Carbon dating reveals famed Baja cave paintings to be much older than previously thought
S1: Rock paintings by ancient indigenous people can be seen all over the southwest in the rugged canyons of Baja , California. There are cave paintings that are much older than we thought. The paintings are in the Rocky Mountain caves and overhangs in the Sierra de San Francisco mountain Range in Baja that is located about halfway down the peninsula in northeastern Baja. When they were first dated back in the 1970s , they were estimated to be about 500 to 1500 years old. Old enough , you might say. But now new radiocarbon dating pushes that timeframe back to 11,000 years. I spoke with writer Craig K Collins , who has seen and studied these cave paintings and for mean regattas DOL , an archaeologist and professor at the Autonomous University of Baja California Sur who's researching the very early inhabitants of that area , the people who actually may have created these paintings. I asked Craig Collins how scientists know the cave paintings are so much older than first thought.
S2: They were pretty astonished to find that the paintings went all the way back to 11,000 years old , back to the end of the Ice Age and the arrival of the first humans on the Baja Peninsula.
S1: So that timeframe of 11,000 years that corresponds to when the first humans settled in Baja. Yes.
S2: Yes. That's when they believe that the first populations of humans established themselves on the Baja Peninsula.
S3: We know that in historical periods , I mean , the 16th century they were in the south , particularly white kura , half of the peninsula , and then Yuma people as coaching means. And at the time the Spanish arrived , the missionaries ask the question if they were the ones who made the rock paint. And they say that when they arrived , the paint were already there. Wow.
S1: Wow. Well , you have both made the very difficult trip to see these cave paintings.
S2: Some of the cave paintings I saw , Cueva de los Fleche is the Cave of the Arrows. And you go there and they're 15 foot high shamans and some are half red and half black. And they have headdresses on. They hold their arms up to the sky , you know , the elbows bent at 90 degrees with their hands to the sky. There's a 15 foot high shaman pierced with about eight black arrows and he has a bobcat and nipping it is legs and then cueva la Pinta , which means the painted cave is a rock face that's about 200 yards long. And it is just a menagerie of everything that was important to these people. There are shamans and men and women. There's bighorn , sheep , antelope , hawks , vultures , everything that was important to them in their world. And as the UNESCO people said when they came out , they represent some of the most spectacular rock art on the planet , and they compare even to the Pleistocene 40,000 , 30,000 year old cave paintings that we all know about in France and Spain. So they're quite spectacular.
S1: And UNESCO , that's the U.N. Department that kind of tries to protect artistic heritage sites around the globe. Is this a UNESCO site ? Yes.
S2: In 1993 , it was designated a UNESCO World Heritage site , which is quite an honor. And it's one of the most remote UNESCO World Heritage sites on the planet.
S1: Now , Professor Craig told us that the human figures , many of the human figures depicted could be shamans.
S3: But example a rock band from golf , from the center , the more arid land of the peninsula is a long peninsula , you know , And in the center is where the desert is and is where the exactly the main focus of this rock band. You have northern and southern from Sierra in San Francisco , like Sierra de Guadalupe , which was equally great. And the birds are in one of the main rock painting in Sierra Nevada is somewhere in particular is the one that has just humans. And there is. The shaman who is in charge of like a ritual. And the way he dressed is different is white. The others are red and black. And for sure it's clear that it's a shaman by point of view is that they don't live in those caves area. They live more in the coastal plains to the Pacific and to the Gulf of California , where they have more sources , more food supplies and a hunting spot. They came to the rock pains to do the ritual.
S3: And after the Manila galleon arrived , most of the Indians died with several illnesses like malaria , smallpox and all the culture disappeared. And in particular , a shaman. But in the information from ethnographic records , especially from the white people who lived a little south of San Francisco to La Paz , there is a about these guys. They were very sophisticated in the tribes that they were very simple. I always thought that those shamans are remain from the ancient rock pain shaman in some other way. They lost the culture from their rock pain period. But at historical time there was so relic of that culture. And I can see , by the way , the dress of the rituals of the shaman. I have the idea that they are like , I continue with a lot of things left because in many of the pains example , the serving pain , which I call the dear RL That pain in particular is a collective work by huge amount of people working together.
S1: You know , another of the fascinating things about the way this is dated now is that different parts of the painting seem to date to different times. Craig You write that some , you know , the oldest part of the painting could be 11,000 years , but like the leg could be 5000 years.
