Day 23 (Sunday February 19, 2012) The first anatomically modern humans, Homo sapiens, left Africa between 125,000 and 60,000 years ago. They first crossed into Arabia and then dispersed in all directions to reach South Asia by 50,000 years ago, and Australia and Europe by 40,000 years ago. From eastern Siberia, modern humans crossed into present day Alaska around 40,000 — 17,000 years ago. From there they migrated south to colonize the entire American Continent. It should not escape your attention that this fact makes the first Native Americans, Asian immigrants! The pattern of early human migration suggests that —with the exception of Antarctica—one of the last regions of the world to be settled by our species was Patagonia. Radiocarbon dating of a campsite at Monte Verde, Chile, demonstrates human presence in Northern Patagonia 14,500 years ago. At the Monte Verde site, archeologists found a human footprint in the clay—probably from a child—and mastodon meat! Monte Verde is located 16,000 kilometers (10,000 miles) from the Bearing Strait. Evidence suggests that the migrants traveled along the coast by boat or along the shoreline surviving on marine resources. A premature claim that the first Native Americans had reached Patagonia by motorcycle has been thoroughly dismissed. The first motorcycle—made of wood and powered by an internal combustion engine—would not be invented until 1885 by two Germans, Gottlieb Daimler and Wilhelm Maybach.
One of the most remarkable demonstrations of the rock art created by the early inhabitants of Patagonia can be found in La Cueva de las Manos (The Cave of the Hands) that we visited today. Rather than images in a cave, this is long mural painted on the bare volcanic rock by people that inhabited this area approximately 10,000 years ago. The well-preserved paintings are found along the rock face of one of the massive cliffs of the astonishingly beautiful canyon of the Pinturas River. The murals are dominated by painting of hands—often negatives produced using spraying pipes—but there is also plenty of guanaco hunting scenes including some details of the types of weapons and strategies used in the hunt. To me the wall looks almost like a teaching board. From these painting archeologist have concluded that the hunting was a collective effort and that round objects (probably stones) attached to a rope (probably made of guanaco leather) were thrown at the animals with the purpose of knocking them down or killing them (unlike the bolas used by the gauchos to tangle the animal’s legs). Pichi Patagónico (a Patagonian armadillo), rheas, felines, and other animals were also represented on the walls. The paintings at Cave of the Hands were produced over a relatively long period of time—the hunting drawings are dated to be the oldest. Cueva de las Manos was listed by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site. This is definitely a place you should consider visiting.
Today we rode from Río Mayo to Estancia Casa de Piedra where we are spending the night. From there we took a short trip to visit the Cave of the Hands. We started in Rio Mayo with a beautiful cloudless morning, but by the time we reached the town of Perito Moreno menacing dark clouds had developed in the direction that we were going. The mostly paved Ruta 40 from Río Mayo to Perito Moreno goes through a flat, featureless, and wide-open and therefore windy, steppe. The warning signs about the strong crosswinds are quite descriptive. We found a dead Guanaco hanging from a fence. Guanacos jump over fences with relative ease but once in a while a mishap occurs. It does not help that ranchers choose to place barbed wire as the top wire on their fences. If you asked me, it looks like they are purposely trying to hook some miscalculating jumpers— guanacos are plentiful in Patagonia today and probably compete with the rancher’s sheep for the same scarce edible grasses. South of Perito Moreno the road goes up and down through the Patagonian mesas crossing some colorful areas. Estancia Casa de Piedra is a few kilometers before the intersection between route 40 and road to Cueva de las Manos. The estancia has several rundown buildings and one of them can be rented as a cabin. This building is apparently more than 100 years old and was built with basaltic rock from the adjacent mesa. We unloaded the bikes at the estancia and continued towards the caves. The road to Cueva de las Manos crosses a colorful canyon before reaching the Rîo Pinturas. We encountered a very cute Pichi Patagónico (armadillo) by the side of the road and I caught it. I loved chasing armadillos in Patagonia—I have done it several times in the past. They are very quick so the chase can last some time. Pichis can also burrow very fast with their sharp claws and disappear under a dirt mound in front of your own eyes. My motorcycle gloves came very handy with this particular pichi. We took a few shots of the cute little beast on Adrian’s hands and let it go. The descent into the canyon of the Pinturas River is stunning but I do not have pictures to prove it. Thunder, lightning, and a heavy shower encouraged us to get to the shelter at the entrance to the caves as quickly as possible.