Wednesday, August 5, 2009


Hand prints, Pecos trip, Texas, Jan. 2004.

I believe that all students of rock art are fascinated by the symbol of the hand print – I certainly find them intriguing. They come from all ages, from Paleolithic caves in Europe, Aboriginal rock shelters in Australia, and North American rock art panels from all periods. They have been created in many forms; pictographic and petroglyphic, and in all degrees of realism. Some of the pictographic versions seem to have been made by pressing a painted hand against the rock. Some others found have been spray painted by blowing a mouthful of paint around the hand carefully held flat against the rock. Other hand prints are outline or solidly pecked petroglyphs. It is common to think of them, especially the painted hand stamps, as a sort of a signature by the creator of the image, a statement that “I was here.” This is an example of interpretation through empathy. We believe this because it makes sense in our common humanity with the artists. We see it as something they would do because it is something that we would do. We can also think of them in this sense because many of them reveal individual, identifiable traits. In some cases variations in size may determine that some hand prints were left by children or adolescents. Many Paleolithic examples in some of the caves of Europe show missing fingers or joints. These are speculated to be victims of frostbite, or cases of digits cut off in grief as in known examples from the Great Plains tribes of North America so many years later.

Larry Loendorf, in his recent book Thunder and Herds wrote that “adult human beings seem not to have abandoned the innate fascination with their hands. In the rock art record from the earliest to the most recent of times the hand is the most common stylistic element. Red hand stencils and prints occur in panels dated between 30,000 and 36,000 years ago at Chauvet cave in France. They occur in large numbers in complex, painted arrangements in caves in Borneo and Argentina, and as single petroglyphs – associated with spirals – at sites at Zuni and La Cienega, New Mexico.”

The more realistic, exact and accurate, hand prints, whether painted by hand stamping, spraying, or pecking after outlining the person’s real hand on the stone, bring up another fascinating possibility – determining the gender of the creator of the image. There is an interesting difference between the hands of most men and most women. Statistically, most male hands have a 3rd (or ring) finger that is longer than the 1st (index) finger. At the same time, statistically, more women show the opposite, an index finger that is longer than the ring finger. Not all, this is not a universal trait, but the larger proportion of a study group should show this.

In the example shown from the Pecos region in Texas, the 3rd finger appears noticeably longer than the 1st finger to me. Therefore, I interpret this to mean that the maker of the hand prints was probably a male. A researcher at the site could perform careful measurements to prove this one way or another. Another possible way of adding to our knowledge about the makers of the rock art.

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