Rock engravings recorded by researchers from Bournemouth University (UK), University College London (UK) and Universidad de los Andes (Colombia) are thought to be the largest prehistoric rock art in the world.

Found carved into rock faces along the Upper and Middle Orinoco River in Venezuela and Colombia, the engravings feature a range of imagery - including depictions of giant snakes, human figures, and giant Amazonian centipedes.

Some of the engravings are tens of metres long - with the largest measuring more than 40m in length. The team believe this is the largest single rock engraving recorded anywhere in the world.
Rock Art
© Phil Riris/Jose OliverOne of the monumental rock engravings, depicting a giant snake.
While some of the sites were already known, the team have discovered several more and mapped 14 sites of monumental rock engravings - defined as those which are more than four metres wide or high - through working with local guides and using drone photography.

While it is difficult to date rock engravings, similar motifs used on pottery found in the area indicate that they were created anywhere up to 2,000 years ago, although possibly much older.

Many of the largest engravings are of snakes, believed to be boa constrictors or anacondas, which played an important role in the myths and beliefs of the local Indigenous population.

Lead author Dr Phil Riris, Senior Lecturer in Archaeological Environmental Modelling at Bournemouth University, said: "These monumental sites are truly big, impressive sites, which we believe were meant to be seen from some distance away.

"We know that anacondas and boas are associated with not just the creator deity of some of Indigenous groups in the region, but that they are also seen as lethal beings that can kill people and large animals.

"We believe the engravings could have been used by prehistoric groups as a way to mark territory, letting people know that this is where they live and that appropriate behaviour is expected.

"Snakes are generally interpreted as quite threatening, so where the rock art is located could be a signal that these are places where you need to mind your manners."

Rock art on Picure Island
© Phil Riris/Jose OliverDetail of monumental rock art on Picure Island, Venezuela.
Dr José Oliver, Reader in Latin American Archaeology at UCL Institute of Archaeology, added: "The engravings are mainly concentrated along a stretch of the Orinoco River called the Atures Rapids, which would have been an important prehistoric trade and travel route.

"We think that they are meant to be seen specifically from the Orinoco because most travel at the time would have been on the river. The archaeology tells us that it was it was a diverse environment and there was a lot of trade and interaction.

"This means it would have been a key point of contact, and so making your mark could have been all the more important because of that - marking out your local identity and letting visitors know that you are here."

Publishing their findings in Antiquity, the research team conclude that it is vital that these monumental rock art sites are protected to ensure their preservation and continued study, with the Indigenous peoples of the Orinoco region central to this process.

Dr Natalia Lozada Mendieta from Universidad de los Andes said: "We've registered these sites with the Colombian and Venezuelan national heritage bodies as a matter of course, but some of the communities around it feel a very strong connection to the rock art. Moving forward, we believe they are likely to be the best custodians."

The research was funded by the Leverhulme Trust, The Society of Antiquaries of London, Universidad de los Andes, the Fundación de Investigaciones Arqueológicas Nacionales (Colombia), and the British Academy.

The full article, Monumental engravings of the Orinoco River, can be read on the Antiquity website.