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Art History

'Sistine Chapel of the Ancients': A Remote Area of the Amazon Boasts Tens of Thousands of Ice-Age Paintings

December 2, 2020

Grace Ebert

All images via Marie-Claire Thomas/Wild Blue Media/Channel 4

New photographs reveal an enormous collection of prehistoric art that spreads across a nearly eight-mile-long cliff within the Amazon rainforest. Now dubbed as the “Sistine Chapel of the ancients,” tens of thousands of paintings depict humans and animals like sloths, horses, and the now-extinct palaeolama and mastodon. The latter creatures haven’t occupied regions in South America for almost 12,000 years, which has provided the British-Colombian archaeology team with a timeline for the artworks’ origins.

The collection has been known to Colombians and Indigenous peoples for decades and now will be presented as part of a Channel 4 documentary titled Jungle Mystery: Lost Kingdoms of the Amazon, which airs this month. Archaeologist Ella Al-Shamahi, who is leading the television series, told The Guardian that the site, which is located in the Serranía de la Lindosa, required a two-hour drive from San José del Guaviare and an additional four-hour trek on foot to reach. “When we entered Farc territory, it was exactly as a few of us have been screaming about for a long time,” Al-Shamahi said. “Exploration is not over. Scientific discovery is not over but the big discoveries now are going to be found in places that are disputed or hostile,” noting that Colombia has been ravaged by civil war for decades.

Because of the breadth of the paintings—some are so high on the cliff that they only can be studied with drones—these researchers believe they will take generations to study. So far, though, they’ve found traces of ochre pigments, in addition to renderings of hallucinogenic plants and depictions of people who appear to be bungee jumping.

Update: This article originally framed the prehistoric art as a discovery, which was inaccurate considering Colombians and Indigenous peoples have known about and studied the area for decades. Patricio von Hildebrand, Thomas van der Hammen, and Carlos Castaño-Uribe have made significant contributions, in addition to researchers at the National University of Colombia and the University of Antioquia. We regret the error and erasure.