Cueva de las Manos
Cave of the Hands, Famous for Prehistoric Hand Stencils.

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Hand Stencils in Cueva de las Manos
Earliest art here dates to 7,300 BCE.

Cueva de las Manos (c.7,300 BCE)
"Cave of the Hands" - Rio Pinturas, Argentina


Cave of the Hands
Location and Discovery
Handprints and Hand Stencils
Other Cave Art
Other Prehistoric Caves with Handprints

More images of stencilled hands
from Cueva de las Manos, Argentina.

Cave of the Hands

An important site of prehistoric art situated in the province of Santa Cruz in southern Argentina, Cueva de las Manos ("Cave of the Hands") is a rock shelter, or series of rock shelters, which is famous for (and named after) its collages of hand stencils and other handprints, which have been carbon-dated (from the remains of bone-made pipes used to spray the paint) to about 7,300 BCE. Actually, the handprints are not located in the cave, but just outside, on various rock shelves and the rock faces flanking the cave entrance. The shelter is quite small, measuring a mere 24 metres (79 feet) in depth, and between 10 metres (33 feet) and 2 metres (7 feet) in height. In addition to the handprints, there is a quantity of cave painting - mainly hunting scenes and geometric abstract signs - which is believed to have been created during the approximate period 7,300 BCE - 700 CE, a period that post-dates Paleolithic culture, and spans the Mesolithic and Neolithic eras, as well as the Bronze and Iron Ages. Along with the cave art at Caverna da Pedra Pintada (Brazil) (9250 BCE) and at the Toquepala Caves (Peru) (9500 BCE), the Cueva de las Manos is considered to be one of the most important prehistoric sites used by late Stone Age hunter-gatherer groups in South America, and to exemplify the pictographs and other rock art from the period. In 1991 the shelter was designated a World Heritage Site by UNESCO. For more about chronology, see: Prehistoric Art Timeline (from 2.5 million BCE).

Location and Discovery

Cueva de las Manos lies in the valley of the Pinturas River, within the Francisco P. Moreno National Park, 160 kilometres south of the town of Perito Moreno, in Southern Patagonia. First discovered by a monk in 1941, the cave was further explored by researcher Rex Gonzalez in 1949, although it wasn't until the late 1960s that archeologists began to study the site in detail. One researcher whose contribution was mentioned by UNESCO was Carlos J. Gradin.

Handprints and Hand Stencils

As stated, nearly all the positive handprints and negative hand stencils at the site are located on rock panels outside the cave. Most of the hands are silhouetted using red pigment (hematite or red ochre), although some of the handprints are done in charcoal and manganese. Other colours present, like white and yellow, were derived from kaolin and natrojarosite. (Note: For more about the composition of colour pigments used in Stone Age cave painting, see: Prehistoric Colour Palette.) The majority of the prints are left hands, and consistent in size with those of young teenagers, raising the possibility that they may have been made as part of an initiation ceremony.

Unlike sites of Franco-Cantabrian cave art - notably Gargas Cave (25,000 BCE) and Tibiran Cave (20,000 BCE), both in the French Pyrenees, and Maltravieso Cave (18,000 BCE) in Spain - Cueva de las Manos contains few, if any, prints of mutilated hands, suggesting either less severe weather or a radically different cultural context.

Other Cave Art

In addition to its handprints, Cueva de las Manos contains a wide variety of other parietal art, featuring hunting scenes - with dynamic images of bolas-wielding humans as well as guanacos, rheas, felines and other animals - abstract signs - with zigzag patterns, red dots and other geometric shapes - plus a range of stylized representations of humans and animals.

For the world's earliest cave paintings and hand stencils,
see: Oldest Stone Age Art: Top 100 Works.


Human occupation of Cueva de las Manos has been radiocarbon dated to 7,300 BCE. Its first inhabitants were nomadic hunter-gatherers whose main prey was the guanaco. Their parietal art - classified as Stylistic Group A - consists predominantly of hunting scenes, although digital markings and hand stencils are also seen. Thus the oldest art at Cueva de las Manos dates back to the era of Mesolithic art in the eighth millennium BCE. Two thousand years later, about 5,000 BCE, a second style of Stone Age art emerged - classified as Stylistic Group B - dominated by hand stencils, with few if any hunting scenes. This style remained unchanged until the era of Neolithic art, about 1330 BCE, when paintings became more stylized with the appearance of anthropomorphic and zoomorphic figures. A third and final cultural phase at Cueva de las Manos - known as Stylistic Group C - started about 500 CE. This is noted for its abstract geometric imagery executed in deep plum or black, along with minimalist stylized depictions of animals and humans, painted in bright red pigments.

This dating differs from Aboriginal Rock Art in Australia, where stencilled images of hands are one of the earliest forms of Kimberley Rock Art, dating to the period 25,000-18,000 BCE. Only after about 18,000 BCE do hunting scenes appear: see for example: Bradshaw Rock Paintings (15,500 BCE).

Other Prehistoric Caves with Handprints

Prints and stencilled images of hands appear in prehistoric caves around the world. Here is a short list of the most famous sites.

Sulawesi Caves (37,900 BCE) Indonesia
The Leang Timpuseng Cave on Sulawesi contains the world's oldest hand stencil.

El Castillo Cave (37,300 BCE) Spain
The second oldest hand stencil comes from the Aurignacian cave complex at Monte Castillo.

Altamira Cave (17,000 BCE) Spain
Contains a number of hand stencils sprayed with red pigment.

Chauvet Cave (30,000 BCE) France
Contains over 500 stencils and prints of palms.

Cosquer Cave (25,000 BCE) France
Has 65 hand stencils, including several sets of mutilated fingers.

Pech Merle (25,000 BCE) France
Famous for its "The Dappled Horses" panel which also has several hand prints.

• Karawari Caves (18,000 BCE) Papua New Guinea
Leading site of hand stencils in Melanesia.


• For more about prehistoric cave painting in South America, see: Homepage.

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