Vertical Landscapes

Cave paintings in Mesa de los Santos, Santander, Colombia.

Museo Arqueológico MUSA

Paisaje desde la Mesa de los Santos. by Santander, ColombiaMuseo Arqueológico MUSA

I have never seen the Chicamocha Canyon cave paintings in person. I know about them from drawings and digital images, but most of all, from my friends’ accounts of them—less of the paintings themselves, than of their intrepid journeys to see them.

Pintura Rupestre, Cueva Las Tejedora. Los Santos. by Santander, ColombiaMuseo Arqueológico MUSA

My friends do not know who made those paintings or when or why. They assume that were made by indigenous inhabitants of the region.

Pintura Rupestre, Los Santos. by Santander, ColombiaMuseo Arqueológico MUSA

These red line-drawings do not conform to European aesthetic preferences and instead seem to share techniques and style with many other indigenous and ancient paintings in what is now Colombia.

My friends say — imprecisely— that the Chicamocha paintings are pre-Columbian, but it is not clear to me that they necessarily are; nor when those paintings began to be made, nor when they finally stopped being made.

Pintura Rupestre, Los Santos. by Santander, ColombiaMuseo Arqueológico MUSA

They tell me that it is very difficult to see many of these paintings and that it must have been difficult to reach the cliffs to paint them. Today the few people need ropes and harnesses and some climbing experience to visit them.

Paisaje desde la Mesa de los Santos. by Santander, ColombiaMuseo Arqueológico MUSA

The power these lines exert over people today and that which they must have exerted a thousand years ago derives, surely, from the arduous road to the cliffs where they are painted: a slip would be fatal.

Pintura Rupestre, Los Santos. by Santander, ColombiaMuseo Arqueológico MUSA

Like I say, I have not seen these paintings — or rather I have only seen them as you are seeing them now, in drawings and digital images.

Pintura Rupestre, Los Santos. by Santander, ColombiaMuseo Arqueológico MUSA

But since I first heard about them, when I think of the cliffs of the Chicamocha Canyon, other things come to my mind that I have indeed seen and about which I do know something from my own experience. I have seen Sufi devotees who dance for hours, retracing a single circle with their steps, mindlessly, carefully.

Try it now if you dare, try to turn around a vertical axis, a hundred times, or a thousand, or ten thousand, to see if concentrating—or perhaps not concentrating—you can do without your own vestibular system and continue dancing in circles, not because you have control over yourself, but rather, because you do not have it, and the one turning is a body without a will.

Pintura Rupestre, Los Santos. by Santander, ColombiaMuseo Arqueológico MUSA

I also know of a Greek priest who danced on the edge of an abyss to commune with superhuman forces, who danced with lakes that suddenly appeared and with dead volcanoes, for whom a slip, too, would have been fatal.

I imagine we have all seen infants laugh on a swing, exstatic, feeling their spleen and the rest of their organs stop being theirs for an instant as they fall.

Pintura Rupestre, Los Santos. by Santander, ColombiaMuseo Arqueológico MUSA

I think that an assault on the sense of proprioception, an attack on the sense of balance, is part of what were after—the people who made the cave paintings and also those who climb the the cliffs of Chicamocha to see them today.

The painting were worth painting because they border on the abyss and on death. At least that is what my friedns, who have seen them, say.

Credits: Story

alicia eugenia silva - director
felipe rojas - curator
oscar sanabria - curator
alejandra rojas - art historian
jorge h. zambrado - graphic designer
doris rojas - anthropologist
roberto garcía - photographer
juan felipe vargas - audiovisual producer
victoriano piñacué - musician
camilo sanabria - music composer
oscar martínez - administrator

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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