Plantilla de artículo 2013
Andean Geology 51 (1): 86-168. January, 2024
Andean Geology
doi: 10.5027/andgeoV51n1-3667
Old and modern volcanic depictions as evidence of
communities-volcanoes mutualism in Colombia
*John J. Sánchez1, William A. Posada2

1 Departamento de Geociencias y Medio Ambiente, Facultad de Minas, Universidad Nacional de Colombia-Sede Medellín, Calle 65 78-28 Bloque M1, Medellín, Colombia.

2 Departamento de Antropología, Universidad de Antioquia, Calle 67 53-108, Medellín, Colombia.

* Corresponding author:

Studying the different ways in which the concept of volcanism is represented is crucial in the understanding of communities’ perception of the volcanic phenomena. In this contribution, 129 modern (2021-2023) depictions of volcanoes in Colombia between latitudes 0.82 and 5.96° N are described and classified into different contexts of use. Prehispanic depictions of volcanism are investigated in rock art sites (3 pictographs and 33 petroglyphs), and 15 distinct mythical narratives compiled and confirmed through interviews in the State of Nariño. We suggest that many of the rock art sites contain motifs that are reminiscent of the idea of volcanism, and that many of the folk tales include allusions to the volcanic concept. By collating the information contained in modern and older depictions, a link is established with the reality of the volcanic phenomena that shows how mutualism takes root between communities and volcanoes. The beneficial aspects derived from this relationship influence the perception of volcanic hazards in the region.

Keywords: Volcanoes of Colombia, Modern depictions, Nariño, pictographs, Petroglyphs, Myths and legends.



1. Introduction

1.1. Importance and objective of the study

Graphic and narrative depictions of volcanism are a window to the cosmic vision of their authors, revealing not only individual or collective perception of the natural landscape but also psychological, social, and cultural aspects that influenced the creation of the artwork or the folklore expression. By analyzing artistic manifestations depicting volcanoes, we have access to the way of thinking of the inhabitants within the influence areas. A main objective of this work is thus to study modern (paintings, murals, advertisements) as well as old (pictographs, petroglyphs, myths) forms of volcanic depictions, to get insight into the mutualistic relationship that is established between humans and volcanoes. This, in turn, allows for a further understanding of how volcanic hazards are perceived.

1.2. Colombian volcanism

In southwestern Colombia, the Andes branch out to form three mountain ranges, named Eastern, Central, and Western Cordilleras (Fig. 1). Volcanoes between latitudes 0.82-5.96°N occur along all these three ranges, although Holocene activity has taken place only at centers located in the Central and Western Cordilleras (Servicio Geológico Colombiano, 2023). The degree of knowledge about the precise ages of eruptions varies from place to place, but 25 volcanoes have so far been determined as active during historical times (Monsalve-Bustamante, 2020). If the known older, inactive, or age-undetermined volcanic centers are also taken into consideration, the number of volcanoes in the study area exceeds a hundred (Robertson et al., 2002) (Fig. 1). The spatial distribution of active volcanoes forms three arc segments limited by fault systems, termed southern, central, and northern, each with distinctive details in the numbers of volcanoes and their eruptive frequency (Monsalve-Bustamante, 2020). The southern volcanic segment only has four volcanic complexes, bounded by southerly Chiles-Cerro Negro Complex and northerly Galeras Volcanic Complex (GVC). The latter has evolved over roughly one million years, being Galeras its youngest center. Galeras volcano grew inside of the amphitheater left by the catastrophic sector collapse of its predecessor, Urcunina volcano, ~12 to 5 kyr ago (Calvache, 1995). Galeras has a rich history of eruptions, with major events 4.5, 4, 2.9, 2.3, and 1.1 ka BP, and a big historical eruption in the year 1866.  The central volcanic segment has six composite volcanoes, five of which have dome complexes and one is actually a dome built on the remnants of an old caldera. The southernmost volcano of the central segment is Doña Juana and the northernmost is Nevado del Huila. The Coconucos Volcanic Chain, in the center of this segment, is formed by 15 vents aligned NW-SE and includes active Puracé volcano (Samacá and Sánchez, 2018). The northern volcanic segment holds ten volcanoes along the Central Cordillera plus four monogenetic volcanoes located off the axis of the cordillera. The best-known volcano of the northern segment is Nevado del Ruiz, a large composite volcano which erupted in 1985 generating lahars that caused near 25,000 fatalities (Thouret et al., 1990; Ceballos-Hernández et al., 2020).


FIG. 1. Location map showing the volcanoes and sites where depictions (colored circles) have been documented. The color of a given circle matches with the color used for the volcano depicted (black circles used for depictions of unspecified volcanoes). The inset zooms into the State of Nariño where rock art (pictographs and petroglyphs) sites are located. From south to north: CN=Cerro Negro, CH=Chiles, CVC=Cumbal Volcanic Complex, CO=Colimba, AV=Azufral Volcano, GVC=Galeras Volcanic Complex, DJ=Doña Juana, LA=Las Ánimas, SU=Sucubún, SO=Sotará, PU=Puracé, NH=Nevado del Huila, CM=Cerro Machín, NT=Nevado del Tolima, NSIDC=Nevado Santa Isabel Dome Complex, PQ=Paramillo del Quindío, PSR=Paramillo de Santa Rosa, CMNVC=Cisne-Morro Negro Volcanic Complex, NRVC=Nevado del Ruiz Volcanic Complex, CBVC=Cerro Bravo Volcanic Complex, SD=San Diego, CES=Cerro El Sillón, and CT=Cerro Tusa.


