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Colombia barely is aware of 1 % of its rupestrian art

This discovery led them to think that there could be a connection between distant indigenous communities and that there still needs to be a great exploration of the territory to try to understand the different settlement periods and also try to understand what happened with the cultural processes and developments before colonization.

UNal Geosciences doctoral candidate and researcher of the Indigenous Rupestrian Art Research Group (GIPRI, for its Spanish acronym), Judith Trujillo Téllez says there are hundreds of paintings and superimpositions of motives that could have been painted in different periods.  At the murals of La Lindosa, they discovered several figures of human hands in forms of spirals, which had already been seen since 1970 in the municipalities of Soacha and Sibaté (Province of Cundinamarca) and Ramiriquí and Tibaná (Province of Boyacá) in Colombia.

“The hands were not just imprints but paintings made with paintbrushes or similar tools in territories very far apart and made by apparently different ethnic groups, whose development stages are currently being investigated. Up to now, we do not know if there were cultural links between two distant communities or if they had trade exchanges. Possibly we are opening new research questions with links,” said Trujillo.

She says the possibility of having much more rupestrian art to be discovered in Colombia and thinks that current research is only around 1 % of the current archeological sites of the country, despite discovering paintings and other artistic expressions in the provinces of La Guajira, Guaviare, Guainía, Caquetá, Nariño, Cauca, Valle, Antioquia, Tolima, Huila, Santander, Boyacá, Arauca, Vichada, Vaupés, and Casanare, among others.

“In places where we do not have any evidence of rupestrian art is because there hasn’t been any study, research, or careful search. But we find them in almost every corner of Colombia, from the Province of La Guajira to the south. Maybe not in the Amazon, since there are no rocks there, or if there are they are covered by sediments,” she added.

Understanding to preserve

The researchers are not only concerned about what the paintings represent or the communities that made them but also to try to identify the risks that threaten the preservation of these sites. For this, it is necessary to research the substrate (the type of rock) over which the paintings were done and the components of the paint or the pigments used.

The researchers in charge of this analysis were the members of the Economic Geology and Applied Mineralogy Research Group (GEGEMA, for its Spanish acronym), directed by Professor Thomas Cramer, which has been part of several expeditions including to La Lindosa.

“Most of the rocks with rupestrian art are sandstone. In magma or metamorphic rocks, due to the lack of vertical walls, almost everything we discovered was petroglyphs. There are meteorized more easily and provide nutrients that are reflected in the black soil discovered. This increases the proof that many of these areas were inhabited and then abandoned”, said the professor.

In many of the archeological sites, professor Cramer and his co-researchers have discovered hatchets, ceramic pottery and other tools used to paint and carve rock, which could indicate that these communities already had mining activities and with important intellectual development.

“All this contradicts the belief that they were very primitive communities incapable of large- scale social-cultural interactions,” added the researcher.

The geology group has applied petrograph and stratigraphic techniques to research the rock support, use of geological maps, satellite photography, and geographic information systems to try to find other areas with rupestrian art. Using other techniques, such as X-Ray fluorescence or X-Ray diffraction they also identified the physical and chemical factors that may be influencing the deterioration of the paintings, such as water runoff, microorganisms, and efflorescences (fungi.)

Professor Cramer highlights that many of these analyses were carried out with portable equipment, not having to extract physical material from the rock murals. As Trujillo adds: “This is revolutionary in the country as a few years back, mineralogical analysis techniques had only been used in industrial settings and not in archeological research”.

These tests also showed that the composition of rupestrian paints is inorganic; or that they are mineral in source, which opened a whole to challenge.  “When there is organic material we can use Carbon-14 testing methods to become knowledgeable of the age, but being organic components, dating is much more complex,” said Trujillo.

Read more: Become cognizant of the marvels of the rupestrian art of the Province of Guaviare, appointed as a protected area (in Spanish)

Interpreting history

In three areas of the Serranía de La Lindosa (Raudal del Guayabero, Nuevo Tolima, and Cerro Azul) the researchers studied 13 murals, some of them more than 80 meters long and with heights up to 10 meters of human, animal, and abstract figures. Among the animals are mammals, rodents, birds, and snakes. The human figures are people dancing, hunting, or fishing and many of them are superimposed traces.

GIPRI Director Guillermo Muñoz, says these structures do not seem to be simple ornaments but tessellations (covering of a plane using one or more geometric shapes, called tiles, without any overlapping or gaps).

“The themes can only be interpreted when we have the rebuilding of all its composition, where we can determine the possible links between the figures and their spatial conditions. Any attempt to unravel any reason is a futile exercise of free association, which does not take into account the thematic unit where it is intentionally inserted by pre-Columbian authors,” he said.

Research directed by Trujillo to analyze the pigments used at the Tierradentro Park (Province of Cauca) shows that some of these geometric and decorative forms are also present there.

Muñoz and Cramer coincide that these forms, the presence of human figures and elements such as suns and stars, suggest there was a certain degree of refining in these communities; in other words, it wasn’t just Indians “with a lot of time on their hands than just painted walls” but they were artistic expressions, tool designing and pigment making that required a lot of work.

“La Lindosa has surprised me for its size and diversity, inclusively after observing almost 50 years of rupestrian art in many parts of the country,” said Muñoz.

The three scientists said that the main challenge is to obtain funding for their research to be more continuous so they can create links of trust among neighboring communities.

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