A Cross-cultural Perspective on Upper Palaeolithic Hand Images with Missing Phalanges

Abstract

Hand images with missing phalanges occur at a number of Upper Palaeolithic rock art sites in Europe. It has been argued that they represent hand signals or a counting system, but there are reasons to believe they were actually produced by hands from which finger segments had been removed. Here, we report a cross-cultural study designed to shed light on this phenomenon. Our review of the ethnographic literature identified 121 societies from Africa, Asia, the Americas, and Oceania that engaged in finger segment amputation, and we were able to distinguish ten distinct amputation practices within this sample. When the contexts and what we can infer about the participants are taken into account, the scenario that best fits the rock art hand images is removal of finger segments during life in order to appeal for supernatural assistance. This has potentially interesting implications for social life in the Upper Palaeolithic because traumatic religious rituals have been found to foster strong interpersonal bonds among group members and hostility towards members of other groups.

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Fig. 1

Notes

  1. 1.

    During the review process, our attention was drawn to the so-called crooked thumb images, which are negative stencils of isolated thumbs that are bent at the interphalangeal joint (Clottes 2008). It was suggested that they may be a variant of the hand images with missing finger segments. While we accept this is possible, we think there are sufficient differences between the two sets of images for it to be reasonable to treat them separately for the time being. Most importantly it is unclear whether the hands to which the crooked thumbs belonged were intact or missing phalanges.

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Acknowledgements

We thank Alec Allan, Chris Carleton, Iain Davidson, Candice Koopowitz, Jim O’Connell, Kim Plomp, and Dennis Sandgathe for their comments on an earlier version of this paper. We also thank the editor of the Journal of Paleolithic Archaeology and three anonymous reviewers for their assistance with improving our paper. Lastly, we thank Jean Clottes for providing us with the photographs included in Fig. 1. We feel very fortunate to have such generous colleagues.

Funding

Our research was supported by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (766-2017-1115 and 895-2011-1009), the Canada Research Chairs Program (228117 and 231256), the Canada Foundation for Innovation (203808), the British Columbia Knowledge Development Fund (862-804231), and Simon Fraser University (14518).

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McCauley, B., Maxwell, D. & Collard, M. A Cross-cultural Perspective on Upper Palaeolithic Hand Images with Missing Phalanges. J Paleo Arch 1, 314–333 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1007/s41982-018-0016-8

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Keywords

  • Upper Palaeolithic
  • Rock art
  • Hand images
  • Finger amputation
  • Ritual
  • Religion