Apart from the composite volcanism summarized above, there are also many monogenetic volcanoes located preferentially east of the active front. These include at least 51 relatively small volcanoes with a diversity of structures such as domes, scoria cones, single lava flows, and maars, grouped formally into six monogenetic volcanic fields (Botero-Gómez et al., 2018; Monsalve-Bustamante et al., 2020). North of 5.6° N there has been no recent monogenetic volcanism, with activity likely occurring during the upper Miocene in a number of centers with mainly andesitic chemistry (Grosse, 1926; Calle and González, 1980; Velásquez et al., 2021). Nonetheless, the morphologies, lithologies, and field relationships of centers like Cerro Tusa, Cerro El Sillón, or Cerro Bravo, located further north in the Antioquia State (Fig. 1), may indicate the existence of one or several yet-to-be-defined monogenetic fields.

The volcanoes mentioned in this work include, from south to north: Chiles-Cerro Negro Volcanic Complex (Perdomo et al., 1986; Cortés and Calvache, 1996; Telenchana, 2017); Azufral Volcanic Complex (Williams et al., 2017; Castilla et al., 2019; Moreno-Alfonso et al., 2021); Galeras Volcanic Complex (Calvache, 1990; Calvache et al., 1997; Cepeda, 2020); Puracé Volcano (Patiño and Monsalve, 2019); Cerro Machín (Rueda, 2005; Murcia et al., 2008; Laeger et al., 2013; Cortés-Jiménez, 2020);  Nevado del Tolima (Thouret et al., 1995); Nevado Santa Isabel Dome Complex (Monsalve-Bustamante, 2020); Nevado del Ruiz Volcanic Complex (Herd, 1974; Thouret et al., 1990; Ceballos-Hernández et al., 2020); and Cerro Bravo Volcanic Complex (Lescinsky, 1990; Monsalve, 1991).

1.3. Volcanic depictions

Volcanoes, whether active or not, are usually imposing terrain features that inspire awe and instill fear in the minds of the inhabitants of their surroundings. Active volcanic edifices and volcanic complexes are landmarks difficult to miss, and when magma approaches the surface and erupts, the processes that result, apart from being hazardous, are observed by onlookers near and far. In this way, representations of volcanism and volcanic landscapes appear in many forms: news spread, stories are told, songs and anthems are composed, and graphic images (depictions) of volcanoes and their activity are sculpted or drawn so the human feelings, emotions or ideas can be communicated.

Around the world there are many instances of ancient depictions of volcanoes, especially those that have been observed during eruptions, some examples include the 30,000-40,000 years-old painting found in the Chauvet-Pont d’Arc cave in southeastern France, showing explosive volcanic activity likely occurring in the Bas-Vivarais area, some 35 km to the northwest (Nomade et al., 2016); the >7,000 years-old petroglyph showing the eruption of Porak Volcano in the Syunik region of Armenia, found ~9 km southeast of the volcano (Karakhanian et al., 2002); the >8,000 years-old painting found in Ҫatalhöyük, Turkey, likely representing active Mt. Hasan, located roughly 120 km away (Mellaart, 1964a, b; Mellaart, 1967; Harris, 2000; Meece, 2006; Rochberg, 2014; Schmitt et al., 2014); and, more recently, the ~4,700 years-old Kanlıtaş pictograph in western Turkey, interpreted as representing erupting Çakallar volcano, some 2 km to the northeast (Akal et al., 2009; Akdeniz, 2011; Ulusoy et al., 2019).

In South America, particularly in Colombia, many modern depictions of volcanoes appear in multiple contexts (e.g., used and shown in many daily-life aspects), from history and government to economy and commerce (Sánchez and Calvache, 2018; Calvache and Sánchez, 2022). Pre-Hispanic depictions of volcanoes, at least those that are figurative, are, however, scarcer. Here we 1) study the modern figurative depictions of volcanoes to understand the way communities relate to these potentially hazardous landforms, and 2) study the oldest known figurative volcanic depiction, and 3) make inferences about alternative ways (not figurative) in which volcanoes could have been represented in Colombia.

1.4. Background on figurative volcanic depictions in Colombia

Modern graphic representations of volcanoes in Colombia vary in type, spatial character (local, regional), temporal nature (short-lived, long-lasting), amount of representations, and also in the way they are used (context, purpose). A recent survey by Sánchez and Calvache (2018) reported that 19 volcanoes (including both dormant and active centers) were depicted in 71 localities, mostly in neighboring zones. This survey has been updated and new data are shown in the present work (Fig. 1). More recently, Calvache and Sánchez (2022) focused on seven volcanoes in the State of Nariño (southwestern Colombia) and found that more than half of the depictions related to art, culture, and music themes. For the span of time that these recent datasets cover (~1,558-2020 CE), and considering that just the two aforementioned studies together reported on nearly 500 observations, modern depictions of volcanoes in Colombia abound.

