Cueva de las Manos (Cave of Hands) by Unknown artists

Unknown artists

Cueva de las Manos (Cave of Hands), began c.7,000 BCE, Mural, UNESCO Wolrd Heritage Site, Santa Cruz, Argentina, De Agostini Picture Library / Bridgeman Images

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A Dwelling Place for All Generations

Commentary by
Read by Ben Quash

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.

 

References

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


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