South America | Argentina | Patagonia | La Cuarenta | Perito Moreno – Cuevas de las Manos
Perhaps its just an accidental result of the individual human presence that people leave a mark of their existence somewhere on this earth. Whether it’s ancient garbage in the ground, a fallen down rubble of rocks that once formed a building or an artistic body of work that endures far beyond the span of one human lifetime, in the present we are witness to numerous markings of people in the passage of time. It might be graffiti that is celebrated in a way like on the Berlin wall, a great scientific theory or like in this entry it could be ancient aboriginal paintings on a rock. One of the enduring images of humankind on the planet is the human hand and just south of Perito Moreno town in Argentina is a Unesco World Heritage site called the ‘Caves of the Hands’ or in spanish ‘Cuevas de las Manos’.
A visit to these caves is the last component of a circular voyage segment I planned in south central Argentina and Chile. The phrase in spanish; ‘cuevas de las manos’, has a certain mysterious rhythym for me, evocative and important sounding – and what it entitles is something more than just some handprints on the walls of some caves. They are more than footprints in the sand that the wind will erase in just a few seconds – in fact they have existed for thousands of years – and so I am here…here in the second row of Olga, an old Russian van owned by Harry from Guanacondor Travel. Harry is born in Argentina from Dutch extraction and has a couple of Spanish names, but to me he says he is Harry.
We set off for the canyon stopping on the way at viewpoints and at the Estancia or ranch that controls access to the site. Aleady it feels like one of the most relaxed tours I’ve ever been on. Eventually we reach the canyon and trek down and across to the starting point of the caves where we have whatever lunch we have brought. Then we begin our walk along the line of caves that have handprints from as long ago as 9,500 years before now. Nine thousand five hundred years ago, people were putting their hands up on the walls of the caves and painting around them. They kept doing it for another seven thousand years. Another seven thousand years.
They also painted things that they wanted like the Guanacos that they ate. They painted them pregnant when they wanted there to be more of them – at least that’s what the anthropologists have said. Those anthropologists might be right or they could be wrong – but they’re dead now – both the anthropologists and the painters, so we can go by what they said or by something else. Like the Mapuche indians who claim that there are some paintings at this site that are from their ancient ancestors as well – painted as recently as 800 years ago. Maybe they’re wrong, but the Estancia owners and administrators of the site didn’t disagree with them enough to prevent them from having a sacred ceremony at the caves. So maybe they’re right.
People still want to make their mark at these caves, but its more difficult now. There are some fences in front to prevent people from making graffiti on top of the hands, but its already been done. Perhaps the next round of archeologists will read some spiritual significance into the painted marking of a name for some southern Argentinian city.
Harry is an excellent bilingual or perhaps trilingual guide, taking lots of time to explain each type of painting and answering every question quite thoroughly. You would think he had written a thesis or two about the caves. Afterwards, we trek down and across the canyon again. A nice touch is walking through the cooling river barefoot and across some dunes to the other side where high on the hill Olga is waiting paitiently.