Older depictions, however, are more elusive. The “El Higuerón” pictograph, reported near the locality of Genoy (Nariño) includes a sketch of what purportedly shows Galeras volcano in activity (e.g., see Cabrera, 1966; Granda, 1983; Quijano, 2007). This drawing was made on the surface of a columnar-jointed lava on the eastern flank of the Galeras Volcanic Complex, and here we present some ideas about the age of the El Higuerón pictograph as well as some implications regarding the relationships that arise between volcanoes and their surrounding communities.

The scarcity of old figurative depictions of volcanism in a territory with that many volcanic centers is in sharp contrast with the abundance of pictograms and petroglyphs. We speculate that the symbols and sketches contained therein could be abstract representations of landscapes features, including volcanoes. Likewise, there is a wealth of legends and myths that could arguably include allusions to volcanoes and eruptions. We explore this tantalizing possibility by presenting data from literature search and field surveys.

2. Data and methods

Recent (2021-2023) depictions of volcanism were investigated in this study within northern latitudes 0.8-6.4 ° (Fig. 1). The southernmost volcano within the study area is the Chiles-Cerro Negro Volcanic Complex, part of the international limit between Colombia and Ecuador, and the northernmost is Cerro Tusa, near the municipalities of Venecia and Fredonia. These recent depictions were located by means of (1) scheduled itineraries through rural and urban localities around volcanoes; and (2) systematic online enquiries in authoritative sources (mainly the official internet pages of institutions), search engines queries, and electronic mail communications to crosscheck specific or detailed information. For every graphic image of a volcano found, a set of high-resolution photographs was taken and, whenever possible, the following basic data were recorded: date for when the depiction was found, location, preliminary classification (i.e., stating whether it was a mural, or a canvass painting, etc.), identification of the volcano depicted, date of creation, and authorship. The best photos were selected considering their resolution, illumination, completeness, and perspective, and were archived for reference. A total of 129 depictions showing a total of 20 volcanoes were documented and classified into a variety of contexts following Sánchez and Calvache (2018) and Calvache and Sánchez (2022) (see Supplementary material 1 for details). The joint data set, which considers the newly documented cases shown in this work plus those of the aforementioned authors (which cover the period ~1558-2020), totals 623 modern depictions of the concept of volcanism in Colombia.

Older forms of depictions were studied in the State of Nariño in southwestern Colombia (Fig. 1). Some of these represent, arguably, abstract constructs of the idea of volcanism camouflaged within pictographs, petroglyphs, and folkloric genres such as myths and cosmogonic beliefs. To collect these data, appropriate literature was reviewed with a two-fold purpose: to gather authoritative information on rock art around volcanic areas in Nariño, and to find cases of autochthonous folk tales, myths and legends. Whenever a rock art site or a myth was identified, key information was stored depending on the type of representation. For rock art sites, 15 characteristics were sought to provide the most complete, yet concise description of the artwork (Supplementary material 2). For each myth, nine descriptive characteristics were used to build a reasonably succinct report (Supplementary material 3). When the literature search was nearing completion, we contacted several communities’ leaders (elders, indigenous governors, landowners, local guides) to socialize the intention of traveling to their territories and secure permissions and guidance to document several sites. Also, it was possible to arrange interviews with locals, to collect their personal accounts on aspects related to the rock art sites, and get a sense of the local knowledge about myths and legends in the areas of interest.

Once the literature searches were finished, field campaigns were conducted to locate the depictions, verify the information, compile additional or missing details, document the occurrences (graphically or textually), and realize interviews in various localities. The field campaigns were conducted in October 2018 and December 2021 to visit eight selected sites that could be accessed and documented in as much detail as possible. To describe the sites, a two-page field survey (Fig. 2) was developed including all the attributes specified above (see Supplementary material 4 for results).




FIG. 2. Example of the format used to record information of rock art sites in the field. A. Information sheet for the Piedra de los Monos pictograph (Potosí municipality, southern Nariño). B. Basic location map and sketch with the motifs identified on the site. In this example: 1: Monkey looking at the observer; 2: Monkey in sitting position; 3: Anthropomorphic figure holding a spear or a cane; 4: The Sol de los Pastos symbol; 5: Anthropomorphic figure in profile; 6: Circle enclosing opposing triangles joined by apex; 7: Opposing triangles joined by apex. C. Photograph of the site. Numbers as in B.


The literature searches and field campaigns resulted in a compilation of base information on 36 rock art sites (Supplementary material 2) and 15 distinct myths (Supplementary material 3).

3. Results

3.1. Modern depictions of volcanism

The updated data set on occurrences of modern graphic depictions is provided in the Supplementary material 1, with the information geographically organized and classified according to the context or the use of the volcanic images. The volcanoes depicted have outlines that can be approximated by either a triangle (56 depictions), a broken or zigzag line (47), or an arched line (15). Typically, the depictions for any given volcano were found within a ~20 km radius of its center, but for Cumbal, Nevado del Tolima, Nevado Santa Isabel, and Nevado del Ruiz volcanoes we found some representations at distances exceeding 650 km. The spatial extent of occurrences of depictions is much larger than previously documented and now includes cases as far north as 6.27°N in the city of Medellín, and near latitude 5.96°N (Fig. 1), where several inactive volcanic centers possibly formed a monogenetic field, although they have been traditionally conceived as shallow intrusive bodies (Grosse, 1926; González, 2001; López et al., 2006; Jaramillo et al., 2019). Of these, Cerro Tusa, a hill with a characteristic pyramid-like shape (likely a volcanic neck) is an iconic feature of the region, so important for the communities that it has been included in the flag and coat of arms of the municipality of Venecia (State of Antioquia) (Gobierno Municipal de Venecia, 2023)1. Table 1 shows a summary of data on volcanic centers and volcanic complexes recently depicted in Colombia.

