Named for the hundreds of colourful handprints stencilled on the rock walls, Cueva de las Manos or Cave of Hands is tucked in the valley of the Pinturas River, located in an isolated part of Argentine Patagonia, in the province of Santa Cruz in southern Argentina. But the Cueva de las Manos refers to both the main site of the cave shelter, measuring a mere 79 feet (24 m) in depth and between 33 feet (10 m) and 7 feet (2 m) in height, along with the surrounding complex of rock art sites that includes it.
However, the handprints are not located in the cave, but just outside, on various rock shelves and the rock faces flanking the cave entrance. In addition to the series of handprints, the artwork decorating the interior of the cave and the surrounding cliff faces includes people, animals, hunting scenes and abstract signs, created in several waves between 7,300 BC and 700 AD, a period that spans the Mesolithic and Neolithic eras, as well as the Bronze and Iron Ages. The age of the paintings was calculated from the radiocarbon dating of the artworks and the remains of bone pipes used for spraying the paint on the wall of the cave to create the artworks. The site of the Cueva de las Manos is considered by several scholars to be the best material evidence of early South American hunter-gatherer groups, also called foragers, who used to live like omnivores, by gathering food from local sources, like wild plants, insects, fungi, honey and killing animals, mainly the guanaco, closely related to the Llama.
The artwork in the interior of the Cueva de las Manos and the surrounding cliff faces can be divided by subject into three basic categories and are believed to have been created by different peoples at different periods and the oldest style in the cave can be traced back to around 7,300 BC. Most of the handprints are of left hands, which indicates that the artists probably held the spraying pipe in their right hands and used different mineral pigments to make different colours, which include iron oxides for red and purple, kaolin for white, natrojarosite for yellow and manganese oxide for black.
However, most of the hands are silhouetted using red pigment, although some of the handprints are done in charcoal and manganese. In addition to the handprints, Cueva de las Manos contains a wide variety of hunting scenes, complete with dynamic images of bolas-wielding humans, as well as guanacos, rheas, felines and other animals, along with geometric shapes, zigzag patterns, red dots and representations of the sun. The hunting scenes also exhibit a variety of hunting techniques, including the use of bolas, a throwing weapon made of weights on the ends of interconnected cords, designed to capture animals by entangling their legs.
As stated, the decorating artwork of the Cueva de las Manos and the surrounding cliff faces can be divided by subject into three basic categories. The stylistic Group A, which includes mainly the hunting scenes, together with digital markings and hands, is the oldest art at Cueva de las Manos, belonging to the era of Mesolithic art, dates back to the eighth millennium BC. The stylistic Group B, the second style of Stone Age art, dominated by hand stencils, with few, if any, hunting scenes, emerged two thousand years later, around 5,000 BC.
This style remained unchanged until around 1330 BC, when paintings became more stylized with the appearance of human and animal figures. The third and final cultural phase at Cueva de las Manos, noted for its abstract geometric imagery executed in deep plum or black, along with minimalist stylized depictions of animals and humans, painted in bright red pigments, is known as Stylistic Group C, started about 500 AD.
The Cueva de las Manos is in the walls of the Pinturas canyon, which are composed of volcanic rocks, formed about 150 million years ago during the Jurassic period. It was first discovered by Father Alberto Maria de Agostini, an Italian missionary and explorer, in 1941 and was further explored by researcher Rex Gonzalez in 1949, when he participated as a member of an expedition organized by the La Plata Museum. However, it was not until the late 1960s that archaeologists began to study the site in detail. In 1964, the Argentine surveyor and archaeologist Carlos Gradin and his team began the most substantial research on the site, initiating a 30-year-long study of the caves and their invaluable artworks, which helped to identify the different stylistic sequences of the cave.
Regarded as a National Historic Monument in Argentina since 1993, the site of the Cueva de las Manos was included in the list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites in 1999. Today, it has become a place of tourist attraction and is visited by thousands of visitors every year. Much to the delight of the locals, as well as the visitors, every February the nearby town of Moreno, hosts a celebration in honour of the caves, called Festival Folklórico Cueva de las Manos.