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Tens of thousands of prehistoric cave paintings across an eight-mile stretch has been located in the Colombian stretch of the Amazon. Scientists have dubbed the finding the ‘Sistine Chapel of the ancients’ and is thought to be at least 12,500 years old. Experts based the age of the paintings on the contents of the drawings.

In the rock art are depictions of mastodons – a prehistoric giant, ice age elephant which occupied South America until its extinction roughly 12,000 years ago.

Ice age animals such as the giant sloth, palaeolama – an extinct member to the camel family – and horses which lived during the time were also painted on the walls

Archaeologists have said that it will take generations to study the rock art, which was located in Chiribiquete National Park, Colombia, and offer an insight into what could be a civilisation lost to time.

The discovery was made by a British-Colombian team and funded by the European Research Council

The art was first found last year but has been kept secret as it has been subject to a Channel 4 documentary, Jungle Mystery: Lost Kingdoms of the Amazon, which is to be screened this month.

José Iriarte, professor of archaeology at Exeter University and a leading expert on the Amazon and pre-Columbian history, told The Observer: “When you’re there, your emotions flow … We’re talking about several tens of thousands of paintings.

“It’s going to take generations to record them … Every turn you do, it’s a new wall of paintings.

“We started seeing animals that are now extinct. The pictures are so natural and so well made that we have few doubts that you’re looking at a horse, for example.

“The ice-age horse had a wild, heavy face. It’s so detailed, we can even see the horse hair. It’s fascinating.”

Fish, turtles, lizards and birds have also been etched into the walls, alongside human handprints which were marked on the cliffs.

Some of the paintings were so far up a cliff edge that experts were only able to see them using drones.

The documentary’s presenter, Ella Al-Shamahi, an archaeologist and explorer, told the Observer: “The new site is so new, they haven’t even given it a name yet.

“I’m 5ft 10in and I would be breaking my neck looking up. How were they scaling those walls?”

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The documentary noted that one reason why the area had remained undiscovered was because of 50 years of civil war between the Farc guerrillas and the Colombian government.

The area was in the territory of the guerrillas, which meant it had been completely off-limits to researchers since the 1960s.

As such, the team are only able to speculate on the meaning of the rock art.

Prof Iriarte said: “It’s interesting to see that many of these large animals appear surrounded by small men with their arms raised, almost worshipping these animals.

“For Amazonian people, non-humans like animals and plants have souls, and they communicate and engage with people in cooperative or hostile ways through the rituals and shamanic practices that we see depicted in the rock art.”

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