Icons That Travel

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0 logoThe Atacama Desert and the Andes in South America are crisscrossed by myriads of paths and tracks. Often those tracks are easily seen in Google Earth as broad bands. Also rock art images narrate of such travels. They mainly depict camelids guided by people. In rare instances however a specific kind of traveller has been depicted on the rocks. I have labelled it ‘The Enigmatic Traveller‘. In this study I describe the distribution of this icon, compare it with similar images and try to explain the meaning of the enigmatic position of the arms of this figure.

By Maarten van Hoek


Icons That Travel

The Enigmatic Traveller in Desert Andes Rock Art


 Maarten van Hoek rockart@home.nl

  Follow me on Academia.edu


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It is a fact that many major rock art sites were important meeting places in ancient times. From afar all sorts of travellers arrived at those sacred places, conveyed their stories, goods, ideas and imagery and left again, often with new stories, goods, ideas and imagery. In some cases those travellers and/or their journeys have been depicted on the rocks. For instance, although it cannot be proven, lines of anthropomorphic footprints may indicate such a journey (see Figure 47). In Andean rock art rows of especially pack-llamas (often preceded by a shepherd), frequently indicate long-distance caravanning. But in some instances identifiable (small) groups of travellers have been depicted on rock panels, without pack-animals, though. Yet, it proves that such dynamic travellers – frozen in time – are rather rare in global rock art, as well as in the rock art of the Desert Andes.

Indeed, there are some sites in the Atacama Desert of South America (the Study Area; see the map on page 3 of the PDF-version) that have images of a very specific type of traveller. One of those sites is the key rock art site of Ariquilda in the Quebrada de Aroma in the heart of the Atacama Desert. To me it is unquestionable that Ariquilda is a very special sacred place, not a settlement area, and served as a major inter-regional point of convergence and assembly. Several types of images underpin the important local and inter-regional gathering function of this sacred site and as a consequence many images at Ariquilda are most enigmatic, idiosyncratic and often exclusive. In particular the image of one special and enigmatic traveller is found at Ariquilda. This specific figure – labelled the Enigmatic Traveller by me – is the subject of this study. It is very rare, as – so far – it has only been recorded at three rock art sites in the Atacama (marked with larger green squares in the map of the Study Area). It is an icon that travels; literally and metaphorically.

PDF-only: Map of the Study Area. Drawing © by Maarten van Hoek, based on Google Earth.

This paper originally is illustrated with 48 photographs, drawings and maps. About half of those illustrations appear in this on-line issue of TRACCE, while the complete set of illustrations appears in a PDF that can be downloaded via Academia.

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Icons that Travel

As I just said, images of travellers are very rare in global rock art. But there are exceptions. Occasionally images of anthropomorphs with a possible backpack have been reported in the rock art of North America, Mesoamerica, Africa, Europe and Asia. For instance, in the rock art of the southern Africa San people, only very sporadically anthropomorphic figures have been depicted carrying a backpack. Moreover, in most cases it concerns a (single) hunter like the archer with backpack painted on a rock panel of the Sevilla Rock Art Trail, Northern Cape, South Africa.

Further north, in the enormous Sahara are a few anthropomorphic rock art images with some sort of backpack, but as – again – they mainly depict archers the object carried on the backs may well represent a quiver. Although other objects carried on the back are frequently interpreted as ‘shields’, they may well depict backpacks, like a rock art image from Messak Settafet, Lybia, where one anthropomorph apparently carries luggage on its head, while another figure carries a similar pack on its back.

Further north still, in the rock art of the Zalavruga and Belomorsk rock art sites, northern Karelia, Russia, are petroglyphs of rows of (up to four) skiing anthropomorphs. At least three of the skiers (always the last one in the row) clearly carry a backpacker (Figure 1). Remarkably, all three of them seem to show male sex, which – in my view – seems to be a really freezing experience. However, all the above examples concern sites where only a few examples of (possible) backpacker images occur. There are exceptions nonetheless.

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Figure 1. Petroglyphs at Zalavruga, Russia. Drawing © by Maarten van Hoek, based on a photograph by Robert G. Bednarik in Global Distribution of Rock Art (Fig. 5).

Click on any illustration in this article to get a larger picture (click the < back arrow [top left] or – in some cases – click on the illustration to return to the article). Click the hyperlinks (in underlined red) to go to other web pages, which will open in a new window (click the X icon [top right] to return to the article).

About 16.600 km from Ariquilda is the cluster of rock art sites called Thakhampa Ri. This group is located in western Tibet in the Himalayas at a very high altitude (4435 m O.D.) in a rugged, harsh and extremely arid environment. Yet, that cluster of rock art sites definitely offers testimony of travellers crossing the Tibetan highlands. Not only because the rock art is there, but also because of the specific content of its iconography.

Archaeologist John Vincent Bellezza has studied this area intensively and has fully described the major site at Thakhampa Ri in his web site, including many illustrations. In his extensive web site he writes: “The most common subject at Thakhampa Ri is the ambulatory human figure, most or all of which carry something on their backs. Some also grasp walking sticks or staffs. There is a more-or-less continuous line of about 60 of these figures stretching from west to east on the main panel. There are also several shorter lines, with just three to five figures in each. These figures are generally depicted moving in an easterly direction. They walk in single file (Figure 2). On the east portion of the main panel a meandering line seems to represent the path trodden. Other lines of similar figures are found on the lower panel.  The historical and functional dimensions of these compositions were lost long ago with their makers and users. It might be speculated that they depict parties travelling in the very terrain they overlook, perhaps heading to or from seasonal hunting grounds (if they were herders they should be shown with their livestock). Similarly, Sonam Wangdu (1994: 86) interpreted the long lines of figures as travellers carrying baggage on their backs. Nonetheless, entirely different interpretations of the journey portrayed can also be entertained”.

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Figure 2. Petroglyphs at Thakhampa Ri, Tibet . Photograph © by John Vincent Bellezza, reproduced here with his kind permission.

This description by John Vincent Bellezza offers three important properties of those travelling parties. The first characteristic is the single-line row that the individuals form, simultaneously indicating the direction in which they move. The second is the backpack they are carrying and often a stick or staff that they are grasping. The third property is that the anthropomorphic travellers are (all) laterally depicted. In some cases a line or groove below the row of figures may indicate the path trodden. However, such path-lines are extremely rare in (Andean) rock art. They are even much more sporadic than the icons that travel. In fact, I know of only one such line – trodden by travelling icons! – in the rock art of the Atacama Desert.

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Evidence of Traffic at Ariquilda

Several types of images in Andean rock art testify of long distance contacts. Most prolific are the rows of camelids so often depicted in Andean rock art (and especially in the geoglyph art of the Desert Andes as well). One site in the Atacama stands out for its relatively large share of traffic-related imagery. That site is Ariquilda. Although there are many petroglyphs of camelids at Ariquilda (and at other sites in the Atacama) several of which are on leash and guided by a shepherd, rows of similarly sized camelids that are walking in the same direction (often suggesting caravans of pack-llamas) are surprisingly rare at Ariquilda (Van Hoek 2012: 95). In addition, only very few petroglyphs of camelids at Ariquilda seem to have a backpack. Although Ariquilda is not exactly on a major caravanning route, only 8 km further west is an enormous concentration of geoglyphs, called Alto Ariquilda Norte, which borders a major north-south caravanning route through the Atacama.

Yet there are many other petroglyphs at Ariquilda that indicate that people travelled over long distances to stop and/or assemble at especially this site. For instance, on the north bank of the valley is a high cliff with – on one of the vertical panels (see Ariquilda video) located at an altitude of about 5 to 6 meters above the valley floor – a row of four long and slender anthropomorphic figures that seem to depict a group of travellers. They are all marching in the same direction (east, that is towards the Sacred Mountain of Tata Jachura, located some 40 km further upstream). Importantly, they all hold a long object (staff or stick), while each of them also seems to carry a backpack (Figure 3).

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Figure 3. Petroglyphs at Ariquilda, Chile. Drawing © by Maarten van Hoek.

Completely the reverse situation occurs further east at Ariquilda. Again located on the north bank, but now on ground level and directly overlooking a small area, which forms a shallow ‘pool’ when the (mainly dry) river valley floor is completely flooded, for instance during El Niño downpours, is a slightly overhanging petroglyph panel directly east of the ‘pool’ (Figure 4). Very appropriately in view of the intermittent ‘pool’ is a scene of ocean-related petroglyphs. It comprises at least five images of rafts, each operated by an anthropomorphic figure; a rafter (‘balsero’), that is not only carrying a paddle, but also – in four cases, which is rare in Desert Andes rock art – a backpack. Four rafts are moving eastwards, and only one person rows to the west. The scene is accompanied by five other – standing – anthropomorphs (including two ‘flute-players’) and a possible frog (Figure 5).

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Figure 4. Petroglyphs at Ariquilda, Chile. Photograph © by Maarten van Hoek.

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Figure 5. Petroglyphs at Ariquilda, Chile. Drawing © by Maarten van Hoek.

