Mysterious Pattern in a Cave Is Oldest Rock Art Found in Patagonia

In the stark inland desert of Patagonia in Argentina, there is a remote cave decorated with nearly 900 paintings of human figures, animals and abstract designs. Until recently, archaeologists had assumed that the rock art at this site, known as Cueva Huenul 1, was created within the past few thousand years.

But in a paper published Wednesday in the journal Science Advances, archaeologists say that one of the cave’s most mysterious motifs, a comblike pattern, first appeared some 8,200 years ago, making it by far the earliest known example of rock art in one of the last places on Earth to be settled by our species. Cave artists continued to draw the same comb design in black pigment for thousands of years, an era when other human activity was virtually absent at the site. The cave art provides a rare glimpse of a culture that may have relied on this design to communicate valuable insights across generations during a period of climactic shifts.

“We got the results and we were very surprised,” said Guadalupe Romero Villanueva, an author of the study and an archaeologist at the Argentine government agency CONICET and the National Institute of Anthropology and Latin American Thought in Buenos Aires. “It was a shock, and we had to rethink some things.”

Patagonia, which spans the southern tip of South America, was not reached by humans until about 12,000 years ago. These early inhabitants thrived at Cueva Huenul 1 for generations, leaving signs of habitation.

Then, around 10,000 years ago, the area became more arid and hostile as a result of climatic shifts. The archaeological record in the cave likewise dried up for the next several thousand years, suggesting that the site was largely abandoned because of environmental pressures.

The researchers say that the marking left in the cave may have helped ancient peoples communicate as they adapted to a shifting climate.Credit…Guadalupe Romero Villanueva

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