Prehistoric Hand Stencils
Types, Characteristics, Meaning of Oldest Handprints and Stencilled Hands.

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Red ochre hand stencils in the
Cave of El Castillo (c.37,300 BCE).
Aurignacian culture. These markings
are some of the earliest art of the
Upper Paleolithic.

Hand Stencils Rock Art (c.40,000-1,000 BCE)
Painted and Stencilled Hands in Paleolithic & Neolithic Caves


Definition, Types, Location
Finger Fluting
Oldest Handprints and Hand Stencils
Related Articles

Hand stencil from Cosquer Cave
(c.25,000 BCE) Gravettian culture.
National Museum of Archeology,
Saint-Germain-en-Laye, France.
See: Oldest Stone Age Art.

Hand stencils around the famous
"Dappled Horses of Pech Merle".
(c.25,000 BCE)

What are Prehistoric Hand Stencils? - Definition, Types, Location

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).

Characteristics of Prehistoric Hand Art

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.

Note: left-hand stencils are more common in Stone Age art than right-hand images, because a right-handed person typically uses his stronger right hand to hold the pigment tube.



Meaning of Hand Stencils Rock Art

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.

Finger Fluting

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.

Oldest Handprints/Hand Stencils

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 BCE) Indonesia
The world's oldest hand stencil comes from the Leang Timpuseng Cave in the Maros-Pangkep karst area on the Island of Sulawesi. The site also includes some of the most ancient animal paintings, all made by Aborigine migrants who were probably heading for Australia.

El Castillo Cave (c.37,300 BCE) Spain
The second oldest hand stencil comes from the Aurignacian cave complex of El Castillo. Some 55 other hand silhouettes and other symbols can be seen in the cave, several of which have also been dated to the beginning of the Upper Paleolithic. Since this period of early Aurignacian art coincides with the first arrival of anatomically modern man, speculation has arisen that these hand paintings were made by Neanderthals. Sceptics consider this unlikely. For details, see: El Castillo Cave Paintings (c.39,000 BCE).

Chauvet-Pont-d'Arc Cave (c.30,000 BCE) France
In total, the cave contains 12 red ochre hand prints, 9 hand stencils and some 450 palm prints - mostly on the Panel of Hand Stencils in the Gallery of Hands. In the Panel of the Red Dots, a cave painting discovered close to the cave entrance, there is a cluster of large dots, roughly in the shape of a mammoth. The dots were made by dipping the palm of the right hand into red paint and then applying it to the wall. See: Chauvet Cave Paintings.

Aboriginal Art: Northern Coast of Australia (c.30,000 BCE)
Hand stencils are a prominent feature of both Ubirr Rock painting and the ajoining region of Kimberley Rock art. Although the oldest Aboriginal rock art is believed to date from about 30,000 BCE, this has not been scientifically confirmed. See also the later Bradshaw Paintings (now called Gwion art) from the same Kimberley area.

Cosquer (c.25,000 BCE) France
Part of the prehistoric art which decorates this cave consists of 65 hand stencils, dating back to Gravettian culture. See: Cosquer Cave Paintings.

Pech Merle (c.25,000 BCE)
This Upper Paleolithic shelter is famous for its polychrome mural known as "The Dappled Horses of Pech-Merle", which itself contains a number of stencilled hand prints. See: Pech Merle Cave Paintings.

Gargas Cave (c.25,000 BCE) France
Located in the Hautes-Pyrenees, not far from the rock shelters at Niaux and Trois Freres, the cave contains rock engravings, artifacts, paintings and mobiliary art from the Mousterian to the Magdalenian, including numerous 'negative hands' created in red ochre or manganese, using a stencil technique. In addition, there are some 200 handprints, mostly of the left hand. Some of them are lacking one or more fingers, due either to ritual amputation or frostbite. For more, see: Gargas Cave hand stencils.

Roucadour Cave Art (c.24,000 BCE)
Stylistically similar to the parietal works at Pech Merle Cave, the art at Roucadour Cave includes a number of vivid negative hand paintings. For more, see Roucadour Cave Art.

Abri du Poisson Cave (c.23,000 BCE) France
In addition to its best known item of Gravettian art - namely, the bas-relief limestone sculpture of a salmon - this rock shelter has a single legible hand stencil.

