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Drawn from Prehistory

Deep within Mexico's Baja peninsula, nomadic painters left behind the largest trove of ancient art in the Americas

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The figures are everywhere. Some are stabbed with arrows and spears. Others seem to stand, horror-struck, arms jabbing straight out from their sides, or raised (bent at the elbows, hands open) in a “don’t shoot” gesture of supplication. Several of them tower like giants, measuring perhaps ten feet from head to toe.

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Each of these images, nearly 80 in all, exists as an urgently vivid painting on the ceiling of a shallow cave 150 feet up a cliff face inside Mexico’s deepest outback. Some are rendered in black, others in red; a few are bisected vertically into halves of each color. Many lie at 90-degree angles to their neighbors, arms and legs overlapping. Still others tilt alone into space, as if accommodating their compatriots, obligingly sharing the cave’s ceiling.

 

This place is San Borjitas. It is but one of an estimated 600 sites in the mountains in the central part of Mexico’s Baja California peninsula, which extends 700 miles south of the U.S. border. The Great Mural paintings, as they are collectively known, constitute the most extraordinary collection of prehistoric art in the Americas. Yet because of their remoteness, the works—perhaps 3,600 years old—remained virtually undiscovered and un-documented until the mid-1970s. Only in the past decade have tourists begun to penetrate this isolated backcountry, in search of paintings to rival those of France’s Lascaux cave or Spain’s Altamira.

 

First described in the 1770s, when Spanish missionaries to the region told of the “well-preserved” paintings they had found there, the prehistoric masterpieces largely eluded recognition for another two centuries. Popularizing the caves required the 31-year campaign of a selftaught archaeologist, Harry W. Crosby, who pushed through the forbidding mountain terrain to discover nearly 200 of the works himself.

 

On the afternoon I first glimpse these paintings, Crosby is my guide. Still rangy and fit at 75, he points out several large, flat stones on the gravel floor. “These are metates, or primitive mortars,” he explains, “worn to concavity because ancient artists used these surfaces for grinding colored volcanic rock into pigments.”

 

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