Cueva de las Manos

The Cueva de las Manos (Cave of the Hands) is an unprecedented collection of prehistoric petroglyphs, with an estimated age of 9500 to 13000 years.

Their creators probably belonged to a hunter-gatherer people, who are regarded as the forerunners of the so-called Tehuelche culture.

The excellent state of preservation of the paintings is due to their location on rocky overhangs and cliffs (including a cave) in a canyon on the upper reaches of the River Pinturas, protected from erosion and the Patagonian winds.

The site, which has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1999, owes its name to the countless stencilled outlines of human hands. However, there are also many depictions of animals, such as guanacos (Lama guanicoe) and rheas (Rhea americana), large flightless birds that are distantly related to the ostrich and, like the guanacos, are still common in the region. There are also geometric shapes, zigzag patterns, red dots representing the sun and hunting scenes in which naturalistically represented animals and human figures interact.

The hunting scenes show a variety of hunting techniques, including the use of “bolas” – a throwing weapon made of connected strings that are weighted to wrap themselves around the legs of the hunted animals, causing them to fall.

In one of the rock panels, a crack in the rock is used iconographically to represent a gorge into which the hunters hunt the animals.

Most of the painted hands are left hands and of a size similar to that of a 13-year-old boy: This might indicate a initiation ritual.

Among international scholars, the Cueva de las Manos is considered one of the most important sites of the earliest hunter-gatherer groups of South America during the early Holocene. Often younger figures and motifs overlay older representations, the last of which are dated around 700 AD.

The paintings were made with natural mineral pigments – iron oxide (red and violet), kaolin (white) and natrojarosite (yellow), manganese oxide (black) – which were ground and mixed with a binder.

The Cueva de las Manos and the canyon of the Río Pinturas are located off the Ruta 40, the nearest settlement is Bajo Caracoles, which consists of a few houses.

For those who do not want to visit the site as part of their onward journey, e.g. to Lago General Carrera, we recommend a cosy hacienda in the wider surroundings, from where you can take a day trip to the cave.