To the River of Paintings


by Jerry D. Moore

Hail shot from charcoal clouds as we drove across the pampas southwest of Buenos Aires. I slowed our rented Renault onto the dirt shoulder and under the shelter of a roadside tree, scant protection but saving the vehicle from damage. The roadway was silver. Our car shuddered as the storm blew past. The sun broke through. The hail melted and puddled. The wind still blew. I started the car and we continued on 2500 miles across Patagonia to the River of Paintings and the Cave of Hands.

One cannot travel in Patagonia uninfluenced by Bruce Chatwin. Chatwin portrayed Patagonia as a landscape of impermanence, a region of wind-blown steppe sparsely inhabited by displaced lives. He explained, “Patagonia is the farthest place to which man walked from his place of origins. It is therefore a symbol of his restlessness.” Chatwin wrote of an immigrant from the Rhineland, who settled in Patagonia after the Great War and raised blue lupines that reminded him of Germany. At a sheep ranch, a Scottish rancher wore a kilt and carved his own bagpipes during the long Patagonian winter. A homesick Canary Islander remembered the warm winds of Tenerife. In the words of the elderly English gardener, Miss Nita Starling, who had traveled the world but ended up tending flowers on a Patagonian estancia, “You never know where you’ll end up.”

In January 2014, I ended up in Patagonia with the Canadian archaeologist Andrew Stewart, my friend for more than thirty years, an accomplished traveler, and a wealth of information on the geologies shaped by rivers. We rendezvoused in Buenos Aires and drove six days across Patagonia to the eastern base of the Andes.

As we crossed the pampas, the wind blew huge pillars of yellow dust across the loessic landscape. The landscape was arid, covered with scraps of flinching bunch grass. White plumes from alkali pans spiraled into the sky. In an interview, Chatwin claimed that the profiles of In Patagonia were simply a matter of discovery: “At every place I came to it wasn’t a question of hunting for the story, it was a question of the story coming at you . . . I also think the wind had something possibly to do with it.”

We traversed the pampas to the forested slopes of the eastern Andes, where we joined La Ruta 40. Running for 5,300 km, La Ruta 40 is a legendary path, like the Silk Road or Route 66, connecting isolated estancias, distant towns, and strands of history and fiction. La Ruta 40 begins in the high dry valleys of northwest Argentina and runs south, brushing the glaciers and mountain lakes of Tierra del Fuego. It is braided from ancient trails and recent roadbeds—hugging river valleys, dashing across arid pampas, twining these routes into a north-south path.

Following other unmapped routes, humans first traveled into Patagonia at the end of the Pleistocene, about 12,800–12,000 years ago. For decades, archaeologists thought that people first migrated into North America between 11,500 and 11,000 years ago and gradually moved south, perhaps arriving in southern South America 1,000 or 2,000 years later.Recent recalibrations of radiocarbon dates from North and South America indicate that many early sites in both continents are coeval or separated by only a few centuries, suggesting that either people were already in South America or that human expansion through the Americas was extremely rapid compared with other parts of the globe. (In contrast, it took some 300–400 generations—approximately 7,000 to 10,000 years—for fully modern humans to settle Europe).

At the end of the Pleistocene, Patagonia was a different landscape than today. It was warmer and wetter, a broad sweep of luxuriant grasslands instead of today’s drier steppe. This period was followed by an inconstant trend toward greater aridity, largely caused by fluctuations in the location and intensity of a massive belt of wind that curls around the Earth, the Southern Westerly Wind (SWW). The SWW normally flows between 50°–55° South latitudes, sweeping around Antarctica and touching the tip of Tierra del Fuego but otherwise coursing around the Earth unimpeded by continents. The position of this raging river of wind changes throughout the year and over millennia. Patagonia was windier and wetter 12,500 years ago with more extensive grasslands. This wetter era was followed by fluctuating climates between 8,500 and 5,500 years ago, and then by weaker westerlies that blew less moisture across the Andes, creating the dry steppe of Patagonia.

Humans moved into this changing, challenging environment. The Argentine archaeologist Luis Alberto Borrero, an expert on the peopling of Patagonia, has proposed that the first, tentative inhabitants faced an unstable environment of changing habitats and dispersed pockets of key resources. Borrero writes, “Humans had to adjust to changing sets of circumstances, which would require different adaptations.” Limited water and patchy resources meant the earliest colonizers people of Patagonia moved across the landscape in relatively small groups, following river valleys whenever possible, striking out across dry deserts to distant waterholes, but leaving vast areas, Borrero writes, either “sparsely populated or . . . not used at all.” 

We have tended to exercise an imaginative bias against flatlands:

moor, tundra, heath, prairie, bog and steppe . . .

They seem to return the eye’s enquiries unanswered, or swallow all attempts at interpretation. They confront us with the problem of purchase:

how to anchor perception in context of vastness, how to make such a place mean.

[Robert Macfarlane, The Wild Places]

The oldest archaeological sites currently known from Patagonia are in a region named the Deseado Massif, a staircase of volcanic origins that descends as it reaches the Atlantic Coast. The Deseado Massif is cut by river drainages. In addition to the rivers, the hard strata of the Deseado Massif trapped freshwater in basins and channeled underground water to surface streams. The Deseado Masif formation was pocked with caves and rock shelters and contained high-quality stone for tools, resources of interest to ancient hunters­.