Out of the 129 modern depictions, we found 6 that did not show an image of the volcano but were mainly textual forms (5 explicitly mentioned the name of a volcano and 1 directly referenced the concept of volcano). For the 123 remaining images, 118 were figurative or naturalistic (~96%) and only 5 were abstract (~4%). Modern volcanic depictions are being used in 31 different contexts with strong emphasis in art, commerce, culture, decoration, heraldry, history, and tourism, and noticeably also in areas such as education, government, mythology, music, and philately (Fig. 3).



FIG. 3. A. Circular line-graph showing the number of observed occurrences of modern volcanic depictions (2018-2023) in Colombia, classified according to their context (Sánchez and Calvache, 2018; Calvache and Sánchez, 2022), with some examples. B. Art (watercolor on paper of the Nevado del Ruiz Volcanic Complex). C. Commerce (advertisement for a hardware store with the Cumbal Volcanic Complex in the background). D. Culture (fragment of a float built for the 2020 Negros y Blancos carnival in Pasto, Nariño, with Galeras volcano in eruption). E. Decoration (mural with snow-capped Nevado del Tolima volcano).           F. Heraldry (coat of arms of the Venecia municipality, Antioquia, with monogenetic volcano Cerro Tusa). See Supplementary material 1 for details on all depictions reported.


3.2. Older depictions of volcanism

The 36 rock art sites documented here include only pictographs (3 cases, ~8%) and petroglyphs (33 cases, ~92%), and no cases of petroforms or geoglyphs. Thirteen sites include motifs reminiscent of volcanism or of the volcano shape (e.g., triangles, opposing triangles, or anthropomorphic features that personify the spirit of mountains according with oral traditions; see sites 1, 4, 5, 9, 13, 15, 21, 24, 26-28, 30, and 32 in Supplementary material 2), being typically located within ~17 km of the nearest volcano. Among the myths, legends and other stories, we found that 12 out of 15 contain allusions to volcanism, volcanic mountains, volcanic products, or that explicitly mention names of volcanoes, mainly Galeras or Urcunina, but also Gualcalá Mount, Colimba, Doña Juana, and Cumbal volcanoes (numbers 2-5, 7-12, 14, and 15 in Supplementary material 3).

4. Discussion

Volcanic mountains have always been important to human beings for a number of reasons. For indigenous communities, volcanoes are usually seen as homes of deities (e.g., Montero, 2009; Sigurdsson, 2015) or a place of origin for the first humans or the ancestors, as well as the place where all the indigenous inhabitants want to return at the end of life. Because volcanoes often form conspicuous mountains, they can be an important source of water and food for a large number of people. Also, volcanic materials can be used to make tools, crafts, and even large structures. Finally, volcanoes are dominant beautiful landscapes, landmarks, and places that draw people to live on their flanks. For all these reasons, people feel the need to give something in return for all benefits received: assigning volcanoes the status of sacred places; dedicating rituals and offerings (Glockner, 2009); demanding that these mountains are to be treated with the utmost respect; and looking out for them. This is the mutualistic relationship established that binds people and their volcanoes (their, because communities see the volcanoes as their own) and that has existed for as long as humans abandoned their nomadic tradition to settle and take root on and around the mountains. In our study area, we see what could be called a dangerous contradiction: in communities like the Mapachico locality people acknowledge that Galeras volcano is dangerous, that in the past it has produced eruptions that have affected the land they live in, but at the same time they feel safe, because they strongly feel, that as long as they care for the volcano and the environment, everything will be all right (Enríquez, 2009). It is also important to stress that many of them manifested they had nowhere else to go should an eruption occur. Clearly, the mutualism influences the decision making, because people value not only the material, but also the spiritual benefits of their relationship with the volcano.

4.1. Temporal character of depictions

Although some modern depictions of Colombian volcanoes are long-lasting (the oldest example being the coat of arms of the city of Popayán, adopted in 1558) (Sánchez and Calvache, 2018), many are short-lived (e.g., murals) because they can be replaced by a new design or erased/covered entirely. Older depictions (e.g., pictographs, petroglyphs), on the other hand, show a long-lasting character in spite of being exposed to the elements for prolonged periods of time. It thus appears that pigments, and especially, etchings on rocks, were messages meant to last. In this regard, the symbolic efforts to get a durable message appear as a commemorative practice for identity and cultural reproduction through time. As noted by Jones (2007), in several societies, rocks and landscapes are related with the notion of permanence and serve as natural media for memory, history linkage and social stability.

