The Great Wall of Amazonian Pictographs Nobody Knows About

The Serranía del Chiribiquete is a Colombian national park where more than 75,000 pictographs depict the earliest visual representations of pre-Columbian communities on the continent.

Jun 26, 2024By Juan Sebastián Gómez-García, MA Ethnochoreology and Anthropology of Dance

amazonian pictographs graet wall

 

In the northwestern part of the Colombian Amazon rainforest, situated on the Chiribiquete plateau, one of the most astonishing archaeological sites on the continent remained hidden for decades. Since its discovery, more than 75,000 pictographs have been identified along 60 rock shelters at the base of the tepuis, table-top mountain formations with remarkable biodiversity. The figures represent what is believed to be the most ancient pictorial representations in the continent’s history, corresponding to humankind’s first arrival in the region, dating back to the end of the Pleistocene, 20,000 BCE.

 

A Sacred Prehistoric Space

Photo of rock art by Jorge Mario Álvarez Arango, 2016. Source: UNESCO

 

The Serranía del Chiribiquete mountains are part of the Guiana Shield, a 1.7-billion-year-old geological formation home to the Amazon rainforest. The Serranía delineates the Shield’s border, with the Andes to the west and the Venezuelan-Colombian plains of the Orinoquía to the northeast.

 

One of the most impressive cultural aspects of the location is that, while the pictographs’ chronology appears to begin with the earliest human inhabitants in this geographical part of the Americas, the site continues to be occupied and venerated by five self-isolated indigenous communities protected by the park. They consider the Serranía del Chiribiquete an area of mythical importance, calling it the “Great Home of the Animals.”

 

Similar sites, such as the caves of Altamira and Lascaux in France, are often recognized as the richest archaeological pictograph sites. However, the vast number of elements identified on the walls of Chiribiquete, as well as its contemporary cultural significance to indigenous communities contribute to the site’s great archaeological value, as a surviving testament to the continent’s pre-historic heritage.

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Discovering the Pictographs and Uncovering Their History

Photo of rock art pictographs from Chiribiquete by an unknown photographer. Source: Condé Nast Traveler.

 

It is difficult to determine who first created these pictographs. It is believed that the earliest tribes with a cultural and mythological connection with the region were hunter-gatherers inhabiting the Serranía del Chiribiquete 24,000 years ago. Colombian archaeologist and philosopher Fernando Urbina suggests that the Caribes, an ethnic macro-family that includes several communities native to the pre-Columbian neotropical territory, were also present in the region during their expansion from the Guianas, between 1000 and 1500 CE.

 

The expansion of the Caribes ceased when the Spanish conquistadors invaded the Americas in the 16th century, searching the region for the legendary golden city of El Dorado. This conflict was depicted on the walls as well, registering another chapter of the local communities’ history. Representations of war against the Spanish have also been found on the walls, including depictions of horses and war dogs, which were not native to the region.

 

Photo of the Serranía del Chiribiquete by an unknown photographer, 2023. Source: Frankfurt Zoological Society.

 

In the 19th century, German botanist Carl Friedrich von Martius was the first to recognize the historical and ethnological implications of the region’s rock art and its connection with the local indigenous Caribe-related communities, or karijona. U.S. ethnobotanist Richard Evans Schultes described this community as the hombres-jaguar (jaguar men), still surviving alongside other ethnic communities in small protected areas in Colombia.

 

The pictographs were officially discovered, however, in 1987 by Colombian archaeologist Carlos Castaño, then director of the Colombian National Parks Authority. While flying from  San José del Guaviare to Araracuara, to an Amazonian national park to identify zones of deforestation, a storm hit, forcing him and his colleagues to change course. Fascinated by the local topography he was witnessing, he flew over the magnificent tepuis and two days later, he returned and discovered the high walls painted with different pictographs.

 

Despite his discovery, the internal armed conflict that affected the region afterward hampered further scientific research. However, the presence of guerillas and armed groups in the zone served as a de facto barrier against tourism and exploitative colonization, which helped preserve the archaeological location.

 

After the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia—Ejercito Popular (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia—People’s Army, or FARC-EP) and the Colombian government signed a peace agreement in 2016, the Serranía became more popular and caught the attention of biologists, archaeologists, and historians worldwide. Castaño affirms that the pictographs that have been researched so far, corresponding to the north and central parts of the Serranía, represent just 5% to 8% of the total amount, and advocates for preserving the rocks from the potential destruction caused by tourism in the region.

 

The Serranía del Chiribiquete as a World Heritage Site

Photo of Carlos Castaño in the Serranía del Chiribiquete by an unknown photographer. Source: El Heraldo.

