Humans Have Always Been Artists: The Guayabero River Paintings
Although prehistoric humans developed in different ways and on different timelines throughout the world, they share a common moment. That moment is the first piece of art created by a community of these ancient people. It’s usually something that occurs when people start living in larger groups, and is a way for people to communicate meaning even if they don’t yet have a developed speech or writing system. Images, like those in the ancient rock art lining the Guayabero River in Colombia, become a stand-in for types of objects or animals, and can be used to record stories or educate younger generations.
Ancient and prehistoric art are very difficult to interpret or understand. Prehistory by definition means that societies are without writing, and so there’s no accompanying records that could explain how people thought about themselves and the world around them. Prehistoric images remain one of art history’s best kept secrets.
Using Our Imaginations Responsibly
Archaeologists often rely very heavily on context to illuminate the meaning of images and ancient art. They use scientific methods like carbon dating, stratigraphy, and excavation to find out what kind of animals and plants were around the prehistoric humans, what the climate was like, and how they hunted and ate. Although these pieces of information are limited, they’re sometimes the best that we can confidently equip ourselves with when considering prehistoric art.
There’s often a tendency that’s hard to resist when looking at these pieces of early human visual culture: the tendency to project our own modern attitudes and understanding on these ancient people. However, this leads to misguided interpretations and unfounded assumptions. We read political or class strife into certain scenes when there may be none, and assume things are mystical or religious when they could be literal. It’s always important to check our assumptions, ask ourselves if we have underlying motivations, and consider possible counterarguments.
That said, a good archaeologist and art historian should also be confident in their imagination, curiosity, and willingness to test out new ideas. After all, that sense of wonder and awe is why so many of us are drawn to prehistoric art.
Guayabero River Paintings
The Guayabero River is a river in Colombia which runs through a large swath of the Colombian Amazon. People have inhabited this area for tens of thousands of years, and the indigenous population of Colombia is directly descended from the earliest inhabitants of this land. The small town of Raudal is intimately familiar with this history, as it sits along an eight-mile expanse of early Colombian rock paintings. These paintings have not been successfully dated in their entirety, but are considered to be up to 12,600 years old.
The Guayabero River paintings depict many animals like camelids, sloths, horses, deers, alligators, bats, and monkeys. They also have scenes of pregnant women, ladders, and people engaged in communal activities. They are beautifully rendered in red ochre, a popular medium used by many communities of prehistoric people. Red ochre is a mineral which exists around the globe in abundant qualities. It is a type of clay that has high levels of iron oxide, which gives it it’s brown-red color. Prehistoric humans mixed it with water and other materials to create a kind of paint. They often painted with their hands, although there is also evidence of crude paintbrushes and other artistic implements.
It’s hard to know exactly what these paintings could mean, but most of the animals depicted are known to have lived in the area through recovered fossils and soil samples. Some of the animals were hunted and eaten by the area’s prehistoric residents, a fact which can be divined through soil samples. It’s possible that they could record the activities of the area’s residents, from hunting and cooking, to the nature surrounding them, and all the way up to ceremonial and social activities. They could also be stories or parables, or even religious symbols. It’s impossible to know exactly, but the images give us a sense of what the prehistoric people saw, noticed, and thought was worthy of immortalizing in these breathtaking paintings.
Why Do We Create Art?
Prehistoric art gets at the root of the human experience and our drive to create. In this initial moment, the first time that a member of a prehistoric community creates something symbolic and visual, we can isolate the purest drive and choice to make art.
Before this choice, the community does not know how to express themselves visually, after it, they are profoundly changed. It seems to be an innate part of who we are as human beings, even when you strip away what might make us different. Every culture experienced this moment, and every culture has a unique journey of developing their own art, symbols, and visual formalities. Part of the function of prehistoric art is communication, but it’s also something more.
It’s the desire to leave a lasting imprint and express how it truly felt to live and exist at a certain moment. Although we may not have the tools to understand exactly what the Guayabero River Paintings mean, we intuitively understand their visceral and emotional impact. They tell us that someone lived here, experienced the ups and downs of life here, and wanted what they saw to be remembered. They are evidence of human imagination, progress, and what unites us, from the very earliest moments of our history.
IPaintMyMind believes deeply in the catalytic power of art and arts education. We strive to make resources available and accessible to art teachers, parents, and students so that they can experience the timeless and powerful act of creating art of one’s own.
Check out our blog for more educational resources! And, learn more about our Arts Education Curriculum and Resource Guide, designed by art teachers for arts educators of all types, to help build an open, accessible, and impactful art education experience!
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