4.2. Alternatives to figurative depictions of volcanic activity-joining the old and the new

In the cosmogonic beliefs of the Pastos ethnic group, origin-related tales such as the myth of the Two Partridges (Supplementary material 3) include allusions to a period of cataclysms that reorganized the world (Mamián et al., 1996; Tarapués, 2013). This example underscores the relationships among myths, rock art and volcanic phenomena, given that primitive art representations are often the staging of mythical accounts (e.g., Leroi-Gourhan, 1971; Velandia, 1994). Due to the rich eruptive history in the Galeras Volcanic Complex (Calvache et al., 1997; Cepeda, 2020), and to the idea that representing cataclysms (volcanic eruptions included) may have been the intention of some motifs in rock art sites (Cabrera, 1946), we turn our attention to abstract motifs in pictographs and petroglyphs that could conceivably convey the volcanic concept. By analyzing the real volcanic landscape or the modern depictions associated with it (Supplementary material 1), one realizes that in the past, the concept of volcanism could also have been represented by simple figures such as the triangle (or by triangles opposed by their apexes), or by more complex designs or combinations of motifs (Fig. 4). A number of the rock art sites described in the literature and three of those that could be inspected in the field (Supplementary materials 2 and 4), included designs that we suggest are “volcanic” in some respects; these are: triangles, triangles opposed by their apexes, converging triangles, nested triangles, complex figures, zigzag patterns, and arched lines enclosing other motifs (Fig. 4).


FIG. 4. Volcanic depictions, modern and old. Left column: Examples of motifs found in rock art sites (see Supplementary materials 2 and 4) that could be interpreted as volcanic allusions. A. Triangle. B. Two triangles joined by their apexes. C. Arched line. D. A complex design. Center column: Photographs of volcanoes whose outlines can be depicted using the motifs A-D. E. Cerro Tusa volcano, credit: John J. Sánchez. F. Galeras volcano in January 2009 with a persistent gas column, credit: Alix A. Linares. G. Galeras volcano in December 2021 as seen from the Chachagüí airport, credit: John J. Sánchez. H. Galeras volcano in eruption, credit: Colombian Geological Survey). Right column: Examples of modern depictions that are reminiscent of the reality shown in the center column and are somewhat similar to the rock art motifs in the left column. I. Mural with Cerro Tusa. J. Galeras volcano in a float made for the Negros and Blancos Carnival. K. Mural with Galeras volcano. L. Mural with Galeras volcano in activity (see Supplementary material 1 for additional details).


The sketches drawn from the pictographs and petroglyphs vary among authors, but very often it is possible to identify motifs that convey the idea of volcanism, even when the figures differ. For example, in the case of the Piedra de Guagua Rayo petroglyph (Genoy locality, Pasto) (Supplementary materials 2 and 4), we identified just to the left of the anthropomorphic figure a triangle with two of its sides projected upwards (Fig. 5). Cárdenas (1988) drew, for the same area, a mixed motif that looks very volcanic: a triangle with two sides that are projected upwards to form a complex figure. This overall consistency with our independent observations supports the suggestion of volcanic depictions being present in the rock art of Nariño.


FIG. 5. The Piedra de Guagua Rayo petroglyph, also known as the Vuelta Larga petroglyph (Genoy locality, Pasto). A. Photo of the site, numbered arrows point to motifs mentioned in the text (1: Anthropomorphic figure representing the Guagua Rayo; 2: A triangle with two of its sides projecting upwards, a motif that is reminiscent of volcano shape). The rock face is roughly 8 m tall. B. A field sketch of the distinguishable motifs. The inset at the lower right shows, for comparison, enhanced versions of the sketch by Cárdenas (1988) and the one marked by number 2 in panel A (this work).


When dealing with rock art, interpretations on the meaning of the motifs are highly hypothetical, i.e., there is not a unique explanation. Our somewhat arbitrary ideas of simple forms, such as the triangle, as representative of volcanoes could also be replaced by the notion that the triangle is a recurrent figure because it is basic, so it can be used to construct more complex designs. According to López (2014), the triangle denotes integration, complementarity, and origin.

Despite the aforementioned ideas, the example presented in figure 5 strongly suggests a relationship with volcanism that goes beyond any speculation derived from our ethnocentric view. Although the Quechuan toponymy of Urcunina, one of the most recent volcanoes of the Galeras Volcanic Complex and the older indigenous name given to the younger Galeras Volcano, translates as “mountain of fire” or “mountain that spews fire”; in the indigenous thinking of the region the volcano does not exist as a fire, earthquake, and ash-producing phenomenon, but as high place inhabited by spirits where earth and water are periodically produced. In this way, the representation of water, or the high place, or that of a magical being is also a depiction of the volcanic phenomenon, which could also be represented by anthropomorphic figures like the ones included in the El Higuerón pictograph, Piedra de Guagua Rayo petroglyph or the Mantel de Piedra petroglyph. Another consideration is that most of the motifs are abstract, at least those in the rock art sites closer to volcanoes. Although there is great difficulty in recognizing on rock art the clear manifestation of volcanoes or volcanic activity, surely volcanoes represent a sacred entity because of their relationship to the origin myths, to the presence of pre-Columbian burial places around volcanoes, and to evidence of cosmic (spirals, stars, the sun), humanoid and exotic (monkeys) designs on near-volcano rock art representations.

