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Hand Stencils

Paleolithic hand markings
Negative handprints in caves

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Hand Stencils showing real or pretend mutilated hands, from Gargas Cave
Hand stencils (negative handprints) with missing finger parts, from Gargas Cave in the French Pyrenees. Image by José-Manuel Benito. (Public Domain).

What are Hand Stencils?

One of the most emblematic subjects in prehistoric cave art is the hand stencil, sometimes called a "negative handprint" or "hand silhouette".

According to Canadian prehistorian Genevieve von Petzinger, hand stencils are one of only 32 cave sign types used in prehistoric art between 40,000 and 10,000 BC.

What's the Difference Between a Handprint and a Hand Stencil?

Answer: a handprint leaves a filled-in coloured image of the hand, whereas a hand stencil leaves only a coloured outline of the hand.

How are Hand Stencils Made?

To begin with, they were made by placing the hand on the rock surface and then spitting ochre pigment over it by mouth, or by painting around it with a moss-pad dipped in pigment.

Later, they were created by blowing pigment over the hand through a hollow tube, made out of an animal bone, or a reed. Both methods left a silhouette image of the hand on the rock.

Which Hand is Painted: Left or Right?

Left-hand stencils are more common in rock art than right-hand ones, because right-handed people usually use their stronger right hand to hold the pigment tube.

In part of the Cueva de las Manos, for instance, researchers found 829 left hands compared to 31 right hands.

How Prevalent are Hand Stencils?

Prehistoric hand silhouettes are one of the oldest forms of parietal art, and are distributed around the world wherever we find rock art.

For some reason, they often appear together with dot signs: see, for example, the stencils in the cave of El Castillo.

They appear mostly in paleolithic caves decorated by modern man, although some were likely created by Neanderthals in Spain, and by early modern man in Africa and SE Asia.

As the tradition of painting hands died out in Europe, it flourished in South America and elsewhere.

Negative Handprints in France

In France, the sign-type is found at 25 cave sites - or roughly 16 percent of the total. They include:

Less popular prehistoric signs in France, include: Zigzags (4.5%), Cordiforms (1.9%), Scalariforms (1.9%), and Spirals (1.3%).

[Source: "Making the Abstract Concrete: The Place of Geometric Signs in French Upper Paleolithic Parietal Art." (2005) Genevieve von Petzinger.]

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Whose Hands are Stencilled?

In general, research indicates that both handprints and hand stencils, as well as digital tracings known as finger flutings, were left by people of all ages, including adolescents and toddlers.

According to a 2022 morphometrical hand study of stencils in five Spanish caves, roughly 1 in 4 were made by children, juveniles and even infants.

This study followed an earlier analysis of 32 stencils from eight caves. They included sixteen from the cave of El Castillo in Spain, six from Gargas Cave and five from Pech Merle Cave, in France.

The study found that 75 percent of them featured women's hands.

Dating

In France, hand stencils appear in all four periods of Upper Paleolithic art: the Aurignacian, the Gravettian, the Solutrean, and the Magdalenian.

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

World's 20 Oldest Hand Stencils

  1. Maltravieso Cave: 64,700 BC
    Uranium-Thorium dating tests on a red stencil produced a minimum date of 64,700 BC, making it the oldest negative handprint in history.
  2. Leang Timpuseng Cave: 37,900 BC
    The second oldest hand stencil, which dates to 37,900 BC, is in Leang Timpuseng Cave in Sulawesi, Indonesia. Scientists believe it was made by Aborigine migrants en route to Australia.
  3. El Castillo Cave: 35,300 BC
    Hand stencils at El Castillo were directly dated to 35,300 BC. These imprints were among the earliest examples of parietal art at the site.
  4. Lubang Jeriji Saleh: 35,000+ BC
    In Borneo, almost 1500 negative handprints have been found in caves throughout the Sangkulirang area of Eastern Kalimantan. At Lubang Jeriji Saleh, for instance, two red-orange hand stencils were dated to between 35,000 and 50,000 BC.
  5. Chauvet Cave: 30,000 BC
    A number of hand silhouettes (9 hand stencils, 12 red ochre handprints and 450 palm prints) are painted on the Panel of Hand Stencils in the Gallery of Hands. The oldest date to at least 30,000 BC.
  6. Aboriginal Rock Art: 30,000 BC
    Hand stencils are a prominent feature at Ubirr, in Australia's Northern Territory, and in the adjoining Kimberley region. The oldest are thought to date to around 30,000 BC, but this has not been confirmed by scientific tests.
  7. Pech Merle Cave: 27,000 BC
    The cave's famous mural known as "The Spotted Horses of Pech-Merle", contains a number of stencilled hand prints.
  8. Roucadour Cave: 27,000 BC
    Stylistically similar to Pech Merle, Roucadour contains a number of vivid negative hand paintings.
  9. Cosquer Cave: 25,000 BC
    Decorations here include 65 hand stencils, dating back to Gravettian culture.
  10. Gargas Cave: 25,000 BC
    Famous for its negative handprints created in red ochre or manganese black.
  11. La Garma Cave: 23,000 BC
    The 40 or so hand stencils in the lower gallery of the La Garma Cave complex at Ribamontán al Monte, are dated to roughly 23,000 BC.
  12. Cougnac Cave: 23,000 BC
    Located in the French Lot, Cougnac contains some 50 hand stencils indirectly dated to the Gravettian.
  13. Abri du Poisson Cave: 23,000 BC
    In addition to its bas-relief sculpture of a salmon - this shelter has a single black, negative handprint.
  14. Lascaux Cave: 19,000-13,000 BC
    As well as its figurative paintings and animal paintings, Lascaux also harbours a small number of hand stencils.
  15. Karawari Caves: c.18,000 BC)
    An extensive network of caves and rock shelters in the East Sepik Karawari river region Papua New Guinea, is home to the largest number of hand stencils in Melanesia. The oldest specimens are believed to date to around 18,000 BC.
  16. Altamira Cave: 15,000 BC
    This world famous cave near Santillana del Mar in Cantabria, contains a number of hand stencils sprayed with red pigment.
  17. Fern Cave: 10,000 BC
    This Queensland cave harbours a range of hand stencils dating to the start of the Mesolithic period.
  18. Gua Ham Masri II: c.8,000 BC
    This cave in East Borneo contains aaround 140 hand stencils, most of which date to the early Mesolithic.
  19. Cueva de las Manos: 7,300 BC
    Argentina's Cave of hands is a major centre of South American hunter-gatherer culture from the Early Holocene epoch.
  20. Elands Bay Cave: 4,000 BC
    This South African shelter is famous for its several hundred handprints, most of which are stylistically associated with others dating to about 4,000 BC.

