Arts, Breaking News, Climate Change

What can Ancient rainforest rock art tell us about climate change?

Archaeologists have discovered tens of thousands of paintings of animals and humans in the Amazonian rainforest. The discovery was made by a British-Colombian team, funded by the European Research Council and led by Francisco Javier Aceituno of the Universidad de Antioquia, Gaspar Morcote-Rios of the Universidad Nacional de Colombia and José Iriarte, professor of archaeology at the University of Exeter. Iriarte is also a leading expert on the Amazon and pre-Columbian history.

The rock paintings, made about 12,000 years ago, are a ‘riot of ochre-coloured geometrical pattern, handprints, and images of animals and humans’. They feature images of now-extinct megafauna, such as the mastodon, a prehistoric relative of the elephant, the palaeolama, an extinct camelid, as well as giant sloths and ice age horses. It is the mastodon that gives the art its estimated date, as they haven’t roamed South America for 12,000 years.

The people who created these stunning works of art are believed to be among the earliest humans to reach and occupy the Amazon; these pictures give us a glimpse into the lives of a lost, ancient civilisation.

Iriarte commented on the discovery: “When you’re there, your emotions flow. […] We’re talking about several tens of thousands of paintings. It’s going to take generations to record them. […] Every turn you do, it’s a new wall of paintings.” He also said, “the pictures show how people would have lived amongst giant, now extinct, animals, which they hunted.”

Also discovered were stone tools, and animal and plant remains, which raised questions about humanity’s relationship with the environment. Evidence of useful plant species, including 10 species of palm, has led researchers to believe that these people were beginning to manage the forest, changing it rather than simply adapting to it. Communities were fertilising soil and clearing land for limited crop cultivation.

At the time, the Amazon was “still transforming into the tropical forest we recognise today,” and this was a time of “extreme climate change.” These incredible discoveries show us how humans shaped the environment around them, and how art was a powerful part of their culture.

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Nerisse Appleby

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October 2021
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