Study based on Spanish cave art upends previous theories on hand paintings

HAND CLAIMS: Researchers think the drawings had a religious significance CREDIT: Shutterstock

ARTWORK featuring hands on the walls of Spanish Stone Age cave sites have been referenced in a new study which sought to find out the symbolism of the images.

Academics from Canada studied incomplete hand images with missing fingers found at two sites in Spain along with others from across the world for their study on the art.

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A Cross-cultural Perspective on Upper Palaeolithic Hand Images with Missing Phalanges, published in this month’s Journal of Paleolithic Archaeology, claims the images came from hands where fingers were deliberately removed.

Academics Brea McCauley, David Maxwell and Mark Collard, of Simon Fraser University, said the reasons for amputations could have been religious or ritualistic. Previous studies claimed the images were made for counting and signalling purposes.

“The scenario that best fits the rock art hand images is removal of finger segments during life in order to appeal for supernatural assistance,” the researchers said.

“This has potentially interesting implications for social life in the Upper Palaolithic because traumatic religious rituals have been found to foster strong interpersonal bonds among group members and hostility towards members of other groups,” the academics added.

Researchers studied images of hands with missing fingers from the Fuente del Trucho site in Aragon and that of Maltravieso in Extremadura. They were among sites from across 121 prehistoric societies’ sites across the world.

The Upper Palaeolithic era refers to the period between 50,000 and 10,000 years ago which is classed as the final part of the Stone Age.

Art making became increasingly popular as humans began to settle at more permanent sites, with the era ending after the onset of the farming.


  1. They may be right. But in the Stone Age severe injury to the fingers must have been fairly common, without having to invoke a ritual aspect to it. I still tend to view that this was a marriage certificate, done in the presence of the Holy man, in the cave, and when they came out they could both hold up their ochre coloured hands and everyone knew they were now a couple. If anyone wanted to challenge it, the print could be pointed out to them by the Shaman. We still do it, with signatures in the Register and a ring. Nothing changes very much. !


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