The ‘Sistine Chapel Of The Ancients’: Magnificent Cliff Drawings Revealed In Colombia

Published: Oct 24, 2023

The Amazon rainforest is known to hold major historical artifacts, and recently, archeologists made an exciting discovery; tens of thousands of ice age paintings. Known as “the Sistine Chapel of the ancients,” the paintings of animals and humans are said to have been created about 12,500 years ago.

The Colombian site is a treasure trove for explorers, archaeologists, and Amazonian history enthusiasts, as it depicts life as it was back in the day, giving us a glimpse into their way of life, animals, and plants.

Spans A Vast Area

The artworks are splattered along massive cliff faces that stretch about 8 miles (12 kilometers) in Colombia and are one of the world’s largest prehistoric rock art collections. That is one massive ancient canvas that has been preserved for centuries, and now we have a chance to know all about the Amazonians during the ice-age era.

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That is the length of about 140 football fields; that is how massive the area with the paintings is. No wonder the Sistine Chapel of the ancients is one of the most extensive rock arts on the planet.

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They Were Created A Long Time Ago

To know the estimated time that the stunning paintings were created, archaeologists examined some artworks depicting the ice age animals that are now extinct. There’s an illustration of the mastodon, an ancient relative of the elephant that roamed South America 12,000 years ago.

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Apart from that, there are also depictions of ice-age horses, gigantic sloths, palaeolama, and a camelid, which is also extinct. From the descriptions, the team was able to ascertain the time the drawings were made, and the fact that they’re still intact is mind-boggling.

One Massive Canvas From the Ancient Days

With the artworks stretching over 8 miles, it’s surprising how the communities managed to take on such a monumental task. All these flora and fauna from the ice age were seen and painted by the humans who transversed the Amazon at the time, and such is the vastness of the paintings will take generations to study thoroughly.

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That is one massive canvas from the ancient days if you ask us, and we bet we’ll learn more about that particular civilization as years go by.

The Discovery Was Kept Secret

While many archaeological discoveries are usually made public, the “the Sistine Chapel of the ancients” was kept away from the public. The site was discovered in 2019, but it wasn’t until 2020 that the world was informed of the ancient paintings.

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The images give a glimpse into a lost civilization, and they were kept secret because of a documentary production that was going on. The discovery was filmed for a Channel 4 series, Jungle Mystery: Lost Kingdoms of the Amazon.

It Doesn't Have A Name Yet

Located in Serranía de la Lindosa, the site is among the newest archaeological sites, including one at Chiribiquete national park, where more ancient rock art had been found. So you’d think that the site was immediately named, but interestingly that wasn’t the case.

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According to the documentary presenter Ella Al-Shamahi, an explorer and archaeologist, “The new site is so new, they haven’t even given it a name yet.” The presenter revealed this information during an interview with the Observer.

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Exciting, Spectacular Images

The discovery of prehistoric depictions of the ancient civilization is an exciting prospect, and Ella confirmed it in the interview, as mentioned earlier. The presenter spoke of the thrill of seeing the images that were created thousands of years ago.

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Going by the enormity of the artwork, it’s no doubt the team was over the moon when they found the site that holds secrets from the Amazonian ice-age communities. Considering that they vary in shape and form, we bet the area is one to behold.

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The Discovery Team

One does not just stumble upon such a site; you must be an explorer or archaeologist to get to some of these places. So you could be wondering, who made this monumental discovery? The finding was made by a team of Britons and Colombians, led by José Iriarte, an expert on Amazon and pre-Colombian history and a professor of archaeology at Exeter University.

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That is the team that made the significant discovery that will ultimately change what we know about the history of the Amazonians and the ice age as a whole.

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There Was Donor Funding

The team needed substantial financial and resource backing to make it possible to undertake a discovery of such magnitude. Luckily for them, the European Research Council had their backs, and they fully funded the operation.

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That made it easier for Iriarte and his team to head to Colombia and take on the Amazon rainforest in a bid to uncover the paintings. Without a doubt, the expedition would not have been possible without the financial backing of the research council.

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An Unexpected Catalog

According to José, the site is a sight to behold, commenting, “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.”

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With tens of thousands of paintings plastered over the cliff walls, it’s not surprising that recording all of them is a task that will span generations to come. Yet, we bet that is a task archaeologists will be willing to undertake.

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Extremely Detailed Drawings

The professor was also mesmerized by the level of detail in the drawings, which were so clear, to a point where one can exactly tell the animal painted. While the animals are now extinct, José reiterated that an image of the ice age horse was “so detailed, we can even see the horse hair. It’s fascinating.”

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That’s a feature that many ancient drawings miss, as over the years, depending on the location and the wear and tear, details get eroded as time goes by.

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Different Themes

What makes “the Sistine Chapel of the ancients” stand out isn’t just the vastness of the paintings but also its detailed contents. While many archaeological sites have a dedicated theme, this site is a bit different regarding what has been painted on the rocks.

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The reason it will take generations to study the paintings exhaustively isn’t just because of how big the site is but also the vast number of different illustrations painted on the rocks.

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A Myriad Of Subjects

Considering the level of detail in the paintings, it’s hard to argue that the people who drew them knew what they were doing. They ensured that all bases about their lives, from their living conditions to the animals and plants they had, were all covered.

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The illustrations are as diverse as possible, including images of turtles, fish, birds, and lizards, people dancing and holding hands, and other settings from that civilization. One of the standout pieces is that of a figure wearing a mask that looks like a bird with a beak.

