Documentation of the world’s largest prehistoric petroglyphs in South America – new study

<spanklasse=Enhanced image of monumental rock art at Cerro Pintado, Venezuela. Philip Riris, Author specified” src=”–/YXBwaWQ9aGlnaGxhbmRlcjt3PTk2MDtoPTU1Mg–/ d169ce0f21c8d00bc188″ data-src= “–/YXBwaWQ9aGlnaGxhbmRlcjt3PTk2MDtoPTU1Mg–/ f21c8d00bc188″/>

Enhanced image of monumental rock art at Cerro Pintado, Venezuela. Filip Riris, Author provided

We were not the first to see the carving, as it was carved into the hill several centuries or millennia ago, not by a long shot. Venezuelan archaeologist José Maria Cruxent even recorded it in his diaries in the 1940s – and there were certainly visitors before him.

The site of Cerro Pintado (Painted Hill), in the Venezuelan state of Amazonas, is a local landmark and a well-known part of the route of those traveling the Middle Orinoco River.

But seeing the gigantic snake carved high into the hill immediately aroused both our sense of wonder and our scientific curiosity. Why a snake? Why did its creators climb a towering granite hill to place it there? What about all the other carvings that revolve around it – what do they mean?

All these questions and more swirled through our little group as we stood, sticky and mosquito-bitten, in the savannah at the foot of the hill. Its unique status made it all the more intriguing.

Although there are other examples of gigantic prehistoric petroglyphs in other parts of the world, these appear to be the largest. While, as mentioned, some were already known to archaeologists, our team documented others, also across the border in Colombia.

The results show a high concentration of these monumental carvings in the region. The subjects of these symbolic works include snakes, people and centipedes. The animals probably played an important role in the mythologies of the people who created them. The results have been published in the journal Antiquity.

New sites to explore

During our visit to Cerro Pintado in 2015, we assumed the enormous 42-meter-long snake carving (probably depicting a boa or anaconda, native to the region) was in splendid isolation. Previous scholars have noted that many rock shelters in the surrounding savannah housed prehistoric paintings, and we had already seen many carvings near our digs.

Although often numerous or quite large, none of these sites shared the truly monumental scale of the Cerro Pintado carvings. Its apparent uniqueness prompted us to dutifully return with a drone to secure better images of the extremely inaccessible panel. Even during the first stint in the field, however, we suspected that there was more to discover about the region’s rock art.

Our guide, Juan Carlos García, a local educator and photographer, had traveled extensively in the area and had many insights to share. As he surveyed the islands that separate the placid middle reaches of the Orinoco River from its turbulent upper reaches, he pointed to the Colombian shore and told us bluntly, “See that hill? Behind it is another snake, as big as Pintado.’

The possibility of another snake was more than tempting for us. Did it also have a series of accompanying motifs? Was it really that big and visible from far away? The lack of scientific permits in Colombia, or the time to look for a new location even if we did have permits, left these questions unanswered. After four campaigns in Venezuela, our fieldwork funding ended in 2017 and Cerro Pintado remained, as far as archaeology is concerned, a sole site.

Fortunately, the project’s lead researcher, José Oliver, from the UCL Institute of Archaeology, has secured the funds to return in 2018 to investigate the Colombian side. The results of careful systematic investigations were shared among the team in a flurry of excited text messages and emails. , confirming that there was not just one snake left, but several. They were also comparable in size to Pintado and clearly related, but each with their own twist.

The project’s PhD student, Natalia Lozada Mendieta, from Universidad de Los Andes, Colombia, now an assistant professor, also returned in 2021 and 2022 to find more snakes. Ultimately, the entire original team reunited in the field in 2023. Together, and with the help of local guides, we have collected a database of 13 enormous petroglyphs with more than 150 individual carvings among them.

Striking motifs

For us, the snakes were the most striking motifs, although giant centipedes, dancing or playing people, and mysterious geometric shapes with unknown intentions do not fail to impress. Although not unique as previously thought, Cerro Pintado is now joined by a constellation of related sites – a true tradition of monumental petroglyphs.

Very large prehistoric petroglyphs, the scientific term for petroglyphs, are not unknown. Whales and elk are depicted in Norwegian Stone Age art, and near life-size giraffes and camels are known from Niger and Saudi Arabia respectively.

Highly visible or striking petroglyphs such as these are often believed to convey important ideas or concepts. Although their exact meaning has been lost, their impact can be felt through their physicality, that is, through their size and placement.

In our cases, we are fortunate to note repeating themes in the indigenous cosmologies of northern South America that point to giant serpents as the creators and protectors of rivers – including the great ‘river’ in the sky, the Milky Way. Yet they are also threatening, predatory and deadly.

This information enriches our understanding of the archaeological record. The snakes were meant to be seen from some distance and reflected a shared understanding of the world and its inhabitants. What marks the Central Orinoco as a unique hotspot, we argue, is the sheer concentration of these enormous works of pre-Columbian art.

They appear to be the largest in the world and speak to a contested but openly communicative cultural landscape during the pre-Columbian period that we are only beginning to understand.

More importantly, as regional tourism grows year after year, the areas require increasing protection, an activity in which indigenous people should have a leading voice. There are undoubtedly dozens of other sites in this unique monumental tradition that you can encounter, record and hopefully preserve.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

The conversation

The conversation

Fieldwork, data collection and analysis were funded by a Leverhulme Trust Research Grant (RPG-234-2014). Philip Riris received funding from a British Academy Postdoctoral Fellowship (PF2\180065) and the Society of Antiquaries Research Grant. It is currently funded by the AHRC (AH/X002217/1).

Fieldwork, data collection and analysis were funded by a Leverhulme Trust Research Grant (RPG-234-2014). José Oliver received funding from the Fundación de Investigaciones Arqueológicas Nacionales-Colombia (FIAN-Proyecto 505, 2018).

Natalia Lozada Mendieta received funding from the Centro de Creacion e Investigacion de la Facultad de Artes y Humanidades de la Universidad de Los Andes.

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