130-Foot Snake Carving Slithers Through 2,000-Year-Old Rock Art Found in South America

The conspicuous reptile renderings spotted along the Orinoco River likely functioned as territorial markers, akin to pre-Colombian road signs

A scientist stands with a measuring tape next to a rock with animal engravings.
A researcher stands with a measuring tape, next to a large rock with multiple animal engravings. Riris et. al.

Some 300 years ago, non-Indigenous travelers along the Upper and Middle Orinoco River—one of the world’s largest rivers, its flows looping for 1,400 miles through Colombia and Venezuela—first reported sightings of mysterious rock engravings, depicting snakes and other patterns, along its shores.

But as the years passed, these artworks were recorded only in oral traditions and locals’ word of mouth, Science magazine’s María Paula Rubiano A writes. The engravings’ precise location, and proof of their existence at all, remained absent from modern Western scientific literature.

It wasn’t until 2015 that a team of archaeologists first arrived in the region with the goal of finding evidence of the artwor. After years of study, including capturing drone footage, photography and on-the-ground exploration, scientists found even more than they had anticipated.

Published this week in the journal Antiquity, the team visited 157 sites that had rock art, 13 of which where the engravings were more than a dozen feet tall. A great variety of figures are depicted, including insects, alligators, stingrays, birds, humans and other mammals. In all, 60 individual engravings exceeded 30-foot dimensions, including a centipede and two humanoid figures who may depict spirits or gods.

“Anything that size is monumental in our view,” Philip Riris, an archaeologist at Bournemouth University and the study’s lead author, tells New Scientist’s Chen Ly. “That means they’re often visible from quite far away, maybe 500 meters to a kilometer.”
A variety of figures, including bats, insects, snakes, rodents, humanoids, and other figures, were discovered.
A variety of figures, including bats, insects, snakes, rodents, humanoids, and other figures, were discovered.  Riris et. al.

But no creature was more ubiquitous in the rock faces than snakes, of which the team found dozens, including the most astounding engraving yet: a more than 130-foot long serpent. For the Indigenous Piaroa people, who have lived near the Orinoco River since time immemorial, Cuämoi (Kuemoi) is an anaconda whose daughter Cuähua engraved rock art during her river travels.

Another Piaroa story tells of Kuahuayamo Ato, an anaconda who owns all the area’s vegetables, and swims through the river, singing and crying, giving rise to the rock art.

“They are the ancestral being that can transport you as you travel,” Riris tells Scientific American’s Stephanie Pappas. “They’re metaphorically a type of canoe.”

Interestingly, the team found that all of the snakes faced the river, and were engraved where its waterline would have been two millennia ago. The engravings would have been visible from higher elevations, and certainly by those in incoming boats, leading the team to hypothesize that they functioned as territorial markers, boundaries and landmarks.

“From the beginning, they were meant to be seen,” Francisco Javier Aceituno Bocanegra, an anthropologist at the University of Antioquia and who was not involved in the research, tells Science. “It’s like the signs that you’re passing by [a certain place] on highways.”
Six photographs of engravings the team found
The team visited 157 sites that had rock art, 13 of which with engravings more than 13 feet in dimension.  Riris et. al.

Separately, the team unearthed ceramics from the riparian ecosystem. The pottery had similar markings to those in rock and were dated to be about 2,000 years old. The team estimates the engravings, then, are about the same age.

“One interpretation is that there was some aspect of territoriality at play,” Riris tells Live Science’s Jennifer Nalewicki. “It was a way of marking their territory and saying that this is our domain.”

Riris and the team estimate that some 10,000 ancient rock engravings exist within a 1,000 square-mile area along the river. A large variety of carved geometric patterns, their meaning not yet known, comprise just some of the unanswered questions the study offers.

What isn’t in dispute, is the researchers’ contribution to a more holistic understanding of the continent’s prehistoric art.

“Euro-American minds often jump to the mammoths, cave lions and large mammals of Pleistocene cave sites in western Europe when they think of rock art,” Patrick Roberts, an archaeologist at the Max Planck Institute, tells New Scientist. “However, the giant snake engravings studied in the paper are some of the largest single rock art images anywhere in the world and come from the heart of a lowland tropical environment.”

Get the latest stories in your inbox every weekday.