Petroglyphs depicting Ice Age giants prove that humans settled in the Amazon 12,600 years ago

A new analysis of human activities at two prehistoric sites in the Colombian Amazon has revealed that humans were already well established in the region about 13,000 years ago. By studying soil layers, researchers were able to piece together the long-term history of both settlements, suggesting that ancient inhabitants began producing rock art more than 10,000 years ago and eventually began farming some eight millennia later.

“The ‘population’ of South America represents one of the great migrations of human history – but their arrival in the Amazon biome remains little understood,” study author Mark Robinson explained in a statement. “However, our recent excavations help fill this gap, as they not only date their arrival much earlier than previously thought, but also provide new insights into their lives and historical trajectories during the Holocene.”

The two rock shelters were first discovered by Robinson and his team during fieldwork in 2017 and 2018 and are part of a series of settlements in the Serranía La Lindosa region, on the edge of the Amazon. It was here that the researchers found one of the world’s largest collections of prehistoric rock art, spanning an eight-mile-long rock face.

The ancient artworks are painted in red ocher and depict some of the now extinct megafauna that inhabited the region during the Ice Age, including mastodons and giant sloths. Until now, however, little was known about what happened at the site during the thousands of years it was in use.

After studying the distribution of stone tools, charcoal and food waste in different soil layers, the researchers were able to identify four waves of activity. The first of these corresponds to the late Pleistocene and early Holocene, from about 12,600 to 10,000 years ago.

Evidence for the grinding of red ocher can be found in these layers, indicating that painting of the walls began with the earliest inhabitants of Serranía La Lindosa. “All rock shelters display ocher paintings from the earliest occupations, indicating that these pioneers were also busy recording and understanding this new world they encountered,” explains study author Dr Jo Osborne.

In their paper, the researchers say that these original paintings “could very well capture the origins of an Amazonian cosmovision and a way of seeing and living in the world.” Based on the animal remains present at the site, the authors were also able to determine that the first inhabitants ate piranhas, capybaras, snakes, crocodiles, caimans and turtles, among other things.

Subsequent occupation phases dated to the early to mid Holocene (9,500–5,900 years ago), the initial late Holocene (4,100–3,700 years ago), and the late Holocene (3,000–300 years ago). Only during this final phase did the study authors identify the presence of Amazonian Dark Earth, a type of super-rich soil cultivated by ancient farmers throughout the Amazon region.

Interestingly, during the mid-Holocene, between about 6,000 and 4,000 years ago, the rock shelters appear to have been abandoned thousands of years ago. “The reason for this cessation is currently unclear,” write the authors, who also explain that similar desertions are known to have occurred in other locations in the Amazon during this period.

Study author José Iriarte summarized the team’s findings, saying that “the results firmly demonstrate that human habitation of Serranía La Lindosa began in the late Pleistocene, approximately 12,600 years ago, and continued until the 17th century.”

“The exceptional number of rock shelters found in the region with evidence of human habitation suggests that this area was an attractive landscape for groups of foragers, where they had access to palm-dominated tropical forests, savannas and rivers,” he added to.

The study was published in the journal Quaternary Science Reviews.

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