Archeologists Discover Nearly 5,000 Ancient Cave Paintings in Mexico

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.


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.


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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