Three years ago the villagers - from a drought-stricken area of north-east Brazil - were about to destroy the artworks by quarrying away the painted limestone rock faces in order to make and sell lime for use as whitewash. Four hundred square metres of 2,000-to-7,000-year old Stone Age rock paintings were threatened with obliteration.
But now, after discussions with scientists, local quarrymen and peasants have set up a unique community-based archaeological preservation organisation. The villagers have decided not to quarry the limestone in the rock art area and plan to promote the prehistoric art gallery as a tourist attraction capable of generating more income for their poverty-stricken community than the lime extraction work would have done.
The site - near the village of Solidade, six miles north-west of the town of Apodi in the Brazilian state of Rio Grande do Norte - covers 25 acres and includes 55 painted and engraved prehistoric rock shelters.
In Stone Age times the complex appears to have been an important sacred site. Yet the paintings - many of which depict parrots, cranes, macaws, lizards, frogs, turtles and plants - were made by prehistoric Indian tribes, the descendants of whom have long since vanished. Forty per cent of the local villagers are part Indian - but almost certainly from a people who entered the area long after the rock art tribe had disappeared.
Solidade's prehistoric 'art gallery' was first discovered by a Jesuit priest in the mid 18th-century, but had largely been forgotten about till now. It was pure chance that the scientists - geologists from Brazil's national oil company Petrobras - stumbled on the gallery just as it was threatened with destruction. Petrobras's aerial photographic research had revealed a spectacular limestone outcrop in a remote area of semi-desert thornbush wilderness 1,200 miles north of Rio de Janeiro. In their search for petrocarbons the scientists thought that a surface exploration of the outcrop might prove fruitful. But what they found was not oil - but thousands of prehistoric rock paintings.
One of the geologists, Eduardo Bagnioli, then decided to persuade the villagers to protect the paintings - and to persuade Petrobras to pay dollars 40,000 to build a museum in the village to explain to the local community and the world at large why the rock art is so important.
One of the state's top architects, Adler Fontenell, gave his services free to plan the museum - and decided, in recognition of what the villagers had given up, to base its design on that of the local lime kilns. Twenty-three local teenagers have been trained to act as guides and a tourist centre and souvenir shop has been created. Now Solidade's lime quarrymen-turned-archaeology enthusiasts are waiting for the tourists.
Solidade's rock art is probably the largest single concentration of prehistoric paintings in South America.
'The scope for further research is immense,' says Eduardo Bagnioli, who works on a voluntary basis as head of a scientific commission attached to the Solidade villagers' community archaeology association. Besides the rock paintings there are 100 square metres of engravings - by far the largest group of its kind in Brazil. Small- scale excavations over the past year have also yielded the bones of dozens of large prehistoric animals - giant armadillos, giant sloths, sabre-toothed tigers and mastodons.
Preliminary study of the site suggests that it may have functioned as an Indian religious and ceremonial centre for up to 7,000 years. Some of the art work may have been painted by artists in some sort of religious drug-induced trance. What appear to be the oldest paintings consist of black or red grid-like patterns. Slightly later paintings - still thousands of years old - portray highly stylised animals, and what appear to be animal traps, painted in black.
The next style depicts mainly macaws and other birds, reptiles, possible maize plants and geometric and abstract designs. What may be the final style (still probably several thousand years old) are human hand prints, bearing unique designs 'printed' directly from prehistoric Indians' hands rather than painted on to the rocks.
Now archaeologists and rural development aid workers hope that Solidade's community archaeological preservation and tourism scheme might be emulated in other poor areas of the Third World.