We were starting to get silly out of tiredness when we found the rock. We had our heads slumped, having walked nearly four hours and crossed seven rivers, when we almost ran into it. Cumpanamá, the sacred rock within the territory of the Shawi people, silenced us in middle of the jungle.
It is monumental and enigmatic, as the Shawis had promised us. It’s located in the ravine of the Paranapura River, near the district of Balsapuerto, in the province of Alta Amazonas, Loreto. It’s the size of a house and shimmers like gold. It seems to be dressed in velvet, though that’s actually moss. Its face is marked with deep, strange, serpentine, circular figures.
Standing in front of it, one is first filled with a primitive curiosity. Later comes the urge to touch it. What is this? What is such a big rock doing in the middle of the jungle? What do the engravings mean? Who made them? Why?
Sitting in front of the rock, hypnotized, everyone tries to decipher the petroglyphs. A Shawi man with a wide torso and the bearing of a chief, sees an instruction manual for how to live in the jungle. Someone else thinks it is a ritual to ask for water. In the end, we are all silent, hypnotized.
The sing-song of a creek reached us, along with the rumor of a waterfall with two falls that fall 50 meters. Toward the other side, at 300 meters, there is another wild waterfall of some 15 meters. Everything suggests that Cumpanamá is in a special spot. It feels like being in a sacred spot, even though no one knows anything about it.
The petroglyph was discovered for science by geologist Jose Sanchez Izquierdo in 1997, and has been studied by the archaeologist Santiago Rivas, of the Loreto regional office of culture, ever since. Over time, they have identified 25 additional petroglyphs along the Paranapura River, but none has been as enigmatic as Cumpanamá.
According to a style analysis of the designs, Rivas has determined that the rock was carved around the year 1000 A.D., or perhaps earlier. There has not been a carbon-14 dating test yet to determine their age with certainty.
Nor do scientists know which culture made the carvings. Because the carvings cannot be linked to any known culture, researchers have agreed upon saying that the authors come from the Balsapuerto culture.
What Rivas is sure of is that the site was a ceremonial center where stone axe heads were produced collectively. “That’s what I believe, based on the marks we found on the top of the rock. Here, men prepared the magical tools that allowed them to dominate the jungle,” says Rivas.
If the estimates are correct, the oldest known ceremonial center in the northern Amazon, and one of the oldest in all of the Peruvian jungle, was sitting in front of us.