A recent discovery of graffiti scrawled over 1,400-year-old cave paintings in Chile has brought to light the site’s lack of protective measures, leading officials to closely study it. The Cuevas de Anzota, near the northern city of Arica, has been a tourist attraction for over four decades, with people visiting to see the images of animals and vessels that decorate rock walls. Recently, photographs showing some of the paintings, covered with colorful spray paint, were shared on Twitter by the singer Felipe Sandoval. They were brought to the attention of the Ministry of Public Works, whose secretary told El Pais that the graffiti is actually not recent. The agency had boosted the area for tourism by fixing up a coastal promenade, but the caves, which are near the end of the path, remained untouched.

The public outcry has now stirred authorities to launch a study of the pre-Columbian site to ensure its future protection. The cave paintings are traces of the Tiwanaku culture, whose territory covered areas of present-day Chile, Peru, and Bolivia. Sandoval, who denounced the vandalism as “outrageous” on social media, added that it inflicted “irreparable damage to our heritage.” Marcela Sepúlveda, an archaeologist at the University of Tarapaca, who has studied rock art in the region, confirmed to local media that the original paintings cannot be recovered.

“Any intervention to clean it will also affect the wall art,” she told El Pais.

The caves are currently under no surveillance. In fact, according to El Pais, they are technically off limits, with a sign at their entrance noting that the site is preserved for study. It has clearly not convinced visitors to keep to the permitted route. Sepúlveda said she hopes the exposed vandalism provides an opportunity to conduct a serious and thorough study to not only protect the paintings but also learn about them, as they have not yet been discussed in detail.

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Claire Voon

Claire Voon is a former staff writer for Hyperallergic. Originally from Singapore, she grew up near Washington, D.C. and is now based in Chicago. Her work has also appeared in New York Magazine, VICE,...