As today the Quebrada de Aroma is not navigable and probably never was in ancient times, this scene clearly demonstrates the contact between the coast of the Pacific Ocean (73 km further west) and the High Andes, perhaps focussing too on the Sacred Mountain of Tata Jachura, a volcano which is located only some 40 km further upstream. At least two more panels at Ariquilda, all located opposite this panel and thus on the south bank and at the east end of this enormous rock art group, have similar scenes with rafts operated by (often) backpacked paddlers that are all rowing eastwards, against the flow. Moreover, at least five petroglyphs of more complex ‘ships’ (ritual rafts?) have been recorded at Ariquilda.

Interestingly, there are many more rock art sites in the Desert Andes with images of rafts than the six rock art sites listed by Gloria Cabello and Francisco Gallardo (2014: Fig. 1, 20). Some of those sites are marked in the map of the Study Area: PDF-only). South of Ariquilda images of rafts have been recorded at Pachica, Tarapacá-47, Tamentica, at least one possible example in the Quebrada de Amarga (Juan García 2016: pers. comm.), Calartoco, Tambores, Caspana and at an unnamed site north of San Pedro de Atacama (excluding geoglyph sites here). None of those ‘balseros’ seems to carry a backpack, except the only example at Tarapacá-47 and possibly one example at Tamentica, which will be described when discussing Tamentica.

North of Ariquilda images of rafts occur at Pampa de Chiza, Taltape, Calaunsa, Ofragía and Rosario, and – in Peru – at Miculla, Ilabaya, Locumba and finally, much further NW and outside the Study Area, at Huancor. The petroglyph of a raft on a boulder at Taltape (Taltape-1, Bloque 3) is operated by a standing anthropomorph that may carry a backpack (Figure 6A). According to Hans Niemeyer (1969: 97) the panel faces east and thus the orientation of the raft may be south or southeast. The only petroglyph of a ‘balsero’ at Ofragia-2 (on the vertical outcrop Panel Ofa-2-B51-1) clearly carries a backpack (Figure 6B). Again it is rowing to the east, against the flow of the Codpa River. The official inventory of Ofragía mentions ‘Cuatro figuras antropomorfas en balsa’ (CIHDE 2012), but only one example is visible on this panel. Two petroglyphs of ‘balseros’ with backpacks (Figures 6C and D – all apparently moving to the west, to the Pacific – have been recorded by me on Boulder ROS-019A (Bloque 4 – Panel II) at Rosario in the Valle de Lluta in the extreme north of Chile (Figure 7). A possible ‘backpacker’ petroglyph occurs on Boulder ROS-022 at Rosario (see Figure 29).

PDF-only: Figure 6. A: Petroglyph at Taltape, Chile. B: Petroglyph at Ofragía-2, Chile. C and D: Petroglyphs at Rosario, Chile. Drawings © by Maarten van Hoek, A based on a photograph by Renata Aguirre Bianchi; B based on a photograph by Exmo Pas in Panoramio. C and D based on my own photographs.

PDF-only: Figure 7. Plan of the rock art site of Rosario, Chile. Drawing © Maarten van Hoek, based on Google Earth.

At Miculla are several petroglyphs of ‘balseros’. Unfortunately, according to Núñez Jiménez (1986: 563) two boulders with altogether four petroglyphs of ‘balseros’ seem to have been removed (destroyed?). One of those ‘balseros’ may carry a backpack (Núñez Jiménez 1986: Fig. 2827). At Huancor I recorded two panels with altogether three petroglyphs of ‘balseros’. One of them may carry a backpack.

Occasionally geoglyphs of ‘balseros’ have been reported as well, for instance at Pintados, Los Balseros, Cerro Leon and Chug Chug, all in the Chilean Atacama. As far as I know, none of those geoglyphs include backpackers, although several of them carry a long object (harpoon or oar?).

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The Enigmatic Travellers of the Atacama

There is another important figure at Ariquilda that clearly represents a travelling icon. But this time the traveller has a most enigmatic attitude. As with most other types of travellers depicted in rock art, it is depicted fully laterally, probably to express movement and direction. However, this enigmatic type has both its arms curved upwards in a semi-circle (no joints indicated) and both arms are pointing to or touching the forehead. It is this idiosyncratic attitude of the parallel arms that is at first sight so mysterious. For that reason I label this personage the Enigmatic Traveller. Also enigmatic is the fact that – as far as I know – there are only three rock art sites with altogether 13 images (on overall five panels) of the Enigmatic Traveller in the rock art of the Desert Andes. However, other sites may have figures that are (more or less) related. Those sites will be discussed further on.

There are two strands of evidence that indicate that the Enigmatic Travellers are indeed travellers. Firstly, in all cases it concerns rows of anthropomorphs that are walking in the same direction (sometimes including personages with only one arm or even no arms). And secondly, they clearly are carrying baggage on their backs (also the armless persons in the row).

Importantly, but not surprisingly, the major concentration of the Enigmatic Traveller is found at Ariquilda; the only rock art site in the Aroma Valley (I don’t regard geoglyphs to be a form of rock art). At least three panels at Ariquilda have altogether 10 petroglyphs (77 %) of the Enigmatic Traveller. Those three panels will be described first. After that, in search for an explanation and/or context, petroglyphs on panels at other sites will be described.

Ariquilda Panel 1: Located on the south bank is a vertical rock panel that is crowded with petroglyphs. The images are rather weathered, but at least three (possibly four) examples of the Enigmatic Traveller can be distinguished (Figure 8). Importantly, they all walk into an easterly direction. The first figure (1 in Figure 8) seems to have no arms, but it is clearly carrying a backpack`. The position of the legs is uncertain. The second figure (2) seems to have only one arm, which still is in the characteristic semi-circular position. It has a large backpack as well. The third figure (3) in the row has two arms in the characteristic semi-circular position and has also a large backpack. The fourth figure (4) is so much weathered and possibly superimposed that it is an uncertain example (therefore not shown in Figure 9 and not counted in the statistics).

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Figure 8. Petroglyphs at Ariquilda, Chile. Photograph © by Maarten van Hoek.

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Figure 9. Petroglyphs at Ariquilda, Chile. Drawing © by Maarten van Hoek.

Ariquilda Panel 2: Billy Morales from Iquique, Chile, has been so kind as to send me a high quality photograph of another rock art panel at Ariquilda featuring Enigmatic Travellers (Figure 10). Unfortunately, as I have not seen this panel, it is unknown to me whether the row of travellers is walking towards the east or to the west. There are four Enigmatic Travellers on this panel, all walking to the right and a possible fifth – isolated – example (5 in Figure 11). The two smaller figures (1 and 2 in Figure 11) have their curved arms raised above the head, but not touching the head. The two larger figures (3 and 4) have parallel arms that seem to touch the forehead. At least three figures (1, 2 and 3) carry a distinct backpack (as does the isolated figure). However, the largest figure (4) possibly carries a much flatter backpack (compare this with Figure 16). Figure 5 seems to have a large backpack, but does not have the characteristic position of the arms.

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Figure 10. Petroglyphs at Ariquilda, Chile. Photograph © by Billy Morales (Chileresponsibleadventure.com).

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Figure 11. Petroglyphs at Ariquilda, Chile. Drawing © by Maarten van Hoek, based on the photograph by Billy Morales.

Ariquilda Panel 3: A photograph published on-line by Carlos Aracena shows a panel with a most interesting group of images. There are four Enigmatic Travellers in a row that all are – again – ‘walking’ to the right, although their feet point in opposite directions (Figure 12). Unfortunately Mr. Aracena could not remember the location of this panel and therefore it is unknown to me whether the travellers are walking towards the east or to the west. All four carry a distinct rectangular backpack and all four have the typical position of the arms. The last two figures are fully pecked, while the first two have outlined heads. The second figure seems to show two eyes and thus this figure may be the only Enigmatic Traveller of the Atacama that is facing the observer. Two figures seem to have distinct knee-joints. Confirming the association with the Pacific Ocean are the petroglyphs of two rafts that are located between the last two figures, each operated by a fisherman handling a line that is attached to a fish petroglyph. A third, isolated fish petroglyph is drawn nearby. Between the central figures is an enigmatic line connecting a pecked rectangle and a star-like object.

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Figure 12. Petroglyphs at Ariquilda, Chile. Drawing © by Maarten van Hoek, based on a photograph by Carlos Aracena.

Calaunsa Panel 1: One of the most interesting examples of the Enigmatic Traveller is found only 97 km NW of Ariquilda. It concerns a scene on a boulder in the extensive petroglyph site of Calaunsa, which is located in the Codpa Valley (also called the Río Chaca or Vitor locally) at about 965 m O.D. and roughly 39 km inland (exact location of the boulder and thus of the bearings of the panels are unknown to me). One of the many decorated boulders at this site has four panels. Panels A and B (Figure 13) are almost vertical and show petroglyphs of four fully pecked and laterally depicted birds (one with an ‘invisible’ head in the illustration because it is in the shade) – that all face in the same direction – and a possible anthropomorphic figure.

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Figure 13. Petroglyphs at Calaunsa, Chile. Drawing © by Maarten van Hoek, based on photographs by Renata Aguirre Bianchi.

