The Sistine Chapel of the ancients: Eight-mile wall of prehistoric paintings of extinct animals and people painted by the first humans to reach South America 12,500 years ago is discovered in the Amazon rainforest
- Eight-mile wall of prehistoric rock art in Colombia featuring animals and humans created 12,500 years ago
- Includes depictions of extinct animals from the ice age such as the mastodon and palaeolama - camel relative
- Unclear which Amazonian tribe created artwork but natives thought to have been there for 17,000 years
An eight-mile wall of prehistoric rock art featuring animals and humans has been discovered in the Amazonian rainforest after it was created up to 12,500 years ago.
The historical artwork, which is now being called the 'Sistine Chapel of the ancients', was uncovered on cliff faces last year in the Chiribiquete National Park, Colombia, by a British-Colombian team of archaeologists funded by the European Research Council.
The date of the paintings has been based on the portrayal of extinct animals from the ice age such as the mastodon - a prehistoric relative of the elephant which hasn't been seen in South America for at least 12,000 years.
There are also depictions of palaeolama - an extinct member of the camel family, as well as giant sloths and ice age horses.
Human handprints can also be seen. In the Amazon most native tribes are believed to be descendants of the first Siberian wave of migrants who are thought to have crossed the Bering Land Bridge up to 17,000 years ago.
During the ice age this land bridge stayed relatively untouched because snowfall was very light. It stretched for hundreds of kilometres into the continents on either side so provided a way for people to cross into different areas.
Although it is unclear exactly which tribe created the paintings, there are two main indigenous tribes of the Amazon which are believed to have been around for thousands of years - the Yanomami and the Kayapo.
The first report of the Yanomami, who live between the borders of Brazil and Venezuela, was in 1759 when a Spanish explorer found a chief of another tribe who mentioned them.
Much less is known about the origin of the Kayapo tribe, which is estimated to have a population of roughly 8,600.
Amazon natives didn't keep written records until relatively recently and the humid climate and acidic soil have destroyed almost all traces of their material culture, including bones.
Until the discovery of these paintings, anything known about the region's history before 1500 has been inferred from scant archaeological evidence such as ceramics and arrow heads.
The site is in the Serrania de la Lindosa where, along with the Chiribiquete national park, other rock art had previously been found.
It is believed that these ancient images, which give a glimpse into a now lost civilisation, were created by some of the first ever humans to reach the Amazon.
The fascinating discovery, which happened last year but was kept secret, will now feature in a Channel 4 series Jungle Mystery: Lost Kingdoms of the Amazon, in December.
The site is deep in the heart of Colombia. It is so remote that after the British-Colombian research team drove for two hours, they were forced to trek on foot for another four.
The site is deep in the heart of Colombia in the Serrania de la Lindosa area. It is so remote that after the British-Colombian research team drove for two hours, they were forced to trek on foot for another four
Led by a professor of archaeology at Exeter University, Jose Iriarte, the research team was funded by the European Research Council.
Mr Iriarte told The Observer: '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.
'We started seeing animals that are now extinct. The pictures are so natural and so well made that we have few doubts that you're looking at a horse, for example. The ice-age horse had a wild, heavy face. It's so detailed, we can even see the horse hair. It's fascinating.'
The documentary's presenter, Ella Al-Shamahi, an archaeologist and explorer, shared her excitement at seeing the images being brought back to life.
She told The Observer: 'The new site is so new, they haven't even given it a name yet.'
Ella Al-Shamahi, an archaeologist and explorer, shared her excitement at seeing the images being resurrected
During their trek, the explorers were faced with some of the area's most dangerous predators.
At one point the team even came face to face with the deadliest viper in the Americas - the bushmaster.
The only option for the team was to walk past the snake, knowing that if they were attacked there was a vanishingly small chance they would make it to hospital in time.
The territory where the paintings have been discovered was only recently unsealed after being completely off limits due to Colombia's raging civil war that lasted for 50 years.
And managing to enter the area still takes careful negotiation.
Some of the paintings are extremely high up on relatively sheer rock face, which at-first baffled the research team.
However, professor Iriarte believes that depictions of wooden towers among the paintings serve to explain how the indigenous people managed to get to such extreme heights.
It is unclear whether the paintings had a sacred purpose but Iriarte noticed that many large animals are surrounded by humans with their arms raised - seemingly in a pose of worship.
Presenter Al-Shamahi added that some people don't realise that the Amazon hasn't always been a rainforest and was in fact much more 'savannah-like' thousands of years ago.
She said that it is fascinating to see these ancient depictions of what the land would have looked like so many years ago.
Iriarte is convinced there are many more paintings to be found in the region and his team will be visiting again as soon as the coronavirus pandemic allows.
Jungle Mystery: Lost Kingdoms of the Amazon starts at 6.30pm on Channel 4 on December 5. The rock art discovery is in episode 2, on December 12.