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Cueva de las Manos and associated sites of the Pinturas river basin

Date of Submission: 31/01/2018
Criteria: (iii)
Category: Cultural
Submitted by:
Permanent Delegation of Argentina to UNESCO
State, Province or Region:
Provincia de Santa Cruz, Municipio de Perito Moreno
Ref.: 6297

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The archeological importance of the Pinturas river basin was first recognized in the Cueva de las Manos, Alto Río Pinturas, research. It is an archeological site with art located over the cave cliffs along the Pinturas river canyon, on the northeast of Santa Cruz province (See the attached map). Magnificent pictographs were discovered in the cave and on several rock shelters, surrounded by an exceptional natural habitat.

Cueva de las Manos was declared National Historic Monument in 1993, Law 24225, and inscribed as World Heritage in 1999.

It is considered the most important cave art site in Patagonia, with well-preserved examples belonging to the early Holocene period in good conservation condition.

The paintings of the cave, rock shelters and cliffs, make a strong impact because of its location over the cliffs that surround the deep Pinturas river basin and the river affluents. They show a profusion of pictorial motifs made with different tones and numberless superimpositions that happened along the last eight millenniums. The pictorial motifs are diverse and there is a great variety of hand prints. Even though this type of artistic manifestation has a universal character, Cueva de las Manos is one of the few places with such a high number of hand stencils that can be found in concentrations of various sizes and shades.

Along the panels there are extraordinary hunting scenes painted over the rocky surface showing human and animal figures interacting in a dynamic and realistic way.  It is possible to appreciate different hunting strategies, surrounding or trapping and ambushing, and animals being chased by hunters. Some of these hunting scenes have a great relevance because they are a unique testimony of the first Patagonian hunters’ behavior. They are also a contribution to the knowledge of their hunting techniques.

There are also representations of different biomorphic motifs of lizards, called matuastos, with three digits similar to the Patagonian ñandú footstep, geometrical figures such as zigzags, straight and angular lines, dots and circles.

Archeological research has proved that Cueva de las Manos is part of a site system located in the Pinturas river basin as well as in other areas of the northeast region of Santa Cruz province. Archeologists Carlos J. Gradin and Ana M. Aguerre (1994) sectored the sites by its topographical location and its function in the system. For example, the base of Pinturas river valley includes, along with other meeting sites (open air campsites for large groups meetings), and two important sites with a different function: Puesto El Rodeo, a burial site, and Piedra Bonita, with cave art manifestations.

In the canyons of Pinturas river affluents, there are two large rockshelters: Alero Cárdenas and Alero Charcamata. These places are recognized as archeological sites of intensive occupation, possibly related to others of temporary occupation.

On the other hand, on higher plains, smaller rock shelters where located allowing an excellent view of the landscape and the available resources. Among them we can mention Pampa del Feo area, where Alero La Juana or Alero Parado is located; Estancia La Madrugada plain, where Alero La Esther is situated, and Puesto El Rodeo plain where Alero de La Difunta Correa is found. The Cueva Grande del Arroyo Feo, with cave art representations, is close to these plains. 

Pinturas river basin was declared in 2015 by Santa Cruz province as a Cultural and Natural Landscape, by law 3394 that establishes Maximum Protection, Buffer and Transition areas and takes into account the geographical division of the Río Pinturas basin and its affluents, establishing these three large areas.

Following we include a detail of some of the system sites characteristics of major archeological importance, which require immediate protection actions. It is important to clarify that all along the river basin, in the Maximum Protection Area, many sites have been located and geo-referenced but there are no results of the researches yet. (Molinari 2015).

Upper river basin: from the confluence with Ecker river to the confluence of Cañadón Charcamata (See attached plan)

Alero Alejandro

Located on the same cliff of Cueva de las Manos, but at a greater height, distant approximately 20 meters from the cave itself. It has a difficult access and the transit in the surroundings is not easy. Its dimensions are of 20 meters length, 5 meters high and 3 meters depth. It is located in front of a terrace that could be occupied easily and has a good view of the middle plains on the opposite bank of the Pinturas river.

It resembles other smaller rockshelters in the area, it shows hand stencils, a foot stencil of a guanaco and abstract motifs. It could be related to temporary occupations by a small human group, possibly during the winter (Gradin and Aguerre 1992, Gradin y Aguerre 1994: 263; 1999). Researchers consider it part of the Cueva de las Manos complex.

