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When Claims of ‘Discoveries’ in the Amazon Ring False

When news broke worldwide of an incredible find in Colombia, local experts and guides say their knowledge was misrepresented

In the Colombian Amazon rainforest tucked in towering table-top mountains known as Tepuis, thousands of pictographs can be found in large-scale murals. The paintings are located in Guaviare, a southeastern region of Colombia where the Amazon rainforest meets the plains of Colombia and Venezuela. Two locations there have confirmed rock paintings in this area: the Serranía de La Lindosa and Chiribiquete National Park. Together, they comprise the biggest collection of rock paintings in the Americas, and they have extraordinary archeological and cultural value.

About a year ago, in April 2020, a group of Colombian and English researchers led by Gaspar Morcote-Ríos of the National University of Colombia published an article in the peer-reviewed journal Quaternary International, presenting the results of their archaeological research in Serranía de La Lindosa, a rock formation located 40 minutes from the city of San José de Guaviare. The team collected human and animal remains, charred seeds, and ochre fragments, the material used in the paintings. Using carbon-14 dating on some of the seeds, they were able to determine that the site was first settled between 11,800 and 12,600 years ago. Some of the pictographs located near their excavation site may even show depictions of extinct megafauna, the researchers hypothesized.

But later that year, the British television show “Jungle Mystery: Lost Kingdoms of the Amazon,” featured the Quaternary International paper and one of its authors as source material and asserted that the rock paintings were a new discovery. In an article from the Guardian about the show, paleoanthropologist Ella Al-Shamah, who hosts the show, claimed, “The new site is so new, they haven’t even given it a name yet.”

International media, including, admittedly, Smithsonian magazine, repeated the reporting from the Guardian, and many news outlets didn’t mention Colombian research, ignored decades of studies on the subject, and misrepresented the local community.

Colombian archeologists, anthropologists and locals were outraged.

“It’s a big lie. Of course, the site has a name, Cerro Azul,” says Don José Noe, who owns some land in the Serrania De La Lindosa. It is important to note that while murals at Chiribiquete National are within a park where no one can enter, so the fragile ecosystem and the uncontacted tribes can be protected; the murals in the Serrania de La Lindosa are all found in private property. The team excavated at the archeological sites of Cerro Azul, Limoncillos and Cerro Montoya, all located within the Serrania de La Lindosa. Per Noe, Cerro Azul is the name of a rock formation, archeological site and one of the murals located in the region.

Today outsiders (tourists and scientists) can access five of the murals: Cerro Azul, Cerro Montoya, Limoncillos, Nuevo Tolima and Raudal de Guayabero. The team was able to document and describe in their paper two more murals that are not open to the public. On Twitter, and through an email to Smithsonian magazine, Al-Shamahi clarified that the murals where the depictions of the hypothetical extinct megafauna can be found are different from the ones found in the tourist site of Cerro Azul, which contains other murals.

According to Julián Niño, local explorer and tour guide, locals have been aware of several murals in the region for years. He and other local explorers have explored and mapped at least 40 different murals in La Serrania de La Lindosa, including the ones open to outsiders and the ones described by the archeological team. As guides, they usher tourists and scientific expeditions to these murals.

“Locals have been visiting the murals for more than 60 years… I saw all the murals for the first time when I bought this terrain, 25 years ago,” Noe says. (All interviews were conducted in Spanish and translated by the author.)

“It makes me feel like we are still living in colonial times. The show and the articles in the media failed to recognize the existence of our community,” says Franf Garzón, director for Competitivity and Development for the city of San José del Guaviare. “For decades this community has been taking care of these murals.”

All members of the community interviewed for this story say the indigenous groups of the region have always known about the murals and recognize them as part of their cultural heritage. Chiribiquete—the name of the national park where the largest and oldest paintings can be found—means “hills where it is drawn” in Karijona, an indigenous group who speak a language that is part of the Cariban linguistic family. Karijona is on the verge of disappearing; according to the Colombian government, fewer than 400 people speak it.

The rock paintings at Serrania de La Lindosa have been studied for decades in Colombia. The most laughable description may be written by the Italian-Venezuelan cartographer Agustin Codazzi, who received reports and dismissed them as scribbles made by bored Spanish soldiers during the conquest, around 1530 to 1545.

In 1943, ethnobotanist Richard Evans Schultes was likely the first scientist to write about the murals and their significance for the indigenous communities. Schultes was very clear in his diaries that he didn’t discover the paintings, instead he credits his indigenous guide, a young Karijona individual. He was so impressed with the region that he called it “God’s workshop.”

The first photographic evidence of the murals in la Serrania de La Lindosa was taken by French explorer and writer Alain Gheebrant in 1949. Since the 1960s, at least a dozen expeditions have been organized by different academic or governmental institutions.

For study co-author Jeison Lenis Chaparro-Cárdenas, the team’s results related to the ancient seeds were overlooked, despite having exciting implications. Using carbon dating the team was able to confirm the human presence and transformation of the Amazon rainforest landscape for thousands of years.

