Painted caves and fingerless hands

There’s a theory that by experiencing and reading widely, particularly outside one’s own field, one can be inspired by ideas from wildly different domains and encourage innovation and problem-solving. So I like to remain open to new ideas and concepts and sometimes actively seek them. Or at least, that’s the excuse I make when I have one of those “follow the links” marathons on the Internet.

Reading Jean Auel’s latest book, The Land of Painted Caves, I became interested in finding a photograph of the hand stencils she mentions in her novel in which she describes quite a lot of cave art.

‘Negative’ hand stencils are a common feature of rock art around the world. They are created using the hand as a stencil and spraying or painting the hand around it (other ‘positive’ hand paintings are made by painting the hand and applying it to the rock). It is likely a coloured liquid or paint was blown from the mouth, sprayed around the hand. The hands are painted in red, black or ochre.

In Chauvet, France, red ochre hand prints and stencils are found in chambers throughout the cave. These were painted during the Aurignacian culture, possibly 31,000 years ago. There are others in caves in Argentina, Borneo, Australia, Spain, Saudi Arabia, North Africa, Scandinavia and the USA. They come in all sizes and appear to have been made by men, women, children and even babies.

hand stencils in cave art

In some places, such as Grotte de Gargas in the French Pyrenees, the hand stencils (created around 27,000 BC) show apparently missing or deformed fingers: “mutilated hands”. These were analysed by Dr Ali Sahly and out of this came a theory of pathologic mutilations – that the missing fingers are due to diseases such as rheumatism or leprosy, or by accidents or frostbite – the hand prints were made during an era of great cold. He also suggested that the amputations were ritual (cultural reasons for finger sacrifice being recorded in a number of early populations in many regions of the world).

This pathological mutilation hypothesis, however, has largely been rejected in favour of a theory that the stencils were made by bending the fingers. The signs created from these folded fingers may have been for the purpose of communication relating to hunting. Easy to see how this might work! Further, a study of (rather more recent) Australian aboriginal hand stencils in Central Queensland by Bruce Wright demonstrated that they constituted an ideographic system paralleling the sign language known to be in use in the area studied.

Hand stencils with incomplete fingers had until recently only been found in very few caves, mostly in the Pyrénées. With the discoveries in other caves, it becomes clear that the phenomenon of hand stencils with incomplete fingers is far more widespread than had originally been thought. Jean Clottes, Jean Courtin and Luc Vanrell write at the Bradshaw Foundation about The Cave Art Paintings of the Cosquer Cave now beneath the sea at Marseille, France. They found 65 hand stencils, many with incomplete fingers, and conclude: “The now established fact that roughly at the same time such hand stencils were being made in sites hundreds of miles apart should deal a death blow to the theory of pathologic mutilations: how likely would it be that human groups living at such distances from one another should independently develop the same crippling diseases and should react in the same way by immortalizing them on the walls of the caves by means of the same techniques?”

TED fellow Genevieve von Petzinger has created a database of geometric signs from 146 painted prehistoric caves. These include both the positive hand and the negative hand. The signs used across geological boundaries suggest there may have been a common iconography before people first moved out of Africa. It looks like abstract markings and signs were the first type of expression even before the cave artists started drawing animals. And the animals are probably as symbolic as the signs. Von Petzinger found that over time and space there was a high degree of repetition of a limited number of shapes, with some being replicated throughout the 20,000 year time span of her study. She concludes that “this continuity arguably removes any previous speculation that these signs were random doodles.”

I’m glad that original theory has been superseded. Calculations about the number of mutilated hands in a prehistoric population based on the French cave stencils are horrific and macabre. The ingenuity of early humans in communicating before written language is a wonderful explanation.

So what can I learn from this to apply in my daily life and work – my justification for following this train of research, if you remember? I guess it’s that you have to be careful not to use results to prove what you want to prove – to avoid the ‘pet theory’. There may be more than one explanation and perhaps it’s that people are more inventive than it’s sometimes possible to believe!

The Cave Art Paintings of the Cosquer Cave: Prehistoric Images and Medicines Under the Sea, Jean Clottes, Jean Courtin, Luc Vanrell .

Geometric Signs – A New Understanding by Genevieve von Petzinger

Hand Paintings and Symbols in Rock Art, Bradshaw Foundation

Probing Prehistoric Cultures: Data, Dates and Narratives, Paul Bouissac,

Hand prints, footprints and the imprints of evolution, Ahmed Achrati,