This Place Is Not A Place of Honour – What message are we leaving for future generations?

The only time I have seen ancient cave art in person was at 13, on my first venture out of Buenos Aires to see a different side to the country I was born in, what is now called Argentina. In a 4×4 with our friend and guide Julio, we traversed the northwestern provinces of Salta and Jujuy, eating fried empanadas and tamales everywhere we could find them, crossing the Tropic of Capricorn, and pausing at the top of 4,000 meter high mountains to take in the view of dusty salmon-coloured valleys and the road dropping behind us. In the five years that have passed since, I’ve forgotten both the name of the cave and where it was, and can only barely recall what I saw on the rock face that climbed in front of me and then crashed over my head. What I can remember, standing there, is the overwhelming sense that something was being communicated, although what exactly it was saying I couldn’t place. Their message was muddied in the thousands of years that passed between them and me; between those who daubed patterns and herds of vicuñas, and me, the child in front of it, wondering what knowledge they had wanted to pass on. I felt a need to step over the protective barrier, reach out and trace the white and red swirls and human figures, as if touching something their hands had created would help me understand. Of course, at heart I knew that trying to understand would only destroy it.

The Tropic of Capricorn.
A family of dogs on a Salta mountainside.

La Cueva de las Manos – the Cave of the Hands – is a complex of rock art sites in Patagonia, in the south of what is now Argentina. It has been awarded UNESCO World Heritage Site status and is an Argentine National Historic Monument, considered to be one of the best evidence of early hunter-gatherer groups in South America. Inside this series of caves, the rock walls are covered with stencilled paintings of human hands, most of them right but some left, some missing fingers, some of children and some of adults, but all reaching upwards towards the sky. The prints – not only hands, but also paintings of guanacos, rhea feet, hunting scenes, human figures and patterns – were not made all at once; between 7,300BC and 700AD, generations of hunter-gatherers, sometimes hundreds of years between them, built on what their ancestors left. It could have been a pilgrimage – obsidian found near the cave, not natural to the area, implies either a broad trade network between tribes, or that people travelled long distances to reach the site. Even when a volcanic eruption led the area to be abandoned, people returned to the site three hundred years later, replacing the lively hunting scenes with depictions of pregnant guanacos, the most important food source to most native groups there. Archeologists have differing opinions on the true meaning of the paintings and prints in the Cave. Many assert that it had important spiritual or religious significance, particularly playing a role in traditional shamanism, or as a part of hunting magic to encourage a bountiful catch. The purpose could also have changed over the millenia, and different cultural groups may have altered it to fit their beliefs, although were inevitably influenced by those who came before. The truth is that we will never know. My favourite theory, although sadly the least likely, is that the two thousand hand prints were a sort of message to the future – a manifestation of the human need to record your existence, a way of saying “I am here, I am alive, remember me”.

By Mariano – Own work, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=265811

This place is a message… and part of a system of messages… pay attention to it! Sending this message was important to us. We considered ourselves to be a powerful culture.

This place is not a place of honor…no highly esteemed deed is commemorated here… nothing valued is here.

What is here is dangerous and repulsive to us. This message is a warning about danger.

The danger is in a particular location… it increases toward a center… the center of danger is here… of a particular size and shape, and below us.

The danger is still present, in your time, as it was in ours.

The danger is to the body, and it can kill.

These messages come from a 1993 report from Sandia National Laboratories, one of three National Nuclear Security Administration research and development laboratories in the United States. This report is one of the most famous examples of an attempt to create a long-time nuclear waste warning, messages that would mark the existence of buried waste for generations of humans in the future, in an attempt to deter them from entering.

A cactus in Salta.

