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Bolivian rock art

Bolivian rock art

Bolivian rock art, largely unknown even to students of the prehistory of the country, comprises a wealth of petroglyphs (rock carvings) and rock paintings in small caves and rock shelters, on vertical cliffs or on large boulders. More than 1,000 sites have so far been registered from all departments though most are found in the Andean region and in the eastern lowlands. In the northern lowlands (the departments of Pando and Beni) a few sites are known that consist of engravings, mostly on rocks alongside or near rivers.

According to preliminary investigations carried out by members of Bolivia’s Rock Art Research Society (SIARB – Sociedad de Investigación del Arte Rupestre de Bolivia, founded in 1987), these artistic manifestations span at least several millenia. The earliest rock art, which dates back to the Archaic period, consists of painted hunting scenes with groups of camelids in lively movement (possibly guanacos) and diminutive human figures, similar to representations found in Peru and Chile. In various sites ancient hand imprints occur, but it is not known whether they belong to the same age as those of the caves of Patagonia (7,000 B.C.).

Rock art of the Formative period at Peñas (Dept. of La Paz) includes mythical serpents and human faces very similar to stone monuments (Yaya-Mama style) found along Lake Titicaca in Peru and Bolivia.

Regional pre-Inca cultures produced a rich variety of rock art which, in the majority of cases, cannot yet be dated adequately. Various sites of rock paintings include complex geometric designs, probably representing textiles.

The relatively short period of Inca occupation of large parts of Bolivia produced rock carvings in the region of Copacabana, La Paz, and the spectacular engraved rock of Samaipata, Santa Cruz .

A characteristic of Bolivian rock art is that the artistic tradition continued in Colonial and Republican time. Post-Hispanic manifestations can easily be identified by motifs such as Christian crosses, horse riders, and human figures with Colonial dresses and European utensils. At some sites, Christian crosses were sometimes painted or engraved at the side or even over ancient figures. However, the vast majority of post-Hispanic rock art was produced by the Indians who incorporated elements from European culture. Whereas most of the Pre-Hispanic art is geometric or highly stylized, later representations are mainly naturalistic. Among drawings in a rock shelter of Yaraque, Oruro, we see dramatic scenes in which a European ship appears, and a fight between two persons, one of whom fires a pistol. At one important site of rock paintings in the Dept. of La Paz, studied by Freddy Taboada of the National Museum of Ethnography and Folklore, numerous religious scenes are depicted including pilgrims walking on pathways to churches and folkloric dances. Rock paintings in West Santa Cruz include pre-Hispanic, Colonial and Republican art all of which must be regarded as religious. The last representations, painted in the 19th and 20th centuries, depict saints and are still worshipped in annual feasts.

With possibly very few exceptions (battle scenes which may be historic) Bolivian rock art is clearly religious. Even in cases of pre-Hispanic art, local Indians still regard these places as sacred and believe that they are inhabited by evil spirits. Superstitious beliefs are sometimes expressed by the names of the sites; for example “Diablopintapinta” in the Dept. of La Paz or “Supay Huasi” (Quechua: “House of the Devil) in the Dept. of Chuquisaca. Annual rituals by the local indigenous community are still held at a rock art site in northern Oruro.

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