Bajo Caracoles, Santa Cruz, Argentina
Wednesday, February 20, 2013

To the day, exactly 9,300 years ago*, a man, named Samwell*, placed his left hand on the side of a cave in Pinturas River valley, and began to spit out a dark red paste which he’d been ruminating. He took the bone of a small animal, began etching around the contours, and left a clear outline upon the rockface. This practice caught on, and soon Samwell’s friends began to join in, also drawing pictures of what was around them, and recording their lives as prehistoric hunters. Caveman Samwell was such a trendsetter, that the paintings, and art of imprinting a hand on the rock continued for a further 8,000 years.

I think that is the bit I can’t quite get my head around. People had been living in this Valley for so long, that even at the time of the Egyptians, Samwell’s first handprint would have been considered “ancient”.

I had been persuaded to take a detour in my journey to visit the cave from seeing a poster in a bus station. I have genuinely never seen anything to compare it to, and had the tour lasted more than a couple of hours, I would DEFINITELY have Found Myself.

As stated above, the cave is within a valley; formed from volcanic rocks which began from the separation of South America and Africa 150 million years ago. “More recently” (1.7 million years) there is evidence of a glacier running through. It now follows the northeast-southwest fracture along the volcanic rocks.

Even now, it is quite remote, requiring nearly two hours by road and gravel track to get there from the nearest town of significance. It seems to be one of humanity’s primary art galleries.

The hunter-gatherers of the time survived by following the herds of “guanacos” (a bit like a llama) and took refuge in the caves up on the Valley. It is not only hands on the walls; these guanacos feature heavily, and there are further scenes of the beasts being hunted. Some show them as pregnant, giving archaeologists all sorts of material to speculate its meaning.

Amongst the many hundreds of imprints that have been added throughout the millennia, there are a few that are of note:

1. A chief’s – known from the amount of red encircling his hand

2. A man with 5 fingers and a thumb (though I was trying to work out if this was a Neanderthal practical joke)

3. Footprint of a great hunter

There were also children’s hands, and reverse prints to add to the diversity.

The method was to take different plants, blood, and water, grind them, chew the mixture in the mouth, and spit out. Reverse prints were directly onto the palm, but the majority were around the hand stencil, and then tidied up with animal bone.

The pictures of prehistoric life were fascinating – how they drew humans, animals and 9 moons (thought to symbolise pregnancy) were incredible, and (hopefully not boring you with repetition) they were done by an ancestor thousands of years previous. That we in our modern way of life can still make interpretation of their meaning is quite an achievement for the species.

UNESCO agrees also, and granted it World Heritage status in 1999, nearly 60 years after archaeologist/priest Alberto de Agostini first wrote about his discovery. Due to preservation efforts, the paintings are guarded by metal railings, however this in no way withdrew from the experience.

Our guide led us along a path, and explained the above (plus probably a bit more) for around a couple of hours, though I slightly lost track of time.

With the significance of what I had just seen still not fully sunk in, it was back along the dusty roads to Perito Moreno. As we drove and left the guanacos galloping on the plains, it felt like a timely reminder of ‘the Big Picture’ of where we were.

* awaiting verification

Cueva de las Manos

Joining the party

#1

#5

#6

Chief

Odd one out

Valley

Guanacos

Guanaco on the run

Sold

The cave

The cave again

The crib