Of special interest is a scene on the smooth and almost vertical Panels C and D. The arrangement on those two panels is unique in the rock art of the Atacama for several reasons. First of all, Panel D makes a corner that is almost perpendicular to Panel C. Secondly, the scene – depicting a group of five travellers – clearly uses both panels (like an incomplete triptych). All five travellers carry a backpack and walk into the ‘same’ direction. Only the largest, centrally placed figure clearly is an example of the Enigmatic Traveller. It is also the only figure with arms. Thirdly and most importantly, all travellers are clearly walking on an undulating pecked groove that continues and descends from Panel C onto Panel D (although some parts are covered by the desert sand). It may even be symbolic that the line ‘starts’ at the lowest point (the coast – covered by sand) and then ascends as an undulating line to reach its highest point on Panel D, as if indeed the High Andes is the goal of the journey. This is the only example of a representation of a path walked by travellers in Desert Andes rock art (there are however at least three more examples in the High Andes; all discovered at one site).

Los Soles Panel 1: About 200 km SSE of Ariquilda is the rock art site of Los Soles in the Quebrada Amarga, which is located at 720 m O.D. and roughly 38 km inland. The rock art in this canyon was intensively studied by Diego Artigas and Juan García (2009). One panel, 4 m long and 2 m high, lies on the upper edge of the slope and faces the valley. The petroglyphs on this panel are clearly visible for anyone travelling out of the gorge. In their paper the investigators mention a row of seven figures with ‘los brazos levantados’ (with ‘raised arms’) on this panel, but there was no illustration to confirm the factual attitude of the arms. However, one of the investigators, Juan García, has been so kind to supply me with clear photographs of this panel. It proves that all seven figures are depicted fully frontally with an arm at each side of the head and no backpack. Therefore they probably have nothing to do with the Enigmatic Traveller.

However in their paper the investigators included an illustration (Artigas and García 2009: Fig. 14) with only two figures that, according to Juan García (2016: pers. comm.), are located on a different panel at Los Soles. Those two figures (Figure 14) clearly represent Enigmatic Travellers, although their backpacks are rather weathered and/or flat. The investigators claim that the figures are dressed (2009: 1373) although both figures seem to show an erect phallus, which may indicate that they actually are undressed.

Figure 14Figure 14. Petroglyphs at Los Soles, Chile (? uncertain parts). Drawing ©  by Maarten van Hoek, based on a photograph by Diego Artigas and Juan García (2009: Fig. 14).

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Importantly Diego Artigas and Juan García argue that the Los Soles site – together with several other rock art sites in the canyon – is situated on an important trade route between the coast (the mouth of the Río Loa) and the High Andes (Artigas and García 2009: Imagen 21). The researchers remark however (Artigas and García 2009: 1378) that the canyon was unsuitable for settlement as the area is extremely dry and the infrequent water in the river is sour, like has been claimed for the intermittent waters running through the Quebrada de Aroma, where the important rock art site of Ariquilda is located. Quebrada de Aroma actually means ‘Canyon of the Acid Waters’. The word Aroma has possibly been derived from the Aymara word ‘Jaruma’, which means ‘agua agria’; sour water (for more info see Van Hoek 2013). Therefore, so they claim, the travellers only charged the Quebrada Amarga with a symbolic, sacred content, and thus the canyon became an important concentration of rock art images, like Ariquilda.

Importantly, the suggested route via Quebrada Amarga to the High Andes also runs through the Huatacondo Valley, where the key sites of Tamentica and Ramaditas are located. There are no unambiguous petroglyphs of the Enigmatic Traveller in the Huatacondo Valley (disregarding one possible example at Tamentica for the moment), but there are many images that in my opinion are strongly related to the Enigmatic Traveller. The sites with images that possibly are related to the Enigmatic Traveller will now be discussed, starting with the Huatacondo Valley and then working our way up to the deserts in the south of Peru.

The Huatacondo Valley

When starting the route at the mouth of the Río Loa one reaches Los Soles after 38 km. When one continues the journey further inland one ultimately reaches the ruins of the prehistoric village of Ramaditas in the Huatacondo Valley after 102 km (at 1113 m) and – only 22 km further east – the rock art sites of Tamentica (at 1730 m) from where the route continues to the High Andes (Figure 15). Just west of Tamentica this west-east route is crossed by a major south-north route across the Pampa, from which several other routes diverge. Especially this south-north route is marked with an enormous quantity of geoglyphs that are found in the Huatacondo Valley and on hill slopes and on the vast expanses of the pampas. As far as I could check, none of the geoglyphs depicts the figure of the Enigmatic Traveller. On the other hand, at Ramaditas as well as at Tamentica are several petroglyphs that have a (very) close relation with the Enigmatic Traveller.

PDF-only: Figure 15. Rock art sites (coloured squares) and geoglyph sites (white squares) around Tamentica. Map © by Maarten van Hoek, based on Google Earth.

Ramaditas: On the north side of the mainly dry Río Huatacondo are the low and weathered ruins of the ancient settlement of Ramaditas (about 500 B.C.). At Recinto 17 two blocks of stones with petroglyphs have been incorporated into the circular wall, on either side of a small window. Both images face south into the interior (Van Hoek 2011b: Figs 5 and 6). Boulder 2 (Van Hoek 2011b: Fig. 10) has a much weathered petroglyph of what might be an anthropomorphic figure with possibly one or two arms raised in a semi-circular way (like the petroglyphs on the large panel at Los Soles). Of more interest is Boulder 1, west of the window.

Dominating Boulder 1 is a petroglyph of an anthropomorph, depicted in profile and looking to the right (east). The figure is fully pecked and measures 22 cm in height and 16 across. Several features are interesting. First of all the anthropomorph clearly carries something on its back, which indicates that it depicts a traveller. The anthropomorph has a rather long neck and a small head with a short appendage from the top. It has two legs and two arms that clearly show splayed fingers. Interestingly, at least one arm is so curved that it touches the head. However, because this anthropomorph is an isolated figure and has no parallel arms I do not regard it to represent an Enigmatic Traveller. But it is obvious that it is related. Importantly, between the genital area and the arms (that are raised in the ‘flute player’ position) is a line that could be interpreted as an erect phallus (Figure 16). This could be an indication that ‘backpackers’ are male. Earlier I postulated that Recinto 17 belonged to a (travelling?) shaman and that his special status was symbolised by the imagery in his house (Van Hoek 2013).

PDF-only: Figure 16. Petroglyphs at Ramaditas, Chile.  Photograph © by Maarten van Hoek.

Tamentica: Arriving at Tamentica in 2011 with high expectations the shock could not be worse. Many stones at the site were (recently!) severely and irretrievably damaged and displaced, most likely by heavy (mining?) machinery. Even very large boulders were disturbed and heavily damaged. It was an embarrassment to see that many sanctified images and also the entire sacred area suffered such an intolerable desecration. It is unknown to me if a complete inventory has ever been carried out or published. A complete scientific inventory accomplished before the destruction would somehow mean that at least an inferior kind of salvage had been carried out. Construction works at Pintanane in the Quebrada de Aroma could mean that Ariquilda can suffer the same type of destruction. An improved road now runs right next to the decorated cliffs and damage to the site will be inevitable, I am afraid.

It is said that about 186 panels on altogether 80 Bloques (this Chilean term indiscriminately refers to outcrops and/or boulders) at Tamentica-1 bear petroglyphs (Figure 17). There are several panels with depictions of rafts, including one strange example of an inverted raft still operated by an equally inverted rafter (not mentioned by Cabello and Gallardo 2014). There are also several Bloques with possible ‘backpacker’ petroglyphs.

Five of the Bloques at Tamentica are important to this study (from north to south; see Figure 17): Bloque 7, Bloque 25, Bloque 26, Bloque 32 and Bloque 40. The fact that Bloque 25, Bloque 26, Bloque 32 and Bloque 40 are found very close together and moreover represent the boulders with the biggest concentrations of images, may be significant. One much damaged boulder at Tamentica-1 will not be described in detail here. It bears the petroglyph of an anthropomorph with a small ‘lump’ on its back (Van Hoek 2011b: Fig. 11). It may be a ‘backpacker’.

PDF-only: Figure 17. Map of the major group of petroglyphs boulders at Tamentica-1 (a short distance further west are some more petroglyph panels) with the relevant boulders marked in green. Drawing by Maarten van Hoek, based on a map by Rolando Ajata – 2010.

Tamentica-1, Bloque 40: This small boulder with several decorated panels has near its apex a row of two possible ‘flute-players’ petroglyphs, both depicted in profile, walking to the right and possibly joined by way of the ‘flute’. Especially the right-hand figure seems to carry a backpack (Figure 18).

PDF-only: Figure 18. Petroglyphs at Tamentica, Chile. Photograph © by Maarten van Hoek.

Tamentica-1, Bloque 26: This very large block of stone is almost completely covered with petroglyphs. On its NE facing and much sloping surface is a composition of two anthropomorphic figures joined together at the backs (Figure 19). They both have curiously flexed legs and parallel semi-circular arms that point to the heads. In one case an arm even touches the head or the headgear of the figure.

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Figure 19. Petroglyphs at Tamentica, Chile. Photograph © by Maarten van Hoek.

Tamentica-1, Bloque 25: Another enormous block of stone that is decorated on almost every surface. It has rows of ancient cupules on its apex. The boulder has at least two petroglyphs of rafts (instead of one, as indicated by Cabello and Gallardo 2014: Tabla 1). One vertical panel may have two backpackers that are rather featureless. Most interesting is a composition of two anthropomorphic figures that are facing each other (Figure 20). Each figure has one arm that is raised just above an arc that covers the head. The figures have a row of short grooves emerging from the ‘spine’.

