Cave of hands

In the middle of Argentina, far from anything, is this remarkable piece of evidence of humans who lived many thousands of years ago but left their mark… literally.

Written by Michael Turtle

Michael Turtle is the founder of Time Travel Turtle. He has been a journalist for more than 20 years and has travelled the world full time since 2011.

Michael Turtle is the founder of Time Travel Turtle and has been travelling full time for a decade.

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Cueva de los Manos

“This is the bit where everyone likes to take photos,” my guide tells me as she points to the hands on the cave wall. “This is the most famous part.”

In some ways, it is an unnecessary comment. There is no doubt that this is going to be the highlight of my trip to the Cave of Hands in the middle of rural Patagonian Argentina.

Along the stone wall of the cave are dozens of hand prints. Orange, yellow, red pigments sprayed onto the rock, while hands were placed on its cold hard surface, have left the impressions in negative of the fingers and palms.

Cave of Hands, Cueva de los Manos, Patagonia, Argentina

I’m the only person here, aside from my guide, and silence fills the valley that stretches for kilometres in both directions.

It hasn’t always been this lonely, though. Nine thousand years ago, a whole community of primitive hunters would pass through this valley and stay in the caves as they followed their prey across Patagonia.

During these stops they would stand where I am now standing, place their palms on the rock, and leave a mark of their existence.

Cave of Hands, Cueva de los Manos, Patagonia, Argentina
Cave of Hands, Cueva de los Manos, Patagonia, Argentina

The hands of art

Seven thousand years before the first book was created, and four thousand years before the Egyptians started writing their hieroglyphs on the walls, the hunters of Patagonia were documenting their stories in the art of these caves of hands.

Each print was a personal acknowledgement of their life, and each group of hands a demonstration of their community. Then, around these hands, they drew pictures of their daily activities that are a testament to their culture.

Cave of Hands, Cueva de los Manos, Patagonia, Argentina

The main source of food was the guanaco, a llama-like animal in easy supply in this area. The drawings on the caves show the men hunting the creatures with primitive weapons but ingenious tactics.

In one tableau, a crack in the rock is used to represent a ravine that the hunters chase the animals into, making them easier to catch.

Cave of Hands, Cueva de los Manos, Patagonia, Argentina

There are lizards and spiders, pregnant animals, baby animals and even evil spirits in the drawings. The things that make their world what it is are all depicted on the rock.

Cave of Hands, Cueva de los Manos, Patagonia, Argentina
Cave of Hands, Cueva de los Manos, Patagonia, Argentina

“What are those dots painted onto the roof of the cave,” I ask the guide.

“They could be the stars in the sky,” she says, “or maybe the marks of a game where the children would throw painted balls into the air.”

She chuckles. “We don’t really understand everything.”

The history of the Cave of Hands

There’s something nice about not knowing everything. The imagination is free to fill in the blanks.

I can picture the tribe sitting here, hunched around a fire, eating their guanaco, turning its skin into clothes, and painting the stories of the day on the walls around them.

I look at those pictures now and a scene comes to life, of men chasing the animals, shouting at each other to surround a herd, of proudly bringing their bounty back to their families.

Cave of Hands, Cueva de los Manos, Patagonia, Argentina
Cave of Hands, Cueva de los Manos, Patagonia, Argentina

Their stories haven’t been lost. Their lives haven’t been forgotten. Their paintings are more than just a diary for themselves because they have become a record of the time and a constant reminder of their existence.

The ancient residents of the Cave of Hands have become what every artist, writer and even blogger dreams of being – narrators of history.

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This site is on the UNESCO World Heritage List!
I'm on a mission to visit as many World Heritage Sites as I can. Only about 800 more to go... eek!

34 thoughts on “Cave of hands”

  1. This was a pleasure to read – very nice storytelling and lovely photos to boot. I hadn’t heard of this place before but it’s on my bucket list now. Thanks 🙂

    Reply
    • What a beautiful way to put it! It does feel exactly like that – it’s almost as if the people who made those paintings thousands of years ago are still with us…

      Reply
  2. Dear Michael Turtle,

    I’m a research assistant at the University of Cologne, Germany, and currently work on the documentation of a major rock art site in Egypt, the so-called “Cave of Beasts” or Wadi Sura II (for details, please visit our website http://wadisura.phil-fak.uni-koeln.de/). In this cave, a lot of hand stencils occur, similar to the Cueva de las Manos.
    I was wondering whether you would allow me to reproduce one of your images in high resolution (the 1st, 2nd, or 5th on this website) in a contribution to a scientific, non-commercial volume on the Wadi Sura rock art, edited by Dr. Rudolph Kuper, in order to illustrate the worldwide occurrence of such hand stencils. I would very much appreciate if you could help in this matter (of course you will be cited as the author of the picture!).

    Looking forward to hearing from you,
    Frank Förster
    ([email protected])

    Reply
    • My pleasure. It’s definitely off the usual tourist trail and most visitors would never go there (or even have heard of it). It is hard to get too and I guess I was only able to visit it because I had time. That probably puts off some people.

      Reply
  3. Hi Michael,

    I’m heading to Argentina in a couple of months and very interested in going to this place. How did you get there? I am not driving a car so wondering which town I would have to get to to grab a bus or be picked up for a tour. Kind of hard to find any information about transport options online!

    Reply
  4. my friend has subscribed to all of your adds and subscriptions and I ordered something for her and don’t know what it was so we will see what happens yeah? okay bye bye now!!!

    Reply
  5. Immersive narrative. Although I’ll never see this place, I feel the eerie connection because of your writing. I must have a reproduction of these haunting hands.

    Reply

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