Cueva de las Manos, Río Pinturas

The Cueva de las Manos (Cave of the Hands) contains an exceptional assemblage of cave art, executed between 13,000 and 9,500 years ago, which bears witness to the culture of the earliest human societies in South America. It takes its name from the stencilled outlines of human hands in the cave, but there are also many depictions of animals, such as guanacos, still commonly found in the region, as well as hunting scenes. The people responsible for the paintings may have been the ancestors of the historic hunter-gatherer communities of Patagonia found by European settlers in the 19th century. The artistic sequence, which includes three main stylistic groups, began as early as the 10th millennium BP [Before Present]. The sequence is a long one: archaeological investigations have shown that the site was last inhabited around AD 700 by the possible ancestors of the first Tehuelche people of Patagonia. The Cueva is considered by the international scientific community to be one of the most important sites of the earliest hunter-gatherer groups in South America.

The paintings on the rock shelters and caves are located in an outstanding landscape, with the river running through a deep canyon. The hunting scenes depict animals and human figures interacting in a dynamic and naturalistic manner. Different hunting strategies are shown, with animals being surrounded, trapped in ambushes, or attacked by hunters using their throwing weapons, round stones known as bolas. Some scenes show individual hunters and others groups of ten or more men.

The entrance to the Cueva is screened by a rock wall covered by many hand stencils. Within the rock shelter itself there are five concentrations of rock art, later figures and motifs often superimposed upon those from earlier periods. The paintings were executed with natural mineral pigments - iron oxides (red and purple), kaolin (white), natrojarosite (yellow), manganese oxide (black) - ground and mixed with some form of binder.

Travellers have been visiting the Cueva de los Manos since the mid-19th century and recording their impressions of the paintings. They were first mentioned in the scientific literature during the 20th century, but it was not until the 1960s that they became the subject of serious study. The work of Carlos J. Gradin and his co-workers established the importance of the Cueva de los Manos as a prehistoric rock-art site of international scientific importance. The favourable conditions (very low humidity, no water infiltration, stable rock strata) at the rock shelter have ensured that the state of conservation of all but the most exposed paintings is excellent.

Historical context

The progress of human penetration into South America is the subject of intensive scientific debate at the present time. Some early radiocarbon dates from the north-eastern region of Brazil have challenged the hitherto generally accepted view that this began around 12,000 BP.

However, this does not affect the dating of the occupation of the Río Pinturas rock shelter, which has been established by excavation and radiocarbon analysis to c 9300 BP. The first human group (whose art is classified as Stylistic Group A) were long-distance hunters whose main prey was the guanaco.

Around 7000 BP a second cultural level can be identified, distinguished by Stylistic Group B. Hunting scenes are no longer found, and the rock art is dominated by hand stencils. There are also some examples of stencils of the feet of the American ostrich (ñandú). This culture lasted until c 3300 BP, when the art became more schematic and included highly stylized zoomorphic and anthropomorphic figures.

The final cultural phase at Río Pinturas began around 1300 BP. Its art (Stylistic Group C), executed in bright red pigments, concentrated on abstract geometric figures and highly schematic representations of animals and humans. It is believed to have been the work of the historic Tehuelche hunter-gatherers who were inhabiting the vast area of Patagonia when the first Spanish traders and settlers arrived. It was the creation of vast cattle ranches (estancias) that brought their way of life to an end.

The Area Arqueológica y Natural Río Pinturas-Santa Cruz is located in the pampas section of the Pinturas River region. Low plateaux at an altitude of 800-1000m are cut by deep canyons bordered by steep cliffs, the main one being that of the Pinturas itself. There are many natural rock shelters in these cliffs. The soil is rocky and poor, but the region supports a diverse natural fauna, in which the guanaco (Lama guanicoe) figures prominently.

The climate of the canyons is temperate, since they are protected from the winds that sweep the pampas. The mild winter temperatures and the high humidity as compared with the pampas make this region appropriate for seasonal grazing of the cattle from the estancias. Palaeoclimatic studies based on the sediments of the Cueva de los Manos suggest that the present conditions had been established by 11,000 BP.

The entrance to the Cueva de los Manos is screened by a rock wall that is covered by many hand stencils. Within the rock shelter itself there are five concentrations of rock art. Later figures and motifs are frequently superimposed upon those from earlier periods.

The paintings were executed with natural mineral pigments that were ground and mixed with some form of binder, the nature of which is unknown. Traces of the pigments were found in the archaeological excavations carried out in the entrance to the cave, thus establishing a contextual link between the paintings and the stratified cultural material. Xray diffraction analysis has shown that the most common minerals used were iron oxides (hematite and maghemite) for red and purple, kaolin for white, natrojarosite for yellow, and manganese oxide for black; gypsum was sometimes added to the mixture.

Justification for being a World Heritage Site

Criterion (iii): The Cueva de las Manos contains an outstanding collection of prehistoric rock art which bears witness to the culture of the earliest human societies in South America.