PDF-only: Figure 20. Petroglyphs at Tamentica, Chile. Photograph © by Maarten van Hoek.

Tamentica-1, Bloque 32: This large block has several testimonies of long-distance contacts. There are at least five petroglyphs of rafts on this block. One petroglyph on the north side depicts a raft operated by a backpacker. To its left is another raft that just possibly is also operated by a backpacker and further to the left is a biomorphic figure with his both parallel arms raised. On the SE side is one anthropomorphic figure that has its one arm almost touching its head.  Further to the right is another anthropomorphic figure that has both parallel arms pointing to its forehead (Figures 21A and 22); a raft operated by a figure also with an arm (or arms?) pointing to its forehead and a possible backpack (Figures 21B and 22); and finally a large anthropomorph holding a camelid with a backpack on leash (Figure 21C).

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Figure 21. Petroglyphs at Tamentica, Chile. Photograph © by Maarten van Hoek.

PDF-only: Figure 22. Petroglyphs at Tamentica, Chile. Photograph © by Maarten van Hoek.

On the south portion of Bloque 32 is a large collection of backpackers (Figure 23). Altogether there are eight examples that are all arranged in one row, although separated by a bird petroglyph (added later?). Six backpackers are walking to the left, while the first (A) and the last figures (B) in the row are walking to the right. At least three figures hold a simple straight object looking like a stick. Importantly, one of those ‘stick-carriers’ holds the object above the head, while another backpacker touches his head with its one arm.

Figure 23

Figure 23. Petroglyphs at Tamentica, Chile. Photograph © by Maarten van Hoek.

Tamentica-1, Bloque 7: A large block near the north end of the complex has possibly five petroglyphs of rafts instead of the four examples mentioned by Cabello and Gallardo (2014: Tabla 1). All the rafts are operated by figures, some of which carry paddles and possibly backpacks.

Also on this Bloque are at least eleven travellers, some of which clearly are backpackers. Near the bottom of Panel C is a row of six anthropomorphs (Figure 24). Four of them carry a backpack. The first figure has no cargo, but has one of his arms (holding a stick) almost encircling the head. The second figure is a backpacker with one arm holding a stick-like object above the head. The third figure is a backpacker with both arms raised, one arm holding a stick-like object. The fourth, central figure (4) grasps some cargo (wood?) that is balancing on its head while it is holding a stick in the other hand. The fifth figure is a backpacker with two arms, one holding a stick-like object above the head. The last figure seems to walk in the opposite direction. It clearly is a backpacker.

PDF-only: Figure 24. Petroglyphs at Tamentica, Chile. Photograph © by Maarten van Hoek.

On Panel D is one petroglyph of a rafter and one petroglyph of a ‘backpacker’ that has its one arm encircling its head while carrying a stick-like object. The figure is walking to the left. On the corner of Bloque 7 (thus on both Panel C and D) is a row of four anthropomorphic figures (immediately to the right of another rafter on Panel C). The right-hand figure (on Panel D) is similar to the other example on Panel D. The three other figures (Figure 25; see also Figure 46) are most interesting and will be discussed further on.

Figure 25

Figure 25. Petroglyphs at Tamentica, Chile. Drawing © by Maarten van Hoek.


Other Sites

Suca: There are about 16 rock art sites in the Suca Valley; an area only 50 km NW of Ariquilda. At Suca 7 there is a boulder (Bloque 15) that is said to show two petroglyphs of musicians. However they are better interpreted as anthropomorphs touching their head with one hand, as there is no musical instrument (like a flute or a trumpet) shown (Figure 26).

PDF-only: Figure 26. Petroglyphs at Suca-7, Chile. Drawing © by Maarten van Hoek, based on a photograph in Sepúlveda et al. 2005: Fig. 7c.

At another site in the Suca Valley Rolando Ajata photographed a rock panel that shows four anthropomorphic petroglyphs (Figure 27). Figure C may represent a backpacker (with possibly a faint ring in the hump), while Petroglyph E may represent a paddle (anthropomorph D is comparable with a petroglyph on Bloque 11 from Pampanune in Camarones). However, as far as I could check, there have not been reported images of rafts in the Suca Valley rock art concentration.

PDF-only: Figure 27. Petroglyphs at Suca, Chile. Drawing © by Maarten van Hoek, based on a photograph by Rolando Ajata.

Taltape: I already discussed the possible ‘backpacker’ in the raft on Bloque 3 at Taltape-1 (Niemeyer 1969: Lam. II-1). However, at Taltape is another boulder with two much weathered petroglyphs of possible ‘backpackers’ (Figure 28). They occur in on Bloque 2 at Taltape-1, but in the drawing by Hans Niemeyer (1969: Lam. III-1) they are hardly recognisable. One example seems to have no arms, while the other figure has one arm that is pointing towards its head.

PDF-only: Figure 28. Petroglyphs at Taltape, Chile (relative positions incorrect). Drawing © by Maarten van Hoek, based on a photograph by Renata Aguirre Bianchi.

Rosario: On Panel 1 of Boulder ROS-022 at Rosario in the Lluta Valley (Figure 29) is the petroglyph of a possible backpacker. It seems to have one arm that is raised to touch (?) its very indistinct head. On Boulder ROS-029 (see plan of Rosario: Figure 7 – PDF-only) is the petroglyph of an anthropomorphic figure that seems to have a backpack with rays emerging from it.

PDF-only: Figure 29. Petroglyph Boulder ROS-022 at Rosario, Chile, looking west. Photograph © by Maarten van Hoek.

Miculla: Further north, in southern Peru, is the very extensive rock art site of Miculla. On panel MIN-035 at Miculla is the petroglyph of a phallic archer (apparently shooting a lizard) that seems to have a ‘bag’ on his back from which nine lines radiate (Van Hoek 2011a; Fig. 160). On Boulder MIN-056 at Miculla is an irregular row of five ‘backpackers’. Three figures are walking to the right; two to the left. One of them is clearly phallic and four of them have no arms. One traveller may have a cord between its head and the backpack (Figure 30; see also Figure 44).

Figure 30

Figure 30. Petroglyphs at Miculla, Chile. Photograph © by Maarten van Hoek.

Locumba: I already mentioned the presence of petroglyphs of rafters in the Locumba Valley. At the small rock art site of Chaucalana on the south side of the valley is a large boulder that is covered with petroglyphs. One petroglyph depicts an anthropomorphic figure with one arm holding a stick-like object. It also seems to carry a backpack and looks like a rafter without a raft (Figure 31). At Puente Locumba is a boulder with possibly a very small (armless) petroglyph of a backpacker next to a much larger figure of a ‘trumpet-player’ (Figure 32).

Figure 31

Figure 31. Petroglyphs at Chaucalana, Peru. Photograph © by Rainer Hostnig, reproduced here with his kind permission.

PDF-only: Figure 32. Petroglyphs at Puente Locumba, Peru. Photograph © by Rainer Hostnig, reproduced here with his kind permission.

Huancor: About 725 km NW of Locumba (and actually outside our Study Area) is the extensive petroglyph site of Huancor in the San Juan Valley. Besides three petroglyphs of rafters, there are two anthropomorphic petroglyphs that seem to have a ‘bag’ on their backs and in both cases there are large numbers of lines radiating from each ‘bag’. Interestingly, one of these figures – on panel HCR-W-053 – holds a simple stick-like object in an ‘offering’ position; an attitude that is typical for Huancor iconography (Figure 33A). This attitude also reminds us of ‘backpacker’ petroglyphs from Tamentica. An anthropomorphic figure on Panel HCR-S-027c may carry a backpack and a walking stick. Another backpacker – on panel HCR-W-013 – seems to hold two ‘staffs’ at one side of the body (Figure 33B).

Figure 33

Figure 33A and B. Petroglyphs at Huancor, Peru. Drawings © by Maarten van Hoek.

On panel HCR-S-042 at Huancor is a strangely bend-over anthropomorph that clearly carries a small ‘backpack’ that is attached to the back of the figure with a cord. In the ‘hands’ (not shown) of its parallel, flexed arms the figure also holds a stick-like object that (especially when the figure is rotated) is actually held above its head. Importantly, the figure is clearly phallic (Figure 35). Although differently shaped and positioned, this figure is related to the Enigmatic Traveller of the Atacama.

Figure 34. Petroglyph at Huancor, Peru. Drawing © by Maarten van Hoek.

Tambolic: Finally I would like to mention three rock painting scenes on Panel 2 of the rock art site of Tambolic (Departamento de Amazona, Provincia de Utcubamba) on the east side of the High Andes in northern Peru (located at about 1360 m O.D. and 860 km NNW of Huancor). On a vertical rock surface are (among many other images) three straight lines that are sloping upwards. On one dark-brown line are two anthropomorphic figures that are walking to the right while ‘climbing the path’. At least one figure seems to have a walking stick, while both are carrying a backpack. Immediately to the right is a similar line (red paint) with three figures travelling in the same direction. Those three travellers clearly hold a stick-like object in the one arm shown and all three seem to have a backpack. It is uncertain whether the figures have outlined heads or that they show one arm touching the head, while the other arm is holding a stick-like object. Above the first line is a third sloping line (purple paint) with one figure (not shown in Figure 35) that is walking down-slope (to the left). It also has a stick-like object in the one hand and clearly has a backpack. Most appropriately those figures have been labelled ‘Los Caminantes’, (the travellers) by Yalina Delgado Alarcón (2006).