The myths and legends also convey the idea of volcanism, though in a more complex way, coded within the stories, the words, and expressions that only locals understand, and the metaphorical allusions to the Earth, the mountains, and possible eruptive activity (see Supplementary material 3 for the list compiled in this study). For example, in the Mapachico locality (Pasto), locals know about the tale of  Juan Rayo or Guagua Rayo (The Lightning Boy), a boy-like character that was born during a lightning, who upon transforming into the Galeras (Urcunina) volcano is seen as the patriarch and origin of all the inhabitants of the region (Cepeda, 2020). This character indeed occupies a central place in rock art sites like the Mantel de Piedra (Altar Cloth Stone) and Piedra de Guagua Rayo (Lightning Boy Stone) petroglyphs (Fig. 5, Supplementary materials 2 and 4). Likewise, oral tradition and written stories persistently mention El Taita Galeras or Urcunina (Galeras the Elder), a very powerful and temperamental, yet benign entity, that must be respected or else face the consequences of his anger. There is also a balancing female character that has taken root among the inhabitants of the communities around Galeras volcano: La Virgen del Rosario (The Virgin of the Rosary), presumably the only one able to calm down the volcano when is erupting.

4.3. The El Higuerón pictograph

Among the rock art sites reported in Supplementary material 2, two pictographs are well known in the literature: The Piedra de los Monos (Potosí, southern Nariño, near the Ecuadorian border) and El Higuerón (northeastern Nariño, near Genoy locality, Pasto), the latter being of special interest to our study because, according to literature, it included a figurative depiction of Galeras volcano in activity (Rodríguez, 1992; Quijano, 2009). Quijano (2009) referred, among many other symbols, to “a mountain-shaped figure with three wavy lines, like a smoking volcano”. Graphic information about this peculiar feature varied among sources (they were all hand-made drawings) and only two low-resolution photographs were available in unpublished sources. Analysis of these images revealed, firstly, that it was unclear whether the symbol was actually a volcano in activity; and second, that “the mountain” outline was actually the upper limit of a fracture with an arched form. Direct visual inspection of the El Higuerón was not possible because the pictograph was not there, at least not in its entirety (see Supplementary material 2). Its disappearance could have been caused by the Higuerón tree roots (Ficus sp.) and mosses which partially covered the rock where the paintings were located, simultaneously destroying some parts of the rock by mechanical fracturing.

Fortunately, our guide and hostess in the Mapachico locality (Indigenous Governor Sonia Gómez) was the sister of Diógenes A. Gómez. Mr. Gómez is a local artist who knew the site where the El Higuerón pictograph was, dedicating part his Master´s thesis to the analysis of it (Gómez, 2017). He agreed to meet with us, and through his direct impressions on this pictograph we could independently confirm that there was a motif suggestive of Galeras volcano with wavy lines on its top. He also agreed to produce a canvas painting with his memories of the pictograph (Fig. 6).


FIG. 6. Canvas painting by Diógenes A. Gómez showing Galeras volcano in activity (background) and a fragment of the dihedral rock where El Higuerón pictograph was made (foreground, white rectangle). On the left side of the rock, the motif representing the volcano is the arched black feature with zigzag or wavy yellow and red lines on top (white circle). Both the volcanic motif, as well as the anthropomorphic figure beneath it, have been enclosed in a white circle for clarity. A similar anthropomorphic figure appears in the forehead of the indigenous character that is painting the pictograph. The pictograph was drawn on two nearly perpendicular rock faces and contained several other motifs. Mr. Gómez is considered a reliable direct witness of the existence of the pictograph, which was originally reported in Cabrera (1966), Granda (1983), and Quijano (2009).


4.4. What is the likely age of pictographs like El Higuerón or Piedra de Los Monos?

If indeed the motif in El Higuerón pictograph represented the volcano with some activity, the timing of these rock art examples is relevant as well. The pictographs are located within the territories previously occupied by the Quillacingas (El Higuerón) and the Pastos (Piedra de Los Monos), descendants of the Protopastos people whose chronology has been situated between ~1,000 and 1,500 CE (Uribe and Cabrera, 1988; Tapia, 2006). Archaeological research in the Carchi Province (northern Ecuador) (Uhle, 1933; Grijalva, 1937; Jijón y Caamaño; 1951)2 established three ceramic-style groups: Capulí, Piartal, and Tuza (Francisco, 1969). In Colombia, more recent works kept the same ceramic-based names for the archaeological groups (Cardale, 1978; Plazas, 1978; Uribe, 1978; Uribe and Lleras, 1983; Groot and Hooykaas, 1991). The chronologies for these archaeological groups have been revised with 14C dating of various materials found associated to ceramics (Uribe, 1992; Cárdenas, 2020). A summary is presented in table 2.

Given the location of the El Higuerón (northeast flank of Galeras volcano) and Los Monos pictographs (near Potosí in southern Nariño) (Fig. 1, Supplementary material 2), and considering the spatial and temporal contexts proposed for the Piartal and Tuza groups (Groot and Hooykaas, 1991), one could think that El Higuerón Pictograph may date back to the VI century, whereas the Piedra de Los Monos pictograph may be more recent, perhaps even belonging to the XVI century. There are two caveats regarding the previously presented idea. First, there is a significant difference in the iconographies of what is assumed as Pasto and Quillacinga (Piartal-Tuza); second, the El Higuerón pictograph may represent a society of hunters and gatherers (because of the documented anthropomorphic figure with a spear; see figure 6, a cultural economy that does not match either the Pastos or the Quillacingas, according to the archaeological studies and the chronicles of the Spanish conquerors (References). Considering the techniques (several colors, that could indicate differences in ethnic groups) and the figure that represents a hunter holding a spear (Figs. 2 and 6), it seems clear that the El Higuerón pictograph may belong to a different epoch, probably older than Piedra de Los Monos. Taking this into account, the El Higuerón pictograph may be pre-ceramic.

