Cave paintings of mutilated hands could be a Stone Age sign language

Hand stencils with missing digits at Cosquer cave in Marseille, France

Patrick Aventurier/getty images

DEEP inside Gargas cave in the Pyrenees mountains of southern France is something that has puzzled every visitor who has made the journey into its dark inner chambers. Among prehistoric paintings and engravings of horses, bison and mammoths are hundreds of stencils made tens of thousands of years ago by people spitting red and black paint over their outstretched hands. Such motifs are found at ancient sites around the world, from Australia to the Americas and from Indonesia to Europe. For years, archaeologists have wondered at their meaning. But those in Gargas are especially mysterious because around half of the hands appear to be injured.

“It’s very obvious that some of the fingers are missing,” says Aritz Irurtzun at the National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS) in Bayonne, France. So-called mutilated hands can be seen at many other prehistoric rock art sites, but Gargas cave is the most striking example of this phenomenon.

It has been suggested that these missing fingers are the result of accidents, frostbite or ritual mutilation. Another possibility is that their creators deliberately folded away their fingers to produce specific patterns. Irurtzun and Ricardo Etxepare, also at CNRS, have now found a way to test this idea. What they have discovered convinces them that Gargas’s hand stencils reflect a Stone Age sign language. If so, these patterns add to a growing body of evidence suggesting that Palaeolithic cave paintings may contain a variety of hidden codes. The Gargas stencils could even represent the oldest …

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