Karawari Caves (c.18,000 BCE) Papua New Guinea
An extensive network of 250 caves and rock shelters in the East Sepik Karawari river region contain the greatest examples of hand stencils and other types of parietal art in Melanesia. In the Meakambut and Namata caves for instance, there are palm prints made by young male initiates painted with a combination of blood and clay. See also: Oceanic Art.

Maltravieso Cave (c.18,000 BCE) Spain
This centre of Solutrean art at Caceres, Extremadura, contains numerous animal paintings and engravings as well as an outstanding cluster of 71 stencilled handprints, many of which are missing fingers.

Bayol Cave (17,000 BCE) France
The sole handprint from the French rock shelter Bayol II (Collias II), situated near the Pont du Gard aqueduct, is thought to have been left by a very small child.

La Garma Cave (c.17,000 BCE) Spain
There are 32 hand stencils, plus a series of red dots and other simple red ochre animal figures from the era of Solutrean art, which span the entire length of the cave's 300 metre Lower Gallery.

Lascaux (c.17,000-13,000 BCE) France
In addition to its prehistoric engravings and beautiful animal paintings, Lascaux also has a very small number of hand stencils. See Lascaux Cave Paintings.

Altamira (c.17,000 BCE) Spain
Amongst its other examples of parietal art, this famous Cantabrian rock shelter boasts a number of hand stencils sprayed with red pigment. For more details, see: Altamira Cave Paintings.

Font de Gaume Cave (c.14,000 BCE) France
In addition to its magnificent bison frieze, the cave has a total of four hand stencils.

Rouffignac Cave (c.14,000-12,000 BCE) France
This vast underground cave complex is filled with over 250 prehistoric cave drawings, as well as abstract symbols and signs, and a number of hand prints.

Cougnac Cave (c.14,000 BCE) France
The Magdalenian art here includes three human figures and about 50 hand stencils, as well as numerous fingerprints in black and red.

Les Combarelles (c.12,000 BCE) France
This centre of Magdalenian art, has over 600 drawings of animals, but only one legible hand stencil.

Fern Cave (c.10,000 BCE) Australia
This north Queensland rock shelter contains a range of hand stencils and other aboriginal rock paintings dating to the beginning of Mesolithic art in the tenth millennium BCE.

Kalimantan Caves (c.8,000 BCE) Indonesia
In Borneo, following research by Jean-Michel Chazine, some 1500 negative handprints have been discovered in 30 Stone Age caves in the Sangkulirang area of Eastern Kalimantan. According to initial dating tests they were created during the Mesolithic. The Indonesian painted caves at Maros in Sulawesi are also famous for their hand stencils. See also: Tribal Art.

Gua Ham Masri II Cave (c.8,000 BCE) East Borneo, Indonesia
Contains about 140 hand stencils (equal male/female). Most of this ancient art dates back to the early Mesolithic.

Cave of Hands (Cueva de las Manos) (7,300 BCE) Santa Cruz, Argentina
One of the major prehistoric sites of South American hunter-gatherer groups during the Early Holocene epoch, the cave contains a number of painted animal figures, a range of geometric shapes, and a sensational panel of rock art hand paintings - mostly stencilled - dated to around 7,500 BCE.

Catal Huyuk (c.5,000-3,700 BCE) Turkey
Red ochre handprints dating from the early period of Neolithic art have also been discovered here, along with a large quantity of animal and human imagery. Along with the other major archeological mound in southern Anatolia, at Gobekli Tepe, this large Chalcolithic settlement is the best-preserved Neolithic site excavated to date.

Elands Bay Cave (c.4,000 BCE) South Africa
This Neolithic shelter is noted for its clusters of several hundred handprints, stylistically matched with others about 6,000 years old.

Handprint Cave of Belize (Actun Uayazba Kab) (c.1500 BCE)
Discovered in 1996, Handprint Cave is named after the stencilled outlines of human hands and other hand art created during the Mayan culture. It contains a range of other pictographs and petroglyphs.

Red Hands Cave (less than 1,000 BCE) NSW, Australia
Famous site of Aboriginal rock art, noted for its Neolithic collage of hand prints and hand stencils, left by from adults and children, in hues of red, yellow and white ochre. Aborigine artists filled their mouths with a mixture of water, ochre, and animal fat (from a kangaroo, emu, or echidna) and blew it across their hand to make the stencil.

Related Articles

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 the extraordinary fertility figures of prehistory, see: Venus Figurines.
• For Stone Age architecture, passage tombs and dolmens, see: Megaliths.

• For more information about hand stencils cave art, see: Homepage.

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