 

Serranía del Chiribiquete is Colombia’s biggest national park, in a country known for being one of the most biodiverse in the world. The park is as large as the country of Denmark, and its natural diversity is the product of long-lasting natural and geographical isolation,  producing 20 identifiable ecosystems. The zone was recognized as a site of mixed cultural and natural heritage and declared a national park in 1989, which granted it special rights for the protection of biological and cultural diversity.

 

In 2018, Serranía del Chiribiquete was listed on UNESCO’s list of World Heritage sites as Chiribiquete National Park—“The Maloca of the Jaguar.” Maloca refers to the traditional houses where Amazonian indigenous communities live, whose design represents the architecture of the cosmos. As residential sites, malocas also function as spaces where culture and identity are reproduced. Within these communities, the jaguar is thought to possess sacred and mythical powers, attributed to it by local shamanism over the centuries. The site has also been given the name “Cerro donde se dibuja,” or “the drawing hill,” by the Karijona. This site of cultural heritage, in conjunction with the inclusion of the Traditional Knowledge of the Jaguar Shamans of Yuruparí on UNESCO’s list of Intangible Cultural Heritage Sites, has made the region one of the most prominent representatives of Amazonian culture and archaeology for the world.

 

Mythology of the Pictographs

Photo of Chiribiquete National Park by Jorge Mario Álvarez Arango, 2015. Source: UNESCO.

 

On the tepui called Cerro Azul, a pale white wall with hundreds of pictographs rises from the ground vegetation. These representations are considered the first pictographic expression of pre-historic Colombia and the continent. This wall is 20 meters (66 feet) high and 100 meters (330 feet) long, with pictographs showing anthropomorphic, zoomorphic, phytomorphic, and geometric images, including hunting, complex choreographed dancing, and ceremonies with a particular emphasis on the jaguar figure.

 

This imagery reflects a concrete system of beliefs that organizes the relationships between the cosmos, nature, and man. The pictographs vary among symbolic, figurative, and naturalist representations, showing rigorous reflection on the relationships between humans and animals, access to and interchange of power and energies through shamanic rites, and the hunter-warrior-jaguar relationship.

 

Photograph of one of the murals by Jota Arango, 2020. Source: J. Cardona Echeverri, Universidad de los Andes.

 

These representations suggest an animist way of thinking, attributing consciousness to objects and elements of nature. It also suggests a mythical link between the jaguar-man, the jaguar-shaman, and the sun-jaguar god, which is still alive among many communities in the Amazon rainforest. Their oral history records this site as the “Great Home of the Animals,” today a place scholars consider a milestone for the geographical expansion and historical development of Latin American shamanic thinking.

 

The absence of lithic tools or ceramics in the zone suggests that the site had no utilitarian or domestic use. Instead, it is believed it had a more limited, sacred purpose for shamanic activities and reflection. The images also reveal that communities were preoccupied with preserving the spiritual power of the relationship between humans and nature, by depicting shamanic-related figures and scenes where psychotropic plants are used.

 

The Historical, Cultural, and Natural Importance of the Serranía del Chiribiquete

Photograph of the pictographs in Serranía del Chiribiquete by Jonathan Acosta, 2020. Source: CanalTrece

 

The “Maloca of the Jaguar” emerges today as one of the continent’s most important cultural heritage sites. It weaves together historical, cultural, and natural threads that, although dating back to the end of the Pleistocene, have survived almost 20,000 years to the present. This sacred place and the symbolic significance of the pictographs depicted on its walls are highly appreciated by Colombian archaeologists and contemporary indigenous communities. The site’s resilience against time, natural degradation, war, and even sociopolitical armed conflict reveals it as a jewel of Colombian cultural and natural heritage for the world.

 

The pictographs illustrate how pre-Columbian communities’ shared system of beliefs and mythical figures intersected between the Amazon rainforest, the Andes, and the plains, persisting to the present day, specifically in the figures of the jaguar and shaman. The pictorial representations also demonstrate how both pre-Columbian and contemporary indigenous communities have been deeply reflecting on the ecological relationships between humankind and its surrounding nature, something post-industrial societies could learn from amid the ecological challenges of the 21st century.

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By Juan Sebastián Gómez-GarcíaMA Ethnochoreology and Anthropology of DanceJuan Sebastian Gomez-Garcia is a Colombian anthropologist holding an MA in Dance Knowledge, Practice and Heritage from an Erasmus Mundus program in France, Hungary, Norway, and the UK, where he investigated the bodily transformative power of queer nightlife in Berlin from kinesthetic and phenomenological approaches. Throughout his career as a scholar, he has been interested in the sociocultural aspects of bodily experiences, affects and movement experiences in contexts of political urgency and social change. Currently, he works as a contributing writer for art and culture magazines and as the guest editor of Conversations Across the Field of Dance Studies from the Dance Studies Association in the US.