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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 paintings in the canyon are amazing,” Arce says. “Much larger, more beautiful than anything you have seen so far. And,” he adds, smiling, “the trip will allow me to get out of this freezing wind. It will blow like this for four or five days.”


The next morning, just after sunrise, Arce rouses us, leading a string of mules. In no time, he has cinched cargo racks and saddles on the animals and loaded up the equipment boxes. As we mount up for the trip and follow a narrow trail out of the settlement, Arce sings traditional Mexican canciones to, he says, jolly along the mules. We start down a nearly vertical, 3,500-foot ravine, the spectacular Arroyo de San Pablo, a Grand Canyon minus the tourism. And as we drop deeper inside these protected walls, the sabersharp wind vanishes, to be mercifully replaced by bright sunshine and shirt-sleeve temperatures.


By the time we reach the depths of the gorge, six hours later, we can see a narrow watercourse running along the floor of the arroyo, lined by thick stands of palm trees. Across the arroyo, perhaps 100 feet up the canyon wall, I see the largest of all Baja’s Great Murals.


It stretches for nearly 500 feet along a shallow respaldo, virtually every inch embellished with male and female figures measuring 20 to 30 feet high. Equally outsize representations of mountain goats, rabbits, deer, antelopes, snakes, vultures, a whale, and handprints and cryptic starbursts, surround the human forms. Arce leads us down to the canyon’s floor, where we hastily unload our equipment, unburden the animals and—not even pausing to set up our camp—begin walking toward Cueva Pintada (Painted Cave). “Welcome gentlemen,” Arce says softly, “to a truly Great Mural.”


It is primarily because of Cueva Pintada—with its exceptional size and hundreds of paintings—that these valleys were designated a World Heritage Site. Some figures stretch 40 feet high. Whoever the painters were, they had a sense of humor. One artist incorporated a rounded lump of rock jutting out from a flat surface into his anatomically correct painting of a pregnant woman. Elsewhere, rabbits, zanily represented with lop ears slightly askew, munch grasses. A few of the largest human figures, wearing larky hats and kicking up their heels, seem to be dancing.

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