Alero Cárdenas

Located in a canyon distant 10 km from the right bank of the Pinturas river basin, it has evidences of human occupation and presence of cave art. It is dated 7300 years Before the Present (BP) (Gradin et al. 1979). It was a winter occupational site, with easy access to the plains where the fundamental animal resource, the guanaco, was found. The results of a field survey allowed relating the first period of the rock shelter occupation with the earliest moments (circa 9000 BP). The cave paintings there consist of geometrical motives, three finger prints, framings, labyrinths, geometrical lines, etc. in which prevails a red-violet color. It also presents lithical material.

Alero El Búo

It is a rock shelter located in a narrow ravine affluent of the Pinturas river. Because of its location it is understood that it was used as a field for cattle in the summer season, in plains and mounds down the Buenos Aires Lake plateau. 

CUENCA MEDIA: Reaching from the Charcamata canyon to Arroyo Telken (See attached plan).

Cueva Grande del Arroyo Feo

Located over a Río Pinturas affluent, on the Quesada ravine, Estancia El Rincón. This site, also known as Cueva Altamirano, may have been occupied from 9300 BP to 4990 (Gradin et al. 1979; Aguerre 1981-1982). The most representative paintings are hand prints in negative and positive in red and white, as well as guanacos hunting scenes painted in red (Gradin 1981-1982). Downstream of the Quesada ravine there are two other smaller rock shelters: Arroyo Feo 2 and Arroyo Feo 3, that present hand prints in black and white and hands in black and violet-red.

Alero Piedra Bonita

Located over a cliff it presents paintings of hunting scenes with very detailed guanacos drawings in white and red. There are also red hands and isolated points in the same color. (Gradin 1994a)

Alero Charcamata

Alero Charcamata site, of great archeological importance, is located in a deep canyon surrounded by an exceptional landscape where the Arroyo Charcamata, an affluent of the Pinturas river runs on the right bank. The stream runs down the rock shelter which outgoing ceiling impacts touching over the narrow canyon. It stands out due to its rock art and, because of this; it is considered one of the most important of the river basin (Gradin 1994b). It presents different pictorial styles related to Cueva de las Manos sequence. The paintings are located over the walls of a large rock shelter; there are guanaco and Patagonian ñandu figures and a feline shape. On other panels there are hands in red, white and yellow (Gradin et al. 1979). The analysis of the archeological material found in the excavations gave a radiocarbon dating between 5290 BP and 5040 years BP.

Sitio Puesto  El Rodeo

This is a burial site where human remains belonging to three bodies were found. The burials date from different times overlapping in the same place (Guichón 1994). The earliest skeleton is dated 4680 years BP, while the other two are from 1380 years BP.

Cañadón El Puma (Alero Grande and sites  1, 2 & 3). It is a series of rock shelters its dimensions being smaller than the ones mentioned previously, mostly 1, 2 and 3 sites. This group of sites is being studied.

Alero 1: It has cave paintings over panels located on the ceiling and walls. In the deepest zone there is a water leak. Recent researches demonstrated that it is occupied by cattle.

Alero 2: It shows a large wall exposed to the climatic influences such as sun, rain and strong winds. Its study is important because it presents altered motifs and it is a representative register of other motifs dispersed in the ravine under the same exposure condition.

Alero 3: Rock shelter with a great exposure to climatic influences. The cave paintings are located over the rock shelter wall.

Alero Grande: This is a rocky shelter larger than the previous ones; it has lithical material deposited on the surface and rupestrian paintings concentrated on the left side of the wall and ceiling. There are water leaks and birds nesting near the paintings. Over the floor there is an important number of fallen rocks.

CUENCA INFERIOR: On this sector of the river basin the Arroyo Telken runs towards the confluence with Río Deseado (See attached map).

Several archeological sites have been registered but they are described in a general way because they haven’t been studied systematically yet. They are located in rock shelters with and without cave art motifs, some of them present surface material under the open sky and in stratified form, others present evidence of human burials. Among them we can mention: Aguas Vivas, Mallín Largo, Cañadón las Cuevas, Saavedra Oeste, Saavedra Central, Sitios Huevos Verdes, Sitios Huevos Verdes Centro, Huevos Verdes Este, Ventana Este and Alero Los Flamencos.

In summary, it is clear that the Cueva de las Manos site belongs to a larger complex of sites situated along the Pinturas river basin. It is associated because of its art to several sites on the Pinturas river area (Cueva Grande del Arroyo Feo, Alero Charcamata, Alero Cárdenas) and its pictorial style extends all over the northeast of Santa Cruz province (Cerro Casa de Piedra 5 y 7 -Aschero 1996, Aschero et al. 1992-93, 2005-, Cerro de los Indios, Los Toldos, El Ceibo) and on more distant areas too (Las Marías).

