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

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.


Lebanese actress Nadine Njeim undergoes 6-hour surgery after Beirut explosion 

Updated 05 August 2020

Lebanese actress Nadine Njeim undergoes 6-hour surgery after Beirut explosion 

DUBAI: Lebanese actress Nadine Nassib Njeim revealed on Instagram that she underwent a six-hour surgery after a massive explosion ripped through Beirut on Tuesday, killing over 100 people and injuring thousands. 

“Half my face and my body were covered in blood,” said Njeim, who lives close to the port area where the explosion happened, captioning a video – shot by someone else – of her damaged apartment.

“I thank God first, who saved my life. The explosion was close, and the scenes you see do not do it justice. If you visit the house and see the blood everywhere, you would be surprised as to how we are still alive,” the star, who has two children, wrote captioning the clip that shows shattered glass, cracked walls and broken furniture strewn all over her living room.

According to her post, the star went down 22 floors, barefoot and covered in blood and sought help from a man who was in his car. 

“He dropped me to the nearest hospital, but they refused to admit me because they were packed with wounded people,” she said. “He dropped me to another hospital where they immediately took me in and I underwent a six-hour operation.” 

The 36-year-old actress said her children were not home and are “fine and safe.”

Multiple Lebanese celebrities have also taken to social media to share videos of their destroyed homes. 

Singer Haifa Wehbe shared, on her Instagram Stories, clips of the destruction that ravaged her home. “We are all okay thank God. My house is next to the explosion,” she wrote to her followers before asking them to keep her house helper, who got injured in her head and eyes, in their prayers.

Clips circulated on social media of Lebanese fashion designer Dalida Ayach, who is also the wife of singer Ramy Ayach, in the hospital being treated for her injuries. 

Singer Elissa, who recently released a new album, took to Twitter to share pictures of the aftermath of the explosion. “It affected the metals and the properties this time, but who will bring back the dead? Who will bring back Beirut?” the star wrote.

Singer Ragheb Alama’s house also got destroyed, but luckily, he and his family were on a trip outside the city.

The ateliers of renowned Lebanese designers have also been ruined, including Maison Rabih Kayrouz and Ralph Masri’s flagship stores.

Taking to his Stories, Kayrouz shared videos of the damage caused by the explosion to his atelier. “Our courageous team trying to save… what could be saved!” the designer captioned one clip of one of the atelier workers pulling out clothing from the debris.