Archaeologists have uncovered nearly 5,000 cave paintings at 11 different sites in Mexico, the likely product of early hunter-gatherers. What’s even more remarkable is that the area was previously thought to be uninhabited.

The discovery was made in the north-eastern region of Burgos in the San Carlos mountain range of Tamaulipas. Archaeologist Martha García Sánchez, who works out of the Mexican National Institute of Anthropology and History (Inah), recently presented these findings at the Historic Archaeology meeting held in Mexico’s National History Museum.


The 4,926 paintings, which appear in hues of red, yellow, black, and white, depict humans, animals, and insects. They also show skyscapes and abstract scenes. And in one painting, the archaeologists were able to identify an atlatl, a pre-Hispanic hunting weapon. The paintings are offering an unprecedented glimpse into pre-Hispanic culture and life, including depictions of hunting, fishing, and gathering. Other images hint at religion and astronomy.


One cave had as many as 1,550 different scenes.

The paintings were likely produced by at least three distinct groups of hunter-gatherers in the region. Prior to this discovery, archaeologists didn’t think that pre-Hispanic peoples occupied the Burgos area.


To make these paintings, early North Americans used organic dyes and minerals. The archaeologists will now perform a chemical analysis to determine the exact components — and to date the sites; they've been unable to pinpoint a timeframe because no physical artifacts have been recovered. It’s quite possible that the paintings could be traced back to 6,000 B.C.

So who were these people? And what happened to them? The History Blog offers an explanation:

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.

There wasn’t much in the way of congress, therefore. 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. This huge cache of art, therefore, is an immensely important anthropological resource.


Sources: BBC, Red Orbit, History Blog.

Images: Inah.