Chile’s rock art llamas divulge secrets of ancient desert culture

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Archaeologist Jose Bereguer, above, curator at Santiago’s Museum of Pre-Columbian Art, describes the site as “the most complex in South America” because of its astronomical importance as well as the significance to local shepherds. (AFP)
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Chilean archaeologist Jose Berenguer shows drawings at the Taira Cave left by shepherds almost three millennia ago on the walls of the rocks that flank the course of the Loa River. (AFP)
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Above, the drawings at the Taira Cave located at a height of 3,150 meters about 75 kilometers north of Calama, Chile. (AFP)
Updated 31 July 2018
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Chile’s rock art llamas divulge secrets of ancient desert culture

  • Conservationists working in Chile’s Atacama Desert want UNESCO to recognize the Taira Valley drawings as a heritage site so they can develop sustainable tourism in the region
  • First rediscovered by Swedish archaeologist Stig Ryden in 1944, the Taira rock art is between 2,400 and 2,800 years old

ATACAMA, Chile: Open air rock paintings in the world’s driest desert pay testament to the importance of the llama to millennia-old cultures that traversed the inhospitable terrain.
Conservationists working in Chile’s Atacama Desert want UNESCO to recognize the Taira Valley drawings as a heritage site so they can develop sustainable tourism in the region.
Taira is “a celebration of life,” said archaeologist Jose Bereguer, describing the site as “the most complex in South America” because of its astronomical importance as well as the significance to local shepherds.
The rock art was a “shepherd’s rite” needed to ask the “deities that governed the skies and the earth” to increase their llama flocks.
First rediscovered by Swedish archaeologist Stig Ryden in 1944, the Taira rock art is between 2,400 and 2,800 years old.
It is made up of a gallery of 16 paintings more than 3,000 meters (9,842 feet) above sea level on the banks of the Loa River that traverses the desert.
The jewel in the crown are the Alero Taira drawings some 30 meters from the Loa in a natural shelter, in which the importance of the llama becomes abundantly clear.
Not just the principal source of wealth for desert dwellers over thousands of years, the llama has been used in ritual ceremonies throughout the Andes for just as long, such as in the “Wilancha,” or sacrifice to “Pacha Mama,” or Mother Earth.
“No one can understand the things done 18,000 years ago because the cultures that did them have disappeared,” said Berenguer, curator at Santiago’s Museum of Pre-Columbian Art.
“Here, it’s possible to delve into the meaning because we have ethnography and because there are still people living in practically the same way as in the past.”
According to Rumualda Galleguillos, one of around 15 indigenous people still raising llamas in the Atacama Desert like their ancestors, these pictures are a “testament” to forefathers who could neither read nor write.
Around 90 percent of the engravings, painted mainly in red but also ochre yellow and white, depict llamas of various sizes, some pregnant, others suckling their young.
But the remaining 10 percent depict the desert’s diversity, such as foxes, snakes, ostriches, partridges and dogs.
The few human figures that appear are tiny, as if those painting them “wanted to go unnoticed in front of the greatness of animals that were so important to their economy,” said Berenguer.
What the paintings also demonstrate is that 2,500 years ago, people were already studying the stars in an area that has more recently become the astronomy capital of the world with some of the most powerful telescopes ever built.
A book written in conjunction with the Atacama observatory called “The Universe of our Grandparents,” claims that the ancient inhabitants of this area studied the stars to help learn how to domesticate the inhospitable desert and survive its dangers.
In this vision, the universe is made up of the skies and Earth as one whole, with the skies forming the horizon of life. What is seen in the skies is a reflection of what there is on Earth.
Unlike the Greeks, though, ancient Atacama astrologists didn’t see Orion, Gemini or Cancer.
They saw llamas, their eyes, corrals, a loaded slingshot and a shepherd standing with his legs spread wide and arms in the air, worrying about foxes, said Silvia Lisoni, a professor of history and amateur astronomer.
Taira is located on an axis that aligns the sacred Sirawe “sandy eye” quicksand from where locals would pray for rain, the San Pedro volcano, the Colorado hill, and the Cuestecilla pampas, another sacred spot.
Volcanoes, like springs, were considered deities by the Atacama natives, while llamas were thought to have been born of springs.
The Alero Taira is positioned so that it is completely illuminated by the sun on both the winter and summer solstices.
“There’s evidence that this site was built here for specific reasons,” said Berenguer.
Taira is not the oldest example of rock art in this part of Chile, though. To the north in the copper mining Antofagasta region lies Kalina, around 1,000-1,200 years older than Taira, and Milla.
This style of art has been found also in the Puna de Atacama plateau in neighboring Argentina, but Taira “has few equals in terms of beauty and complexity,” said Berenguer.
One day, he hopes that Taira will be afforded UNESCO World Heritage Site status like the rock art in the Cave of Altamira in Spain or France’s Lascaux caves.


