Reactor

Archeologists Discover Nearly 5,000 Ancient Cave Paintings in Mexico

by Jillian Steinhauer on May 28, 2013

Newly discovered cave paintings in the Sierra de San Carlos (all images via inah.gob.mx)

Newly discovered cave paintings in the Sierra de San Carlos (all images via inah.gob.mx)

Archeologists have discovered nearly 5,000 ancient paintings that depict humans, animals, astronomical imagery, and abstract designs in a series of caves in Mexico. Located near the Sierra de San Carlos mountain range, in the Burgos region of northeastern Mexico, the paintings are the work of three different hunter-gatherer groups that lived in the area before the early 16th-century Spanish conquest, the BBC reported.

The newfound trove comprises 4,926 well-preserved paintings done in yellow, red, black, and white, with 1,550 paintings in one cave called the Horse Cave. Imagery ranges from depictions of local vegetation and conical tents that resemble tipis to the atlatl, a pre-Hispanic hunting weapon; no images of the atlatl have been previously seen in other rock art nearby. What’s more, experts had previously thought the San Carlos Mountains area was uninhabited before the arrival of the Spaniards, and these paintings prove otherwise.

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The archeologists at the Mexican National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH) haven’t yet been able to date the paintings, but they say the scenes were made using organic dyes and materials, which they hope to chemically analyze to determine a rough age. Next to nothing is known about the groups that created the paintings. Archeologist Martha García Sánchez, who announced the findings at the recent meeting of Historic Archaeology in Mexico’s National History Museum, said she has researched colonial records and reports but found no mention of the hunter-gatherers. According to the History Blog:

There are references to indigenous groups who fled the conquering Spaniards and hid out in the San Carlos mountains for 200 years. As late as 1750 there are records of these nomadic peoples making it hard to evangelize Burgos. There are no official names of the tribes. They are referred to by nicknames assigned them based on perceived characteristics like “painted” or “mangy,” clothing or activities like “shoemakers,” or the family names of ranchers by the random assortment of conquistadors, religious men and indigenous peoples who ran into them.

The post goes on to explain:

The Spanish avoided following them into the mountains, and since there was a literal bounty on their heads — 25 pesos for every indigenous scalp and 60 pesos for every ransomed ‘captive’ — these groups were destroyed before anything about them was recorded. We know basically nothing about their languages, religious rituals and cultural traditions.

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That makes the discovery of these paintings — and so many of them, to boot — incredibly significant. However, given that no objects or artifacts were found with the paintings, it seems unlikely that archeologists will be able to pin down much about the nomadic groups any time soon. In the meantime, we can only speculate on the paintings and their meanings. Based on the photos (and admittedly few have been published), the compositions seem more sophisticated than the individual images themselves. Were these paintings catalogues of sorts, a means of record keeping or communication? A spiritual exercise? Could the decorative patterns be precursors of abstract art? At the very least, they continue the challenge to our persistently Eurocentric view of art history, just as much as they seem to reveal some essential quality that has kept people making colored marks on available surfaces for millenia.

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  • Godbluff

    These are fascinating and really important. But no, they don’t challenge the Eurocentric angle. This art isn’t abstract, it’s symbolic. These looks like depictions and stylisations. Abstract European modern art is valued for its context in exploding European academic traditions. This does not have that context, even though it looks a bit like Paul Klee in places. Art isn’t just about superficial similarities. The Moderns were referencing ancient art anyway. That’s never been a secret.

    • Jillian Steinhauer

      I didn’t mean that they’re challenging abstract European modern art specifically, more that all of art history, as a subject and a canon, still tends to be Euro- and Amero-centric (?). The important artists are the white Western ones. To me this seemed like a nice reminder that art, painting, depictions, whatever, existed before the Europeans colonized the Americas and history officially started.

      • Godbluff

        I get the impression that Eurocentricism really just stems from the fact that it was the Europeans that initiated a certain type of art history, art criticism and theory in the first place (it’s not easy finding a Mexican equivalent of Vasari, for example). It’s often seen as some kind of racist and culturally snobbish Western conspiracy, but I think it’s mainly just a certain culture thinking highly of itself – as most do – and then compounding this with arts’ relationship with wealth and our increasing obsession with heritage.

        I’m all for justifiable revisionism, as I think history is a dialogue rather than a set of facts, and I personally think we can see our artistic origins almost everywhere we look. While I agree it’s a nice reminder, I find it hard to imagine anything remotely shaking off the accrued heritage-value that has been stamped upon so indelibly upon Western art from Leonardo to Impressionism to Picasso etc.

        But thanks for bringing these to my attention. I was unaware of this amazing find until you posted this.

        • Jillian Steinhauer

          “I find it hard to imagine anything remotely shaking off the accrued heritage-value that has been stamped upon so indelibly upon Western art from Leonardo to Impressionism to Picasso etc.” Yeah…sigh. Me too.

          • Godbluff

            I think it will happen eventually though, as clearly some major and treasured paradigms of culture have been known to shift over a few generations before in the past. For all its obsession with it’s own inherent connoisseurship, it can also we wantonly fickle too. I think of art appreciation as a kind of pseudo-science. I even think one day the word art might lose its status. Not sure if we’ll be around to see it though.

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