Hear “cave paintings” and you probably think of the famous art of Lascaux, France, where paintings more than 17,000 years old can still be seen today thanks to careful preservation. But times are changing, and so is archaeology. In Mexico, numerous important archaeological finds have occurred in the last year, and one fascinating find was just presented: more than 5,000 cave paintings across 11 sites in a region previously believed to have been uninhabited by native peoples. The discovery sheds some light on Mesoamerican history, shatters stereotypes about ancient cultures and illustrates that we’re constantly finding new things in archaeology, even though we think we have the world well-covered.
The paintings are executed in black, white, yellow and red paints, and they include both abstract and figure art depicting a variety of scenes. People, plants and animals appear, and the extensive artwork will need to be studied for decades to learn more about the production methods and who made it — at this stage, it hasn’t even been dated, although it’s clearly pre-Columbian, and part of the reason the paintings were preserved is that they were in an isolated region where Spanish invaders never reached. More study will probably uncover the symbolism behind the paintings and provide valuable insight into the beliefs of the estimated three different groups of hunter-gatherers who produced them.
Archaeologically, the paintings represent a particularly important find because all other artifacts linked to their associated culture have been washed away. The art is located in the San Carlos mountains, where steep ravines can become raging torrents during rainstorms, ensuring that items like utensils, pots, jewelry, and even gravesites would be destroyed by poor weather. Thus, the paintings may be the only solid evidence demonstrating that people lived here and providing information about how and when they lived, which adds more information to the body of knowledge about the spread of humans into the Americas.
Those with a European-focused background often think of Europe as the heartland of early human emergence, although really credit for that should go to Africa. While Europe represents the earliest expansion out of Africa, rich, complex, and diverse cultures thrived in Asia, the Americas, and Australia. Every time finds of ancient art like this are made, they confront colonial attitudes about native cultures, their level of sophistication and the value of native art.
It’s not just the people we learn about from these paintings. The animals depicted also provide data about the environment of the time. While paleontologists and related researchers have lots of information for studying ancient environments, paintings like these add another piece to the puzzle, allowing them to see what previous civilizations saw, and providing context for which animals and plants were considered food, how people hunted and gathered food, and how their actions might have affected the environment. This information can in turn be used to learn more about the size of the human communities of the day and the food-related stresses they might have endured.
Many Mesoamerican finds have yet to be explained or understood, and that’s exciting news for archaeologists, illustrating that there’s much more to learn about this region, no matter how much early colonizers dismissed the native people they found there when they first arrived. Like other former colonies, Mexico is also heavily involved in training indigenous communities in archaeology, conservation, and related fields so people can preserve and present their own history.
Photo credit: Antti T. Nissinen