Gargas Cave Hand Stencils
Stencilled Prints of Mutilated Hands, Animal Engravings.

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Stencilled images of mutilated hands
in Chamber I, Grotte de Gargas.
Dating to 25,000 BCE.

Gargas Cave Hand Stencils (25,000 BCE)
Stencilled Images of Mutilated Hands, Rock Engravings


Location, Discovery, Dating
Cave Layout
Characteristics of Gargas Cave Art
Hand Stencils
Mutilated Hands
Interpretation of Mutilations
Rock Engravings
Related Articles

For the world's earliest prehistoric paintings and engravings,
see: Oldest Stone Age Art: Top 100 Works.

Negative handprint of disfigured hand
from Chamber II. (25,000 BCE)


Gargas Cave (Grotte de Gargas) is one of the finest caves in the Pyrenees and an important site of prehistoric art dating back to the early phase of Gravettian art, before the Last Glacial Maximum. It is best known for its tragic collection of over 200 hand stencils, mostly in red and black, many of which are missing fingers or finger parts. This has led to an ongoing debate about the customs and medical conditions of the Upper Paleolithic, and to their links (if any) with cave art. In addition to this gruesome cave art, Gargas contains nearly 150 outstanding rock engravings of animals. Exceptional examples can be seen on the Large Bull Panel (Panneau du Grand Taureau) and the Mammoths Panel (Panneau de Mammouth). Although human occupation of the cave dates back hundreds of millennia to the Acheulean and Mousterian tool cultures, its earliest art is believed to date to about 25,000 BCE, in line with the carbon-14 dating of a bone trapped in a crack in a wall next to some hand stencils. This chronology is also consistent with the direct dates obtained from Cosquer Cave paintings of hands on the south coast of France. Engravings and handprints continued to be produced at Gargas during the following period of Solutrean art (20,000-15,000 BCE), but then appear to stop, leading archeologists to conclude that the original cave entrance must have collapsed around 15,000 BCE, sealing the cave until its discovery in the modern era. All material excavated from the cave is housed at the Institute of Human Paleontology in Paris and the Museum of Natural History in Toulouse.

Location, Discovery, Dating

Gargas Cave (Grotte de Gargas) is located at the edge of the Haute-Garonne, near Montrejeau in the Hautes-Pyrenees department of southwest France. Other sites of prehistoric art in the French Pyrenees include: Tuc d'Audoubert Cave (13,500 BCE), Trois Freres Cave (13,000 BCE), and Niaux Cave (12,000 BCE).

Although some parts of the cave had been known about since the 16th-century, and the two main chambers were scientifically explored at the end of the 19th-century by several scholars including Abbe Henri Breuil and Emile Cartailhac, it wasn't until 1906 that its Paleolithic art was discovered by Felix Regnault, a local scholar. Since then, numerous archeological studies have been conducted into the lithic industries as well as the rock art of the cave. Radiocarbon dates obtained go back to 29,500 BCE (bison bone; 25,000 BCE (trapped bone in the 'Panel of the Hands'), and 23,500 BCE (reindeer antler). However, the oldest art in the cave is probably the primitive finger tracings, which might date back as far as 29,500 BCE.

Cave Layout

Gargas Cave has more than 500 metres of galleries on two levels. The upper cave is narrow and rather tortuous, and contains some examples of figurative cave painting, as well as a quantity of finger fluting; the lower level is much bigger and wider (140 metres long by 25 metres wide) and contains the main chambers (salles): Chamber I, Chamber II and the 'Small Room' (the Chambre du Camarin). (Note: the two levels were unconnected until a rockfall which occurred during the Middle Ages.) All of Gargas's hand stencils are located in the lower cave, as are most of the engravings, which are carved mainly in side chambers such as the Chambre du Camarin. The latter - probably because of its smoother wall surfaces and secluded atmosphere - contains 105 out of 148 figurative engravings, or 71 percent of the cave's total.

Characteristics of Gargas Cave Art

The parietal art at Gargas is quite varied. It includes:

• 231 painted handprints (see below).
• 148 figurative petroglyphs, depicting horses, bison, ibexes, stags, aurochs, mammoths and birds (see below).
• Animal paintings of bison, ibex and horses;
• Innumerable finger tracings ('macaroni') on ceilings and walls, some of which form drawings of animals.
Pictographs of female genitalia.
Abstract signs, comprising black or red dots and other geometric symbols.
• Deliberate splashes of colour or areas of pigment on the walls.

To understand how the handprints, engravings and paintings at Gargas Cave fits into the evolution of Stone Age culture, see: Prehistoric Art Timeline (from 2.5 million BCE).

Hand Stencils

The diffuse halo of paint pigment around most of the handprints indicates that they were created by spitting or blowing powder (typically through a bone tube) onto a wet wall, while the hand is pressed against the wall surface, or by applying the paint around the hand with a (moss) pad. The most common colour pigments were made from red (ochre or hematite iron oxide) or black (charcoal or manganese oxide) pigments mixed with animal fat and other materials. In all, 143 hands are black; 80 are red; 5 are brown; 2 are bister (yellow/brown); and 1 is white. (See also: Prehistoric Colour Palette.) Out of the 231 handprints, 22 have been identified as right hands; 136 as left hands. They have been identified, by size, as belonging to male adults, female adults, adolescents, and (in two cases) to babies. However, given the high number of repetitions, it seems that a relatively small number of individuals (40-50) were involved.

