Deep in the heart of Argentina, in a cave cut out of the rock by the swelling of the Pinturas River, is one of the most incredible collections of prehistoric art in the world. It takes a difficult journey to get to it, along tracks of shattered stone. However, it gives a glimpse into the cultural lives of our long-dead ancestors.
Humans first daubed paint on the walls of caves more than 40,000 years ago. Indeed, the first examples of cave art could be older than 65,000 years. That means that, most likely, Neanderthals painted them 20 millennia before the first modern humans set foot in Europe. And mystery still surrounds the purpose of the art that ancient people created.
The caves where paintings have been found are often in places that are difficult to get to, and researchers have found no evidence that they were houses or refuges. That has left scientists with two possible theories about the reason that our ancestors decided to make their marks.
Some believe that the paintings provided a way to communicate, like a prehistoric chatboard. Others have suggested that the marks on the cave walls have a spiritual significance, as though they are perhaps tied in to some religious beliefs or ceremonies that ancient humans believed in. But there are stranger mysteries to uncover too.
For one thing, the paintings are eerily alike wherever in the world they’re discovered. Many of the paintings show wild animals, while others are negative pictures of hands that are created by applying color to the wall while the hand is held in place. And it’s these that bring us back to Argentina.
You see, in Spanish the cave is known as the Cueva de las Manos, which translates into English as the Cave of the Hands. Depicted on the walls of the cavern are hundreds of images of human hands. But they’re not the only thing that you’ll find if you ever take the long trip to visit.
Although the cave looks large, once you’ve passed through the almost 50 ft.-wide entrance, you quickly find the space vanishes. The ceiling soars 30 ft. above you by the entrance, but before long, if you’re tall, you may well be stooping. That’s because the ground rises towards the ceiling.
The earliest artworks discovered in the cave have been carbon dated to about 7300 B.C. However, some of the art is even older – it ranges in age from 9,000 years old to 13,000 years old. But scientists did not find that out from the paintings themselves.
Instead, archaeologists have run tests on the remains of the pipes that the painters used to spray materials onto the walls. It’s likely that the ancient artists put colored paint inside these bone instruments before blowing it out onto their outstretched hands, leaving the strange silhouettes.
Many of the paintings of hands that you’ll see in the cave are of left hands. But scientists don’t know whether that means the artists held the pipes with their right hands and blew onto their left, or whether they held it in their left and blew onto right hands turned backwards. It’s one mystery that we’ll probably never resolve.
Alongside the painted hands, there are other images in the Cueva de las Manos. Many of these depict animals that the people who made the paintings would have hunted, as well as scenes showing those hunts. There are other, stranger marks as well, including some on the cave ceiling.
One of the hunting skills shown in the images of hunting involves using bolas. These are weapons made of rope or twine that have weights attached to either end. They were tossed at animals to entangle their legs and bring them down. But people may well have used these weapons to make art too.
You see, there are distinctive red dots on the ceiling of the cave, the use of bolas can explain them. It’s likely the weapons were dipped in colored pigment before being tossed upwards. When they hit the ceiling, they left their mark thanks to the ancient ink.
One thing that scientists still aren’t sure of is just who made the paintings. It’s likely that ancestors of a people known as the Tehuelche did them. The Tehuelche were hunter-gatherers who still lived in the region when European explorers and colonists came to the region in the 1800s.
The history of the Tehuelche stretches back almost 15,000 years. During the winter, they fished and caught shellfish at lower altitudes, and during the spring they returned to the mountains and higher ground to hunt game. But this lifestyle has not left too many traces.
And while the history of the Tehuelche runs far back in time, it may surprise you how recently humans occupied the Cave of the Hands. Archaeological evidence suggests that as recently as 700 A.D., people lived in the cave system. But after that, it was a long time before the cave was rediscovered.
Archaeologists first investigated the caves in the later years of the 1940s. In the 1960s, they ramped up research within the caves, sparking a quarter of a century of interest in the marks within and the people who made them. In 1999 UNESCO listed it as a World Heritage site.
Tests on the images in the caves have given us a glimpse into some of the techniques used to make them. We know, for example, how the painters formulated the pigments that they deployed. But we still don’t know what purpose these amazing images had.
And there’s a chance that we might never know. To keep the integrity of the site intact, archaeological research has been kept to a minimum in recent years. There’s been no restoration work in the cave either. For tens of thousands of years, these pieces of incredible artwork have remained unaltered.
They’re likely to remain that way too. This is a snapshot not just of one part of the past but of thousands of years of accumulated history, preserved in place thanks to kind conditions and inaccessibility. They are a last reminder of people long gone from this planet, enshrined in the rock for all to see.