Patagonia’s cave art identified as south America’s earliest pigment-based paintings

Credit: Guadalupe Romero Villanueva

The discovery of ancient cave art in Patagonia, dated to be as old as 8,200 years, marks a significant breakthrough in understanding the cultural and historical timeline of South America.

This revelation, made by an international team of scientists and published in Science Advances, not only pushes back the age of the earliest known cave art in the continent but also offers a glimpse into the lives of its ancient inhabitants.

Patagonia, a region at the southern tip of South America known for its arid landscapes and the southern Andes, has long been recognized as a significant area for archaeological research.

It is believed to have been one of the last regions on Earth to be settled by modern humans, around 12,000 years ago.

The harsh conditions of Patagonia, characterized by minimal rainfall and limited food sources, coupled with a prolonged hot and dry spell that began about 10,000 years ago, would have made survival challenging for its early inhabitants.

The site of interest, Cueva Huenul 1, is adorned with approximately 900 paintings, a testament to the rich cultural expressions of the people who once thrived in this challenging environment. Prior to this study, the consensus among researchers was that the cave art in this region dated back just a few thousand years.

However, the use of radiocarbon dating on the plant-based “paint” used in these artworks has dramatically shifted this timeline, identifying the oldest among them as being created 8,200 years ago.

This method of dating, which measures the decay of carbon-14 to estimate the age of organic materials, has proven to be a crucial tool in piecing together the history of human civilization.

The findings not only underscore the artistic expression and cultural sophistication of ancient South American societies but also highlight the enduring human spirit in the face of environmental adversities.

While the cave art in Patagonia does not claim the title for the world’s oldest, a distinction held by artwork found in Indonesia, it significantly enriches our understanding of prehistoric art on the South American continent.

These ancient markings provide invaluable insights into the symbolic world of early humans, reflecting their beliefs, experiences, and interactions with their environment.

The discovery prompts further investigation into the lives of the ancient Patagonians, inviting researchers to delve deeper into the mysteries of human expansion and cultural development across the globe.

It also raises intriguing questions about the spread of artistic practices among early human societies and the universal drive for expression that transcends geographical and temporal boundaries.

As research continues, the ancient cave art of Patagonia stands as a beacon, illuminating the past and guiding scholars in their quest to unravel the complex tapestry of human history.

The research findings can be found in Science Advances.

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