At the end of the Pleistocene, the pampas grasslands supported vast herds of large mammals, including the American horse (Hippidion saldiasi), the extinct gigantic armadillo (Eutatus seguini), and ground sloths (Mylodon darwinii). (A scrap of preserved ground sloth sent by a distant relative to England and preserved in his grandmother’s dining room was the talisman that prompted Bruce Chatwin to go to Patagonia.) These extinct animals’ bones are found across the pampas. In his journal from the voyage of HMS Beagle, the young Charles Darwin wrote, “We may conclude that the whole area of the Pampas is one wide sepulcher of these extinct gigantic quadrupeds.”

Traveling south, La Ruta 40 rolls onto the steppe. Hundreds of kilometers stretch between towns. The road devolves into loose gravel and gray dust. It was late afternoon when Andrew and I finally arrived at the town of Perito Moreno, which straddles a main street with three stoplights and a dividing verge planted with Italian pines. There were a couple of cafés and a mini-mart. Even here, among the streets lined by pollarded stumps of cottonwoods and in the lee of concrete buildings, the wind slashed through Perito Moreno as if determined to drive us away. Andrew and I considered pitching our tent in the municipal campground, but the wind blew us toward the Hotel Americano on a darkening afternoon. The El Viejo Bar served a passable churasco and salad, improved by malbec. The bar was a modest place of wobbly tables covered by protective polyvinyl sheets. The walls were bone white, but the bar itself, built from rough stonework, was painted an otherworldly reddish-tangerine in defiance of the dun and sage of the surrounding landscapes.

The next morning we woke early and left Perito Moreno by 8 a.m. The winds were strong, pushing the Renault across the lanes of asphalt. La Ruta 40 curved southwards over mesetas and down into arroyos, when suddenly we saw our first guanacos, their long, elegant necks peering like periscopes above the ridge crest. We turned off La Ruta 40 onto the gravel road that leads to the River of Paintings.

The Rio Pinturas lies south of the Phoenix River and below the headwaters of the River of Desire. It cuts through mesas, carving steep-walled canyons into thick blocks of basalt flows. Eighty archaeological sites stretch along this immediate segment of the Rio Pinturas.

The Cueva de las Manos sits about 88 m above the Rio Pinturas. It is a broad but shallow overhang, 48 m wide with a single large chamber that bores into the mountain. It was used over thousands of years, as people took shelter and watched for guanaco to descend to drink and browse along the river. Sitting by campfires, ancient people made tools, butchered game, built lives—and, of course, they made paintings.

The oldest dated levels of Cueva de las Manos are over 9,000 years old; earlier layers lie beneath. The layers hold abundant stone tools and flakes. Patches of charcoal and burned earth mark ancient hearths. A medley of animal bones, particularly from guanacos, is found in the cave; many bones had cut marks and intentional fractures. The oldest layers contained chunks of red, ochre, and white mineral pigments, and a fragment of fallen cave stone with traces of yellowish-brown paint. The earliest paintings probably are 13,000–9,300 years old.

The rock art is sheltered from the wind by overhanging rock ledges along the canyon walls. The porous surface of the buff-colored rock allowed the pigments to penetrate the stone, and the images are surprisingly vivid thousands of years after they were made.

Some of the images are readily understood; other motifs are profoundly obscure. The oldest art depicts guanacos and human hands. Guanaco herds cross the cave walls, sway-bellied and full. Some are swollen in pregnancy, and an X-ray-like image appears to show an enwombed fetus. A solid white disk may depict a full moon, and it is said that guanacos give birth near the full moon. There are numerous hunting scenes, dynamic chases of guanacos by people running and twirling bolas. Later, motifs became increasingly geometric and schematic, such as a pair of raised but disembodied human arms.

With a glance at these images of guanacos and disks, squiggled lines and painted dots, we recognize these motifs as human creations, but no archaeologist can know the symbols’ complete and basic meanings. Simultaneously, prehistoric rock art is indisputably human and utterly mysterious.

Look, for example, at the human hands. Hands are the most distinctive human feature; the images are indisputable creations of human intention. Hand motifs have been found on rock art panels on every continent occupied by ancient humans, literally from Australia to Arizona and from Borneo to Baja California.

At Cueva de las Manos, most hand motifs are stenciled, made by blowing pigment through a bird-bone tube creating the negative imprint of the hand. The care and precision of the outlines suggest that the subject/artist had to hold the left hand in place for at least five to ten minutes, with all the ground and mixed pigments and a blow tube comfortably within reach. Most hands are of adults, although a few children’s hands are preserved. Even the larger hands vary in size, suggesting men and women left their marks on these cave walls.

But what do these images mean? Despite the careful excavations and the detailed analyses of images, no archaeologist has a firm understanding of the rock art on Cueva de las Manos—or for the vast majority of rock art sites. We can identify stylistic changes and variations in techniques, but we always confront the elusive nature of meaning. We will never hear the stories that accompanied ancient art or be certain of the tales that wrapped around image. Yet, here in Patagonia, after thousands of miles of travel, I look carefully at these cave walls, straining to hear their message above the sound of the wind:

“We were here.”


About the Author:

Jerry D. Moore is an archaeologist and writer, and professor of anthropology at California State University, Dominguez Hills, USA. This article is based on his new book Incidence of Travel: Recent Journeys in Ancient South America (University Press of Colorado).