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Handprints

Prehistoric hand markings
Palm prints in caves

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Positive Handprints in Prehistoric Caves
Handprint motif, seen on rock surfaces at many paleolithic sites, including caves and rock shelters. Image by Cave Signs Design. (CC BY-SA 4.0)

What are Handprints?

One of the most common signs or symbols found in prehistoric art is the handprint, or (more precisely) the "positive handprint".

It is made by coating the hand (or palm) in pigment (like red ochre) and then pressing it against the surface of the cave wall or rock.

When the hand is withdrawn, it leaves behind a coloured imprint of the hand (or palmprint) on the rock wall.

It is called a "positive handprint" to distinguish it from hand stencils, which are sometimes called "negative handprints".

Although mostly associated with cave art, handprints are also found on rocky surfaces in the open air.

According to prehistoric sign expert Genevieve von Petzinger, the "positive handprint" is one of only 32 abstract sign types present in Upper Paleolithic art, between 40,000 and 10,000 BC.

Prevalence

Prehistoric handprints are found on every continent of the world except Antarctica. They are especially prevalent in Australia and Europe, but important collections exist in South America, Africa and SE Asia.

In France, handprints are present in 10 caves - or about 6.5 percent of the total. They include:

More popular prehistoric signs in France, include: Dots (42%), Triangles (22%), Circles (18.9%), and Flabelliforms (18%).

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

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Who Left Their Handprints
in Caves?

In a 2012 study, Dean Snow, Professor of Anthropology at Pennsylvania State University, analyzed the imprints in eight cave sites in France and Spain, including the French caves of Pech Marle and Gargas, and the Spanish cave of El Castillo.

He determined that most of the hands belonged to women.

In addition, other research indicates that both handprints and hand stencils, as well as macaroni-like finger flutings, were left by people of all ages, including adolescents and children.

In a 2021 study of ancient hand prints in five Spanish caves, researchers found that up to 25 percent were of children's hands, some of which could have come from toddlers or even infants.

Dating

In France, handprints are found in the first three periods of the Upper Paleolithic: the Aurignacian (40,000-30,000 BC) the Gravettian (30,000-20,000 BC) and the Solutrean (20,000-15,000 BC), but then disappear completely during the Magdalenian (15,000-10,000 BC).

Most specimens are found in the Dordogne or the Pyrénées.

An exception is Chauvet Cave, where red ochre hand prints and stencils appear throughout the cave. These were painted during the Aurignacian culture, before 30,000 BC, which makes them the oldest prints in France.

World's Oldest Handprints

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Mutilations

Numerous handprints in a variety of paleolithic caves appear to be missing fingers or have mutilations.

Previously such disfigurement was attributed to frostbite or ritualistic amputations.

After careful meta-analysis of handprints, scientists now attribute this phenomenon to artists bending their finger back, perhaps in a type of sign language.

For more about the chronology of cave painting, see: Prehistoric Art Timeline (from 540,000 BC).

Meaning of Handprints

Since people of both genders and all age ranges left handprints in Stone Age caves around the world, these digital markings are very different from the animal paintings, and seem to represent a form of self-expression in which almost everyone can share.

This doesn't mean they are devoid of art or symbolism: simply, that they are a more popular manifestation of prehistoric culture.

For example, in a 2021 study of ancient hand prints in five Spanish caves, researchers found that up to 25 percent were of children's hands, some of which could have come from toddlers or even infants.

Their findings indicate that this type of rock art was a group activity shared among all members, including children.

As for any specific meaning, this varies no doubt from place to place. But it might include anything from mass handprintings during an altered state of consciousness, to variants of 'Hi Mom!'

In some cases, like where a spiral is incorporated into the hand motif, as at the Three Rivers Petroglyph Site in New Mexico, there may be evocations of healing energy.

In other cases, the individual features of handprints may serve as a rudimentary form of sign-language.

Oldest Hand Stencils

As mentioned, hand stencils are negative handprints. They are created by placing a hand against the cave wall, and then spraying pigment over it. When the hand is withdrawn, its outline remains.

The most ancient hand stencils include those at:

References

(1) "Earliest parietal art: hominin hand and foot traces from the middle Pleistocene of Tibet." David D.Zhang. Science Bulletin. Volume 66, Issue 24, 30 December 2021, Pages 2506-2515.
(2) Were the First Artists Mostly Women? Virginia Hughes. National Geographic Oct 10, 2013.
(3) "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.

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