These are pictorial contexts of styles belonging to different periods of the Holocene and they complete significantly the Argentinian Patagonia art with its particular techniques, styles and chronologies. Therefore, the hunting scenes and the hand stencils and positives in red, start a sequence of superimpositions, during Early Holocene ca. 9000/10000 years BP on the Patagonian south.

This network shaped spaces with different environmental characteristics and specific functions that complemented each other, where art was part of the daily life of the communities that left these traces. These characteristics complete the assemblage of cave art in the Pinturas river and its surroundings (representations of the local fauna, differentiated hunting styles, hunters with propellers and with bows and arrows). Because of its excellent preservation, this zone is an example of the art in the first prehistorical manifestations in Patagonia.

It is necessary to highlight the large number of archeological sites located in a relatively small geographical area. In this area the majority of the sites contain high quality paintings in excellent conservation representing different art periods.

Justification of Outstanding Universal Value

Cueva de las Manos shows the main display of hunting scenes styles between 9400 and 6400 years BP, among the rock art of Pinturas river basin which has a vast time extension, between 9400 and 2000 years BP, as a genuine expression of the hunter-gatherers that started to populate Patagonia since 12000 years BP. The Charcamata style, for its part, appears after 5400 BP, it dominates the regional scene and represents the greater iconographic display, over Cueva de las Manos that shows few examples of this style.

This replication of the motifs on different sites such as El Puma 1, Cerro de los Indios, Cueva Grande del Arroyo Feo and Cueva de las Manos itself, shows the importance of Alero Charcamata as a node for the interpretation of rock art and for the territorial demarcation by these hunters in their seasonal nomadism, acquiring an exceptional value for the understanding of the regional rock art evolution, non the less because of the excellent preservation of their paintings.

Along with these important sites, the Basin presents over seventy sites related in a cultural system that includes them. Their importance is than in a mostly uniform space it is possible to identify places or environments that generally coincide, by their repetitive use over time, because of their heterogeneity in biodiversity. These centers are connected by natural and cultural corridors, as water streams, cliffs and roads.

The reasons to support this proposal arise from the inherent values of the area:

Historical / Cultural value: Pinturas river basin concentrates a series of sites with cave art that represent a time sequence of over 8000 years. Considering that human occupation in the area began approximately 12000 years ago, Río Pinturas basin is an important referent of the societies that lived in the Patagonian south.

Natural value: According to Christie et al (1999), Pinturas river basin stands out for owning two geological provinces in a separate area, as well as a great biodiversity for the latitude where it is located. It presents a vast quantity of endemic species – regional or sub-regional – of flora and fauna. In conclusion all these differential characteristics show the beautiful and varied landscape that surround the Pinturas river basin. 

Scientific value: The art manifestations, the geographical environment that surround them and the archeological sites located in the area, have turned the Pinturas river basin into the epicenter of archeological researches of the greatest importance. The scientific interest of the area has been recognized by naturalists and archeologists since the beginning of the XX century.

The researches coordinated by Carlos J. Gradin started in 1964 when the first field survey of the Cueva de las Manos was carried out. Over the last twenty five years, a regional archeological research developed, resulted in the survey and research of other important sites in the river basin. 

Aesthetic value: The rock art of the caves, rock shelters and cliffs of the Pinturas river basin make its impact because of its location over the cliffs of the deep canyon surrounded by a privileged landscape, and because of its artistic composition, its polychromy and the beauty of its design. It not only stands out for its location in a natural environment of great beauty, but also because it contains a countless number of artistic manifestations represented on rock. The conjunction of these factors provides the visitor with a high unparalleled aesthetic value.

Iconographic value: The hunter-gatherers that inhabited the area left extraordinary hunting scenes painted over the rocky surfaces. They show human and animal figures that interact in a dynamic and realistic way. Their importance lies in the special and temporal extension of the paintings and because they represent particular designs of the whole area.

Symbolic value: Without a doubt this area constitutes a space of relevant symbolism for every observer. It represents the higher exponent of the prehispanic past showing the ancestral cosmovision of the original inhabitants of the Patagonia.

Criterion (iii):  Cueva de las Manos was inscribed as World Heritage in 1999 under criterion (iii): “to bear a unique or at least exceptional testimony to a cultural tradition or to a civilization which is living or which has disappeared;” this can be also applied to the associated sites of Río Pinturas basin.

