Prehistoric Rock Art Might be Early Representations of Giant Ground Sloths
In the Amazon rainforests in the country of Colombia, there is a place called Serranía La Lindosa, with rock cliffs decorated in ancient drawings. There are thousands of paintings covering 12 kilometers (8 miles) of rock in an area that has been largely inaccessible. Some of the paintings depict animals easily recognizable to modern people, such as turtles, guanacos, or humans—and just possibly, giant sloths.
A study by José Iriarte and his colleagues published in the journal Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society proposes the following:
“We argue that they are Ice Age rock art based on the (i) naturalistic appearance and diagnostic morphological features of the animal images, (ii) late Pleistocene archaeological dates from La Lindosa confirming the contemporaneity of humans and megafauna, (iii) recovery of ochre pigments in late Pleistocene archaeological strata, (iv) the presence of most megafauna identified in the region during the late Pleistocene as attested by archaeological and palaeontological records, and (v) widespread depiction of extinct megafauna in rock art across the Americas.”
Daily life scenes
The paintings of the Serranía de la Lindosa are surprisingly well preserved. Some of the scenes seem to show the first contemporary humans in early Amazonia going about their daily life, while others seemingly depict ritual scenes, hunting, interacting with plants, and forest and savannah animals.
Pictures of birds, turtles, and other animal species that inhabit this large tropical forest require little interpretation; however, there is controversy among paleontologists and archaeologists about whether the other creatures represented are in fact giant sloths, elephants, and prehistoric horses.
A giant sloth with a baby?
One of the pictures is the silhouette of a large animal that might be a giant ground sloth, along with a miniature version of itself that it is probably safe to call its offspring. As any would-be artist of modern sloths can tell you, they are not creatures with particularly distinctive shapes.
Interpretation of the silhouette as a sloth relies heavily on the assumption that the ancient artists faithfully represented the proportions of the creature in question, which—given the depictions of the nearby human figures—they did not always do.
“ Its overall morphology, large head, short rostrum, robust thorax, reduced number of digits on the pes, and prominent claws recall a giant ground sloth. Presented in a quadrupedal stance, the sizable forearms appear to be longer than the hindlimbs. The manus consists of three to four digits extended distally, whereas the pes appears to have five digits with varied orientations.
Notably, the depicted animal appears to exhibit pedolaterality, that is, the characteristic inverted pes, where the dorsal surface of the foot faces laterally and the planar surface of the foot faces medially. Three transversal lines compartmentalize the body in four parts and give the figure an appearance of surficial texture.
The white mark on its head seems to be representing an eye. Behind the head, there appear to be a few protuberances along the dorsal surface that might represent prominent scapula and shoulder musculature. The animal is accompanied by an offspring and surrounded by animated miniature men, some of whom extend their arms towards the painting.
The relationship of the animal with the men appears to be central to the artist’s message. The comparatively smaller illustrated humans that accompany the animal appear to provide a perspective on a scale that points to the sheer size of the specimen.”
Interpreting ancient rock art is a much more difficult process than it initially seems. For example, how old is “ancient”? The art on the cliffs of Serranía La Lindosa is made with mineral pigments that are not suitable for carbon dating, so inferences must be drawn from organic materials in the area that CAN be carbon dated, such as bone tools that might have been paintbrushes, or food remains from the human settlements nearby.
Jorge Peña and Fernando Urbina of the National University of Colombia believe that the paintings may be much more recent than the last ice age. In their 2016 publication “War dogs, horses, cattle and other themes in the rock art of the Serranía de la Lindosa (Guayabero River, Guaviare, Colombia): A conversation” they argue that many of the paintings in La Lindosa might be much newer, even post-European-contact. If the paintings are only a few hundred years old, it would explain their exceptional state of preservation, but would certainly rule out interpretations of pre-historic humans hunting ice-age megafauna.
Urbina says: “(The paint) shows a quadruped with an offspring, caught in a trap. Its size, in relation to the human figures facing it, could suggest that it is extinct megafauna. However, the exaggeration in size may depend on various symbolic reasons. Also, it could happen that the human figures correspond to children or dwarfs, or dwarf children. Federmann in his chronicle speaks of the encounter with members of an ethnic group of very short stature. Finally, it could be perspective management”
Until we have better estimates on the age of the paintings (which could happen as soon as late 2022), the question of the species remains unanswered. Do these mysterious cliffside drawings capture the brief moment of overlap between the last of the giant ground sloths and the first humans of South America? What did the drawings mean to the artists that created them? What animals did they see, what stories went along with the pictures, and what would they have to say to us about the splendor of the world as it was?
-Cecilia Pamich & Ames Reeder