On the morning of day 2 of our journey down the Ruta 40 we had the option of getting up a bit early and taking a little detour to see the Cave of the Hands an hour outside of our overnight bus stop in Perrito Moreno. I have some recollection of having read about and seen pictures of this cave a long time ago in a magazine like National Geographic and was therefore very excited to see it and was able to talk the other 4 members of the group into coming with me. We hopped into a van and headed down the road to the private ranch where the cave is located. Along the way we saw lots of guanacos, a few things that were either giant chinchillas (which live in the area) or some large rabbits, and some rheas. The picture below shows how similar these cousins of ostriches are to the ostriches themselves.
The Cave of the Hands itself is not so much a cave, but rather a series of overhangs and indentations along a cliff that forms one side of a canyon. You can see the path we were going to take from this picture looking across the canyon. The hands and other paintings are actually located along the cliff just above the path.
We hiked down across the canyon and river to the visitor's center and then on toward the paintings. The first paintings that we came to were the oldest which have been radio-carbon dated to around 9,000 years ago. This makes these paintings extra interesting because they represent some of the earliest evidence of people inhabiting the southern part of South America. While scientists disagree on when exactly the earliest inhabitants of these areas arrived, even the earliest estimates for human arrival place the people who made these paintings among the earliest to arrive here.
The oldest paintings are the negative images of hands. They were made, archaeologists guess anyway, by the people crushing specific minerals like hematite into a fine powder, mixing them with some sort of adhesive, putting this mixture into their mouth, and then blowing it through a hollow tube (quite probably a hollow bone from a bird) over their hand which was held up against the rock wall.
The deer-like or cow-like images you see are of guanacos, the smaller cousin of the llama, which made up a large portion of the diet of the first people. The larger ones were thought to represent adults and the smaller ones juveniles. This represents a step forward in the art abilities of the people. Also in this picture you can see a white circle thought to represent the full moon. This scene when interpreted overall represents how the guanacos are said to give birth when there is a full moon which people still believe in the area.
The black lines you see under the black guanaco here are not just racing stripes; they represent bolas which are essentially rocks tied to the end of strings that were used to hunt the guanacos. You can also see on the right side of this picture some human stick figures with lots of black dots seeming to go up from them which represent people throwing bolas or spears while hunting guanacos. There were several other hunting scenes depicted on the wall which show that people were trying to record their everyday lives in their paintings.
The art continued to evolve over time to include more abstract shapes and things such as this lizard,
this thing which I think was supposed to be a scorpion (can't remember for sure),
a spiral, a more stylized person, and this other figure that looks like 2 arms reaching for a bar of some kind.
Here we can see how even the painting of the hands evolved over time. There are negative images of the feet of rhea in this section of wall! There are also contrasting color hands where the people painted the wall one color and then held their hand over it and blew a different color paint over the top.
There are handprints from men, women and children located along the wall but nearly all of them are of the left hand. It appears that even back then most people were right-handed. There is even a 6-fingered hand!
I was personally fascinated by this place and how such simple pieces of art could endure for 9,000 years on the side of a cliff. The extremely dry air and lack of rain or direct sunlight have preserved an open-air museum that definitely merits a stop if you are ever passing down the Ruta!