Hand Stencils Rock Art (c.40,000-1,000
In prehistoric cave art the most common themes are (1) Abstract signs; (2) Figure paintings, mostly of animals; and (3) Painted hands. Each of these categories of parietal art has been in evidence since at least 40,000 BCE, when anatomically modern man first arrived in Europe, and triggered the so-called "creative explosion" that was to define the rock art of the Upper Paleolithic. Hand paintings came in two basic varieties: prints or stencils. Either the hands were painted (typically with red, white or black pigment - see Prehistoric Colour Palette for details) and then applied to the rock surface, creating a crude handprint; or the hand was placed on the rock surface and paint pigment was then blown through a hollow tube (bone or reed) in a diffuse cloud over it, leaving a silhouette image of the hand on the rock. Alternatively, the hand might have been stencilled simply by spitting the pigment directly onto it from the mouth, or even by painting around it with a pad/brush dipped in pigment. Prints are usually referred to as "positive handprints", while the hand silhouettes are known as "negative hand stencils". Both types of pictograph are especially common in the prehistoric art of the Franco-Calabrian region - where the most significant site is Gargas in southern France whose hand paintings date to about 25,000 BCE - in Australian aboriginal art, in the prehistoric caves of the Americas, and in all inhabited continents. The world's oldest stencil is part of the Sulawesi Cave art, found recently in Indonesia, dating to (37,900 BCE).
As far as age and gender are concerned, recent analysis of hand stencils has shown that Paleolithic art, or at least the caves where the art was created, involved men, women and children. According to Professor Dean Snow of Pennsylvania State University, who studied the hand marks in the French caves of Pech Marle and Gargas, and in the Spanish rock shelter of El Castillo, a strong majority of the hands belonged to women. His research findings raise the possibility that the role of females in Stone Age art was greater than previously thought, although - since we don't know for sure that hand paintings were created by "artists" rather than mere "spectators" - more evidence is required before a definite conclusion can be reached. We do know, however, that both handprints and hand stencils were left by cave dwellers of all ages, including children.
Hand paintings might appear anywhere in a cave. They might be on their own, or clustered in varying groups of left and right hands, or the stencilled hands might appear among (or even inside) paintings of animals and other objects. Note, however, recent research by Paul Pettitt, Alfredo Maximiano Castillejo, Pablo Arias, Roberto Ontanon Peredo, Rebecca Harrison, focusing on the production and location of hand stencils in the caves of El Castillo and La Garma in Cantabria. They have suggested a new concept - which they call "palpation", from the medical term for examination by touch - to help understand cave art in general, and handprints and stencils in particular. In simple terms, the team found that handprints or hand stencils were sometimes made in highly uncomfortable positions, where far more convenient options existed. From this and other factors, they inferred that these hand markings might have constituted a method of communication - in the extremely dim conditions prevailing in caves - perhaps offering advice about cave features, how to position one's hands, how best to move safely through the passageways and so on.
How do archeologists and Paleoanthropologists interpret these hand prints and silhouettes? Are they simply the signature of the cave artist, affirming his work and/or his self-awareness? Was it the cave shaman, imprinting his touch on the cave wall in order to acknowledge and possibly enter the spirit world, in a "sealing" ritual? Since hand pictographs have emerged around the world over a period of some 40,000 years, there are bound to be a multiplicity of meanings and motives for their creation, including the usual explanations of rituals, sacred rites and initiation ceremonies.
Another type of prehistoric hand marking is called "finger fluting", a term invented by the archeologist Robert Bednarik. Finger flutings (sometimes called "finger tracings" or "traces digitaux") are lines left by fingers on a soft surface like clay or moonmilk. They have been discovered in caves in southern France (Gargas, Baume Latronne, Rouffignac), northern Spain (Altamira), southern Australia (see: Koonalda Cave art) and New Guinea, throughout the era of the Upper Paleolithic. Archeological research indicates that finger fluting has been performed by young children (aged 2-5), as well as adults. Like the meaning of hand stencils rock art and most abstract symbols, the meaning of finger fluting remains obscure.
Many sites of Franco-Cantabrian cave art as well as art from Africa, Australia and SE Asia are decorated with various forms of cave painting, including hand stencils, handprints, palm-prints, thumb prints and finger fluting. Here is a short selection of the oldest art in this category. For more about the history and chronology of Stone Age culture, see: Prehistoric Art Timeline.
Sulawesi Caves (c.37,900
El Castillo Cave (c.37,300
Chauvet-Pont-d'Arc Cave (c.30,000
Aboriginal Art: Northern Coast
of Australia (c.30,000 BCE)
Cosquer (c.25,000 BCE) France
Pech Merle (c.25,000 BCE)
Gargas Cave (c.25,000 BCE)
Roucadour Cave Art (c.24,000
du Poisson Cave (c.23,000 BCE) France
Karawari Caves (c.18,000
BCE) Papua New Guinea
Maltravieso Cave (c.18,000
Bayol Cave (17,000 BCE) France
La Garma Cave (c.17,000 BCE)
Altamira (c.17,000 BCE) Spain
de Gaume Cave (c.14,000 BCE) France
Cave (c.14,000-12,000 BCE) France
Cave (c.14,000 BCE) France
Les Combarelles (c.12,000
Fern Cave (c.10,000 BCE)
Kalimantan Caves (c.8,000
Gua Ham Masri II Cave (c.8,000
BCE) East Borneo, Indonesia
of Hands (Cueva de las Manos) (7,300 BCE) Santa Cruz, Argentina
Catal Huyuk (c.5,000-3,700 BCE)
Elands Bay Cave (c.4,000
BCE) South Africa
Handprint Cave of Belize
(Actun Uayazba Kab) (c.1500 BCE)
Red Hands Cave (less than
1,000 BCE) NSW, Australia
For more about the early arts and crafts of the Upper Paleolithic, see the following articles:
For the world's most ancient art,
see: Bhimbetka Petroglyphs.
For more information about hand stencils cave art, see: Homepage.
ENCYCLOPEDIA OF STONE AGE