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The Mystery of the Missing Fingers in Ancient Cave Art

There is a curious element to the art in several caves in France and Spain that date to the Gravettian period (roughly 33,000 – 21,000 years B.P.), specifically the ‘hand stencil’ images on the walls of the cave (where pigment is blown from the mouth towards a hand help up against the wall to create a silhouette image). This technique is found in ancient cultures around the world, but in the Gravettian era caves of France and Spain there is a rather startling difference – a large proportion of the hands represented appear to be missing fingers, or parts of fingers.

How many abnormal hands are we talking? Anthropologist Stefan Milosavljevich points the startling percentage in a segment of his excellent video ‘Life and Death at the Height of the Ice Age’ (embedded below):

At Gargas cave in France, around half of the hand images (114 of 231) are missing at least one finger segment, at Cosquer cave 28 of 49 hand images. In Maltravieso in western Spain, 61 of the 71 hand images are missing fingers!

There may well be prosaic reasons for this mysterious plague of missing fingers. Firstly, those living in France and Spain during the Gravettian period (a part of the most recent ‘ice age’) were subject to truly brutal extremes of cold, and so it is possible that many in the population simply lost parts of their fingers to frostbite.

Secondly, these peoples also obviously lived extremely rough and risky lives, fashioning tools and weapons from raw materials and catching wild animals for food by hand. No doubt some would have lost or damaged fingers throughout their lives, though it seems less likely that this explanation would account for such a large proportion of the population as is found in the hand stencils.

Stefan Milosavljevich mentions a third possibility in the video above: deliberate removal of fingers or parts of fingers, for ritual or punative reasons:

This may seem like a bit of an exaggerated claim by some archaeologists but it is actually a well-documented phenomenon. One study identified 121 societies from around the world that participated in deliberate finger amputation.

The Dani of Indonesia remove part or all of their fingers when they have lost a loved one as a part of their mourning rituals. The Blackfoot in North America would occasionally cut off a finger as part of the Sundance ritual if they were asking the sun to save or protect a life and a particularly large sacrifice was required. The Ila speaking people of southeast Africa would amputate fingers as a punishment for crimes like adultery and theft. Australian Aboriginals from around Port Stephens would cut off two joints of the fifth finger to identify their daughters as fisher women.

So the ethnographic record is full of examples from all around the world of this practice being carried out for a variety of reasons. The creators of these handprints could have cut them off deliberately as they mourned, or performed rituals, or identified themselves either by their trade or their community.

(For more on this idea, see “A Cross-cultural Perspective on Upper Palaeolithic Hand Images with Missing Phalanges“, published in the Journal of Paleolithic Archaeology.)

And lastly, a fourth possibility was put forward two years ago by linguists Ricardo Etxepare and Aritz Irurtzun: that the ‘amputated fingers’ might in fact just be obscured parts of fingers – that is, they were just folded out of the way, rather than missing – and that the different finger combinations produced could in fact be representing a type of sign language.

In “Gravettian hand stencils as sign language formatives“, Etxepare and Irurtzun analyse the handshapes of the stencils in Gargas cave, and find that every single handshape was “articulable in the air” – that is, there were no handshape configurations that would have required using the cave wall as a support to hold bent fingers in place. They argue this suggests the hand gestures weren’t random, but part of a known system in everyday use outside the caves by the ancient groups.

Such paintings are not the mere output of mindless doodling, rather, they require planning, carrying the pigment and lighting material into chambers of difficult access deep within the cave, and often times they seem to be placed in specifically chosen placements in the wall. Furthermore, the blowing painting techniques employed are sophisticated, and often require the joint participation of several individuals for their production, since they require lighting, model placement and pigment application, as is obviously the case for hand stencils of infants and children which are sometimes attested to in inaccessible and/or dangerous sites

The linguists claim that the handprints correspond to signs of an ‘alternate’ or ‘non-primary’ sign language, “like those still employed by a number of bimodal (speaking and signing) human groups in hunter–gatherer populations, like the Australian first nations or the Plains Indians.” In those groups, they note, “signing is used for hunting and for a rich array of ritual purposes, including mourning and traditional story-telling”, and furthermore in some of those groups, “stencil and petroglyph art has independently been linked to their sign language expressions”.

They note that the presence of hand stencils from all demographics of the ancient populations, including women and children, doesn’t seem to mesh with the common frostbite explanation, and the fact that many of the hand silhouettes in Gargas cave display no fingers at all (almost half of them!) argues against the the intentional mutilation hypothesis, as this level of mutilation in hunter-gatherer societies “is unattested as a population-wide practice” – likely because doing so would be a near death sentence in such groups.

Array of handshapes corresponding to Gargas stencils (from Leroi-Gourhan [46, p. 109]). The numbers below represent the number of appearances in Gargas. Configurations identified by a cross are not attested.

And lastly, they note that in other ancient French cave art such as that at Chauvet, where there are hand prints rather than stencils, there is no evidence of mutilated fingers – why, when the hand is pushed against the wall, are there no missing fingers?

It might never be possible to know the truth behind the mystery of the missing fingers in ancient cave art. But if the sign language theory is correct, it would be a startling finding – written language as we know dates back to barely more than 5,000 years ago, but in the ice age caves of France and Spain we might be seeing a visual representation of language recorded for posterity that is closer to 30,000 years old.

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