“I was here!”, they painted 10,000 years ago.

Overlapping hands of people dating back 10,000 years ago in Cuevo de Las Manos, Argentina.

While traveling along Ruta 40 in Argentina on our epic travel year, we made a detour to Cueva de Las Manos. This archeologically significant site is  UNESCO recognized.  Like Borobudur, Indonesia or Machu Pichu, Peru, Cuevo de Las Manos, Argentina offers insight into humanity’s capabilities and priorities during ancient times.

We made visiting this site a priority because Mike’s parents record petroglyphs in New Mexico which has given us a glimpse into the world of rock art. With his parents, we have been able to hike up to images made one to two thousand years ago in Mesa Prieta, New Mexico, USA.

The oldest paintings of Cuevo de Las Manos are 10,000 years old. Some are as recent as 1500 years. 10,000 years is about 650 generations ago (our math, not the archeologist’s), assuming reproduction around age 16. It’s estimated the people at that time had a lifespan of about 35 years. These records are from the oldest known inhabitants of the Americas: North and South. Hence, the UNESCO designation.

Common themes of hunters, hunting and reproduction exists between the sites in New Mexico, USA and Santa Cruz, Argentina. The nine moons of human gestation are painted to help the Cuevo people count and understand timing for birth. This knowledge must have been so important to record when the chance of losing significant knowledge between generations was possible with a bad storm, animal attack or disease. Also recorded are hunting strategies using the valley’s landscape are outlined in paintings.

The age and beautiful condition of the art – along with the living site of the cave which is closed to allow more study and preservation – get my mind dreaming of  how the people lived in the valley. During our tour, the idea was presented that women may have stayed in the cave during pregnancy and to raise small children. So, the nine moons must have come in handy when trying to understand how long you would be hanging around.

The valley the cave is located in was not as dry as it is now but was filled to the erosion marks of the river. As the glaciers of the Ice Age receded, the valley started to resemble more and more what it looks like today. This made the area more and more friendly to habitation. Another landscape change compared to today is that parts of the cliff came down during an earthquake in what is now Chile, 3000 years ago. So, some of the living space and art was lost at that time. I imagined that the broken rock be a gravesite as well, if some people were not lucky that day.

The people of Cuevo, when not tending to their general survival, must have had planning and dreaming time to create the paints, knowledge and  art. There are at least 52 known sites of art up and down the valley.

Imagine standing on the rocks piled high under a cliff overhang to blow powered minerals over the back of your hand and to do this perhaps yearly to record your presence. I imagine that this was family time. Mom would say, “Don’t move!”, then blow and repeat until your hand is outlined in negative.

The paints were made from rocks containing iron, manganese, sulfur, and copper and mixed with animal fats.

Not all of the minerals came from local rocks in the valley, either. People traveled with the copper colors all the way from Lago Posadas to make the light green-blue paintings. We made the trip from Lago Pasadas in a day, but walking would take many days, especially if traveling as a family.

The hands remind me of hearts carved into trees with the initials of lovers. Or our the selfies taken on our trip. Maybe, their significance is more like the highly skilled muraling throughout South America. But of course, these paintings are so much more durable and we can imagine that the whole community in the area participated in the creation of the paintings by the varying sizes of the hands.  Kids hands below and adults up higher.

Pregnant Guanacos (Patagonian llamas) with a full moon. Guanacos were a main subject of the painting stories outlining hunting strategies and reproduction.  Guanacos still populate the hills today throughout Patagonia.

Chulengos,  baby guanacos are pictured inside and next to adult guanacos. Here is a baby guanaco we encountered hung up in a fence. Mike was able to free her and she was able to rejoin her upset herd of adult guanacos.

Guanaco getting help, the fences hang up the hind legs when they jump over. We saw several dead on our trip through Patagonia.

Topo map of canyon

Bad omen influenced by hallucinations?

We were told the archeologist working the Cuevo de Las Manos site isn’t finding an identification for the strange distorted animal pictured above but, there are theories. Like, it’s a bad omen or a now-extinct insect. Guilicho- a bad omen or warning is something that could be perceived in different forms. In the community that studies petroglyphs located in New Mexico, USA the theory of these alien or bug-like images is that they were conceived under the influence of psychedelics and are shamanistic.

Ostrich footprints, same animal that the paint oil is derived from and in post-mortem honored here.

Because we are traveling slowly through Argentina in our campers, we were able to stay two nights camped on the edge of the valley, overlooking the visitor’s center. We took the tour once and also hiked to the Casa de Piedra in the valley bottom. We would love to come back and have more time exploring the valley looking for the 51 other sites.