PDF-only: Figure 35. Rock paintings at Tambolic, Peru. Drawing © by Maarten van Hoek, based on a photograph by Yalina Delgado Alarcón (2006).

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Analogies in American Rock Art

Images of anthropomorphs with two semi-circular and parallel arms in a similar position as the Enigmatic Traveller are extremely rare in global rock art. In most cases the (rare) examples concern anthropomorphs that are symbolising or depicting something else, like the two images of women throwing a lasso at a rock art site in the Uweinat Mountains in the Sahara, or an enigmatic Woodstock figure from Pilbara, Western Australia.

Outside the Desert Andes I know of only very few convincing and similar examples in North and South America. There are literally thousands of anthropomorphic images in the rock art of North America, including numerous images of ‘humpbacked’ anthropomorphs. Those ‘humpbacked’ anthropomorphs usually involve depictions of the well known Kokopelli figure; an icon that is often ‘playing the flute’. It also often appears in rows on the rock surfaces. In at least one case – at the Waterflow rock art site in New Mexico – a humpbacked ‘flute player’ is followed by two figures that I prefer to interpret as possible backpackers, although this scene (Figure 36) was interpreted by Dennis Slifer as two women possibly charmed by a ‘flute player’ (2007: Fig. 1.10). Contradicting his reading however, is the possibility that the larger ‘female’ is phallic. In Desert Andes rock art backpackers very occasionally are depicted on rock surfaces together with ‘flute players’, especially at Ariquilda (see Figures 4, 11 and 31).

Figure 36

Figure 36. Petroglyphs at Waterflow, New Mexico, USA. Drawing © by Maarten van Hoek, based on a photograph by Glyphwalker.

Whether the hump on the back of Kokopelli is a physical deformation or indeed a backpack (Slifer 1994: 28-29) is a matter that will be ignored here. It has also been suggested that the Kokopelli icon originally was derived from the Aztec Pochteca (Slifer 1994), a class of Mesoamerican traders that will be discussed further down.

Apart from Kokopelli images, also several scenes of (rows of) travelling people (often with backpacks) occur in North America, for instance at Comb Ridge (Slifer 2000: 118), Moab (Slifer and Duffield 1994: Fig. 160), Last Chance Canyon (Slifer 1994: Fig. 155), Holbrook (Slifer 1994: Fig. A-116), Black Mesa (Slifer 1998: Fig. 124; a scene depicting people walking on a line) and at Dinosaur National Monument (Slifer and Duffield 1994: Fig. A-161). However, I know of only very few ‘scenes’ in the USA that involve rock art images of anthropomorphs with (one or) two arms in a similar position as the Enigmatic Traveller.

In the Frying Pan Canyon, New Mexico, there is a petroglyph of a walking or running anthropomorph with a possible backpack. The figure has only one arm that seems to be touching the forehead. Another case concerns two small anthropomorphs apparently seated back to back, which both have both arms touching their small heads. Those two anthropomorphs, which in my opinion do not depict ‘flute-players’ as is claimed by Dennis Slifer and James Duffield (1994: Fig 96), are found rather high up a cliff at Tapia Canyon, New Mexico, USA. Unfortunately, two cracks running through the figures blur some details, but they certainly are not travellers or backpackers. They are better compared with the petroglyphs from Suca (see Figure 26).

The third (purported) rock art image – from southern Arizona – will be discussed below. The last scene seems to be more informative. It is a petroglyph (?) from Chinle (Wash?), northern Arizona, apparently depicting a copulation scene (Figure 37A). One of the participants (the male or the female?) is on top and has its two parallel, semi-circular arms touching the head.

However, it is remarkable that roughly 8600 km to the SE of Chinle Wash there is a rock painting of a sexual scene that shows some interesting analogies. The rock painting (Figure 37B) occurs on a rock wall at the Toca do Sobradinho site in the Serra da Capivara in eastern Brazil and most likely the scene represents an instance of parallel development; not of diffusion. Also this time it is not certain that the male is on top (the top-figure may have her [?] legs spread wide open). But also in this case the top-figure has both its arms pointing to its forehead; one is even touching its head. However, it also carries no backpack.

Figure 37

Figure 37. A: Petroglyph from Chinle, Arizona, USA. Drawing © by Maarten van Hoek, based on a drawing in Slifer 2000 (Fig. 44-y). B: Rock painting from Toca do Sobradinho, Brazil. Drawing © by Maarten van Hoek, based on a photograph in Aender.

In the same area are more rock paintings of anthropomorphic figures that have both (parallel) arms pointing to the head, but none depicts a backpacker. One rock painting depicts a possibly male figure (unfortunately the part of the body below the waist is missing) that may be associated with an image of a deer, which is also a fertility symbol (Figure 38A). Two other examples, unsexed though, with arms and legs all flexed in the same semi-circular way (one shown in Figure 38B) appear in a row of strange (anthropomorphic?) figures.

PDF-only: Figure 38. A: Rock painting from the Serra da Capivara, eastern Brazil. Drawing © by Maarten van Hoek, based on a photograph in Aender. B: Rock painting from the Serra da Capivara, eastern Brazil. Drawing © by Maarten van Hoek, based on a photograph by Ricardo Freire.

The examples mentioned above may give the impression that anthropomorphs showing the typical position of the arms in the Serra da Capivara are all male or unsexed. However, rock paintings definitely depicting female figures have also been recorded in the area. For instance, at the Toca do Caboclinho rock art site is a red rock painting of a female depicted in profile (Figure 39). Apparently she is sitting, with both hands pointing to the forehead. Because of the bulging belly the figure has been interpreted by Pascale Binant as a pregnant woman (2016: 18), especially as apparently inside the abdomen the foetus is visible in an X-ray fashion; a rather unique image in rock art. Pascale Binant  suggested me that in some cases the attitude of the arms of anthropomorphs in the rock art of the Serra da Capivara may express the ritual of ‘offering’ (according to Pascale Binant only in the case of a ‘man associated with a hive’), or perhaps a submission, an allegiance or a tribute (pers. comm. 2016).

PDF-only: Figure 39. Rock painting from the Serra da Capivara, eastern Brazil. Drawing © by Maarten van Hoek, based on a drawing by Pascale Binant (2016: Fig. 1a).

As none of those rock paintings in the Serra da Capivara involves travelling people or backpackers it is almost certain that these figures do not have any relation with the Enigmatic Traveller of the Atacama (3200 km further SW across the Amazon jungle and High Andes).

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Observations and Interpretations

It is significant that far inland in the Atacama rock art images of backpackers and/or rafts operated by backpackers occur, moreover often together. The following seven or eight sites have both backpackers and rafts: Los Soles (?) Tamentica, Tarapacá-47, Ariquilda, Ofragía-2, Taltape, Miculla and Huancor). Both types of images offer undeniable evidence of long-distance trafficking across the Atacama Desert and beyond, often using especially those sacred rock art sites as points of convergence. However, in view of the enormous network of routes in the Desert Andes one would expect many more images of rafts and backpackers at many more sites in the Desert Andes. Yet, images of rafts and especially of backpackers are rare and only at one site – Ariquilda – images of rafters, backpackers and Enigmatic Travellers are found together. At Calaunsa there is – besides the unique scene involving the Enigmatic Traveller – also a ‘boat’ petroglyph, without rafters, though. Moreover, only 13 images of the Enigmatic Traveller occur at possibly no more than three sites that are roughly 350 km apart when travelling the prehistoric routes between those three sites. Despite the sporadic occurrence it is beyond any doubt that also the Enigmatic Traveller Icon narrates of vertically orientated journeys from the coast to the High Andes (via Los Soles in Quebrada Amarga to Tamentica and vice versa) and horizontally orientated caravanning up and down the Atacama (via Tamentica, Ariquilda and Calaunsa and vice versa).

Therefore this Andean icon can be best compared with the well known ancient Mesoamerican figure Pochtecatl (singular; Pochteca: plural); the long-distance trader (Figure 40) who travelled across the ancient Aztec Empire and beyond, especially into the Southwest of the USA. The Mesoamerican Pochteca were a small, but important class of merchants as they not only facilitated commerce, but also communicated vital information. Although most Pochteca were male, it has been suggested that also female Pochteca existed.

Figure 40

Figure 40. Pochtecatl from the ancient Aztec Empire. Drawing © by Maarten van Hoek, based on a drawing in the pre-Columbian Codex Fejérváry-Mayer (FAMSI).

I know of only very few rock art images from Mesoamerica that may depict backpackers. In southern Mexico is the ‘Cueva de los Músicos’ with rows of anthropomorphic rock paintings, some of them only seemingly carrying something on their backs. However, the objects more likely are shields held in front of each figure. Also the context of the whole scene suggests that it concerns a scene of confronting warriors and no merchants (and neither musicians). In a cave near San Antonio Tezoquipan, Hidalgo, central Mexico, is a scene composed of white rock paintings that involves a phallic (?) anthropomorphic figure – depicted in profile – with both arms raised towards the head. It has a lump on the back that may be a backpack (Figure 41). The ‘backpacker’, which might depict a Pochtecatl, faces a biomorph with arms in a similar position.

