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Cueva de las Manos

"Cave of the Hands", Argentina
Hand stencils, dated to 7,300 BC

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Prehistoric handprints and hand stencils at Cueva de Las Manos, (Cave of the Hands), Argentina
Neolithic handprints and hand stencils at Cueva de las Manos in Southern Patagonia. Image by Mariano. (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Cave of the Hands

Cueva de las Manos ("Cave of the Hands") in southern Argentina, contains the largest collection of hand stencils known to archaeology.

The cave ranks alongside Caverna da Pedra Pintada (9,200 BC), near Monte Alegre in Brazil, and the Toquepala Caves (8,000 BC), on the southeastern edge of Peru, as a centre of Stone Age culture, and one of the oldest sites of prehistoric art in South America.

The cave art at Cueva de las Manos includes a range of abstract symbols, as well as different styles of cave painting, all of which sheds significant light on the hunter gatherer culture of prehistoric Patagonia.

In 1999, the cave was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Arrival of Modern Humans

The oldest art at Cueva de las Manos dates to the final phase of the Stone Age, about 7,300 BC, although this is not the last word, since occupation of the region by modern humans was underway by 9,000 BC at the latest.

What's more, modern humans had been creating rock art around the world for the previous 60,000 years, so it's not unreasonable to suppose they began to create art soon after they arrived.

For more about the chronology of cave painting in South America, see: Prehistoric Art Timeline (from 540,000 BC).

Location and Discovery

The site of Cueva de las Manos is located at the foot of a stepped cliff overlooking the Río Pinturas canyon, some 160 kilometres south of Perito Moreno, in Southern Patagonia.

The canyon represents an exceptional example of an early human habitat, whose main resource was the guanaco, an animal closely related to the vicuña and llama.

First discovered in 1941, the cave was not properly surveyed and archaeologically examined until the late 1960s.

The cave - actually, more of a rock shelter - is very small. It extends about 25 metres into the hillside, and its ceiling ranges from 10 metres to 2 metres in height.

The handprints and other artworks are not just found inside the cave, but also on various overhangs, outcroppings and rock shelves flanking the cave entrance.

So the archaeological site includes the decorated rock surfaces on either side of the entrance.

Cueva de las Manos: Cave Art

As the name indicates, Cueva de las Manos is best-known for its collages of hand stencils and other handprints, which have been dated to about 7,300 BC, based on samples taken from the remains of bone-made pipes, used to blow paint onto the rock.

In addition to the 'positive' and 'negative' handprints, there are also numerous depictions of animals, notably guanacos, as well as hunting scenes that show bolas-wielding human figures interacting in a dynamic and naturalistic manner with guanacos, rheas, felines and other animals.

There is also a number of abstract signs, including zigzag patterns, dots and other geometric shapes.

Dating

In all, the parietal art at Cueva de las Manos was created from roughly 7,300 BC to about 700 AD, when human occupation of the cave came to an end.

The antiquity of the paintings was calculated in a variety of ways:

Materials

The paintings were created using natural mineral pigments - such as manganese dioxide (black), iron oxides (chiefly red), kaolin (white) and natrojarosite (yellow) - combined with some form of 'binder' (like animal fats), to help the pigment adhere to the rock surface, and 'extenders' (like crushed bone) to help the paint cover a larger surface area.

Hand Stencils and Handprints

There are over 2,000 handprints in and around Cueva de las Manos. Most are stencils, rather than positive handprints.

According to the latest research, there are 829 left hands to 31 right hands, probably because most artists held the spray pipe in their right hand.

The majority of the negative hand stencils and the positive handprints are found on rock panels and surfaces outside the cave.

Most of the stencilled hand silhouettes were made using red pigment (from iron oxide deposits like red ochre), although some of the handprints used manganese dioxide.

The majority of the prints are believed to come from young teenagers, possibly as part of an initiation ceremony.

Interestingly, Cueva de las Manos contains few, if any, prints of hands with mutilated or missing fingers.

This is quite different from the situation in the zone of Franco-Cantabrian art, where the hand stencils at El Castillo (39,000 BC), Altamira Cave (34,000 BC), Gargas Cave (25,000 BC), Cosquer Cave (25,000 BC), and Lascaux Cave (18,000 BC), all have missing or mutilated fingers.

Since scientists now believe these incomplete hands are due entirely to the subjects deliberately bending their fingers when creating their imprints, not because of frostbite or penal mutilation.

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Painting Styles

Human occupation of Cueva de las Manos began around 7,500 BC.

The first occupants were seasonal hunter-gatherers whose main prey was the guanaco.

Using detailed scientific research, provided by C. J. Gradin together with archaeologists C. A. Aschero and A. M. Aguerre, researchers have categorized three separate styles of painting.

Stylistic Group A.

This style, which begins in 7,300 BC, consists mainly of active hunting scenes, with a few digital markings and hand stencils.

In the hunting scenes, guanacos are depicted surrounded or trapped, or being chased by hunters.

Some scenes have a single hunter while others show groups of ten or more humans surrounding a group of twenty guanacos.

Stylistic Group B.

This second style of cave painting emerges about 5,000 BC and consists mostly of hand stencils, with few if any hunting scenes. This style remained unchanged until much later, about 1,330 BC, when paintings began to include anthropomorphic and zoomorphic figures.

Stylistic Group C

From about 500 AD, roughly two centuries before humans abandoned the cave, a third and final syle of painting emerges - known as Stylistic Group 3.

This style is characterized by its abstract geometric imagery, using deep plum or black pigments, along with bright red minimalist depictions of animal and human figures.

Compare this evolutionary sequence with Aboriginal Rock Art in Australia, where stencilled images of hands precede hunting scenes.

Other Prehistoric Caves with Handprints

Hand stencils are a common phenomenon in paleolithic art around the world. Here is a short list of famous examples not mentioned above.

References

(1) "Cueva de las Manos: An Outstanding Example of a Rock Art Site in South America." (PDF). Onetto, María; Podestá, María Mercedes (2011). Adoranten. Scandinavian Society for Prehistoric Art: 67–78. ISSN 0349-8808.
(2) "Argentina. Eyewitness Travel Guides." Menon, Jayashree, ed. (2010). Contributors: Wayne Bernhardson, Declan McGarvey, Chris Moss (Rev. ed.). DK Publishing. ISBN 978-0-75666-193-9.
(3) "World Subterranean Heritage". Trofimova, E.; Trofimov, A. (1 September 2019). Geoheritage. 11 (3): 1113–131.

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