“The Cueva de las Manos, Río Pinturas, contains an exceptional assemblage of rock art, executed between 13,000 and 9,500 years ago.”

The Pinturas river basin sites, conforming a system which includes Cueva de las Manos, are the main testimony of the hunter-gatherers way of life, the oldest in South America, which disappeared and left its imprint on art and in many material traces. Its understanding on a regional level allows a better and wider knowledge of the life of these societies of southern Patagonia.

Because of this, we present this nomination as an extension of the case already inscribed, due to new researches and specific studies made by competent professionals and specialists after the inscription of Cueva de las Manos in 1999. The purpose is to extend the protection to the Pinturas river basin which is an exceptional testimony of the occupation of the Patagonia, of the ancient hunter-gatherers way of life, and of their art. All over the Pinturas river basin there are artistic manifestations on the rock shelters, rocks and cliffs that complete the understanding of the evolution of the regional rock art.

The system represents the main exponent of the pre-hispanic past and shows the ancestral cosmovision of the original inhabitants. Also, the paintings are in excellent preservation condition.

Statements of authenticity and/or integrity

Studies and researches carried out in the past few years at the Pinturas river basin detected over seventy archaeological sites of diverse uses and functions that were part of a cultural system developed over thousands of years. This cultural geography shows that these original societies lived in an area not only in the immediate vicinity of Cueva de las Manos, but over the whole Río Pinturas basin; its influence reached the foot of the Andes Mountains.

Both the natural and cultural values of the Pinturas river basin unify the landscape into an exceptional prehistorical human habitat. Santa Cruz law 3394 looks after the integrity of the landscape proposed. This proposal follows the geographical organization of the area laid out in that law, as it divides in blocks the Pinturas river basin.

The preservation of the archaeological sites and the paintings on rock surfaces is excellent. Despite some of the sites require some intervention, most of them are intact and have a high integrity.

Geographically, the basin forms a system that shows the use of the area by hunter-gatherers along a period of over 12,000 years. That presence is imprinted not only in the rock art but in many excavated archaeological sites that allow a better understanding of a lifestyle over time and space.

Comparison with other similar properties

In comparison with comparable sites, three factors must be taken into consideration.

- First, that those are sites related at a regional level with other areas such as the basin of the Pueyrredón-Posadas-Salitroso lakes, and the Perito Moreno National Park; the archaeological record shows contacts and interaction from the very earliest time of settlement.

- Second, that comparable sites on a continental level are those that combine proof of early settlement in the Americas with the earliest artistic manifestations in the hemisphere.

- Third, at global level, the area offered for consideration is in a range with those that show the first traces of symbolic behavior, defined in generic terms as those above mere survival, as art. American history makes it the only continent where artistic manifestations from its earliest settlement are extant.

Regional level

On a regional level we can compare the proposed area with the basin of the Pueyrredón-Posadas-Salitroso lakes, where the Cerro de los Indios 1 site shows a whole series of cave art dating back 3,500 years. It also shares the B style group with Cueva de las Manos. Excavations show a succession of settlements over a large area (Aschero and Guráieb 1995, De Nigris et al. 2004). The Perito Moreno National Park area, further south, also shares similar pictorial productions (Aschero 1996). Those areas form a unique monument to the art of the first American settlers. The three areas are the scene of continuous research on the early life and culture of those hunter-gatherers.

At the central Patagonia plateau, cave 3 at Los Toldos shows archaeological evidence of paintings dating to at least 11,000 years ago (Cardich 1979). Traces of paint on fallen rock and mineral pigments on dated surfaces are in relation with hand negatives found in the cave. The same can be found at El Ceibo.

Continental level

Cueva de las Manos is one of the oldest cave art sites in South America, and one of the few well-preserved testimonials to the art of early hunter-gatherers. In the last few years there were great advances in the knowledge of the settlement of the Americas in the transition between the late Pleistocene and the Holocene, and the following expansion of population.

Few sites in South America preserve such a level of information. A very low proportion of early sites with a comparable age have cave art, and those are far apart all over the hemisphere.

Another relevant point to consider is the preservation state of those sites, very good in comparison to other sites that are mostly rock-faces, rock shelters, or shallow caves exposed to the elements, and often eroded.

South American cave art sites date back 12,000 years, and are spread over a large geographical area from central and northern Brazil, to southern Peru, and northwest and southwest Argentina.


