Research Reveals Oldest Rock Art in Patagonia Dates Back Nearly 8,200 years

After more than 10 years of research, archaeologists have finally dated rock art drawings adorning the walls of a remote South American cave located in Argentina’s Neuquén province in northwest Patagonia. As detailed in a new report published last week in the journal Science, scientists used radiocarbon dating to trace the origin of these illustrations back nearly 8,200 years to the mid-Holocene age — predating other records by several millennia, thus making these cave drawings the earliest known evidence of rock art in one of the last regions to be settled by humans.

The site, known as Cueva Huenul 1 (CH1), is located approximately 1,000 feet above sea level in Patagonia — a glacial territory straddling Chile and Argentina at the tip of the continent that was settled by humans approximately 12,000 years ago. In addition to a wealth of ancient human remains and artifacts like shell beads, decorated animal bones, and engraved gourds, CH1 is home to a trove of 895 paintings, consisting of 446 motif groupings that are dispersed across the cave’s interior walls and portions of its ceiling. An assortment of simplistic geometric shapes such as dots, lines, and strokes, as well as more complicated designs including human silhouettes, faces, and regional animals, these works were painted in hues of white, yellow, and black. 

One of the most common symbols inscribed onto the cave walls is a mysterious comb-shaped pattern, etched in black pigment. Ramiro Barberena, one of the paper’s co-authors who works as an archaeologist with the Argentine National Scientific and Technical Research Council (CONICET) as well as Chile’s Temuco Catholic University, told Hyperallergic that the team identified charcoal in this pigment. They then sent small samples to a lab at the University of Georgia, where accelerator mass spectrometry (AMS) analysis detected the amount of remaining radiocarbon, thus revealing the artwork’s true age.

After obtaining four radiocarbon dates from the rock art in addition to 16 radiocarbon dates from various deposits taken from the site, researchers were able to determine that the rock art emerged 8,171 years ago.

The dating of the rock art gave researchers insight into the communities that initially drew these illustrations, which were created over some 130 generations. Because the cave paintings’ age overlapped with a period characterized by extremely arid conditions, researchers were able to situate the rock art in a time marked by a “thinly distributed and highly mobile hunter-gatherer population,” according to the paper, thus gaining a greater understanding of how societies coped with the changing unpredictable climate at the time.

“In our rock art case, the [evidence] from the drylands in South America shows that during the early part of the Mid-Holocene (approximately 10,000 to 7,000 years before the present) populations did not grow and may actually have decreased in size,” Barberena said, adding that their research showed what was likely “periodic population crashes rather than long-term stability.”

“Additionally, since the sites from the mid-Holocene do not show very intense occupations, we presume that these small human groups had to move in wider areas,” Barberena continued.

“In the future, if human DNA information becomes available for this region and time period, we will be able to conduct additional measures of population size.”

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