INTRODUCTION TO THE ROCK ART OF SOUTH AMERICA
1998 saw the first visit to South America by the Bradshaw Foundation
. Co-founder John Robinson was invited by Brazilian Research Archaeologist Keler Lucas to study the geometric petroglyphs of the Island of Campeche, a small island off Santa Catarina
Island, on the eastern coast of southern Brazil. This, in hindsight, was to become the beginning of the Bradshaw Foundation South America Rock Art Archive
. The rock art on these two islands, as well as on Arvoredo
, Little Sister and Santinho
, is now represented in the Archive.
In 2000 Matthias Strecker, Editor of the Bolivian Rock Art Research Society [SIARB]
approached the Foundation regarding the rock art in general of Bolivia
, and in particular the proposed preservation project at the Calacala site. The ongoing research by SIARB has produced surveys of over a thousand rock art sites in Bolivia, concentrated mainly in the highlands (altiplano) and valleys.
In 2010 avocational archaeologist Martin Barco of Peru contacted the Foundation regarding the petroglyphs of Checta
, located in Canta Lima. Checta represents one of the most important rock art sites in Peru, and Barco’s research highlights both the sheer number of ancient petroglyphs as well as the clear and present need for their preservation
In Argentina, the Cueva de las Manos ('Cave of the Hands') is represented as part of the Bradshaw Foundation’s section Hand Paintings and Symbols in Rock Art
. This stunning panel of stencilled hand paintings, made by the indigenous inhabitants some 9,000 years ago. Within the cave there are also depictions of human beings, guanacos, rheas, felines and other animals, as well as geometric shapes, zigzag patterns, red dots, representations of the sun, and hunting scenes. Most of the painted hands are left hands, and of a size that resembles that of a 13-year-old boy; this may have been an initiation ceremony.
The rock art of the Serra da Capivara National Park in the north east of Brazil, with research led by archaeologist Niède Guidon, established it as a World Heritage Site in 1991. The best known archaeological site is Pedra Furada, a rock shelter with over 1,150 images and thousands of artifacts. Her theories about the archaeology and the rock art are controversial, as she questions the putative dates for the relatively recent occupation of the Americas by anatomically modern humans, and suggesting a date in excess of 45,000 years ago based on her archaeological research at the sites.
This issue is yet to be resolved, but recently evidence of an earlier occupation of the Americas is coming to light, based on archaeological and genetic evidence. This is known as the Solutrean hypothesis - the idea of Europeans and European technology crossing the Atlantic in prehistoric times. According to the hypothesis, at the height of the last ice age, perhaps a little later, a group of hunters from the south-west European refuge area bordering France and Spain sailed to the east coast of America, where they became the Clovis people. The culture in the southwestern European refuge around the time of the LGM is known as Solutrean, and is famous for its beautifully worked bifacial points. Solutrean points are argued to be a rare invention, yet very similar to Clovis points such as those found at the Cactus Hill site on the USA eastern coast. The highest concentration of the oldest Clovis points is in the south-east USA, pointing to an Atlantic landing of immigrants.
The Solutrean cultures came before Clovis - Clovis did not appear until well after the LGM. The current genetic research of Stephen Oppenheimer and others is supporting this: the American X line - a single fifth American cluster - is now estimated for the age of arrival of the founder between 23,000 - 36,000 years ago, far too early for the Clovis. The American and European X lines have a common X ancestor, split from each other as long ago as 30,000 years.
Again, this issue will only become clearer with archaeological and genetic advances, but the Solutrean hypothesis certainly explains some of the current anomalies. What this may point to is the possibility that the rock art sites of South America are considerably older than previously thought - they are certainly more numerous - and that the need for further research has never been greater.
Bradshaw Foundation South America Rock Art Archive