Recent research by Roosevelt et al (1996) show evidence of cave art in several caves and leans-to in Monte Alegre, probably produced by hunter-gatherers that settled in the region in the late Pleistocene. Motifs include geometrical signs, human and animal figures, and red and yellow child and adult hand negatives. Superposition indicates a long sequence of cave art in those sites.

Northeastern Brazil

The early carbon dating of the archaeological area at São Raimundo Nonato, southeast of Piaui, inside the Sierra de Capivara National Park, published by Guidon and Delibrias (1986), created a great controversy among specialists on the early settlement of the Americas. From the start of excavations at the Toca do Boqueirao da Pedra Furada site in 1978, about fifty carbon datings were released claiming an antiquity from 5,000 to 48,000 years. That rekindled polemics among scholars about the earliest settlement of the Americas, basically among those who propose a date from 12,000 years ago or before, and those who date the settlement of South America to a later date. The claims rekindled as well a worldwide interest on cave art, notwithstanding the weak evidence of that expression before 12,000 or 17,000 years ago.

Sao Raymundo Nonato covers an area of over 40,000 square kilometers and has 244 rock faces or shelters with paintngs. One of the most important is Pedra Furada, due to its archaeological sequence. Guidon (1991) established a first phase, Pedra Furada I, starting 48,000 years ago. The evidence is contained in rock fragments with pigment traces buried in the archaeological strata, but not on extant representations. Pedra Furada II, III and IV reach a period 17,000 years ago. The evidence based on cave art is not really clear (Guidon and Delibrias 1986).

The Pedra Furada phases are followed by the Nordestina Tradition, starting about 12,000 years ago and ending 6,000 years later. By those dates, cave art evidence is not controversial, and spreads about to most sites in the region, reaching great distances to Minas Gerais. Carbon dating at Rio Grande del Norte dates that tradition to circa 9,000 years ago (Guidon 1991). The paintings show human and animal figures in dynamic attitudes, along with plants and static objects. Some forms indicate daily life representations, others point to rituals.

Minas Gerais region, Brazil

Prous (1986, 1989, 1992) mentions cave art sites where mineral pigments were found, as well as other material relating to the handling and preparation of paint in contexts dated to between 11,960 and 3,500 years ago. The Lapa Vermelha sites show evidence of painting in the archaeological sediment, which allowed dating of 5,000 years for the first and over 4,000 for the second. The oldest dating, at the Santana do Riacho, is part of the Planalto tradition and is heavy on the depiction of hunting scenes such as arrow-pierced deer surrounded by schematic human figures.

Southern Region of Peru

Of all known sites in southern Peru Cueva de Toquepala, in the Department of Tacua, is the earliest to show clear indications of cave art. The archaeological research dates back to 1963 and was carried out by Muelle and González García (Muelle 1969). The middle stage of the Archaic Period, circa 8,650 years ago, shows schematic human figures and naturalistic outlines of guanacos (Aldenderfer 1987). Ravines (1982) tentatively dated that type of schematic figures to 8,190 years ago at the Caru lean to.

Aldenderfer (1987) researched four other leans to in the River Osmore basin and found cave art associated with Archaic Period archaeological contexts dated between 7,500 and 7,100 years ago. The sites are Coscori, Huacanane, Tala and Queltani, and all show very dynamic camelid figures, as well as armed human figures rendered in lines. In some cases, the animal and human figures are involved in hunting scenes.

Global Level

In comparison to Europe, the most remarkable factor is the greater antiquity of human presence in that continent. That makes all discussions relative to cave art really a discussion about which are the first evidence of artistic or symbolic expression. Those date to about 40,000 years ago. In that sense, we take the cases that originated the enlargement of the protected areas in the World Heritage List. These cases are located in Portugal and Spain. One is the compound in Siega Verde, Spain, and the other is the Coa Valley in Portugal, both located at the banks of rivers, the Agueda and the Coa, respectively. Those are great representatives of Western European paleolithic art that are exceptionally well preserved, and show the highest technical and stylistic quality.

The Altamira cave and the paleolithic art at caves in Northern Spain date from 35,000 and 11,000 years ago. They are original testimonials from a cultural tradition that created surprising drawings at a critical stage of human history.

This exposition makes clear that there are few places that can be assigned to early settlers of the Americas. Evenless boast art manifestations that are a clear record of both daily life and symbolic expressions of those groups. Lastly, even fewer sites sites show that value and are as both well-preserved and as rich in representations and testimonials as “Cueva de las Manos and associated sites of Pinturas river basin.”