Figure 41

Figure 41. Rock painting at San Antonio Tezoquipan, Mexico. Drawing © by Maarten van Hoek, based on a photograph by ‘Me Gusta Viajar’ – Hgo/Ángel Contreras García.

In analogy with the Mesoamerican Pochteca the Enigmatic Traveller may have been the Andean version of this Mesoamerican Pochtecatl. The Enigmatic Traveller most likely was also a trader and/or a medicine man (thus possibly a shaman as well), travelling from village to village. It is very reasonable to suggest that the Andean backpackers also represented a different class of travellers, as none of them has been depicted in combination with pack-llamas. Pack-llamas probably also transported a different type of merchandise than the stuff carried by such small groups of backpackers. I therefore would like to suggest that pack-llamas carried goods with a public character, while the small groups of backpackers probably conveyed goods (and information) of a more private and restricted nature. However, the idiosyncratic position of the semi-circular arms of the Enigmatic Traveller is still enigmatic and needs to be explained.

In global rock art images of rows of people are not at all uncommon. Very common as well are depictions of people, whether in arranged rows or not, carrying objects in their hands (like weaponry, staffs or sticks, oars, musical instruments etc.), even when only the arms and no hands have been depicted. It can also be expected that representations of anthropomorphic figures in rock art display many different positions of the arms, whether empty-handed or not. Figures with both arms raised are very common globally, but only when depicted fully frontally. Frontally depicted figures with one drooping arm and one arm curved in a semi-circle around the head are rare but occur in Desert Andes rock art. However, profile figures with both arms raised in a parallel way and in a more or less perfect semi-circle and pointing to or touching the forehead are extremely rare. Some of those examples have already been discussed (see Figures 9, 11, 12, 13 and 14).

Among those rare examples are only very few instances of rows involving one or more of such personages walking in line. Moreover, I know of only one example in rock art in which such figure is walking on a (pecked) line. Importantly this figure is carrying a backpack (see Figure 13-3). The icon that combines the properties of carrying a backpack, walking in line together with other backpackers and having both semi-circular arms (almost) touching the forehead has been labelled the Enigmatic Traveller by me. The Enigmatic Traveller is truly enigmatic indeed and moreover extremely rare as – so far – it seems to have been recorded only in the Andean Desert Andes 13 times. Although it will be interesting to attempt to elucidate the idiosyncratic attitude of the arms of the Enigmatic Traveller, this attitude may prove not to be that enigmatic after all.

There are several rock art images in the Andes where biomorphs have either arms or front legs raised (often holding an object) in a comparable way. I have interpreted the attitude of those biomorphs as ‘offering’ (Van Hoek 2005), but I do not think that the Enigmatic Traveller is ‘offering’ something. In contrast with ‘offering’ biomorphs, the Enigmatic Traveller never holds an object in its ‘hands’. But, importantly, images of backpackers do, especially at Tamentica.

Another more plausible explanation could be that the peculiar position of arms of the Enigmatic Traveller is shaman-related. It is a fact that also shamans in the Andes travelled long distances between settlements while carrying their paraphernalia, among which are their stick and their flute. Moreover, a travelling shaman is often accompanied by his specially selected apprentice(s), who also often carry a backpack. I already postulated that the backpacker (possibly an Enigmatic Traveller as well) at Ramaditas (see Figure 16) has its hands and arms in the ‘flute-playing’ position, without showing the ‘flute’, though (Van Hoek 2011b). But the position and curvature of the arms of the true Enigmatic Traveller figures do not seem to confirm this idea, also because – again – no object (in this case a flute) is visible.

On the other hand, there may be an alternative, equally shaman-related explanation. Images of anthropomorphs that are touching their heads with their hand(s) may be indicative of persons experiencing nosebleeds, especially shamans when in an altered state of consciousness induced by hallucinogens  (Van Hoek 2010: 164). However, in many cases a haemorrhage in rock art imagery is not even touched by any hand, or it is touched by one hand (arm) only, like the two petroglyphs at Suca-7, Bloque 15 (see Figure 26), which, in my opinion, do not depict musicians, but more likely persons (shamans?) with a haemorrhage. Moreover, having a haemorrhage while walking in a row and carrying a (heavy) load across rough terrain seems also to be very impractical.

On the other hand, there may be a possibly more logical and simpler explanation for the enigmatic position of the arms of the Enigmatic Traveller. Surprisingly, there are – so far – only three (?) rock art images that provide convincing evidence in this respect. One purported rock art image (hence the ?) is found in southern Arizona (USA), an area once covered by Mesoamerican Pochteca trading-system, while the other two petroglyphs occur at Miculla (Peru) and Tamentica (Chile). The petroglyph on Panel HCR-S-042 at Huancor, showing a small package that is connected with a short line to the back of the much inclined figure (see Figure 34), will be ignored here.

The purported rock art image from southern Arizona depicts a backpacker that is walking to the right. It carries a crooked stick in one hand, while the other arm clearly touches the forehead (Figure 42). It is possible however that in fact this image is found painted on a pottery, as the drawing is almost identical to an illustration of burden basket carriers on Hohokam ceramics, also from southern Arizona (Slifer 1994: Fig. 20). Whether a rock art image or not, it is significant that its backpack is attached to the head by one short line; most likely a strap. It is the specific combination of the strap-backpack and the hand touching the forehead that offers the possible solution of the position of the arms of the Enigmatic Traveller. However, it is a fully pecked or fully painted-in figure. And because no further details are visible, the solution is still not manifest. The figure is most likely of Hohokam origin, as it is almost similar to backpackers painted on two large red-on-buff jars of Hohokam manufacture (Figure 43). Importantly, the ceramic paintings show two straps between the burden (packed in a netted bag) and the head, but again one hand touches the forehead. Again the head is fully painted in, showing no further details.

PDF-only: Figure 42. Petroglyph (?) from southern Arizona, USA. Drawing © by Maarten van Hoek, based on a drawing in Slifer 2000 (Fig. 138-L).

Figure 43

Figure 43. Hohokam ceramic paintings, southern Arizona. Drawings © by Maarten van Hoek, based on photographs by Mike Jacobs (2010: Figs 2 and 3).

In the Desert Andes only two petroglyphs most likely involve the strap-backpack combination. A rather indistinct example occurs on Boulder MIN-056 at Miculla, already discussed. Although the fully pecked anthropomorph has no arms (and thus holds no stick), it seems that the figure (part of a group of five backpackers; see Figure 30) is walking to the right when carrying a backpack that seems to be attached by a short strap to the head (arrow in Figure 44).

PDF-only: Figure 44. Detail of a petroglyph scene at Miculla, Peru. Photograph © by Maarten van Hoek.

At Tamentica there is one anthropomorphic petroglyph that undoubtedly shows the strap-backpack combination. It is part of a group of four backpacker petroglyphs on the corner between Panels C and D of Bloque 7; three of which are shown in Figure 25. This group of figures also offers a clue regarding the sex of the backpacker and thus possible of the Enigmatic Traveller as well. The graphic evidence at Tamentica (and at Los Soles and possibly at Ramaditas) seems to strengthen the idea that all backpacker representations are male. Moreover, if we still accept that – in general – the Andean ‘flute player’ is male, also the ‘flute player’ with possible backpack on Bloque 40 at Tamentica, although not showing sex, seems to confirm my hypothesis that possibly all Andean backpacker-figures are male.

But before discussing the pivotal (smaller) figure of this group, it is worthwhile also to consider the two larger figures on Bloque 7. The left-hand figure (walking to the right) has its one arm encircling its head while holding a stick-like object; a flute perhaps. It might carry a backpack (with a flute or a stick sticking out?). The right-hand figure (walking to the left) also has its one arm encircling its head, while possibly holding a stick-like object (the uppermost part of this petroglyph has flaked off). This figure is definitely a backpacker and – importantly – is clearly phallic. Both figures show a remarkable resemblance with images of the Mesoamerican Pochteca regarding one characteristic: the arm holding an object over the head (Figures 45A and B).

PDF-only: Figure 45. Pochteca from the ancient Aztec Empire. Drawings © by Maarten van Hoek, A: based on a drawing in the pre-Columbian Codex Fejérváry-Mayer (FAMSI). B: also in the Codex Fejérváry-Mayer (FAMSI).

The smaller figure in between the two larger figures also is unquestionably a backpacker. It clearly holds a (crooked?) stick or staff while walking to the left. Importantly, this is the only Andean rock art image of a backpacker, which I know of, that seems to have its large backpack tied with two straps to an (invisible) band around its head. But because it is – again – a fully pecked figure, no further details are visible.

In order to make my interpretation better visible, I have coloured-in the different parts of the figure, artificially revealing the backpack and its traps more clearly (Figure 46). However, this coloured-in interpretation shows another possible reading. The ‘single’ arm of the figure is rather thick compared with the arms of the other backpackers. It is possible that actually two arms have been drawn, one touching the forehead, while the other is holding the staff. If that indeed is the case, then this petroglyph should be regarded to represent the only Enigmatic Traveller at Tamentica. This Tamentica petroglyph, together with the Hohokam images, may offer the solution for the enigmatic attitude of the arms of the Enigmatic Traveller.

