Antique cave art around the world shows a certain subject repeatedly: impressions of the hands of people who visited long…
Antique cave art around the world shows a certain subject repeatedly: impressions of the hands of people who visited long ago, printed or stenciled.
And yet, in some caves decorated by Palestinian inhabitants in France and Spain, something curious has been observed: A very large number of these hands seem to miss fingers.
For many years this feature has been the subject of intense debate. How did they become? Because we people feel heavy on our hands it seems that it would be exceptionally careless for so many individuals to lose so many fingers by mistake.
Therefore, many archaeologists have concluded that the missing fingers are intentional. But how, and why, has proved harder to pinch. Some archeologists argue that the artists just fold their fingers down or painted over parts of the stencil.
Others argue that the people who inhabited these regions engaged in a foolish exercise: amputate their own fingers.
Sounds crazy first, but let’s hear this. A new study has just put its voice to the amputation side of the debate.
“Fingeramputation was a pretty common behavior in many regions of the past past,” Archaeologist Mark Collard of Simon Fraser University
There are several rows of evidence that the research team makes to conclude. The first is pure numbers, registered on a handful of websites (isolated examples can be found elsewhere).
At the Grotte de Gargas in the Hautes-Pyrénées in France, 231
handhelds have been recorded with about 45-50 individuals. Of these, 114 are missing one or more digits.
At Cosquer Cave, even in France, 28 of 49 hands are missing numbers. And at Maltravieso in western Spain, 61 of 71 hand figures are missing numbers.
There is also evidence that there were people with missing fingers who did the art. In Cave de Gargas, archaeologist C. Barrière reported in 1976, there are impressions of human limbs found in tempered mud – some of which are clearly missing numbers. These impressions are believed to be the same age as hand stencils.
It is possible – and indeed very likely – that some people in the upper palæolithic lost fingers or parts of their fingers unintentionally, either frostbite or other forms of trauma. But many of the gloves seem to lack several fingers – two, three or even four in some cases.
And this is where the team makes another line. They searched for Human Relations Area Files – a database of global human ethnographies – and found 121 latest communities around the world, in Africa, Eurasia, Oceania and America, which increase ritual fingeramputation, showing that it is a true and widespread exercise even today (although it is about to die out).
“I was pretty shocked,” said Collard. “It seems like such a weakening exercise that I could not imagine I would do it myself. I still can not. But we continued to find group by group that did.”
The reasons for doing so varied. It was practiced as an expression of extreme grief over the loss of a loved one in some cultures. Others used it for identification, as the fish of some Aboriginal Australian groups. It can also be used to mark marriages or as a form of punishment.
Or it is practiced as a form of ritual sacrifice – as scientists believe is probably the most likely explanation for why people in Upper Paleolithic could have cut their own fingers and offer them to a god or supernatural power.
This can tell you about group dynamics, as traumatic religious rituals have been shown to strengthen interpersonal ties.
But not everyone is convinced.
“None of the ethnographic cases they quote match the distinctive pattern of the Ice Age handmade stencils – namely a sequential abbreviation of the fifth, fourth and third fingers, with the thumb saved”, the archaeologist Ian Gilligan of the University of Sydney, quoted in the newspaper, but not associated with research, told New Scientist
“On the other hand, punctuation, this pattern exactly matches the effects of frostbit. The pattern corresponds to the different sensitivity of the fingers to frost damage, with the thumb not affected.”
And archaeologists at Durham University believe that intentional mutilation of this type would correspond to suicide – so the profit in interpersonal relationships would not be worth the cost. They suggest that their fingers were bent or painted as a form of symbolic communication.
And Dale Guthrie of the University of Chicago believed that there were children who mucked about.
But neither the research group argues that amputation is definitely what happened – the paper is the exploration of an opportunity, not a definitive answer. It is actually possible that we never get a definitive answer.
“Although the case to favor the amputation hypothesis is not air tight,” the researchers wrote, “we think it’s strong enough to motivate to treat the hypothesis as if it is correct for further investigation, and this is what we did in it here the report. “
The research has been published in the Journal of Paleolithic Archeology .