done I shook her hand. As I walked away, I glanced down at my hand to find it stained red – her hands were painted the same colour as the crimson handprints I had seen on the walls of Nuevo Tolima. How bittersweet that the paintings perhaps created by the Nukak’s ancestors have lasted for millennia, yet the Nukak themselves may be lost in my lifetime.

cerro azul guaviare colombia

There are also clues among the paintings as to the suffering of the local Indigenous people at the hands of European invaders during the era of the Spanish conquest. One of the walls of Cerro Azul features pictograms of war dogs surrounding a line of male figures with their hands raised in what seems like gestures of terror or supplication. 

These dog paintings allowed Fernando Urbina Rangel – who has spent over four decades studying Colombian rock art and has published several books on the subject – to propose that they were created in the first half of the 16th-century.5 In this period, a German explorer named Philipp von Hutten travelled in the region of the Guayabero River in search of the legendary city of El Dorado.

Drawings from this German expedition include war dogs, and it is likely that this would have been the first time that the Indigenous peoples of the region encountered such animals. These scenes of terrorized Indigenous people not only speak for the horrors visited upon native people by explorers and conquerors of the era, they also offer clues to the origins of the pictograms of Guaviare.

cerro azul guaviare colombia

The new protections afforded to the pictograms of the Guaviare region are positive news for archaeologists and anthropologists. And while it seems unlikely that we will know the exact identity of who painted these magnificent murals anytime soon, or indeed how long ago they were created, just knowing that these blood-red images are still out there in the jungle, painted there thousands of years ago by mysterious artists, is a comforting thought. I, for one, don’t need to know who painted these images on the walls of Cerro Azul, Nuevo Tolima, and El Raudal – just knowing that they survived to tell their ancient story is enough.


All images © Chris Bell, except image of Cerro Azul © Dave Groves 

Footnotes

  1. In the field of prehistoric art, the term ‘pictogram’ refers to art painted on rock surfaces, as opposed to ‘petroglyphs’ which are carved or incised
  2. Alberge D. (2015, June 20). ‘World’s most inaccessible art found in the heart of the Colombian jungle.’ Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/jun/20/colombia-wilderness-film-maker-prehistoric-rock-art
  3. For more information see https://www.britannica.com/animal/Megatherium
  4. See ‘Short Walks from Bogotá’ by Tom Feiling for a useful summary of the history and modern predicament of the Nukak
  5. Bermúdez-Liévano, A. (2018, January 2018). ‘Cave Paintings Are Giving This Colombian Town Life After Cocaine.’ Retrieved from https://www.vice.com/en_us/article/paqmm7/cave-paintings-are-giving-this-colombian-town-life-after-cocaine

Chris Bell has been exploring Colombia and writing about his experiences since he first moved to the country in 2011. He has travelled extensively throughout Colombia and has now visited all 32 of the country’s departments. When he’s not birding in the depths of the jungle (over 1000 species now!) or exploring little-known regions of Colombia, he can usually be found enjoying a cup of coffee at home in Manizales.

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