These very crude ideas on the chronology of the El Higuerón pictograph could gain some acceptance if we consider the late geologic evolution of the Galeras Volcanic Complex. Based on volcano-stratigraphy and 14C dating, Calvache (1995) and Calvache et al. (1997) found that Urcunina Volcano -the last eruptive stage before young Galeras Volcano- endured a catastrophic summit collapse of its western flank, sometime between ~12.8 and 5 ka BP, that generated a large debris avalanche deposit in the Azufral River valley; this age range fits the possible timing of early occupations in this part of South America (Mayer-Oakes, 1996; Gnecco, 2000; Nami and Stanford, 2016). During the last ~4,500 years, abundant activity of Galeras Volcano has been documented, including important eruptions that took place around the IX century (~1.1 ka BP) with surges, pyroclastic flows, lahars, and lava flows mainly emplaced towards the eastern and northeastern flanks of the volcano (Calvache, 1990), including the areas of the current Genoy and Mapachico localities. It is thus plausible that the aforementioned events or similar eruptions that took place between the collapse of Urcunina (12.8-5 ka BP) and 1.1 ka BP could have inspired the ancestral artist that painted the volcano.

4.5. Integrating the old and the new depictions to understand communities-volcanoes mutualism

We have documented a number of modern occurrences of volcanic depictions in Colombia (Supplementary material 1) and focused on the State of Nariño to seek older forms of figurative and non-figurative representations (Supplementary materials 2, 3, and 4). The data compiled and analyzed in this study reveals a variety of purposes, and stylistic and spatial-temporal characteristics deemed here as relevant to the understanding of the relationship between volcanoes and the communities.

For modern depictions we see a dominance of the figurative or naturalistic ones and only a few cases of abstract forms of volcanoes. Many of the depictions are related to art and decoration (these two uses are quite related, as many decorative murals can be seen as art). Active polygenetic volcanoes are represented most of the time, but a few inactive monogenetic volcanoes have been adopted as icons or symbols for small municipalities, e.g., Colimba dome for the Guachucal municipality (Nariño) and Cerro Tusa and Cerro El Sillón for the Venecia municipality (Antioquia). The temporal character among the depictions vary, with some being included in the coats of arms or flags of municipalities-which means they are part of the heritage of those cities- and will be preserved and remain seen for a long time; whereas others are more ephemeral and will last for a shorter period of time, perhaps decades, because they are subjected to weathering or are images used for commercial purposes. In any case, it appears that people depict volcanoes, near and far, to convey their own perception of the volcanic form or of the volcanic phenomena; in doing this, they show that volcanoes are relevant to them, and, most importantly, manifest their sense of belonging to their territory.

For older depictions, our findings reveal that rock art sites in the State of Nariño include motifs that are reminiscent of volcanism located at average distances from volcanoes (~17 km) that are similar to those determined for modern depictions (~19 km), thus integrating old and modern cases, depictions are expected to be found within ~18 km of a volcano.

Regarding the time character of depictions, rock art lasts longer (several millennia?) as opposed to the relatively short life span of modern representations. Older depictions focused on the abstract and the symbolic, and it is difficult to assess their purpose or their use, as opposed to the modern cases. By analyzing the outlines of modern depictions (Fig. 4; Supplementary material 1), however, we find some possible linking traits to the older cases, namely the use of simple shapes like triangles, broken or zigzag lines, arched lines (see, for example, Cruz and Yaqueno, 2023), that in the past may have also been intended to depict volcanism. That simple motifs like triangles or arched lines were used by the ancestral inhabitants as symbolic depictions of volcanoes makes sense if we consider the conditions under which they were produced: primitive tools, slippery and steep rocky surfaces, and basic materials; conditions that required simplicity in the etchings and drawings. Geometric shapes represent better the connectivity and balance that persist in the indigenous thinking (López, 2014). Whether the designs left on rocks were intended to represent volcanism remains as an open question, because visual design is characterized by its intentionality, but it may be oriented towards the aesthetic, the semantics, or other ends (Leroi-Gourhan, 1971). Also, the identification of the link between a pictograph or petroglyph maker and the reality they lived in is a complex process because the relationship among aesthetics, design, and the environment or the society is multidimensional (Duncan, 1992).

Oral tradition demonstrates that volcanoes are important not only because of the natural resources they offer, but also because of the supernatural connotation they have, which gives them some kind of “conscience”. In the folk tales documented here there exist reiterative mention to magic beings and spirits related to volcanoes (Supplementary material 3). This means that volcanoes are deeply rooted in the symbolic and spiritual systems of people as some kind of volcanic animism or totemic thinking (that is, volcanoes not only are to be protected but also respected and venerated). These kinds of ingrained spiritual links between a community and the land have been named “telluric thinking” (Vasco, 2002). In the case of Genoy, its inhabitants recognize Juan Rayo (Lighting Boy) in the Piedra de Guagua Rayo petroglyph (Fig. 5; Supplementary materials 2 and 4) as well as in the Mantel de Piedra petroglyph, establishing a direct link between their ancestral origin, Galeras volcano, and their territory (Perugache, 2017). Folk tales also persistently allude to the lightning, the thunder, the fire, even to the boiling stones. All of these imply that, when provoked, the sacred raging volcanoes are capable of terrible things, a concept well known to other “volcanic” cultures as well (Broda, 2009). In case of eruption, intervention from a very powerful equal would be needed to soothe them (the water, the Virgin of the Rosary). Thus, for people like the inhabitants of the Mapachico locality, mountain visitors are welcomed so long as they ask for permission before trekking or climbing, remain silent, and do not affect the environment in any way. Such beliefs so deeply rooted among the indigenous inhabitants play a critical role during times of volcanic unrest (e.g., earthquakes, increased gas emissions, ground deformation, ash emissions, explosions), because they firmly rely on the fact that as they have lived there for generations nothing bad will happen to them; because that although the Guagua Rayo may be furious, the Virgin of the Rosary is on their side.

4.6. Limitations of the interpretations and questions for further research

In this study we provided data on the spatial and temporal nature of volcanic depictions in Colombia with an emphasis on the State of Nariño, and put forward some ideas to guide future research on both modern and old representations. Naturally, our research faced some limitations related to site accessibility, the preservation (or lack thereof) of rock art sites, impossibility to document all occurrences of depictions in such a large area, and particularly the absence of geochronological data to constrain the age of the pictographs. These shortcomings, however, can guide future research through questions like: Why were older representations mostly symbolic? Did simple symbols like triangles and arched lines really represent volcanoes? What was their purpose? Why were they done in such inaccessible places? Do modern depictions maintain some traits inherited from older depictions? What does art in other types of ancestral and modern objects (ceramics, textiles, filigree, and gold/silver smithing) tell us about volcanic depictions? Additional data and research will take us nearer to some of the answers and in this way closer to furthering our understanding of the relationship between people and their volcanoes.

5. Conclusions

Modern depictions of volcanism are mainly located within ~20 km of their respective volcanic centers (with some outliers found at distances of several hundred kilometers away). Their uses are varied but artistic representations dominate, tending to be short-lived although some may last for decades or centuries. In Nariño, rock art sites also locate within similar distances from the nearest volcanoes; they are long-lasting despite the harsh conditions they have endured. The intended purposes of pictographs and petroglyphs remain a mystery and are subject to different interpretations. In this study we develop the idea that rock art may contain abstract motifs that depict volcanism, and that the same such motifs are contained in the outlines of modern depictions. Depictions of volcanism embody the sense of belonging and are an important part of the communities-volcanoes mutualistic relationship. Myths and legends do contain allusions to volcanism either in symbolic of direct ways. Although these reveal that inhabitants of volcanic regions acknowledge the temperamental character of volcanoes, they prefer to see volcanoes as benign. These findings modulate, to great extent, the perception of volcanic hazard, not only in modernity but also to pre-Hispanic times as ancestors also lived in proximity to volcanoes.

The authors thank the people of Genoy and Mapachico localities (Pasto) for sharing their knowledge and experiences related to living near Galeras volcano. The Gómez family facilitated access to sites and gave several interviews. D.M. Franco helped with the database on rock art sites and myths. A.M. Lucero y C.E. Chicaiza accompanied the 2021 field campaign. D.J. Usma helped in the preparation of figure 1. Special thanks to L. Bertin, N. Reyes-Guzmán, and I. Ulusoy for their valuable help in reviewing the manuscript.



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Supplementary material 1

Photographic evidence of volcanic depictions (129) observed between 2018 and 2023 in Colombia. For depictions during the period 1558-2017, see Sánchez and Calvache (2018) and Calvache and Sánchez (2022). Depictions are shown and described according to the volcanic center or complex, from south to north. CCNVC: Chiles-Cerro Negro Volcanic Complex; CVC: Cumbal Volcanic Complex; AVC: Azufral Volcanic Complex; GVC: Galeras Volcanic Complex; SIDC: Santa Isabel Dome Complex; CMNVC: El Cisne-Morro Negro Volcanic Complex; NRVC: Nevado del Ruiz Volcanic Complex; CBVC: Cerro Bravo Volcanic Complex. The last column named simple shape refers to what simple form could best approximate the outline of the volcano or volcanic complex: T: triangle; BL: broken or zigzag line; AL: arched line; U: undefined. The last six depictions are textual and do not have a simple shape associated .


Supplementary material 2

Base information for rock art sites (both reported in the literature and those visually inspected during field campaigns).


Supplementary material 3

Base information on myths, legends, and folk tales reported in the literature and confirmed during interviews. See table at the end for an explanation of each category.


Supplementary material 4

Digitized versions of the field survey forms of eight rock art sites in the State of Nariño (Colombia). For each form we have included an additional page showing photographic evidence and details of the rock art that was observed in the field. The sites are organized according to the Supplementary material 2 of the paper. Photo credits: In El Higuerón pictograph site field survey form; photos A, B, and D, are by Christian E. Chicaiza. All other photos are by John J. Sánchez. See table at the end for an explanation of each attribute.