Giant sloths, ancient elephants and ungulates: Prehistoric rock art in the Amazon may represent extinct Ice Age animals, new study suggests

A masterpiece of prehistoric rock art in the Amazon, hailed by some as ‘the Sistine Chapel of the Ancients’, may depict extinct Ice Age mammals, offering fascinating insight into doomed species and their brief coexistence with humanity.

The eight-mile Cerro Azul rock art mural at Serranía de la Lindosa in Colombia’s Guaviare region, on the banks of the Guayabero River, has been the subject of recent expeditions led by José Iriarte, an archaeologist at the University of Exeter. Now the ocher paintings are the subject of debate, with experts trying to definitively date them and identify the animals.

It’s possible the stunning artwork is up to 12,000 years old and shows Ice Age megafauna, as supported by a study published this week in the journal Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B. (Archaeologists began studying the paintings in 2016, after a peace treaty brought stability to the region after years of civil war, and published their first findings in late 2020).

“[The paintings] have all the diversity of the Amazon. From turtles and fish to jaguars, monkeys and porcupines,” said Iriarte, the study’s lead author. CNN. He thinks that when prehistoric humans migrated to South America, “they encountered these large mammals and they probably painted them. And while we don’t have the final say, these paintings are very naturalistic and we can see the morphological characteristics of the animals.

Part of an eight-mile rock art mural in Colombia’s Serranía de la Lindosa, this image may depict an extinct giant ground sloth and its offspring. Mike Keesey’s designs offer artistic reconstructions inspired by a close living relative, the three-toed sloth, in the center, and an extinct species of bear, Arctotherium, at the bottom. Photo courtesy of José Iriarte.

As the last ice age drew to a close, South America is said to have been home to creatures that would have looked exotic to modern eyes, including giant ground sloths, elephant-like creatures called gomphotheres, extinct Pleistocene horses and hoofed mammals of Litopterna family.

In the Serranía de la Lindosa paintings, Iriarte points to a larger animal dragged by a smaller one, which he believes to be the adult giant ground sloth and its offspring.

But Iriarte’s findings are not universally accepted – the interpretation of art, after all, is always subjective.

Part of an eight-mile rock art mural in Colombia's Serranía de la Lindosa, this image may depict an extinct relative of the elephant known as Gomphothere.  A drawing by Mike Keesey provides an artistic reconstruction of the following features: 1. proboscis;  2. fingers;  3. flared ears?  ;  4. moderately domed head.  Photo courtesy of José Iriarte.

Part of an eight-mile rock art mural in Colombia’s Serranía de la Lindosa, this image may depict an extinct relative of the elephant known as Gomphothere. A drawing by Mike Keesey provides an artistic reconstruction of the following features: 1. proboscis; 2. fingers; 3. flared ears? ; 4. moderately domed head. Photo courtesy of José Iriarte.

Definitively identifying the figures as extinct megafauna is “wishful thinking” based on “the eye” alone, said Ekkehart Malotki, a professor emeritus at Northern Arizona University who has published similar research on ancient petroglyphs. . New York Times.

There is also still a question about the age of the paintings, especially given their extraordinary preservation, despite exposure to the elements.

As of 2016, Fernando Urbina and Jorge Peña, archaeologists at the Universidad Nacional de Colombia, argue that the murals may be only a few hundred years old. This would mean that they have nothing to do with the Ice Age and that the mammals in the paintings could be living animals, such as capybaras or modern horses introduced by Europeans.

Archaeologists hope the tests will provide a more definitive dating for the paintings later this year. These findings should prove instrumental in resolving the debate once and for all.

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