La cueva de las Manos (Cave of the hands), the artistic expression of the first Santa Cruz settlers.
In a desolate area of the Argentine Patagonia located northwest of the Santa Cruz province in the department Lago Buenos Aires there is an invaluable archaeological wealth of more than 9,300 years old which shows the presence, customs and artistic expressions of the men of early holocene in perfect conservation state, at an archaeological site known as Cave of the Hands.
History of the discovery
At a distance of 130 km from the Perito Moreno City, over the Rio Pinturas cannon, it can be found a complex formed by eaves, cliffs and a cave that gives its name to the site. Discovered by the famous explorer Francisco Moreno in 1876, this site was explored in depth in the 60’s by Carlos Gardin and archaeological studied in the 70’s during 2 decades by Carlos Aschero and Ana Aguerre, being declared a world heritage site by UNESCO in 1999.
On the right bank of the river at about 88 meters above its level, covering a front of more than 600 meters can be accessed the site where the paintings are located.
Today, visitors arrive to an interpretation center, where they receive introductory information about the paintings and this site, before entering accompanied by a guide.
What can we find in this archaeological site?
These paintings of hands in both positive and negative; animals and several figures are considered of an immense historical, archaeological and paleontological value, as they are one of the oldest evidence of the presence of Tehuelche aborigines and their predecessors in this area of the current Argentine territory.
In the 170 meters-deep cave, is where can be found the greater number of artistic impressions, with 829 images of hands (over 2000 at the entire site) as well as geometric patterns, solar figures, hunting scenes, animals (guanacos, snakes, ostriches, pumas and footprints of rheas), of very distinct times.
Specialized studies have been able to distinguish three different periods of rupestrian paintings:
- The oldest, of 9.5 thousand years shows negatives of hands, hunting scenes, guanaco herds and some rituals.
- The next one, dating from 7,000-3,000 years shows in addition of negatives hands, pregnant guanacos, cats and some amphibians.
- In the most recent group of 2,500 years it is possible to find human figures, schematics of hands, geometric shapes, concentric circles, zigzag lines, all in a bright red color.
The ancient artists of these paintings used a hollowed rhea bone for blowing as a spray, with their left hand resting on the rock. The paintings were made from mixing different minerals from nearby areas in order to obtain different colors such as hematite, manganese and limestone, and some fruits, plants and animal blood.
Painting hands is one of the oldest manifestations of universal art. To make these murals, that cover relatively large areas, were preferred to use the cave external walls, or sunshades of the nearby eaves, ie bright and clear spots, even inside the cave.
What is represented in this artistic expressions?
On this site, the ancient aborigines represented hunting scenes, where can be observed their strategies to catch prey. In some, they stalked their prey in groups, in others they surprisingly ambushed the prey taking them into a canyon, or they were catching prey using a rounded stone tied to a rope with handle known as “boleadoras”.
As mentioned, there are figures of animals (such as lizards, rheas) and isolated men, as well as simple geometric patterns such as zigzags, straight lines, points, which has led to several theories related to fertility, religion and other topics that try to interpret its meaning.
When these paintings are closely observed, we can get in touch with the spirit of this ancient inhabitants of patagonia, its relations with the environment, their customs and beliefs.