This Ancient Cave Art Passed Survival Information Across 130 Human Generations in Patagonia, Study Suggests

Dating to as early as 8,200 years ago, the paintings may have maintained collective memories during an extremely dry period in history

Red geometric drawings on a cave wall
An example of the cave art found in northwestern Patagonia, Argentina. Researchers dated the paintings to as early as 8,200 years ago. Guadalupe Romero Villanueva

Ancient art in a Patagonian cave is several thousand years older than archaeologists previously thought, researchers reported Wednesday in the journal Science Advances. The depictions date to 8,200 years ago at the earliest and span around 3,000 years—suggesting 130 human generations painted on the cave’s walls and ceiling. The new findings make this the earliest known pigment-based cave art on the continent.

“It turned out to be several millennia older than we expected,” lead author Guadalupe Romero Villanueva, an archaeologist with the Argentine National Scientific and Technical Research Council (CONICET), tells Live Science’s Jennifer Nalewicki. “We got surprised.”

The cave, called Cueva Huenul 1, is located in the desert of northwest Patagonia in Argentina, about 1,000 meters above sea level. Its walls hold 895 different paintings grouped in 446 motifs. People repeatedly drew one of the motifs, a mysterious comb-like pattern, for thousands of years.

“As interesting as the ages are, for us it’s more significant that they span, more or less, 3,000 years of painting basically the same motif during all this time,” co-author Ramiro Barberena, also an archaeologist with CONICET, tells the New York Times’ Becky Ferreira.

The rock art may have served the purpose of preserving cultural knowledge.

three comb-like drawings in black pigment on a cave wall, each next to a digitally enhanced version of the art in which it appears more clear
The black, comb-like motif appeared frequently on the cave's walls across a period of 3,000 years. Original photographs are on the left; digital enhancements are on the right. Guadalupe Romero Villanueva, Science Advances 2024

Patagonia, located at the southern tip of the Americas, was the last region to be explored by early humans, according to the study. People settled the area during the Late Pleistocene, which ended 11,700 years ago. Researchers have previously studied Patagonian rock art, but much of it hasn’t been dated definitively.

Much of the art in Cueva Huenul 1 is composed of geometric shapes, such as dots, circles, parallel lines and polygons, painted with the color red. Ancient people also painted human silhouettes and faces, as well as animal silhouettes, featuring large flightless birds called rheas and guanacos, close relatives of llamas. White, yellow and black paints were also used on the walls.

To date the artwork, the researchers examined the black paint, which they determined contained burned wood, possibly from cactuses or shrubs. Because the paint was made from plant material, they were able to calculate its age using radiocarbon dating, which involves counting how much of the isotope carbon-14, which decays over time, remains in the material.

“It’s usually really hard to date rock art unless it has an organic component, otherwise there really isn’t any material that you can date,” Barberena tells Live Science.

The researchers dated four comb-like paintings with reddish-black pigments and determined the age of three of them, reports Science News’ Bruce Bower. The era during which people made the art corresponds with an extremely dry period in the region, which could have led to thinly distributed and vulnerable hunter-gatherer groups.

The fact that the same images were made over thousands of years could mean that people shared cultural knowledge across generations, possibly in order to maintain collective memories, the authors suggest. Cueva Huenel 1 may have been a cultural site that people returned to over time.

“We think it was part of a human strategy to build social networks across dispersed groups, which contributed to making these societies more resilient against a very challenging ecology,” Barberena tells Live Science.

views of and from the cave study site in the Patagonian desert
Views of the cave site, called Cueva Huenul 1, in Argentina (A-D) and a view of the Patagonian landscape looking out from the cave (E). Guadalupe Romero Villanueva, Science Advances 2024

While researchers aren’t sure what the comb drawing represents exactly, the art could have helped people survive during the very dry time, Barberena tells the New York Times.

Andrés Troncoso, an archaeologist at the University of Chile who did not contribute to the findings, tells the New York Times that he agrees with Barberena’s interpretation, and that the study “provides a contribution to the discussion about how humans have dealt with climatic change in the past.”

“It’s amazing the amount of rock art we found there,” Romero Villanueva tells Live Science. “In the surrounding landscape there are several rock art sites, but none of them have the amount of the diversity in shapes and colors found here. So, it’s evident that this place was likely a hot spot for communication in the past and crucial for the survivability of these societies.”

Get the latest stories in your inbox every weekday.