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It's located In A Remote Place

We can agree that most archaeological sites aren’t located in urban or easily accessible areas; that’s why they are “discovered,” and the Amazonian rock paintings are no different. Nonetheless, the site takes a hazardous journey to reach and involves hiking.

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To get to the site, a team of filmmakers and archaeologists drove for two hours from San José del Guaviare before embarking on a four-hour trek. The journey was undoubtedly a test of their resilience, and they passed with flying colors.

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A Lot Of Dangers To Maneuver

While the site is quite far from any urban area, the numerous dangerous animals in the region make the journey even more treacherous to accomplish. The documentary presenter Al-Shamahi mulled, “Caimans are everywhere, and we did keep our wits about us with snakes.”

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The team had to deal with their fair share of snake encounters, including evading a massive bushmaster that was blocking their way. The snake has an 80% mortality rate and is the deadliest in the Americas.

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The Region Was Off-limits

As the documentary rightfully acknowledges, Colombia is a country that is split by a war between the government and the FARC guerrillas that raged for 50 years, and the only thing keeping the two factions together is an uneasy ceasefire.

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As such, getting to the site requires careful negotiation to access safely, and until recently, the territory where the paintings were found was totally off-limits. As a result, no one was allowed to go there as much as they wished.

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Quite A Hostile Territory

Getting into the Farc territory is something many people have not been able to do successfully, and it was a massive achievement for José Iriarte and his team. It takes a lot of courage to venture into hostile regions, and we’re glad they did, as they discovered the largest prehistoric rock art in the world.

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Ella, the presenter, commented, “Exploration is not over. Scientific discovery is not over, but the big discoveries now are going to be found in places that are disputed or hostile.”

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Varying Paintings Sizes

To say “the Sistine Chapel of the ancients” paintings are a marvel is an understatement. All the images drawn vary in size, and there are countless handprints, with most of the illustrations from animals to geometric shapes in that scale.

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The varying scale and types of the images show how innovative the creators of the paintings were, shedding more light on their lifestyles and the environment they were in at the time.

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Unexpected Heights

While some are small, other paintings are much bigger than the rest. The sizes aside, some of the drawings are so high that the only way to view them is by using drones. Al-Shamahi was surprised by how high some of the pictures were, claiming, “I’m 5ft 10in, and I would be breaking my neck looking up. How were they scaling those walls?”

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Considering there were presumably no ladders at the time, archaeologists have often wondered how the communities got to the top.

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The Height Conundrum

Yet, while it is indeed a wonder how the creators of the paintings scaled the rock walls, there seems to be an answer within the images themselves. According to Iriarte, he believes that the depictions of wooden towers, complete with figures appearing to be bungee jumping from them, are the way they accessed the high walls.

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While all the team can do is speculate, more details will undoubtedly come to light as they continue to study the paintings. Whether the people then actually built wooden towers to access the walls is accurate; we have to admit the possibility is stunning.

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The Painting's Purpose

Most of the archaeological artworks found have been speculated to serve a particular purpose, depending on the history of the people and the actual drawings. The ones in the Sistine Chapel are no different, and Iriarte, the paintings might have a sacred purpose going by some depictions they found.

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The team leader commented, “It’s interesting to see that many of these large animals appear surrounded by small men with their arms raised, almost worshipping these animals.” The research team also found the pieces of ochre that they used to make the reddish terracotta color found in the paintings.

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Trees Feature Heavily In The Paintings

Iriarte also noted something peculiar about the paintings; trees and hallucinogenic plants featured heavily in the illustrations, and it’s for a good reason. According to the expert, “For Amazonian people, non-humans like animals and plants have souls, and they communicate and engage with people in cooperative or hostile ways through the rituals and shamanic practices that we see depicted in the rock art.”

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That is one distinctive way the people who drew the paintings expressed their beliefs, and it’s pretty fascinating, to say the least.

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Ice-Age Plants and Animals

Like every other place in the world, the Amazon has also shifted, and according to Al-Shamani, it wasn’t always a forest. The presenter added, “It hasn’t always been this rainforest. When you look at a horse or mastodon in these paintings, of course, they weren’t going to live in a forest. 

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They’re too big. Not only are they giving clues about when they were painted by some of the earliest people – that in itself is just mind-boggling – but they are also giving clues about what this very spot might have looked like: more savannah-like.”

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Artists Were The First Humans There

It is believed that the people who created the images were among the first humans to dwell in the western Amazon. Archaeologists estimate that at the time, the area was changing from a landscape full of forests, thorny scrubs, and savannahs into the tropical rainforest that we have today.

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To get the best surface for painting, the prehistoric artists were particular about the smoothness of their ‘canvas,’ and as such, they went for the smoothest rock walls that were shielded from the rain.

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More Paintings To Be Found

At the time of the discovery and filming of the Jungle Mystery: Lost Kingdoms of the Amazon documentary, COVID-19 was ravaging the world, so the team didn’t get to explore as much as they would have wanted. Yet, as per Al-Shamani, as soon as the pandemic dissipated, they had plans to go back to the site and explore to see how much more paintings they could uncover.

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Safe to say, there is a lot more than the Sistine Chapel of the ancients holds, and we cannot wait to see what the British-Colombian team discovers.

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The Site Might Be Opened To The Public

Due to its importance in history, the Colombian government declared the Serrania La Lindosa a protected archaeological site. With that announcement, there is some hope that the site will be open to the public so everyone can experience the ancient artwork.

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The idea that the public can access the site is helped by the fact that the rocks are a natural open-air gallery that the visitors’ breath and sweat cannot ruin.

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