All this is in line with many other sets of handprints elsewhere. See, for instance, the El Castillo Cave paintings in Cantabria, Spain (39,000 BCE); the Altamira Cave paintings at Antillana del Mar, Cantabria, Spain (34,000 BCE); the Chauvet Cave paintings in the Ardeche Gorge, France (c.30,000 BCE); the Pech Merle Cave Paintings in the Lot, France (c.25,000 BCE); and the Neolithic "Cave of Hands" (Cueva de las Manos) at Santa Cruz, Argentina (c.7,000 BCE).

Mutilated Hands

What makes Gargas's hand stencils unique is that so many of them are disfigured. Out of the 231 handprints, 10 are intact and complete, but some 144 are missing finger joints, segments or entire fingers. The other 70 or so cannot be identified one way or the other. Only two other caves in the world are known to have such damaged or mutilated handprints: one is the nearby Tibiran Cave (Grotte Tibiran-Jaunac) in the French Pyrenees (c.20,000 BCE); the other is Maltravieso Cave at Caceres, Extremadura, in Spain (c.18,000 BCE).

Interpretation of Mutilations

As yet there is no consensus of scientific opinion as to the cause(s) of the disfigurement. The main possibilities include: (1) Ritual/Shamanistic amputation. On the face of it, such mutilation would surely be intolerable in a highly physical hunter-gatherer culture. Yet this type of amputation still occurs in at least one hunter gatherer society, the Dani of New Guinea, who cut off the tips of young women's fingers as part of a vengeance ritual. Many Dani women are mutilated in this way, but continue to knit and weave with great dexterity. Finger amputation is also practiced in southern Africa by the hunter-gatherer Khoekhoe people. (2) Sign Language - fingers are folded back before the stencil is made (physically implausible if not impossible); (3) Frostbite - plausible, if only because thumbs (which have a better blood supply) are always intact; (4) Disease (including frostbite). This is arguably the most likely cause, and has been investigated in depth by Dr A. Sahly, whose clinical studies show that the Gargas hands were either deformed by disease or amputated. This viewpoint is supported by the discovery at Gargas of three-dimensional impressions of finger stumps left in soft clay. Similar impressions have been found at Lascaux Cave in the Dordogne. Possible diseases which may account for such deformities include: Ainhum's disease, Raynaud's disease, deformative rheumatism, severe polyarthritis, or even leprosy.

Rock Engravings

Gargas also contains around 150 exceptional engraved drawings of a wide variety of animals, including birds, which were attributed to the Gravettian by the learned Abbe Henri Breuil, on the basis of a comparative study of some engraved pebbles found in the floor deposit of the cave. What is especially interesting about this rock art is its numerous superimpositions, which allow us to trace the stylistic evolution - from outline to a naturalistic figure - as it unfolded during the Gravettian. This figurative evolution was made up of three main phases, as follows:

Phase 1
Lines are drawn with one finger, or incised with a simple edged or pointed tool. Animal figures are typically reduced to an outline of the head only, or head and neck, or head, neck and withers. Horns and antlers present more of a problem: they may be engraved using a twisted or semi-twisted perspective, or in full profile. The animals depicted are mostly limited to bison, reindeer, ibexes and aurochs.

Phase 2
During this phase, the animal outline is extended to include forequarters and later the hind-quarters. Figures remain stiff and formulaic, but more realism is introduced in the form of curvilinear drawing as well as details like hair, eyes, ears, nostrils, mouth and hooves. Towards the end of this phase legs are drawn so as to capture movement. Also, subjects become more varied: horses and mammoths appear, as do birds.

Phase 3
In this phase drawings become larger: see, for instance, the Great Bull and the Great Horse in the Chambre du Camarin, which are more than 1.50 metres in length. Hatching is introduced to represent manes and other areas of shaggy hair. Towards the end of the period, cave engravers introduce the technique of scraping both to add extra width to the incised line and a colour differential. (The scraping uncovers different coloured layers of rock.) Curiously, this phase is also marked by a reduction in the variety of animals portrayed, and a partial return to incomplete figures.

Related Articles

Other well-known Stone Age sites of Franco-Cantabrian cave art include the following:

Grotte des Deux-Ouvertures (Cave of Two Openings) (26,500 BCE)

Cussac Cave Engravings (c.25,000 BCE)

Roucadour Cave (c.24,000 BCE)

Coa Valley Engravings, Portugal (c.22,000 BCE)

Roc-de-Sers Cave Engravings and Reliefs (c.17,000 BCE)

Cave of La Pasiega (c.16,000 BCE)

Roc-aux-Sorciers, Angles-sur-l'Anglin (c.12,000 BCE)


• For more about mutilated hand paintings during the Stone Age, see: Homepage.

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