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The Cave of the Hands

The Cave of the Hands

The Cave of the Hands, Argentina. The Cave of the Hands also display images of human and animal figures and even entire hunting scenes.

Toward the bottom tip of the South American continent, deep within the silent valley lands of the Pinturas River in Patagonia (Argentina), lies a series of caves that house messages from a distant past. Venture into the cave’s interior and step into an ancient world, a curious place where hunters sprayed red, orange, yellow, brown and black paint over their hands to leave countless negative hand images, many overlapping each other, all over the cold surface of the cave’s stone walls. Today, these hands that date back some 10,000 years seem to wave to us from primitive times, saluting thousands of unknown future generations, reminding us not to forget our distant human ancestors.

Although these caves are known as the Cueva de las Manos (Cave of the Hands), they also display images of human and animal figures and even entire hunting scenes that provide modern viewers a peek into ingenious hunting secrets from a lost time. Here we see groups of hunters surrounding animals, setting ambushes, and using throwing weapons. Many of these animals, such as the guanaco (resembling the llama, these grow up to 200 pounds), and the puma, are still common to the region.

It seems that separate groups of hunter communities used the cave over the centuries, perhaps as temporary lodging as they trekked the Patagonia valley pursuing game. Three cultural phases of people left their mark here. The earliest group depicted their hunting methods while the second group, which appeared about 2,000 years after the first group’s occupation of the caves, favored the hand paintings and later stylized images of human and animal figures. Finally, the third phase to occupy the painted caves arrived thousands of years later. Studies suggest that this last wave of hunters, who left distinctive images of people, animals and abstract shapes, may have been related to the Tehuelche people. The Tehuelche still lived in the Patagonia region when the first Spanish settlers began arriving to South America in the 16th century.

Artists used bone pipes to blow paint onto the wall, creating something of an airbrush effect that works well with overlaying hand images faded and blended together over the cave’s jagged stone walls. Archeologists have calculated the cave´s timeline of human occupation largely based on studies of bone pipe remains discovered here. The cave’s solid interior receives little humidity; a natural phenomenon that has helped preserve the paintings, offering us works of art that are still fresh, where red and orange earthy tones still retain their bright hue. UNESCO included the caves on their list of world heritage sites, describing the collection of pre-historic cave art as “outstanding”.

The Cueva de las manos provides fascinating insight into the lives of South America’s earliest human settlements and captures slices of their prehistoric life. This surprisingly fresh glimpse into the remote past asks visitors mysterious questions: who were these ancient hunters? Where did they come from? What other traces of existence did they leave that we still have yet to discover? Does the imagery contain some special meaning that we do not understand, or do we take them at face value as testimonies to our primal desire to be remembered? Creative observers have suggested that the images may have had some religious function. Others speculate that the hand painting may have formed some type of initiation ritual. Whatever the case, the hands of these ancient people will most likely continue silently saluting countless future generations, reaching out from prehistory to connect people separated by the ages.