Mysterious rock art in Venezuela hints at little-known ancient culture

Pictograms and petroglyphs depicting abstract lines and shapes offer a rare glimpse into the culture of people who lived in South America thousands of years ago.

An archaeologist has tracked down more than 20 rock art sites in south-eastern Venezuela decorated with evocative geometric designs that may date back several thousand years. The pictograms and petroglyphs offer a rare glimpse into the culture of people who lived in the forested highlands that now make up Canaima National Park, long before the arrival of Europeans.

Pictograms from Upuigma-tepui rock shelter in Canaima National Park, Venezuela

José Miguel Pérez-Gómez of Simón Bolívar University in Caracas, Venezuela, has collaborated for years with the Indigenous Pemón community to document the remote art, which he says belongs to a cultural tradition that is unknown outside these communities. He unveiled pictures and early findings about the sites on 27 June at New Worlds New Ideas, a rock art conference in Valcamonica, Italy.

“We’re facing something totally new, something unpublished, something that has never been studied,” says Pérez-Gómez. “We’re just starting, but it’s very interesting because this is filling a gap in the region. Nobody ever thought Venezuela, in this part, had such a rich culture.”

Breathtaking landmarks like Angel Falls, the tallest uninterrupted waterfall, attract tourists to Canaima, but most of the expansive park is isolated and accessible only by foot. By partnering with the Pemón, Pérez-Gómez was able to locate rock art that had been painted on secluded cliffsides or carved into rock above river rapids.

Angel Falls is the world’s tallest uninterrupted waterfall

The rock art hasn’t been formally dated, but Pérez-Gómez estimates that it ranges from 4000 to 7000 years old based on comparisons with similar motifs that have been dated in neighbouring countries, including Brazil and Colombia. He is planning further expeditions to the sites to perform scientific analysis of the art, including stratigraphic analysis and radiocarbon dating, which would help put a timeline on the images.

The depictions include shapes, lines, dots and patterns that look like nets, braids or mountaintops. The meaning of these abstract designs to the people who made them remains a mystery.

“For archaeologists, it’s very difficult to get into the mind of people that lived 4000 years ago,” says Pérez-Gómez. Still, he adds, “for these people, these places meant something. It helped them to explain their reality, and their connection with the landscape. It was a portal for them to connect with the supernatural worlds, connecting, perhaps, to other people and their loved ones.”

The Pemón people who helped him locate the art don’t recognise it as part of their own culture, which has only been present in the region for about 500 years, says Pérez-Gómez. “The people that know about these places consider them taboo,” he says. “For them, it was made for an evil spirit.”

Ariwe-meru petroglyphs

Andrés Troncoso at the University of Chile in Santiago, who wasn’t involved with the research, says the rock art sites “clearly show a deep history of human-landscape relations in this scarcely known area”.

“From a broad perspective, each new rock art discovery in the northern section of the Amazonian basin is relevant to our understanding of ancient communities and art because our knowledge of those manifestations is still scarce,” says Troncoso. “So, this research clearly fills a blank space and provides new data to better understand this region’s pre-Hispanic history.”

Given the rarity and significance of the rock art, Pérez-Gómez is advocating for it to be granted heritage protections by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). Some of the sites are being eroded by weather and insects, putting them at risk of fading away before they can be catalogued and studied.

“We would like to move forward with all this research in order to declare these rock art manifestations as cultural heritage for humanity, because this will be the best way to protect them and preserve them,” says Pérez-Gómez.

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