Archaeologists Discover 2,000-Year-Old Rock Art in Brazil

Recurring symbols across 16 sites suggest that many of the artworks were created by the same cultural group

The rock art was discovered in the Jalapão region, located in the east of Tocantins, Brazil. Rômulo Macedo / IPHAN

Researchers have found and cataloged ancient rock art at 16 sites in Brazil. Created about 2,000 years ago, the distinctive panels feature both engravings and paintings, some of which appear to be linked by a common belief system.

The images depict human footprints, tracks from deer and wild pigs and “figures that resemble celestial bodies,” says archaeologist Rômulo Macedo in a translated statement from Brazil’s National Historical and Artistic Heritage Institute (IPHAN). Macedo led investigations of the newly discovered rock art, located in the state of Tocantins, between 2022 and 2023.

The panels of art, most of which are engraved, span a single stretch of rock in the state’s lush Jalapão region, Macedo tells Newsweek’s Aristos Georgiou. The researcher thinks the works are linked by more than physical proximity.

“What connects these sites is the recurrence of the symbols represented, demonstrating that the creators of the rock records, especially the engravings, shared the same belief system,” he tells Newsweek.

Rock Art
Most of the ancient artwork was carved into the rock face, while some pieces were painted. Rômulo Macedo / IPHAN

The identity of the artists is unclear, as is the purpose the artworks served. Humans have occupied Jalapão for about 12,000 years, and the rock art was found inside an “archaeological complex” formed before the arrival of European colonizers, according to IPHAN.

But as Artnet’s Richard Whiddington writes, historians know little of Jalapão’s pre-colonial occupants. They were likely drawn to eastern Brazil’s rich Cerrado, “the world’s most biodiverse savanna,” per the World Wildlife Fund.

The panels may have been created to “record the passage of time, depict myths, communicate with spirits or demarcate territory, among other explanations,” writes Newsweek. Some of the smaller artworks were painted with red pigments, and Macedo thinks these pieces—possibly done by a separate cultural group—may predate the engravings.

Some of the panels of artwork had been painted with red pigment, likely before the engravings were created. Rômulo Macedo / IPHAN

Macedo adds that additional research is necessary before any conclusions can be drawn. According to IPHAN, the team’s investigation is part of a recent intensification of archaeological study in Tocantins due to the expansion of infrastructure in Brazil’s Amazon states.

“Recent discoveries of archaeological sites—in addition to helping to fill a void of knowledge we had of that vast area—show that the presence of human groups in the region dates back thousands of years,” Macedo tells Newsweek. The wall of rock art is now one of the region’s many registered archaeological sites, joining some pre-colonial structures of a similar age.

Many Symbols
Due to the presence of repeated symbols, archaeologist Rômulo Macedo thinks that much of the art was created by the same cultural group. Rômulo Macedo / IPHAN

Researchers worry about the dangers facing these historic locations: “Wind erosion, vandalism, forest fires and deforestation are among the main threats to the identified sites,” writes IPHAN. Between 2002 and 2022, Tocantins lost 19 percent of its humid primary forest, according to Global Forest Watch. Artnet reports that the Jalapão State Park was founded in 2001 to preserve the region’s biodiversity.

To minimize threats, IPHAN has “initiated conservation and heritage education actions in the region, aiming to protect and promote this Brazilian cultural heritage,” per the statement.

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