La Ruta 40—now and 9,000 years ago

You may be familiar with Highway 50 in Nevada—it is the slow road going east–west. A book about this road is titled “The Loneliest Road in America”. It gives a mile by mile description of features along the way (ghost towns, sand dunes, gold mines, etc.). For La Ruta 40 in Argentina, this would be a boring book indeed!

Travel along the eastern edge of the Andes is difficult—just ask any of the students who traveled with me in a circum-Andes trip in 2008. The >1000 kilometers (>600 miles) between El Chaltén (50 degrees latitude) and Bariloche (41 degrees latitude) is noteworthy because it separates two popular tourist destinations. Hence, the infamous Ruta 40. No regular buses ply this route because much of it is still gravel. But one company has found a niche by providing service every other day—it takes two very long days of continuous travel to make the trip and is the stuff of legends for those who have done it. Services are basic. The photo below is a bathroom stop. It reminded me of field trips—men on one side of the road, women on the other—but clearly most people aren’t used to doing their business in public this way!


The drivers are very informal. Of great importance is the continuous drinking of mate, so as soon as the bus stops, one of the drivers is immediately heating more hot water for their thermos! On the second day, a “coordinator” provided comic relief and went around to all of the seats asking passengers about their plans and providing them with suggestions.


Here is the view from the bus, through the front window. It is very flat in all directions on most parts of the Patagonian steppe.


So we were reminded a lot of Nevada. Not only because of the lonely road, but also because of the dry climate in the rain shadow of a large mountain range and because of volcanic rock formed from extension east of the main cordillera. Fortunately, we found a small local tourist company that took us on a 2-day tour of the area, mid way, to explore the amazing geology of the region and to break up the grind of La Ruta 40.

We saw a lot of really cool rocks!! I’ll save those details for the guide book and focus on the rocks that would appeal to almost anyone—the rocks with 9,000-year-old art on them. The only thing that is known about this ancient aboriginal people is their art, which has managed to be well preserved through the years in this arid climate. The location, near the town of Perito Moreno about halfway between El Chaltén and Bariloche, is called Cueva de las Manos (cave of the hands).

They aren’t caves in a strict sense. Rather, they are overhangs of rocks formed because a less-resistant layer of volcanic rock eroded away beneath a very thick, more resistant layer above. The art is on the vertical walls beneath the overhand shown in this photo.


When the aboriginal people lived in this area, they followed the route of the guanacos, the camelid species related to the llama that is so common in this region, and that was essential to the life of the native people who used every part of the animal. In the art work below, there are many guanacos and also the native hunters who are surrounding the animals.


But what has really captured the world’s attention (it was declared a Patrimonial Cultural de la Humanidad UNESCO site in the 1990s) is the hand prints that are unique to this location. They are done as negatives—that is, they “sprayed” paint around their hands to make the print. It is thought that their method of spray was to blow rock powder of different colors using a bone or just their mouths. The black color is manganese oxide and ground charcoal that provided enough material for radiocarbon dating (to know that the site is 9,000 years old).


Archeologists have puzzled over the meaning of the hands, but the interpretations will always be speculative. One thing that is not mysterious is why the people chose to hang out and do their art work here. It is a beautiful canyon carved into volcanic rock that is an oasis in the surrounding desert (the rock is ignimbrite or ash-flow tuff for those who care about these things). Jay says it looks a lot like the area of SE Oregon / SW Idaho / NW Nevada where he did field work for the U.S. Geological Survey in the 1980s.


Speaking of critters (human or otherwise) we finally saw several armadillos roaming above their burrows. These are small ones that are here called “piches”—they are much different than those huge Texas varieties).


Here also is a photo of our favorite fossil so far—a complete crab from the Mesozoic. This is certainly a successful design as the form they take has changed little over so many millions of years. We did not see it “in situ” but it was collected by the owner of a hospedaje (small family place for lodging) where we stayed. We are sworn to secrecy about the location!


Finally, another photo of the rock art. This one is what the archeologists call the “third period”, when the art became more abstract (circles and zig zags). I think the hands were like their signature—a mark that said “we were here”. What do you think?


Postscript—Internet connections along La Ruta 40 were poor. Hence, the paucity of postings.

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