May 27, 2024 The sun rises from Anatolia

Handprints with Missing Fingertips in Prehistoric Cave Art Point to Ritual Amputation

A recent interpretation of Paleolithic cave art suggests that prehistoric people severed their fingers as part of religious ceremonies, according to researchers who studied prehistoric cave art in France and Spain.

Professor Mark Collard and PhD candidate Brea McCauley of Simon Fraser University’s (SFU) Department of Archaeology have considered over 200 hand images with one or more missing fingertips from caves in France and Spain attributed to the Gravettian people — an Upper Paleolithic hunter-gatherer population that lived on the European landmass.

In some cases, only a segment of the finger is missing, while in others several fingers have been lost. For many years, this peculiarity has been the subject of intense debate. How did they get that way? Since we humans rely heavily on our hands, it seems like it would be exceptionally careless for so many individuals to lose so many fingers accidentally.

That’s why many archaeologists have concluded that the missing fingers are deliberate. But how, and why, has proven trickier to pin down. Some archaeologists argue that the artists merely folded their fingers down, painted over parts of the stencil, or resulted from medical issues such as frostbite.

Collard and McCauley have argued since 2018 that the lost phalanges were intentional body modifications by cross-referencing examples present in other cultures.

Because finger amputation was not an uncommon practice in certain cultures and societies, the researchers wondered if there was any link that could be made to explain the Upper Paleolithic hand images.

Looking into existing research of 10 documented motivations for finger amputation from a over 100 cultures across all continents, Collard and McCauley concluded that the presentation of shortened fingers in Gravettian hand images was most likely evidence of a religious sacrificial ritual to elicit help from a higher power, or a social survival ritual that strengthened bonds and loyalty within the group and fostered hostility toward outsiders.

Jean Clottes/McCauley et al./Journal of Paleolithic Archaeology

In response to criticisms of their 2018 conclusion, particularly the “catastrophic” impact of amputations to the middle and ring fingers during the late Ice Age versus that of the little finger which is most commonly cut across cultures, the SFU researchers conducted further research to back their claim and presented additional evidence this year at a European Society for the Study of Human Evolution meeting.

The researchers reviewed many different historical texts including travel journals, expedition archives, and ethnographic documents to find evidence of societies that engaged in “phalangeal amputation” or the intentional removal of fingers and created a taxonomy of amputation practices around the world.
At Grotte de Gargas in Hautes-Pyrénées in France, 231 hand stencils have been recorded, made by around 45-50 individuals. Of these, 114 are missing one or more digits.

At Cosquer Cave, also in France, 28 of 49 hands are missing digits. And at Maltravieso in western Spain, 61 of 71 hand images are missing digits.

There’s also evidence to suggest that there were people with missing fingers making the art. At Grotte de Gargas, archaeologist C. Barrière reported in 1976, there are impressions of human limbs found in hardened mud – some of which are distinctly missing digits. These impressions are thought to be the same age as the hand stencils.

The reasons for finger amputation ranged from sacrificial, to a type of punishment, to a sign of mourning.
Collard told New Scientist that he and his team hypothesize that the Upper Paleolithic hand images were the result of a religious sacrifice or mourning.

“The idea that the hand images reflect sacrifice is consistent with the way that cave art has been interpreted by many researchers over the years,” said Collard. “Cave art is often in dark, hard-to-access parts of caves, which is consistent with them being part of some sort of dysphoric ritual.”

Cover Photo: Additional examples of shortened fingertips in the stenciled negatives and pigmented prints of Gravettian hand images in the Cosquer. ©Grotte Cosquer Méditerranée

Banner
Related Articles

LDA Archaeologists discover two monumental mounds with wooden burial chambers dating back around 6,000 years

March 16, 2024

March 16, 2024

Archaeologists from the Saxony-Anhalt State Office for Heritage Management and Archaeology (LDA) have discovered two monumental mounds containing wooden burial...

2,500-year-old bronze lamp discovered in Italy linked to the cult of Dionysus

April 13, 2024

April 13, 2024

Discovered in 1840 in a ditch near the town of Cortona in Italy, the 2500-year-old bronze lamp has been the...

The magnificent throne room of the Knossos Palace is believed to be the oldest throne room in Europe

March 15, 2024

March 15, 2024

The Minoan civilization, a flourishing Bronze Age culture, thrived on the island of Crete between 2700 BC and 1450 BC....

New research shows the Cerne Abbas Giant was a muster station for King Alfred’s armies

January 2, 2024

January 2, 2024

New research from the University of Oxford concludes that the Cerne Abbas Giant was originally carved as an image of...

Circular shaped Iron Age Gallic village found in France using LIDAR technology

April 2, 2024

April 2, 2024

At Cap d’Erquy in the Côtes d’Armor region of France, satellite imaging technology has uncovered the remains of a circular...

Italian archaeologists uncover large Iron Age necropolis at Amorosi

May 5, 2024

May 5, 2024

Italian archaeologists have uncovered a large Iron Age necropolis in Valle Telesina, near the Volturno River, during work on a...

Polish archaeologists find papyri containing letters from Roman centurions in Berenike

May 22, 2024

May 22, 2024

Polish archaeologists have made a surprising discovery while excavating an animal cemetery at Berenike on the Red Sea. In the...

Unique gold ring and crystal amulet among 30,000 medieval treasures uncovered in Sweden

March 7, 2024

March 7, 2024

In the Swedish medieval city of Kalmar, archaeologists from the State Historical Museums unearthed the remains of over 30,000 objects...

Archaeologists find Bronze Age settlement in Poland during a survey ahead of S1 highway construction

April 25, 2024

April 25, 2024

A Bronze Age settlement was uncovered during the construction of the S1 highway between Oświęcim and Dankowice in Poland. According...

The discovery of a striking jade mask in the tomb of a Maya king in Guatemala

January 29, 2024

January 29, 2024

Archaeologists excavating a looted pyramid tomb in the ruins of a Mayan city in Peten, northeast Guatemala, have discovered a...

First Pacific cities appear 700 years earlier than known

April 16, 2024

April 16, 2024

A new study using LIDAR has found new evidence to suggest that the first Pacific cities were founded in 300...

Roman tomb discovered in Austria turns out to belong to mother and daughter

May 3, 2024

May 3, 2024

In 2004, during construction work in the eastern cemetery of the ancient Roman city of Ovilava (now Wels in Upper...

Oldest Iberian city unearthed in Contestania

May 11, 2024

May 11, 2024

Archaeologists from the University of Alicante and the University of Murcia have uncovered the oldest largest Iberian city in the...

Sitting Buddha statue incidentally found in a paddy field

May 2, 2024

May 2, 2024

The seated Buddha statue was discovered by chance in a mound excavated in a paddy field where soil for the...

In the Mediterranean Oldest Hand-Sewn Boat is Preparing for its Next Journey

January 25, 2024

January 25, 2024

The oldest hand-sewn boat in the Mediterranean was discovered in the Bay of Zambratija near Umag on Croatia’s Istrian peninsula....

Comments
Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *