The thousand-year-old mystery of the giant snake found in drawings across the world (2024)

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The thousand-year-old mystery of the giant snake found in drawings across the world (1)

Louise Thomas


Archaeologists have discovered one of the world’s largest collections of ancient art, showing giants and monsters walking the Earth.

In a remote area of South America, a British-led research team has discovered more than a thousand prehistoric engravings – including the world’s largest examples of prehistoric rock art. However, the archaeologists believe that the examples found so far are only the “tip of a vast ancient artistic iceberg” – and that many more still await discovery.

It’s thought likely that the thousand-square-mile area (the size of Dorset) may well contain around 10,000 ancient engravings. The largest discovered so far is a 43-metre-long engraving of a giant serpent. Others portray giant centipedes, larger-than-life animals – and immense 10-metre-tall human-like figures.

The engravings – discovered along the Colombia/Venezuela border – portray everything from stingrays and vultures to monkeys and crocodiles, from dogs and jaguars to turtles and frogs.

There are also a large number of geometric engravings (mainly concentric circles, grid patterns and dot-filled triangles), representing as yet unidentified objects.

It’s one of the biggest concentrations of rock art in the world – rivalling others such as the French Dordogne region, Alpine northern Italy, Western Australia, and South Africa in terms of volume.

The thousand-year-old mystery of the giant snake found in drawings across the world (2)

But by far the most unusual aspect of the engravings is the uniquely monumental nature of some of them. Around 60 of the 1,000 discovered so far have dimensions in excess of 10 metres. As well as the 43-metre serpent, they include two 10-metre-tall human-like figures (which could be spirits, or gods, or possibly shamans), an 11-metre-long centipede, and what is probably a four-metre-tall giant insect (potentially a butterfly).

“Our field research in Colombia and Venezuela is, for the very first time, revealing a previously largely unknown and unrecorded ancient culture in this remote part of South America,” said one of the project’s leaders, Dr Philip Riris of Bournemouth University’s department of archaeology and anthropology. “We hope that this will allow the modern world to appreciate the long-lost artistic and other achievements of the people who lived there many centuries before European colonisation,” he added.

The giant snakes (seven of them, measuring between 16 and 43 metres in length) are particularly significant because they may be part of a much wider global “mega-serpent” tradition.

Academic research published by numerous scholars over the years suggests that, unlike most other animal-related religious belief systems, snake worship, known to anthropologists as ophiolatry, was once a major worldwide phenomenon. It featured (and in some cases still features) in religious systems and mythologies in virtually every part of the world – from prehistoric Europe and ancient Egypt to Aboriginal Australia and ancient America.

Classical Greek mythology was rich in supernatural snake monsters and other snake-related beings, as was ancient Middle Eastern, European, Mexican, African, Chinese, Japanese and Indian mythology.

The thousand-year-old mystery of the giant snake found in drawings across the world (3)

Serpents were often associated with the creation of humanity or of particular tribes; with immortality; and with the curing of disease. Depending on the culture, they can be regarded as benevolent or evil (or as capable of being both) – and were sometimes even seen as symbols of royalty.

The unusually wide global distribution of snake mythology and religious iconography suggests that the phenomenon is extremely ancient – and that humans worldwide have, for potentially tens of thousands of years, felt compelled to specifically placate and revere serpents. That is almost certainly because snakes posed (and still pose) a greater threat to humans than any other animal (apart from disease-carrying insects).

Still today, around 20,000 people die every year from venomous snake bites (compared with just 100 per year from lion attacks and 500 per year from encounters with crocodiles). What’s more, another 400,000 or so people are bitten and envenomed by snakes every year, even if they don’t die.

The thousand-year-old mystery of the giant snake found in drawings across the world (4)

In ancient times, when humans lived much closer to the natural environment (and continually hunted and gathered in that environment), snakes were almost certainly, proportionately, an even greater threat to humanity – a threat that needed to be appeased and therefore worshipped, revered and placated.

As with the newly discovered Colombian and Venezuelan examples, other ancient cultures often portrayed serpent deities or spirits as truly monumental giant creatures. In California, Ohio, Peru and elsewhere, there are portrayals of truly gargantuan serpents writhing across local landscapes. The biggest, a vast 900-year-old 411-metre-long earthwork representing a giant snake, can still be seen on a hilltop in southern Ohio.

The thousand-year-old mystery of the giant snake found in drawings across the world (5)

The newly discovered Colombian engravings were made by ancient Native American people – probably between around 700 and 1000 AD. They are among the most difficult-to-access examples of outdoor prehistoric art in the world. That’s because the prehistoric artists who engraved them often did so high up on near-vertical cliff faces. It would have been challenging, difficult and dangerous work.

The 43-metre-long giant serpent, for instance, is located three-quarters of the way up a 200-metre-high cliff. Some evidence suggests that, in ancient times, it functioned as an oracle – allowing the serpent to “speak” to the local population, through a shaman or other intermediary (much as oracles worked in other parts of the world, including ancient Greece and ancient Egypt).

The thousand engravings so far discovered by the archaeological team are located in 157 clusters along a 110-mile stretch of the Orinoco River. The first European explorers to penetrate the region were 16th-century German and English treasure-hunters, searching for the fabled gold of El Dorado. Those adventurers (including England’s Sir Walter Raleigh) never found the legendary city, or the gold. But now, modern explorers have succeeded in discovering an archaeological treasure trove – giant artworks that will help change the academic world’s understanding of a remarkable long-lost ancient culture.

“We hope that our research work will help ensure that the extraordinary artistic heritage of the Orinoco valley is protected, and that local indigenous and mixed-heritage communities will become involved in that process,” said Riris.

A groundbreaking paper, devoted entirely to describing the newly recorded and globally important Orinoco rock art, is being published on Tuesday – written by the Orinoco project’s three main archaeologists: Philip Riris of Bournemouth University, Jose Ramon Oliver of University College London, and Natalia Lozada Mendieta of the University of the Andes in Bogota, Colombia. Published by the scholarly UK-based archaeological journal Antiquity, it will be available free online.

The thousand-year-old mystery of the giant snake found in drawings across the world (2024)


Was the giant prehistoric snake found? ›

Fossil remains discovered in India have been identified as belonging to an enormous, 47-million-year-old extinct snake. Though only a few of the animal's vertebrae were recovered, researchers estimate that it could have been up to 15 metres long, putting it in contention for being the longest snake of all time.

What is the largest snake ever found in the world? ›

Vasuki indicus was found in western India and lived around 47 million years ago. It's estimated to have been 11–15 metres long. Rather than being a boa or python like today's largest snakes, this new species may have belonged to a mysterious extinct family called Madtsoiidae.

Was a 49 feet long ancient giant snake discovered in India? ›

Fossil vertebrae unearthed in a lignite mine are the remains of one of the largest snakes that ever lived, a monster estimated at up to 49 feet (15 meters) in length — longer than a T. rex — that prowled the swamps of India around 47 million years ago.

Did researchers say they discovered a giant snake that lived in India? ›

Paleontologists uncover Vasuki Indicus, possibly the largest snake to roam Earth, in India's lignite mines. Estimated at 11 to 15 meters long, it challenges Titanoboa as the biggest serpent. Surprising gentle demeanor suggests it may have been a swamp-dwelling giant.

Is titanoboa still alive in 2024? ›

Titanoboa, (Titanoboa cerrejonensis), extinct snake that lived during the Paleocene Epoch (66 million to 56 million years ago), considered to be the largest known member of the suborder Serpentes.

Is the giant snake still alive? ›

The world's largest snake has been found dead in the Brazilian Amazon Rainforest just weeks after it was discovered. A team of scientists discovered the previously undocumented species of giant anaconda in the Amazon, during filming for National Geographic's Disney+ series Pole to Pole with Will Smith.

What is the biggest snake that can eat a human? ›

Central African rock python (up to 16.5 feet)

Like Burmese pythons, Central African rock pythons can gulp down sizable prey including antelope and crocodiles. Occasionally, even humans are on the menu: there are several accounts of African rock pythons attacking and even partially consuming people.

What is the biggest anaconda ever recorded? ›

26ft-long anaconda discovered in Amazon rainforest is the biggest snake species in the world | The Independent.

Is Medusa the snake still alive? ›

Medusa is reportedly still alive. The 8-year-old snake weighs about 350 lbs. and is a whopping 25'-2”. Before Medusa there was Fluffy, another Reticulated Python in Ohio's Columbus Zoo who measured 24'.

What is the 47 million year old snake? ›

Fossil remains of 47 million years old snake discovered in Gujarat by IIT Roorkee's researchers. Kutch (Gujarat), April 22, 2024 (ANI): The newly identified snake, named Vasuki indicus , lived in the area of present-day Gujarat during the middle Eocene period, about 47 million years ago.

What is the biggest snake in myth? ›

The serpent Jörmungandr was tossed into the great ocean that encircles Midgard. There the serpent grew so large that it was able to surround the Earth and grasp its own tail. The old Norse thunder-god, Thor, has an on-going feud with Jörmungandr in their epics and the two can be seen as archfoes.

Is Titanoboa real? ›

Titanoboa, discovered by Museum scientists, was the largest snake that ever lived. Estimated up to 50 feet long and 3 feet wide, this snake was the top predator in the world's first tropical rainforest.

Who was the snake that ate the world? ›

World serpent in mythology

In Norse mythology, the ouroboros appears as the serpent Jörmungandr, one of the three children of Loki and Angrboda, which grew so large that it could encircle the world and grasp its tail in its teeth.

What did ancient Egyptians think of snakes? ›

The ancient Egyptians both feared and revered the snakes they encountered in their daily lives. Snakes were dangerous; a bite could be deadly. But they were also helpful, ridding the storehouses of mice and rats that fed on precious grain.

What is the largest snake to ever exist? ›

Titanoboa, estimated at 13 metres long and more than 1 tonne, lived between 58m and 60m years ago. The largest living snake today is Asia's reticulated python at 10 metres.

How big was Gigantophis? ›

Gigantophis was a prehistoric snake which may have measured more than 10 meters (33 feet), larger than any living species of snake.

Who killed the giant serpent? ›

Thor pulls the serpent from the water, and the two face one another, Jörmungandr blowing atter. Hymir goes pale with fear. As Thor grabs his hammer to kill the serpent, the giant cuts the line, leaving the serpent to sink beneath the waves and return to its original position encircling the earth.

How big is the colossal snake? ›

Paleontologists in India have unearthed a fearsome relic from the past — a giant predator snake estimated to be as large as the longest snake ever discovered. The fossilised remains, measuring 10-15 metres long, were found in Gujarat's Panandhro Lignite Mine in Kutch and date back a staggering 47 million years.

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