S2: This is one figure , a single figure. There was an arrow that was 4100 years old. Paint from the chest was 4800 years old. A finger was over 6000 years old and paint from the leg was 6500 years old. And they want to say and that in their report that there was a indicated a long cultural tradition over almost 5000 years of touching up and adding new figures and elements. And that was deliberate. And so there was a continuous culture that extended several millennia. So it's quite remarkable.
S3: You will have only some of the paint that could survive for so long period in the upper atmosphere and bio impact like fungi and other things. Probably they were more colorful , but everything will come from organic material for sure. They disappear earlier. That means that we don't have the whole picture in my point of view , because all the organic have disappeared besides carbon , because now carbon becomes a mineral , not organic , but most of them are mineral rocks.
S1: And there's no way to test for the organic material that that may have disappeared.
S2: So this is a highly volcanic area. There's lots of volcanic cinder in the area , and it's quite colorful. There's red , there's black , there's yellow , there's white cinder. And so what the archaeologists from Australia and Mexico determined was that how they made the paint was they ground volcanic cinder into powder. They mixed it with sap from cactus. And so it made kind of a viscous latex like paint. And they applied the paint on the cave walls with these big long stalks from cactus. And there were 20ft long. And they they took deer hide and soaked it in this paint. And that's how they applied the paint. There's still organic materials. And the paint today from the cactus sap. And that's how they dated. But I think what the professor is talking about is if you just had like in Europe , most of the paintings are organic nature. They crush up colorful plants and that's how they make the paint. But any of that type of paint in this region , if it were just made from cactus or flowers , et cetera , and didn't have any rock base to it , that would have all weathered and disappeared. So there were probably far more colorful and many more paintings several thousand years ago.
S1: You know , Craig , in the article in Hidden Compass magazine , you talk about your journey to see the cave paintings. Tell us a little bit about that.
S2: And San Francisco de la Sierra , the little pueblo up there is in the middle of the middle of nowhere. So it's a 14 hour drive by car down Highway one and down Baja. And then you end up on a mile high plateau that's accessible. You know , they travel these little pueblos , they travel by mule. And so you get on a mule and it's a four hour mule ride into a 3000 foot deep arroyo with sheer cliff walls , and you're going down a three foot wide cliff clinging trail with 100 foot drop offs and you're praying that your mule doesn't stumble. Harry Crosbie , the science teacher who stumbled on the great murals in the 70s , the San Diego Science High School science teacher , he traveled over 1000 miles by mule and identified over 1600 cave painting sites. And he his quote that he wrote was Baja Rock art gives up its secrets grudgingly only to those who persevere. And for those who think they want to come down to view the great murals , perseverance definitely needs to be your North Star. So.
S1: Okay , so for a payoff to that terrible journey , the thrilling but terrible , I would imagine.
S2: It'll definitely reduce your your ego and give you a strong sense of carpe diem. You know , first , you know , in this region , there are no towns of any consequence of over 400 miles. And so each night the sky is ablaze with stars that are , you know , come from , you know , the light traveled for billions of years. You know , these canyons were carved over millions of years by water and flash floods. So you have a sense of geologic time and then you have historic time. You know , you're traveling with a society. These people in the rancheros are an echo from 18th century Andalusia. That's where they came from. And they were at the missions and they went up into the mountains. And so their culture is 300 years old. And then you're looking at paintings that are several millennia old. And it's really humbling.
S3: Or a passage ritual of passage. Communities from the coastal Plain came for a ritual passage , and they found in this work shelters a connection between the ancient people are to me. We stayed there. It's like a trying to put all my sense to feel a human connected with the past. There is a missionary talking from a white poor fellow who said that the stars are the ancient people who put fire at the night. Each star is a spirit of the future of the past and sometimes a denial when you are in a cave near the cave and look the way the light goes out and then the stars appear. I think they live in a place connected the stars with the ancient people. We are easy to forget generations of of our past. For for other cultures. The elders are their gods. The elders are connected with all the background of the culture broadly , we think ahead , but not to the past. And I think it's a very common in several cultures to look the elders , the past are probably the rock pain is the connection then with the past , with the ancient people.
S1: The elders that was archaeologist and Professor Fermin regards Doll. And I also spoke with author and explorer Craig K Collins.
Rock paintings by ancient indigenous people can be seen all over the Southwest, but in the rugged canyons of Baja California, there are cave paintings much older than previously thought.
The paintings in the rocky mountain caves and overhangs in the Sierra de San Francisco mountain range in Baja California were originally estimated to be about 500 to 1,500 years old. New radio-carbon dating, however, dates them back to 11,000 years, roughly the same time as the end of the first ice age.
Craig K. Collins is an author and explorer who has written about the cave paintings.