PDF-only: Figure 46. Petroglyph at Tamentica, Chile. Drawing © by Maarten van Hoek.

Because most rivers in the Atacama are not suitable at all for navigation, Andean backpackers probably used a tumpline; a textile strap attached at both ends to a backpack. The belt was placed over the top of the head. Tumplines are not intended to be worn across the forehead, but rather the top of the head just back from the hairline, pulling straight down in alignment with the spine. The carrier then leans forward, allowing the back to help support the load. Tumplines are often used to transport heavy loads across rough terrain and often the transport involved people walking in lines.

The tumpline interpretation is clearly authenticated by an image in the Florentine Codex (a 16th-century ethnographic research project in Mesoamerica by Franciscan friar Bernardino de Sahagún). This picture clearly (Figure 47) shows two backpackers walking in a row (also notice the row of footprints on their path). It also shows and explains the typical position of the hand touching the forehead, or rather ‘grasping the tumpline’. One traveller holds a stick while ‘touching the strap on its forehead’, while the first figure has both its arms raised, one ‘touching’ the strap on its forehead.

Therefore, the position of the hands touching the forehead of the Enigmatic Traveller may indicate nothing more than the gesture or attitude to hold the strap in its place, to adjust it or to momentarily relief the pressure. This can be done with one hand or with both hands. The emblematic semi-circular shape of both arms of the Enigmatic Traveller may be explained by local or regional conventions, as there is no rule that demands how arms must be drawn in rock art.

Figure 47

Figure 47. Mesoamerican merchants using the tumpline. Drawing  from the Florentine Codex by Franciscan friar Bernardino de Sahagún (Wikiwand).

Although ethnographic information or informed knowledge is not available for the pre-Columbian rock art figures of the Enigmatic Traveller, it is certain that the tumpline was used in ancient times in Mesoamerica and definitely in the Andes as well. There are pieces of archaeological material (mainly concerning ceramics or stone artefacts) that offer further useful information, like the small stone effigy from the Teotihuacan culture of central Mexico (Figure 48), or pre-Columbian ceramics from the Ixil area of Guatamala and pre-Columbian ceramics from the Chachapoyas region and the Moche heartland of Peru. All those objects depict people using the tumpline. But – importantly – all those objects also show that the hands do not touch the centre of the forehead, but instead grasp the strap at a spot near the ears.

PDF-only: Figure 48. Stone effigy from the Teotihuacan culture of central Mexico. Drawing © by Maarten van Hoek, based on a photograph in Sands of Time.

The tumpline-solution seems to be very plausible in its simplicity. However, at Tamentica are a few petroglyphs of anthropomorphs – that are not backpackers at all – still showing similar attitudes and curvatures of the arms. At least, any indication of a backpack seems to be missing in those petroglyphs. In one case two such figures are placed back-to-back like Siamese twins (see Figure 19). Two other figures are facing each other, while their backs feature a row of short spines (see Figure 20). It is possible that those non-backpacker figures are only imitating the special attitude of the arms of the Enigmatic Travellers when they (exhaustedly?) arrived at Tamentica? However, despite the logical explanation of the attitude of the arms of the Enigmatic Traveller in Desert Andes rock art, it is possible that the position of the arms symbolises something completely different in those non-backpacker images. They may well express supplication.

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This study especially analysed the idiosyncratic position of the upraised, semi-circular arms of the Enigmatic Traveller and its distribution in Desert Andes rock art. It proved that there are only very few images of the Enigmatic Traveller. Only three sites (possibly four, if counting Tamentica as well) feature altogether 13 unambiguous examples of this distinctive personage (not counting the one purported figure at Tamentica, though). Importantly, those sites are found 350 km apart across the driest desert on earth.

Moreover, most examples of the Enigmatic Traveller clearly depict backpackers walking in line and most examples are found at rock art sites that also feature images of other types of backpackers (and rafts, often operated by backpackers as well). It is therefore certain that all those images firmly strengthen the idea that in the Desert Andes images do travel, often across enormous distances across harsh and extremely dry landscapes. It is therefore unquestionable that also the Enigmatic Traveller is an icon that travels; literally and metaphorically. It is obvious that during its journey as an image, which may have taken many decades, its appearance may have changed regarding some graphical details. For that reason the images of the Enigmatic Traveller obviously are different at each site, but they are clearly recognisable and distinguishable by two properties: the attitude of their semi-circular arm(s) and their backpack.

Such distinguishing properties (the semi-circular arms and the backpack of the Enigmatic Traveller) are called the ‘nuclear content’ by Eco (1997). The concept of ‘nuclear content’ was also applied by Professor Andrés Troncoso and Dr. Donald Jackson in a well reasoned paper, most appropriately called ‘Images that Travel’ (to avoid confusion I chose ‘Icons that Travel’ as the title of my current paper). They wrote: ‘In the case of rock art, this nuclear content would be expressed in particular visual attributes that allow the identification and ascription of the motif to a specific type. Hence this nuclear content acts as a semantic determinant which accounts for a particular sense of the sign (Eco 1997), and in this case, of the prototype that originates it’ (2009: 44).

In their paper Troncoso and Jackson discuss and analyse two biomorphic petroglyphs (2009: Figs 4 and 5) found in the Province of Choapa, in the semiarid north of Chile, which – so they argue – possibly are testimonies of ‘Aguada’, a ‘culture’ that once occupied northwest Argentina [NOA] on the eastern side of the Continental Divide that runs across the Andes. Ignoring here their analysis of the morphology of the two Choapa petroglyphs and the symbolic content (that may have changed during the journey) and the possible chronology of events, the main point in their paper is that Troncoso and Jackson link those two Choapa images – that by the way are unique in the rock art repertoire of Choapa – with the Aguada culture that once flourished across the Andes in what is now the northwest of Argentina, involving  a distance of about 550 km from Los Mellizos in Chile to the town of Belén in Argentina. Simultaneously they acknowledge ‘the widely discussed Andean dynamic of flux of images and contents, not only for Aguada but for other pre-Hispanic moments, where the centrality of the visual languages has been acknowledged, evaluating their extra-regional dynamics’ (2009: 49).

In my opinion Troncoso and Jackson legitimately link the two images in eastern Chile with the Aguada culture in NOA. Contacts across the Andes were very common in Pre-Hispanic times. The harsh mountain range of the Andes has many accessible passes and is crisscrossed by numerous long-distance paths. Moreover, there is ample evidence of contact between and exchange with the often much differing cultural zones west and east of the Continental Divide. For instance, also at Tamentica (770 km NNW of Belén) there is at least one rock art scene (on Panel B of Bloque 72, just west of the main group; not shown in Figure 17) that involves an Aguada style image (Rolando Ajata 2010: pers. comm.). Yet Robert Bednarik refutes their idea of inter-regional exchange of imagery in a rather harsh way.

Based on my own experiences in the Desert Andes, I agree with Troncoso and Jackson that – in general – certain key images indeed travelled along and across the Andes from north to south and from east to west. Often enormous distances in space and time were involved in those ‘travels’. The authors refer to the ‘Sacrificer’ as an Andean example (2009: 44), but they possibly are unaware that – so far – only one ‘MSC-style’ petroglyph (Formative Period; see Van Hoek 2011a for a comprehensive explanation) unambiguously depicting the ‘Sacrificer’ (holding a severed head and a knife in its hands) has been reported in Andean rock art. It occurs at Alto de la Guitarra in northern Peru (Van Hoek 2011a: 178; Fig 40). The occurrence of only one single example in Andean rock art does not contradict however the concept of diffusion of imagery and symbolic content. It is certain that the morphology and the concept of the Sacrificer have travelled enormous distances within South America. It often proves that one anomalous image in one rock art site/zone demonstrates contacts between distant areas. I have argued before that the same discrepancy of scarcity in rock art versus a wide distribution goes for other Andean Personages, like the ‘Staff-Bearer’ (Van Hoek 2011a: 185-188) and the Avian Staff Bearer (Van Hoek 2016).

What is even more important, is that when ‘images travel’, they often (subtly) change their morphology and their symbolism. This shifting while travelling is a characteristic property of Andean dynamics. Therefore, in my opinion Robert Bednarik clearly has no idea of the dynamics in the (Desert) Andes. For instance, the Andean Staff-Bearer probably originated somewhere in the coastal strip of what is now northern Peru. The discovery of a Staff-Bearer image on a gourd-fragment in that area confirmed a Cupisnique origin or even of pre-Cupisnique origin. I have demonstrated that, during the purported Chavín domination, a more sophisticated variety of the Staff-Bearer Figure, borrowed from the Cupisnique, became interchangeable with the Sacrificer Personage. Much later the Staff-Bearer migrated further south across the Andes and appeared in Wari and Tiwanaku iconography, still combining the properties of the Staff-Bearer and the Sacrificer. Another version of the Staff-Bearer emerged as the Avian Staff Bearer in the Atacama Desert, but this personage simultaneously changed its symbolic content and its morphology drastically by adding wing-elements to its ‘nuclear content’ (for a full description of the Avian Staff Bearer see Van Hoek 2016).