“The disinformation in the media obscured the results of our research. We were able to confirm human presence in the region 12,000 years ago,” says Chaparro-Cárdenas, an archaeologist at Universidad Nacional de Colombia in Bogotá.

But human presence in the region for thousands of years does not mean the paintings are just as old, says Fernando Urbina, a retired researcher at Universidad Nacional de Colombia in Bogotá who was not involved in the paper.

Media headlines in December 2020 emphasized the depictions of extinct megafauna, such as giant sloths, mammoths and extinct horses, in the murals, which would have roamed the region thousands of years ago. However, the interpretations of the paintings are still being debated, and alternate analyses were not included in most press coverage. Urbina has studied the murals in Guaviare since the 1970s. He suggests the paintings depict tension and violence between the indigenous community and Spanish colonizers.

“I believe those are the horses of the Spanish conquistadores… Many murals depict ceremonies, dances, and myths,” Urbina says. “Some also might show the terror inflicted by the Europeans. In some murals, there are images of dogs attacking or eating humans.” (Dogs arrived in the region with Spanish colonizers.)

To support his theory, Urbina cites a letter by German explorer Phillip Von Hutten, who travelled the region 500 years ago. In the letter, dated October 20, 1535, Von Hutten to his father:

“On [July] 23rd [Pedro de] Cárdenas brought 30 indians that he found with the sword and among other things of the dead christian [a reference to Antonio Ceballlos Sabala, a conquistador who had disappeared days prior searching for slaves within the natives]. Some of them had witnessed his death. Then the governor ordered that they should be torn apart by the dogs, and then distributed the survivors among the christians.”

The archeological team discusses Urbina’s theories in their paper. They argue that in other examples of rock art in the Americas, the horses of the conquistadores are always depicted with a rider, but because the ones in La Serrania de La Lindosa do not have a rider, these horses could be from a different time.

Biologist and explorer Patricio Von Hilderbrand, who is now the scientific director at the nonprofit Fundación Puerto Rastrojo, lived in Chiribiquete National Park for ten years and explored the region extensively. He has observed several murals and also disagrees with the megafauna theory. Instead, Von Hilderbrand says the drawings show animals native to the rainforest.

“The animals that are depicted are the animals you can see in this region,” Von Hilderbrand says. For example, he thinks an image described as a giant sloth in the article really shows a capybara, an interpretation shared with Urbina.

The debate is an important process in the scientific process. After all, these are theories that need more evidence to be confirmed. Chaparro-Cárdenas has spoken with Urbina since his team’s study was published. “Thanks to the discussions with professor Urbina we can conclude that the pictographs are showing horses,” Chaparro-Cárdenas explains. “Now we need to do more research to figure out if they are extinct horses or the horses of the conquistadores.”

In La Serrania de La Lindosa, indigenous groups were decimated by the rubber bonanza and later displaced by drug-related violence, but in Chiribiquete and Nukak Nature Reserve, there are reports of uncontacted tribes that are still painting in the Tepuis. During his studies in the region, Urbina interviewed an indigenous individual that was recruited as a child by FARC, who when escaping the guerrilla saw an indigenous group speaking an unknown language and painting a gigantic deer in a tepui in Chiribiquete. Chaparro-Cárdenas, says a Karijona shaman told him, “those paintings are a book about our history, a story that is still being told.”

Attitudes and tensions between scientists and locals have changed since Schultes visited the region. Anthropologist Luis Cayón wrote in his 2013 book Pienso, luego creo. La teoría makuna del mundo:

“For many natives, Doctor Schulte was the first white men they ever saw… he was remembered as respectful man, he joined them in their ceremonies, didn’t laughed of their food, and didn’t chased women, a clear contrast to many of his contemporaries.”

Although he never gave much credit to his collaborators, they still remember him fondly, and some like Oscar Romualdo Román Jitdutjaaño (Enokakuiodo), became well-known experts of the flora of the rainforest.

Today, the community in La Lindosa has become apprehensive of scientists that “come, collect, and study to never return or share their results with us,” states Garzón. “How much credit have local guides received for taking scientists or the British television show crew to the murals?”

“Everyone is invested in the preservation of the murals and the conservation of the biodiversity of Guaviare, we want and need researchers that are willing to share their results, help our youth to learn their expertise… after all we are the guardians of this territory,” Garzón added.

Julián Niño, local explorer and tour guide, hopes the spotlight of the murals can bring “new prospects for environmental conservation and tourism in Guaviare, with new opportunities that will benefit the entire community.” Niño, like many other local guides, has assisted the work of many national and international scientists, often taking them to the sites they study, without any credit or recognition.

“People that come here to do research can involve the community more, empower us, teach us how to do research,” Niño says. “We want to participate in the exploration of our culture and our territory.”

Editor’s note, August 10, 2021: This story has been updated significantly to reflect differences of opinion on the newness of the archaeological site where the murals were found. We have also added additional clarifying information about the geography of the region and links to critiques of this story from the documentarian and journalist Ella Al-Shamahi.

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