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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.
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.