The 82nd Annual Meeting of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists (2013)


New ways of understanding hand stencils in French and Spanish cave art

REBECCA M. HARRISON and PAUL PETTITT.

Archaeology, The University of Sheffield

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Hand stencils form an enigmatic category of Upper Palaeolithic cave art. Created between approximately 27, 000 and 22, 000 years ago they can be found on the walls of deep caves in the foothills of the French Pyrenees and northern Spain. While these have been studied generally, the physical context of the stencils has rarely been discussed. We have carried out an extensive study of the stencils, recording positioning, angle and context, as well as morphometrics of each hand. We combined this with a series of experimental studies investigating the application of the pigment and the ease of placement at particular heights and angles.

Our findings demonstrate the possibility that the stencils were created by a very limited number of artists, perhaps just two individuals in some sites. Further to this, an analysis of the ratio between the second and fourth digits suggests that the artists may have for the most part been females or adolescents. Many of the stencils are found in ‘association’ with fissures or other features; some of the hands are positioned on bosses in the wall in such a manner that they appear to be ‘gripping’ the wall. In addition stencils were located deep into the caves in areas which were difficult and often treacherous to access.

We argue that the production of Upper Palaeolithic hand stencils was part of a complex, communal activity, and understanding why these stencils were made helps us to uncover the origins of ritual and symbolism in our remote past.

This research was funded by The Leverhulme Trust

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