At the end of the last ice age, South America was home to strange animals that have since disappeared: giant ground sloths, elephant-like herbivores and an ancient line of horses. A new study suggests we can see these lost creatures in charming ocher paintings made by Ice Age humans on a rocky outcrop in the Colombian Amazon.
These dazzling exhibits of rock art at Serranía de la Lindosa, a site on the secluded banks of the Guayabero River, had long been known to the region’s indigenous peoples, but were virtually off-limits to researchers due to the Colombian Civil War. Recent expeditions led by José Iriarte, an archaeologist at the University of Exeter in England, have sparked renewed interest and heated debate about the interpretation of animals in paintings.
“All the biodiversity of the Amazon is painted there,” said Dr. Iriarte, both aquatic and terrestrial creatures and plants, as well as “animals that are very intriguing and appear to be large mammals of the era. glacial”.
Dr. Iriarte and his colleagues, who are part of a project study human arrival in South America, make the case that rock art represents Ice Age megafauna in a published study Monday in the Royal Society B’s journal Philosophical Transactions. But as the study itself acknowledges, the identification of extinct animals in rock art is highly controversial – and the La Lindosa site is no exception.
Ekkehart Malotki, professor emeritus of languages at Northern Arizona University who published research about petroglyphs that depict extinct megafauna, called the team’s claims “wishful thinking” in an email. According to him, the interpretation of the ice age is the result of an “ocular” approach which guesses the nature of the paintings.
Fernando Urbina and Jorge Peña, archaeologists at the Universidad Nacional de Colombia, also pushed back the glacial origin of the paintings. The team disputed in 2016 that many scenes at La Lindosa could depict animals introduced by Europeans, making them only a few centuries old. Dr Malotki also suggested that the exceptional preservation of the rock art, despite its exposure to the elements, hinted at a younger origin.
Those disputes could be resolved later this year when age estimates for the paintings are refined, Dr Urbina said in an email.
One of La Lindosa’s most evocative images depicts a stocky animal with a small offspring in tow. Dr. Iriarte’s team believe these figures represent an adult giant ground sloth and its cub, noting its idiosyncratic frame and claws.
“This animal is very different from thousands of other paintings in terms of its prevalence and anatomical representation,” said Michael Ziegler, a doctoral student at the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History and co-author of the new study, adding that this painting offers potential evidence for interactions between Ice Age megafauna and humans.
Researchers have also identified other possible extinct species in the paintings, including relatives of elephants, camels, horses and strange hoofed mammals in the Litopterna family.
Where Dr. Iriarte’s team sees potential giant ground sloths and Pleistocene horses, Dr. Urbina and Dr. Peña see modern capybaras and horses. Dr Malotki said the painting Dr Iriarte’s team believed to be possible relatives of elephants, known as gomphotheres, bore “absolutely no resemblance” to the extinct animals.
Dr. Iriarte and his colleagues counter these criticisms by pointing to archaeological and paleontological evidence that humans coexisted with some of these Ice Age megafauna before their extinction. They also note that ocher has been found in sediments deposited at La Lindosa at the end of the Ice Age, suggesting that the rock art could be just as old.
“We’re pretty sure they were painting very early on,” Dr. Iriarte said.
Extinct megafauna have already been identified in rock art from other parts of the world, but the burden of proof is exceptionally high.
“The interpretation of rock art images is always subject to debate, especially when it is claimed that extinct animals have been depicted,” said Paul Tacon, professor of archeology and anthropology at Griffith University. in Australia, in an email.
“In this case, there is a strong argument using multiple lines of evidence to support the claim that some surviving paintings from the Colombian Amazon are extinct megafauna from the late Pleistocene or early Holocene,” said he added. “The next challenge is to scientifically date the paintings to support or refute this claim.”
If these efforts end up supporting a glacial origin, La Lindosa’s paintings could capture a rare and fleeting glimpse of animals doomed to oblivion, opening an ominous window into lost ecosystems of the past and the people who inhabited them. Although the art is much younger, it will help scholars understand the cultures that thrived in this lush wilderness.
“In Serranìa de la Lindosa, the people who made the paintings depicted things important to them that would certainly have been associated with stories, knowledge sharing and aspects of domestic and spiritual life,” said Dr Tacon .