Paleolithic hand markings
Negative handprints in caves
One of the most emblematic subjects in prehistoric cave art is the hand stencil, sometimes called a "negative handprint" or "hand silhouette".
Answer: a handprint leaves a filled-in coloured image of the hand, whereas a hand stencil leaves only a coloured outline of the hand.
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.
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.
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.
In France, the sign-type is found at 25 cave sites - or roughly 16 percent of the total. They include:
[Source: "Making the Abstract Concrete: The Place of Geometric Signs in French Upper Paleolithic Parietal Art." (2005) Genevieve von Petzinger.]
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
For more information about geometric symbols and ideomorphs in ice age caves, see the following articles:
(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.