University of Exeter leads global rock art symposium in Amazon

Professor José Iriarte

Archaeologists at the University of Exeter are playing a leading role in a first-of-its-kind global event that will showcase ancient rock art from the earliest humans to enter the Amazon.

‘The Painted Forest’ symposium will bring together international experts in archaeology and rock art along with representatives of indigenous peoples and artists, to share their experiences and discuss the meaning and importance of this cultural and anthropological heritage.

The symposium follows a series of extraordinary discoveries unearthed by the Colombian-European research collaboration, LASTJOURNEY, which has been mapping the mass migration of the first humans into the north of continental South America during the Late Pleistocene/Early Holocene period, and the impact they had upon the landscape.

“Rock art offers a fascinating glimpse into the earliest artistic expressions of humans around the world,” says Professor José Iriarte, an archaeologist in Exeter’s Department of Archaeology and History, and Principal Investigator of LASTJOURNEY. “They also help us to understand diverse aspects such as the interaction with, and management of the natural world. What we have discovered here in Colombia is an incredible insight into one of the most momentous demographic dispersals of our species into the diverse environments of northwest South America.”

Held in the city of San José de Guaviare, Colombia, The Painted Forest draws together hundreds of delegates, including academics from around the world, politicians and members of the local communities. The five-day programme will include keynote talks, art exhibitions, experimental activities such as rock painting and traditional indigenous cooking, and two days of visits to the stunning rock art sites of Cerro Azul, Raudal and Nuevo Tolima. The symposium will conclude with a workshop by the Colombian Institute of Anthropology and History reflecting on the conservation of the paintings, sustainable tourism and the different voices of the key actors.

Launched in 2019 and funded by a €2.5m grant from the European Research Council, LASTJOURNEY has made a number of archaeological discoveries, including documenting the arrival of the first humans in the north-western Amazon almost 13,000 years ago, when now extinct megafauna roamed the landscape.

As part of the event, project leaders from LASTJOURNEY – which includes the National University of Colombia, the University of Antioquia and the University of Exeter – will present a new bilingual (English/Spanish) guidebook for a layman’s audience, also titled The Painted Forest. Funded by UKRI Translational Funds, the book will be donated to the local tourist association of Cerro Azul and made available for tourists to purchase, thus generating valuable income for the local community.

Professor Iriarte said: “This is an area of Colombia that has undergone dramatic changes since the 2016 Colombian Peace Accord, and local communities are converting to tourism. The work we are doing here can lay the foundations for generations of sustainable heritage-based tourism, and that is why it is important for us to share our findings with local communities to help raise awareness and safeguard its cultural heritage and natural capital. As Colombian partner Dr. Javier Aceituno from Antioquia University wisely remarks ‘The paintings need the people, and the people need the paintings!’.”

The symposium will be held from 29 August to 2 September 2022 in person at the Secretary of Culture of Guaviare, and online, with live translations into English, Spanish, Portuguese and the Tukano indigenous language.

“This event will enable us to both showcase the discoveries that have been made through our research, but also to link that story to other sites around the world,” added Dr Mark Robinson, a postdoctoral researcher on the project at Exeter. “The genesis of artistic expression is recorded in rock art, providing a gateway to how early humans sought to navigate and understand their place in the world. These images record the voices that shaped and influenced emerging cosmologies, social norms and relationships with nature, laying the cultural foundations for generations to come.”

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