by María Isabel Hernández Llosas
Senior Researcher, CONICET, National Council for Scientific Research, Argentina
https://www.saa.org/career-practice/scholarships-and-grants/h.-and-t.-king-grant-for-precolumbian-archaeology) - whose director is my colleague Liliana Manzi, who, together with Judith Charlin, have been working with regional archaeology issues in that area, including rock art, for several years.
I was invited to participate in this particular project because, during the 1990's I performed an extensive recording of the rock art on the Argentinean side, specifically in the Rio Chico sector, and now this new project is devoted to study the rock art on both sides of the Argentina-Chile border in a broader regional context.
The singularity of this region is its environment, a cold windy desert with a particular topography characterized by the volcanic field, crossed by important rivers which give support to a great variety of birds, mammals (mainly guanacos and its predators, like pumas and foxes) and a scarce but sufficient vegetation to sustain them. This particular landscape was the territory of hunter-gatherers for millennia, and they left important rock art sites, which happen to be the most austral rock art manifestations of the world, in an area where until recently, and despite the early researches, the rock art is still very little known.
The most frequent visual aspects of this rock art is the predominance of abstract designs, mostly painted in red and to a lesser extent black and white, showing a high morphological and technical variability, with a chronology estimated, on relative bases and some indirect radiocarbon dating, around 2,000 years ago within the Late Holocene.
The necessity of recognizing the amplitude of the diversification of the abstract motifs, together with the study of new types of figurative motifs, sustain the importance of this new project and one main goal is to identify strategies of representation and cultural transmission in hunter-gatherer populations in an area considered as a marginal settlement.
This project was expected to have two field seasons visiting both sides of the border. The first one was done in December 2019, and the second in March 2020. We were doing our work on the Chilean side first, with the intention of going back to the Argentinean side to finish the recording there. But, the COVID-19 caught us in the middle. In fact we were crossing the border hours earlier the same day the lockdown was declared in both countries, when international and internal borders were completely closed.
We finally were included on the flight and the way home was another adventure. Just to go from the place we were staying in Rio Gallegos to the local airport was like a terror movie: internal safe-passage, military retains, sanitary authorities dressed as astronauts controlling body temperature, which, if exceeded certain degrees, you were unable to board the plane.....and so on. When the plane took off, it was the only one in the air in the whole country. When we arrived at Buenos Aires Airport, another set of astronauts were waiting for us in the main trail. We could see that all the other aircraft there were stopped and parked in the lateral tracks, covered completely with plastic sheets.
Buenos Aires Airport was completely shut (not lights, no - of course - shops, nothing), only the carrousel with our luggage was working. When I got out I had already asked a taxi driver who I know to come and pick me up. He got a permit for me and for him to get out of there and get home. All the streets were deserted. We had to cross another military retain before we got the main street towards my place, where, again, there was nobody anywhere. Total desolation. The rules of the lockdown were, and still are, quite strict in this part of the World.
Being completely happy to have had the possibility to get back home, I still have a weird feeling: when we leave to the field the World was one, and coming back, the World was a completely different one. The fact that the situation is Global makes it more scaring. What will happen to the World, to our lives and ultimately to our rock art project in the southernmost end of South America?