INTERVIEW: Lebanese director Nadine Labaki continues to ride wave of Capernaum Cannes success

Updated 23 May 2019
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INTERVIEW: Lebanese director Nadine Labaki continues to ride wave of Capernaum Cannes success

  • Labaki is currently serving as the president of the Un Certain Regard jury, the first Arab to do so
  • “Capernaum” has become an unexpected blockbuster in China, reportedly grossing $44 million in just over two weeks

DUBAI: The success that Lebanese director Nadine Labaki’s third film, “Capernaum,” continues to find across the world is astounding — even to her. Just one year ago, “Capernaum” won the Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival — a jury chaired by Cate Blanchett — after a 15-minute standing ovation. The film went on to be nominated for both a Golden Globe and an Academy Award for Best Foreign Film, with Labaki becoming the first woman from the Arab world to receive that honor. Now, perhaps most surprisingly, “Capernaum” has become an unexpected blockbuster in China, reportedly grossing $44 million in just over two weeks.
“It’s crazy! I can’t believe it! I really can’t. Why there? It’s all very new, so I still don’t know what it means exactly, but we’re soon going to find out,” Labaki tells Arab News in Cannes.
With its success in China, along with the US, Middle East and across Europe, “Capernaum” has reportedly become the highest grossing Arabic-language film in history.
“There’s been rumors going on for the past two to three days, and it’s like, ‘What?’ I still can’t believe it. It’s living proof that an Arab film with no actors can actually be a box office hit — can actually return money, make money for investors. You know how much we’re struggling in the Arab world to make films, find money, find funding, find investment. Especially for a Lebanese film,” Labaki says.
Labaki was in China just one month ago to show the film at the Beijing International Film Festival, and although the film got a rousing response in the room, she didn’t feel the reaction was any stronger than anywhere else the film has shown.
“Maybe it’s because there’s more than a billion people in China, but even the distributor is saying it’s working like any big blockbuster movie,” says Labaki.
The Chinese release of the film has one major difference from other cuts. The original version of the film tells the story of a young boy named Zain El Hajj (played by Zain Al-Rafeea) struggling to survive on the streets of Lebanon with the help of a young Ethiopian immigrant named Rahil and her undocumented infant son Yonas, dreaming of escaping as a refugee to Sweden. The story is not far from Al-Rafeea’s real-life situation at the time — he is a Syrian refugee. Since the film’s release, though, Al-Rafeea and his family have been relocated to Norway, something the Chinese release includes at the end of the film as a short visual report.
“The film ends on his smile, and in a way there’s (now) a continuation of real life in that story. This is really happening, it’s not made up,” says Labaki. “That’s why we’re making a documentary around the film. Maybe it’s a way of comforting people, knowing that he’s alright, he’s good, he’s in a better place. Deep down, people know this kid is going through this in his real life, they know he’s not just an actor in this film.
“I think it’s comforting to know Zain is in a different place now. He’s travelled. He was dreaming of going to Sweden the whole time, and now he’s really in Norway. He has a new life, a new beginning, a new house. He’s going to school, all his family is with him,” she continues. “It’s a complete shift of destiny. Maybe the fact the distributor added this report after the film made people understand that this is a real story and a real struggle, and not just another film.”
Though this is a huge moment for Arab film in general, Labaki doesn’t believe that the success of “Capernaum” necessarily signals a greater appetite for Arab cinema worldwide.
“I don’t think it’s about (where the film comes from). It’s about good films. It has nothing to do with the identity of the film or the country it’s coming from, really. It doesn’t mean if this film worked in China that another Arab film will work in China,” she says. “Maybe there’s going to be more hope for Lebanese cinema in the sense that investors will be less afraid to invest in Lebanese films, but it’s about the script, the filmmaker, the craft, the know-how. This is what gives confidence to somebody.”
Speaking to Arab News at the renowned Hotel Barrière Le Majestic Cannes on one of the busiest days of the film festival, Labaki is currently serving as the president of the Un Certain Regard jury, the first Arab to do so. Labaki began her relationship with Cannes in 2004, writing and developing her first feature, “Caramel,” at the Cinéfoundation Residency before showcasing the film at the Director’s Fortnight in 2007. Both of Labaki’s subsequent films — “Where do We Go Now?” in 2011 and “Capernaum” in 2018 — debuted at the festival, each in increasingly competitive categories.
“I feel like I’m their baby, in a way. With a baby you start watching their first steps, see them grow, protect them, push them… They’ve accompanied me in this journey, and recognized and encouraged me. It’s great — I really love this festival. I think it’s the best festival in the world. I like the integrity they have towards cinema. You feel that watching a film in Cannes, you know that you’re not going to watch just anything — there’s something in there for you to learn from, to be surprised by, to be in awe of. There’s always something about films that are shown in Cannes,” says Labaki.
In approaching her role as head of the jury, Labaki is focusing on connecting with the films, and taking on the perspective of myriad filmmakers from across the world.
“I don’t watch films as a filmmaker. Never,” she says. “I watch the film as a human being… I don’t like the word jury. I don’t like to judge because I’ve been there — I’m there all the time. I’ve been in those very difficult situations, very fragile situations, where you’re making a film, where you’re doubting, where you don’t know, where you don’t have enough distance with what you’re doing, and you don’t have the right answers and you’re not taking the right decisions.”
Just as her own films have become increasingly focused on the problems facing Lebanese society, Labaki believes that contemporary film cannot help but be political, and must accept its role as a commentary on the world we live in — something that she feels she’s seen in the films in her category.
“Cinema is not just about making another film; it’s about saying something about the state of the world right now. Until now, every film we’ve seen is (doing that). That doesn’t mean that cinema that is just art for art’s sake is not good — there are so many different schools — but I feel we’re becoming so much more responsible for this act,” she says. “You become an activist without even knowing you’re becoming an activist, and saying something about the state of the world. It’s important.”