Many examples of cave art feature hand prints of people with amputated fingers. Some of the art shows examples of people with several stumps on a hand. Archaeologists do not all agree and some say it could be caused by frostbite. Prehistoric humans may have cut off their own fingers as part of a gruesome religious ritual.
Cave art discovered from all over the world features hand-prints outlined with ochre and other ancient pigments. These prints are regularly missing parts of fingers and experts believe the widespread absence of the appendages is most likely as a result of religious sacrifice. Scientists say the missing fingers may also be as a result of the harsh environment in prehistoric times.
Archaeologist Mark Collard of Simon Fraser University in Canada reports in New Scientist that finger amputation was a reasonably common behaviour in many regions in the recent past, for the purposes of religious sacrifice.
A database including sites in Africa, Eurasia, Oceania, and the Americas revealed 121 separate societies which exhibited the same behaviour. At Grotte de Gargas in France, there are 231 hand stencils in total that belong to a group of up to 50 people. Almost half (114) of these are missing one or more digits.
Conversely, some scientists have claimed there may be less painful alternatives to explain the plethora of cave art with amputated fingers, such as bending the fingers, whilst others argue that a definitive answer may never be found.
Researchers believe that Gargas’s hand stencils reflect some kind of communication system - a Stone Age sign language. Language itself originated with hand signs as well as vocalisations, and many societies continue to use a wide range of symbolic hand gestures during hunting, storytelling and rituals alongside – and sometimes in place of – their spoken language. This could also function as a lingua franca between groups that don’t share the same spoken language.
According to Dr. Jean Clottes, the hand stencils with incomplete fingers were realized by bending the fingers. Hand stencils with incomplete fingers had until very recently only been found in very few caves, mostly in the Pyrénées (Gargas, Tibiran, Fuente del Trucho). Now, we know that the phenomenon was far more widely represented than had been thought. The now-established fact that roughly at the same time such hand stencils were being made in sites hundreds of miles apart should deal a death blow to the theory of pathologic mutilations: how likely would it be that human groups living at such distances from one another should independently develop the same crippling diseases and should react in the same way by immortalizing them on the walls of the caves by means of the same techniques?
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→ Hand Paintings in World Rock Art
→ Cueva de las Manos | Cave of the Hands
→ The Role of Hand Prints in the Rock Art of the South-Western Cape
→ Handprints in the Rock Art & Tribal Art of Central India
→ Hand Stencils in Chhattisgarh India
→ Hand prints found in Altamira
→ Handpas Project
→ Prehistoric Hand Paintings in the Cave of Maltravieso
→ Hand stencils and their missing fingers
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