Cueva de las Manos - Río Pinturas

Río Pinturas Canyon

The Cueva de las Manos, Río Pinturas, Santa Cruz province, contains an exceptional assemblage of cave art, executed between 13,000 and 9,500 years ago. It takes its name (Cave of the Hands) from the stencilled outlines of human hands in the cave, but there are also many depictions of animals, such as guanacos (Lama guanicoe), 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 cueva itself is less a cave than a series of overhangs: natural cutaways at the foot of a towering ninety-metre cliff face overlooking the canyon below. From this vantage point, groups of paleolithic hunter-gatherers would survey the valley floor for game, though nowadays the view is partly spoiled by the ineffective and heavy-handed iron fence that attempts to keep tourists from etching their own twenty-first century graffiti on the rock. Even so, the collage of black, white, red and ochre handprints , mixed with gracefully flowing vignettes of guanaco hunts, still makes for an astonishing spectacle. Of the trademark 829 handprints, most are male, and only 31 are right-handed. They are all "negatives", being made by placing the hand on the rock face, and imprinting its outline by blowing pigments through a tube. Interspersed with these are human figures, as well as the outlines of puma paws and rhea prints, and creatures such as a scorpion.

Cueva de las Manos

The earliest paintings were made by the Toldense culture, and date as far back as 7300 BC, but archeologists have identified four later cultural phases, ending with depictions by early Tehuelche groups - notably geometric shapes and zigzags - from approximately 1000 AD. The significance of the paintings is much debated: whether they represented part of the rite of passage for adolescents into the adult world, and were thus part of ceremonies to strengthen familial or tribal bonds, or whether they were connected to religious ceremonies that preceded the hunt will probably never be known. Other tantalizing mysteries involve theories surrounding the large number of heavily pregnant guanacos depicted, and whether these herds were actually semi-domesticated or at least managed. One thing is for certain: considering their exposed position, it is remarkable how vivid some of the colours still are: the colours were made from the berries of calafate bushes, local mineral-bearing earth and charcoal, while guanaco fat and urine was applied to create the waterproof coating that has preserved them so well.

Graffiti spray-painted on the side of a building is an annoying act of vandalism. Graffiti spray-painted on a natural stone formation is an appalling desecration of nature. Graffiti spray-painted on a natural stone formation and allowed to age for thousands of years is a priceless work of art..