Nuclear power now makes up 10% of global energy production. This form of electricity is sometimes touted as the sustainable future of energy; 76.3% of France’s energy relies on nuclear power, along with 56.5% of Ukraine’s. However, despite its green credentials, creating energy from uranium pellets – the fuel most used for nuclear energy production – has a dark aftermath: toxic radioactive waste that can have fatal effects for thousands of years. This material, although it becomes more stable over long periods of time, can lead to extreme adverse health effects, including burns, cancer and bone decay. With 440 nuclear reactors in more than 50 countries, this has produced thousands of metric tonnes of waste, of varying levels of radioactivity, as well as millions of litres of liquid waste from weapons productions. And it needs to be put somewhere. Much of it can be recycled into the electricity-producing process again, but some of it can’t, and has to be disposed of permanently. But for something that remains toxic for thousands of years, how can we ensure that our descendants leave it undisturbed, when we can barely guess what our societies will look like in 2300? We have to consider that every aspect of our world as we know it might be different. They may speak different languages, their cultures may have little semblance to our own, and most importantly, the semiotics of their societies – the usage of signs and symbols to indicate a meaning – may be completely different. Currently, the way that we indicate danger is fairly similar globally; think red and black, spikes, sharp lines, crosses and exclamation marks. However, although we know that these symbols indicate potential threats, we also see them as challenges – one of the few things that are unlikely to ever change about humanity is our innate sense of curiosity. Ancient Egyptian tombs were covered in warning signs to those who dared to pillage the riches within, and yet most were robbed within 100 years of their being sealed. Now, we are faced with the question of how to signpost for the future, to avoid nuclear waste burial sites meeting the same fate – but instead of wealth, it would bring catastrophe.

A hilltop village graveyard in Jujuy.

The signposts left by those thousands of years ago are seemingly simple, and yet after decades of research, we are yet to crack the code of what they were for. When I think about the messages left by ancient peoples, not only through cave art but the many traces they left behind in the cultures of their Indigenous descendants, I feel emotional and overwhelmed thinking of all their knowledge that we cannot appreciate, lost in deep time. Often, it feels that ancient knowledge is disappearing faster than it can be preserved. With the legacy of colonialism, Indigenous populations are often unable to pass on their language and culture to their children, and young people turn away from traditional knowledge, told that it is a relic of the past and useless in the modern world. Despite representing only 5% of the world population, Indigenous peoples protect 85% of its biodiversity with their vast knowledge of ecosystems and land, and without that knowledge, many believe that we are doomed to repeat this history of loss. Acknowledging and honouring the vital role of Indigenous peoples and Indigenous wisdom is crucial to dealing with the climate crisis, and to reversing the damage done to Indigenous communities worldwide, who suffer the most from the effects of global warming and its repercussions. We can all play a role in this acknowledgement, and in doing so, leave more positive signposts – a better legacy – for those who will come after us. However, although individual and communal action is powerful, the corporate impact on man-made climate change is far greater than we can imagine. When we think of legacy, we must consider who it is that makes it. If we want the knowledge of this time, and the Earth as we know it, to be preserved for the future, we must stop viewing climate change as something that can be fixed by individuals. When only 100 companies are responsible for 71% of global emissions, mostly fossil fuel investors and producers, we can’t achieve change without systematic upheaval of what we have known to be true – we must demand a world where the knowledge of Indigenous and marginalised peoples is prioritised, over profit and over technology.

A salt pan, with the Wiphala – a flag representing many Indigenous peoples of the Andes – flying high above a salt llama and cactus.

I think often of the handprints left by the people thousands of years ago in the caves in Patagonia, and wonder what we, in turn, will leave behind for our descendants to remember us by. Will it be only the nuclear waste sites, the only trace of us being cold, unintelligible words and red warning signals? Will it be something more beautiful – the literature and artwork we create, the buildings inevitably reclaimed by nature, strange markings on landscape and sky? In those handprints lies something of the essence of humanity. I only hope that we can find a way to rescue that essence, so we can use it to tell those of us in the future: “We are still alive.”

At the top of a Salta mountain.

All images taken by author in northwestern Argentina, 2017 (except when specified otherwise).