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Gargas Cave

Hand stencils, rock engravings
Gravettian culture, 25,000 BC

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Mutilated handprints (hand stencils) or made-up hand-shapes, from Gargas Cave
Negative handprints (hand stencils) with missing phalanges from Gargas Cave (Hautes-Pyrénées, France). Image by José-Manuel Benito. (Public Domain).

Summary

Gargas Cave is an important site of Franco-Cantabrian art, located in the Pyrenees, which dates back to the era of Gravettian culture, just before the Last Glacial Maximum.

It is famous for its collection of over 200 hand stencils, many of which exhibit missing fingers.

In addition to this gruesome form of cave painting, Gargas contains over 150 rock engravings of animals.

Engraving highlights include the Large Bull Panel (Panneau du Grand Taureau), and the Mammoths Panel (Panneau de Mammouth).

Although human occupation of the cave began in the Lower Paleolithic, during the Mousterian tool culture, its earliest prehistoric art dates to about 25,000 BC.

This chronology is consistent with the direct dates obtained from contemporaneous handprints in the Cosquer Cave near Marseilles.

Petroglyphs and handprints continued to be produced at Gargas during the Solutrean (20,000-15,000 BC), but then stopped abruptly.

Archaeologists believe this was due to the collapse of the original cave entrance about 15,000 BC, which sealed off the cave until its discovery in modern times.

All artifacts and cultural materials recovered from the cave are divided between the the Museum of Natural History in Toulouse and the Institute of Human Paleontology in Paris.

For the chronology of Stone Age culture, see: Prehistoric Art Timeline (from 540,000 BC).

Location

Gargas Cave (Grotte de Gargas) is located near Aventignan in the Hautes-Pyrenees department of southwest France, close to Saint-Bertrand-de-Comminges.

Other key sites of Upper Paleolithic art in the French Pyrenees include: Bédeilhac Cave (14,000 BC), Niaux Cave (13,000 BC), Trois Freres Cave (13,000 BC), its sister site Tuc d'Audoubert Cave (12,000 BC), and Mas d'Azil Cave (11,000 BC).

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Excavation

Some areas of the cave were known to locals from the 16th-century, but it wasn't until the end of the 19th-century, that the two main chambers were excavated by several scholars including Abbe Henri Breuil (1877-1961) and Emile Cartailhac (1845-1921).

Even then, its paleolithic art remained undiscovered until 1906 when it was found by Felix Regnault, a local scholar.

Since then, a number of archaeological investigations have been conducted into the tool culture as well as the rock art of the cave.

These have established an archaeological sequence spanning lithic industries from Mousterian, Châtelperronian, Aurignacian and Gravettian cultures.

Cave Layout

Gargas Cave contains about 500 metres of galleries laid out on two levels, which were unconnected until a rockfall which happened during the Middle Ages.

The upper level is narrower. It contains some animal paintings, as well as a number of finger tracings (finger fluting) or "macaronis" on the clay walls and low ceiling.

The lower level, which is bigger and wider, contains the main chambers: Chamber I, Chamber II and the 'Small Room' (the Chambre du Camarin).

All of Gargas's hand stencils are located in the lower cave, along with the majority of the rock engravings, which are found mostly in small side chambers, notably the smooth-walled Chambre du Camarin which contains over 70 percent of the cave's 148 figurative petroglyphs.

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Gargas Cave Art: Characteristics

The cave art at Gargas is quite a mixture. It features:

Note: for another Gravettian cave in France with a similar style of rock art to that of Gargas, see Grande Grotte at Arcy-sur-Cure in Burgundy.

Hand Stencils

Gargas has the greatest collection of hand stencils in France.

The halo of colour around most of the handprints shows they were made by spitting or blowing pigment powder (usually through a tube made from bone), onto a wet wall surface, while the hand is pressed against it.

Alternatively, paint might be applied by hand using a moss pad. The most common colours used, were made from red ochre, or black charcoal, or black manganese dioxide, combined with animal fat and other materials.

Analysis of the 231 handprints shows:

All this accords with many other sets of handprints in Europe and elsewhere. See, for instance:

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Mutilated Hands

The unique feature of Gargas's hand stencils is that a large number of them appear to be disfigured.

Of the total of 231 handprints, 10 are intact and complete, but some 144 are missing finger segments, joints, or entire fingers. The remainder cannot be identified one way or the other.

Only two other paleolithic caves in the world contain hand stencils involving such a high percentage of damaged or mutilated hands: one is the nearby Grotte Tibiran-Jaunac in the French Pyrenees (20,000 BC); the other is the Neanderthal Cave of Maltravieso in Extremadura, Spain (64,700 BC).

Note: Cueva de las Manos (Cave of the Hands) in Argentina contains more than 2,000 handprints in and around the cave, but its percentage of damaged or missing fingers is far lower.

Interpretation of Mutilations

Scholars still don't know what could be the main cause of the disfigured hands. Possibilities include:

Note: The most recent meta-studies of 'deformed' hand stencils suggest that these 'deformities' were caused by folding back the fingers, not by disease or punishment.

Rock Engravings

Gargas Cave also has about 150 rock engravings of a wide range of animals and birds. What makes these petroglyphs especially informative are the numerous superimpositions, which allow us to trace the stylistic evolution - from outline to a naturalistic figure - as it unfolded during the Gravettian. This evolution of design took place over three main phases, as follows:

References

(1) "La grotte de Gargas. Un siècle de découvertes." (Gargas Cave. A Century of Discoveries) Pascal Foucher, Cristina San Juan-Foucher, Yoan Rumeau. Édition Communautés de Communes du Canton de Saint-Laurent-de-Neste, 2007.
(2) "L’art pariétal de la Grotte de Gargas (Palaeolithic Art in the Gargas Cave)" Barrière, C. 1976: Translated into English by W.A. Drapkin. Oxford: British Archaeological Reports, Supplementary Series 14 (2 volumes), Institute of Prehistoric Art of Toulouse.

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