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Mutilated Hands

Many stencilled hands appear to be missing fingers (never thumbs), which has led to intense speculation as to possible causes.

Scientists used to attribute such mutilations to: ritualistic amputation, frostbite, illness (e.g. Dupuytren’s disease, Ainhum's disease, Raynaud's disease), or deliberate distortion caused by the artist folding back one or more fingers before the stencil is made.

Today, after careful analysis, scientists believe these 'deformities' were caused by folding back the fingers.

What Do They Mean?

How do archaeologists interpret hand stencils? What is their meaning, or intended purpose?

As you might expect, there are numerous theories about the purpose of hand stencils, and little, if any, hard evidence to prove or disprove them.

Here are four contrasting explanations:

Contacting the Spirit World

According to archaeologist David Lewis-Williams, negative handprints in deep caves were created to make contact with the spiritual realm and its power. After all, Shamans typically believed that caves were the intersection between life and the after-life.

Expressing a Connection

Paul Taçon, a cave art expert from Griffith University Australia, believes that hand stencils are intended to announce a connection to a particular place - as though to say: "I'm here. This is my home."

Protecting Against Bad Luck or Evil Spirits

According to Muhammad Ramli, an archaeologist at the Center for the Preservation of Archaeological Heritage, in Makassar, some Indonesians paint a hand print on the central pillar of a new house, in order to protect against evil spirits. Perhaps prehistoric people thought the same, he says.

Palpation

British archaeologist Paul Pettitt and his team, who examined the hand stencils in the caves of El Castillo and La Garma, have put forward a new concept - which they call "palpation".

In simple terms, the team noted that handprints or hand stencils were sometimes painted onto the walls in highly uncomfortable positions, where much more convenient options existed.

From this, they inferred that these markings may have constituted advice or warnings about certain cave features, how to position one's hands, how best to move safely through the passages and so on.

See also: Purpose and Meaning of Cave Art.

Related Articles

For more information about geometric symbols and ideomorphs in ice age caves, see the following articles:

References

(1) "Visualizing childhood in Upper Palaeolithic societies: Experimental and archaeological approach to artists' age estimation through cave art hand stencils." Verónica Fernández-Navarro, Edgard Camarós, Diego Garate. Journal of Archaeological Science (2022). Journal of Archaeological Science. Volume 140, April 2022, 105574.
(2) "U-Th dating of carbonate crusts reveals Neandertal origin of Iberian cave art". D. L. Hoffmann; C. D. Standish; M. García-Diez; P. B. Pettitt; J. A. Milton; J. Zilhão; J. J. Alcolea-González; P. Cantalejo-Duarte; H. Collado; R. de Balbín; M. Lorblanchet; J. Ramos-Muñoz; G.-Ch. Weniger; A. W. G. Pike (2018). Science. 359 (6378): 912–915.
(3) "New views on old hands: the context of stencils in El Castillo and La Garma caves (Cantabria, Spain)." Paul Pettitt, Alfredo Maximiano Castillejo, Pablo Arias, Roberto Ontanon Peredo, Rebecca Harrison. Antiquity, Volume 88, Issue 339, March 2014, pp. 47-63.

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