Cueva de las Manos (Cave of the Hands)

In the depths of the stunning Argentine Patagonia lies a treasure of humanity, the Cueva de las Manos (in English: Cave of the Hands). This prehistoric sanctuary, filled with fascinating cave paintings, invites us on a journey through time to uncover the mysteries of our ancient human roots.

Cueva de las Manos

Geographical Location

Located in the northwest of the province of Santa Cruz, in the Cañadón del Río Pinturas, the Cueva de las Manos is an iconic landmark of the Argentine Patagonia, situated 88 meters above sea level at the Estancia Cueva de las Manos, between the towns of Perito Moreno and Bajo Caracoles, in the Lago Buenos Aires department. With a length of 20 meters, a height of 10 meters, and a width of 15 meters, this cave is a hard-to-reach place that adds to its mystery and charm. It can be geographically located at coordinates: 47°09′00″S 70°40′00″W / -47.15, -70.666666666667.

History and Discovery

Discovered in 1941, this archaeological site dates back to 13,000 to 9,500 BC, leaving a lasting record of the indigenous cultures that once inhabited the region.

The history of research in the Cueva de las Manos has been a process spanning several centuries and involving various explorers and scientists. In the 19th century, travelers and adventurers like George Musters and Clemente Onelli explored the surroundings of the Río Pinturas but failed to discover the cave paintings. It was in 1941 when the priest Alberto M. de Agostini managed to reach the site and described his impressions in his book "Los Andes," even publishing some color photographs.

However, more systematic scientific investigations began in 1964 when Carlos J. Gradin, a surveyor turned archaeologist, initiated the first explorations in the underground area. It was from 1973 onwards that his team, along with C. A. Aschero and A. M. Aguerre, with the support of CONICET, conducted deeper scientific research, laying the foundations for the current knowledge about the site.

Starting in 1995, the Documentation and Preservation Program of Argentine Rock Art of the National Institute of Anthropology and Latin American Thought in Buenos Aires focused on protecting all archaeological sites with rock art in the country. It received special attention due to its archaeological importance and tourist appeal.

Under the direction of María Onetto, actions were taken for the management and heritage preservation plan in the Cueva de las Manos, as well as the presentation of the site to UNESCO for inclusion in the World Heritage List. Since then, María Onetto has been in charge of the Conservation and Sustainable Heritage Management project, ensuring the preservation and care of this treasure of humanity that holds 10,000 years of history in Patagonia.

Historical and Cultural Context

Cultural Significance of the Cave

It is an invaluable legacy of prehistoric art and the life of the early inhabitants of Argentina. Its name comes from the countless handprints that adorn its walls, a silent testimony of a bygone era.

Role in the Prehistoric History of Argentina

The site offers a rich insight into cultural evolution in the Patagonian region, from everyday life to rituals and beliefs.

Associated Indigenous Cultures

The cave paintings are attributed to indigenous cultures of the region, such as the Tehuelches and the Aucas, who left these marks as part of their rituals and symbolic narratives.

Rock Art of Cueva de las Manos (Cave of the Hands)

Mural with Rock Art in Cueva de las Manos

Style and Techniques Used

The paintings were made using stenciling and hand-painting techniques, using natural pigments obtained from the rock formation. The motifs are mainly hands, although representations of animals and hunting scenes can also be found.

To create the paintings in the cave, prehistoric artists scraped the rock to obtain different shades of pigments, such as ocher-yellow (Natrojarosite), green (Terra Verde), and various shades of red, from intense to purplish or orangish (Hematite and Maghemite). Manganese oxide was used for black.

These pigments were then ground using stone tools, such as flat mills, to achieve the appropriate consistency for application. To achieve different textures and consistencies, the pigments were mixed with a binding fluid or solution, allowing for watery paints for red tones and thicker ones for white tones.

Analysis of the pigments using techniques like X-ray diffraction has revealed the presence of gypsum, which provided better adhesion of the pigment to the natural rock substrate. The use of gypsum as a binder has also been documented in other rock art sites in America.

The prehistoric artists carefully selected the rock surface and utilized its textures and cracks to create their works. For example, in the Cueva de las Manos, you can observe representations of guanacos fleeing on both sides of a natural canyon-like formation formed by a crack in the rock. In addition to using pigments artistically, the artists also considered natural lighting, site access, and protection provided by the rocky environment, using the features of the substrate, such as fissures, reliefs, or recesses, to frame their artworks.

Meaning of the Paintings

Although the exact meaning of the paintings remains a mystery, it is likely that they represent rituals, everyday activities, and possibly mythic narratives of these prehistoric cultures.

Comparison with Other Rock Art Sites in Argentina

In contrast to other rock art sites, Cueva de las Manos stands out for its antiquity, state of preservation, and the large number of hand impressions.

Detailed Description of the Cave

Entrance to Cueva de las Manos in Argentine Patagonia

Geological Formation of the Cave

Formed by wind and water erosion, the cave is located on a rock cliff overlooking the Pinturas River. The site offers a breathtaking view of the Patagonian landscapes.

Prominent Paintings and Murals

The most notable murals are the hands, which give the cave its name, but there are also representations of guanacos, a native animal of the region, as well as hunting scenes.

Plants and Animal Life

The cave’s surroundings are part of the Patagonian ecosystem, home to guanacos, foxes, and a variety of birds, in addition to diverse flora adapted to the Patagonian climate conditions.

Conservation and Heritage

Recognition as a UNESCO World Heritage Site

Cueva de las Manos has been recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1999, underscoring its cultural and artistic significance for humanity.

Current Conservation Efforts

Ongoing conservation efforts aim to preserve and protect this invaluable rock art site for future generations. These efforts include restrictions on site access and continuous monitoring.

Tourism Impact on Conservation

Tourism plays a vital role in both promoting the cave and its conservation. However, it is essential for visitors to follow guidelines to ensure its preservation.

Practical Guide to Visiting Cueva de las Manos

How to Get There

To reach Cueva de las Manos, located in the northwest of the province of Santa Cruz in Argentina, there are two main options, depending on the direction from which you approach the site.

If you are coming from the south, you should take Route 40, which is completely paved in this area. Approximately 117 kilometers south of the town of Perito Moreno, you will find a detour that will take you onto a gravel road for about 30 kilometers until you reach the caves. It is important to note that although the gravel road is usually in good condition due to frequent maintenance, it is recommended to drive with caution as it is unpaved and there could be animals in the area.

If you are approaching from the north, you will also need to take Route 40. About 50 kilometers north of the town of Bajo Caracoles, you will find the detour that will lead you to the gravel road to the caves.

It is important to note that there is no direct public transportation to the site. Therefore, the available options are to use your own vehicle if you have one and follow the route directions mentioned. Another alternative is to join a day tour, which will include a guide and transportation to the site. In both cases, it is recommended to plan ahead and check the availability of services.

Additionally, both in Gobernador Gregores and Perito Moreno, you will find accommodation options, restaurants, and gas stations, making them ideal places to spend the night and stock up before visiting.

Best Times to Visit

The weather in Patagonia can be unpredictable, so the best times to visit are during the warmer months, from November to March.

Rules and Regulations for Visitors

To ensure the preservation of this site, there are a series of rules that visitors must follow, such as not touching the paintings and following the marked routes during the guided tour.

Recommendations for a Respectful and Sustainable Visit

It is essential to respect the park rules and maintain responsible behavior during the visit. Always remember that you are visiting an invaluable heritage of humanity, treat it with the care it deserves.

What to See Nearby

Photo Gallery