Several academics have constructively commented on the paper by Troncoso and Jackson. For instance, I fully agree with the comment by Natalia Carden (Troncoso and Jackson 2009: 51-52) that ‘the presence of jaws with sharp teeth …. is not exclusive to felines’. The two Choapa petroglyphs depicting fantastic creatures described by Troncoso and Jackson only seemingly comprise ‘feline’ characteristics. However, they might represent an entirely different creature. To illustrate the idea that – when ‘images travel’ – the symbolic, graphical and biological content and context of those images is most likely to change, I argue that, in Andean iconography, it is even possible that the teeth of one animal species were incorporated into the head of another animal species, especially when it concerns mythical or imaginary creatures. For example, I argue that many of the (especially purported ‘crocodile’) teeth displayed in the iconography of Chavín de Huántar in northern Peru most likely are not ‘feline’ teeth as is often stated, but most likely represent the teeth of the orca (Van Hoek 2011a: 163-170). Images of the ‘orca head with orca teeth’ possibly travelled (most likely on pottery and perhaps on textiles) from the central coast of what is now Peru into the Andean highlands (Van Hoek 2011a: Fig. 154) and ultimately were transformed into mythical creatures at for instance (!) Chavín de Huántar (often referred to as the ‘Cornice Caimans’ or the ‘Tello Caimans’).

Another matter altogether are the comments by non-academic rock art researcher Robert Bednarik, the editor of Rock Art Research, who uses two petroglyphs from Alto de la Guitarra to allegedly demonstrate a ‘flaw’ in the reasoning by Troncoso and Jackson (Bednarik in Troncoso and Jackson 2009: 53-56). It is easy to find errors in any publication (also in mine) and finding errors is never is a problem for Bednarik (or for me). To quote Bednarik ‘I could quibble about’ the fact that a distance, which Bednarik mentions in his comments, is not correct. Alto de la Guitarra is not ‘1500 km to its north’ as stated by Bednarik, but almost 2500 km NW of the ‘heartland of Aguada’ (I randomly selected the town of Belén in the Catamarca Province [NOA] as the centre of the alleged ‘Aguada heartland’). However, to quote Bednarik again, ‘that would be petty and detract from the main thrust of my argument’ (Bednarik in Troncoso and Jackson 2009: 54).

Remarkably, Bednarik offers only two examples from the enormous rock art repertoire of the Andes. I now could quibble about the fact that Bednarik fails to mention or illustrate any of the ‘relevant material on the way (which is plentiful)’, but ‘that would be petty and detract from the main thrust of my argument’. It is moreover most unlikely that Bednarik has ever surveyed the two petroglyphs at Alto de la Guitarra, as he uses two illustrations by Núñez Jiménez (1986: Figs 625 and 624 respectively) and visited Peru – up to 2015 – only twice.

Why do I refute the observations by Bednarik that are based on illustrations by Núñez Jiménez? In 2009 I personally informed Bednarik about the fact that the illustrations of Núñez Jiménez are often highly unreliable or even demonstrably completely incorrect (for different renderings of Núñez Jiménez’ Figs 625 and 624 [1986], see Van Hoek 2011a: Figures 52 and 65 respectively). Bednarik should have mentioned in the caption of his Fig. 1 (Bednarik in Troncoso and Jackson 2009: 54) that he has not seen these petroglyphs in the field at Alto de la Guitarra and, moreover, that the renderings by Núñez Jiménez are often questionable and even incorrect. Strangely, Bednarik does not seem to have even read (or understood) my publication in Rock Art Research (!) in which I question an incorrect drawing by Núñez Jiménez (Van Hoek 2007: 257). Yet, Bednarik bases his arguments ‘against’ Troncoso and Jackson on the two illustrations by Núñez Jiménez, while both illustrations are inaccurate.

Moreover, I personally find it rather unscientific (and petty) of Bednarik when he writes that ‘… perhaps there is more to the Andean connection than Troncoso and Jackson suspected; perhaps the ‘Aguada people’ migrated from Peru? Or vice versa?’ (Bednarik in Troncoso and Jackson 2009: 54). In this way Bednarik belittles the legitimate attempts by Troncoso and Jackson to establish a (geographically very) acceptable link between ‘Aguada’ and central Chile. In this way Bednarik also ignores the possibility that not the ‘Aguada people migrated from Peru (this I find a typical sneer of Bednarik), but that the graphic content of an ancient image travelled (from ‘Peru’? – why not?) across the Andes to ultimately appear in a different style in ‘Aguada’ iconography (and then it is irrelevant in the comments by Bednarik whether the ‘Aguada people’ formed a coherent group or not) and then crossed the Andes again to emerge in central Chile. Therefore I repeat that Bednarik has no understanding of Andean dynamics. The scenario presented by Troncoso and Jackson is not at all unthinkable or far fetched, especially as in northern Chile more graphical data have been reported (both on textiles and in rock art) that seem to substantiate the hypothesis by Troncoso and Jackson.

I personally think that in his comments Bednarik confuses two levels of reasoning. His ‘broader perspective’ (the macro level) is well underpinned and I am convinced that he is right in arguing that – in global (rock) art – many examples of ‘similar’ feline-looking creatures can indeed be traced back to some sort of ‘fear-generated’ archetype. But I personally find it too far fetched of Bednarik to even suggest that the ‘Canadian petroglyphs are perfect further candidates for ‘Aguada status’’ (Bednarik in Troncoso and Jackson 2009: 54-55). I personally find that this remark again belittles and ridicules the sincere intentions of Troncoso and Jackson.

The monologue (‘comments’) by Bednarik would have been most useful if only he had omitted his ‘comments’ on the diffusion-issue raised by Troncoso and Jackson (but then his monologue would not be applicable as ‘comments’). In other words, his justifiable archetype argument is a completely different matter to the equally valid issue of ‘Images that Travel’ across the Andes. Both issues are legitimate, but as they operate on two different levels, I am of the opinion that in this respect the macro may not be (ab)used to ‘comment’ the micro. Therefore, the idea postulated by Troncoso and Jackson that the two Chilean petroglyphs may be related to the ‘Aguada’ iconography is very legitimate and deserves further (inter-regional) investigation.

Finally, I claim that in the (Desert) Andes certain images, especially deeply charged icons and symbols, did travel across enormous distances, simultaneously – but not necessarily – subtly transforming their morphology and/or changing and adjusting their symbolic content, often in harmony with the local beliefs and environmental conditions. One of the best examples is the icon of the Avian Staff Bearer, which is found distributed across a distance of 950 kilometres of the Desert Andes (from Toro Muerto in Peru to Vilama in Chile).

The much smaller distance of about 350 km that the image of the Enigmatic Traveller – so far – ‘travelled’, does not at all contradict my claim and my interpretation cannot be refuted by comparing the idiosyncratic position of its semi-circular arms with rock art images from Arizona or the Serra da Capivara in eastern Brazil, depicting anthropomorphs with similarly positioned arms, or even with the enigmatic Woodstock figure from Pilbara, Western Australia. As the date of the petroglyphs depicting the Enigmatic Traveller cannot be ascertained, it is also not at all certain (but still possible) that the Enigmatic Traveller has any affiliation with the Mesoamerican Pochteca. I mainly used images of the Mesoamerican Pochteca to demystify the enigmatic attitude of the semi-circular arms that are touching the forehead of the Enigmatic Traveller. Although we will never know for sure, this specific attitude most likely is explained by grasping a tumpline that is attached to the backpack of the Enigmatic Traveller.

What is certain however is that the Enigmatic Traveller is truly a long distance backpacker. In my opinion this backpacker is not simply a secular, commercial figure, but more likely a combination of a privileged, high status personage (a shaman for instance) and personage that also communicates with people about worldly matters, perhaps simultaneously trading mercantile goods as well. We probably will never know what exactly the content of its backpack has been. That will remain an enigma.

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Acknowledgements and Sources

I especially thank archaeologist Juan Enrique García for his assistance regarding the rock art of Quebrada Amarga and for the most useful information and the photographic material that he kindly shared with me. I am also grateful to archaeologist John Vincent Bellezza for sharing a copy of Figure 2 with me and for granting me permission to reproduce it here, together with a passage from his 2013-publication. Rolando Ajata, archaeologist at the University of Tarapacá, Arica, Chile, was so kind to share information with me about the rock art at Tamentica and Suca. Billy Morales of Iquique, Chile has – again – been so kind to send me a high quality photo of Ariquilda that has been reproduced here with his permission as Figure 10. Anthropologist Pascale Binant informed me of her interpretation of certain rock art figures from Serra da Capivara. As ever, Rainer Hostnig from Cusco, Peru, contributed by sharing many of his photographs with me, two of which have been reproduced in this study (Figures 31 and 32).

However, every opinion and every illustration in this study is the responsibility of the author. Most photographs have digitally enhanced by me. The illustrations based on sources other than my own surveys concern sites that I have not visited myself. When my drawings have been derived from photos, they are rather accurate, but still they remain my interpretation. When my drawings are based on other people’s drawings, I cannot guarantee their correctness. Finally, I would like to thank all people who, directly or indirectly, helped me with the realisation of this project, especially my wife Elles.

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