The hand paintings in the Cueva de las Manos reach out to us across more than nine thousand years. Most of the shapes are stencilled; the hand is pressed against the rock and paint is sprayed over it, leaving the image of the hand when it is lifted away. It is a technique found across the world and down the ages. Part of the impact of the Cueva de las Manos comes from the combination of its evident age and its instant recognisability. A thousand years become like yesterday (Psalm 90:4). We can imagine pressing our own hands against the rock, fitting them into the stencilled images, making ‘contact’ with distant ancestors whose forms we still recognize; this was made by people like us.
One theory about the origin of the cave’s hand paintings is that they were created as part of an initiation ceremony for young men entering adulthood (Bradshaw Foundation n.d.). The young man places his hand somewhere near where his father and grandfather placed theirs, overlaying the marks of ancestors; he knows that the rock outlasts all of them, he knows that life is short and he returns to the dust. The painting takes shape; the tentative work of individual hands becomes a dwelling place for generations.
Amid the constant reminders of how short their lives are—compared with the endurance of their rock-built dwelling places—the people of the Cueva de las Manos reach out to create, to represent, to find meaning and shape for their lives. The creation of the hand paintings points to the ability to ask about what was ‘before the mountains were brought forth’ (Psalm 90:2 NRSV)—and to the fleetingness of the life of each person who asks the question.
We fit our hands to the rock paintings and our mouths to the words of the psalms, with a similar shock of recognition—recognizing and reappropriating, not only the touch of a fellow human being, but the imprint of that human being’s encounter with eternity in time.
Bradshaw Foundation (South American Rock Art Archive). n.d. ‘Cueva de las Manos’–The Cave of the Hands’, available at http://www.bradshawfoundation.com/south_america/cueva_de_los_manos/index.php
90Lord, thou hast been our dwelling place
in all generations.
2Before the mountains were brought forth,
or ever thou hadst formed the earth and the world,
from everlasting to everlasting thou art God.
3Thou turnest man back to the dust,
and sayest, “Turn back, O children of men!”
4For a thousand years in thy sight
are but as yesterday when it is past,
or as a watch in the night.
5Thou dost sweep men away; they are like a dream,
like grass which is renewed in the morning:
6in the morning it flourishes and is renewed;
in the evening it fades and withers.
7For we are consumed by thy anger;
by thy wrath we are overwhelmed.
8Thou hast set our iniquities before thee,
our secret sins in the light of thy countenance.
9For all our days pass away under thy wrath,
our years come to an end like a sigh.
10The years of our life are threescore and ten,
or even by reason of strength fourscore;
yet their span is but toil and trouble;
they are soon gone, and we fly away.
11Who considers the power of thy anger,
and thy wrath according to the fear of thee?
12So teach us to number our days
that we may get a heart of wisdom.
13Return, O Lord! How long?
Have pity on thy servants!
14Satisfy us in the morning with thy steadfast love,
that we may rejoice and be glad all our days.
15Make us glad as many days as thou hast afflicted us,
and as many years as we have seen evil.
16Let thy work be manifest to thy servants,
and thy glorious power to their children.
17Let the favor of the Lord our God be upon us,
and establish thou the work of our hands upon us,
yea, the work of our hands establish thou it.