I like to present an idea about prehistoric positive and negative hand-prints that are found all over the world and dating from circa 40.000 to 1.000 BCE. There is a remarkable difference between red and white hand-prints. The message, to my understanding, is that both hand-prints testify of successful communication with deceased souls. Why I have come to this thesis, I will explain.
There is research stating that prehistoric peoples believed that the soul of the dead lived on in rock or in stone (stones or stone walls). If this sounds strange, think of modern examples that resonate with this belief: we have the venerated Wailing Wall, we touch stone tombs, crosses, statutes, and monuments or lay flowers at the foot of them showing our respect.
Thinking that the soul of the dead lived on in stone isn’t hard to imagine as stone is everlasting (apart from some eroding) and impenetrable. The ever-lasting and impenetrable quality of stone symbolizes death; people are away for ever and out of reach. But are they? Not to prehistoric peoples who lived in their world full animal, nature or ancestral spirits. For communication with the deceased, the living sought their ancestral spirits in special places; deep in caves, high on mountains or hills.
We do the same. We visit graveyards, throw flowers in bodies of water, send our prayers to heaven. Or we hold close memorabilia, things prehistoric people didn’t have. Imagine being without memorabilia to hold close in times of grief. Imagine how important it was for prehistoric people to communicate with the dead; to ask for their advice and wisdom. Or to invite them back into the world of living, which was an obvious thing to do as prehistoric people lived with the spirits of their dead, they were dwelling in their house, in their lakes or on nearby hilltops. Inviting back family members or tribal leaders who had stood out and were important or even regarded irreplaceable, isn’t a huge mind-stretch when one assumes his or her spirit is lingering nearby and shamans could journey to the spirit world to communicate with these valuable and beloved tribal members.
There are many different interpretations of the functions of cave hand stencils. They are seen as ancient fingerprint identifications; ‘I have been here in this cave’. Or as traffic signs, informing us about the location of fertile hunting grounds, or they were handshakes (one tribe is greeting another tribe). In any case, hand-prints were serving a form of communication. The most remarkable fact about prehistoric hand stencils to me, for me observed as an artist, is that they come as positive and negative prints, creating red and white hand images.
Making red and white hand images requires a different technique, which, to me, shows two different communications are expressed; the message of light-against-dark hand-prints versus dark-against-light hand prints.
From here, we could assume that the hand-prints that were red, were the hand-prints of the living expressed with red ocher being the colour of blood and thus of the living. The white hand-prints are the hand-prints that expressing and representing the deceased. They are white because being dead is being bloodless, pale or white.
A cave that shows hand-prints, both reddish and whitish, holds a message to visitors that this is a sacred place, a ‘thin’ place, a penetrable place where communication with the spirit world is possible and successful. Supportive of this thesis is that a few speleologists (Chauvet cave, France) felt ‘spirits of long ago’ after discovering a prehistoric cave.
On some cave paintings many hand-prints are found, illogically applied, some easy within reach, others not so easy to apply. It seems like that prehistoric people were trying to locate the thinnest place of the walls, that, as a thin veil or membrane, was hanging as a semi-permeable divide between the world of the living and the dead, allowing communication with the dead. As a doctor feels a patient, as an artist feels a canvas, as a blind person feels a face, so prehistoric people felt a wall, trying to make contact and marking their hands as red, as from the living. Where they felt contact with spirits, with the deceased, they set white hand-prints to mark communication was established. Should they return to the depths of a cave, they could use the marks on the wall.
We know that hand-prints were often applied by women (Professor Dean Snow of Pennsylvania State University) but certainly not all of them as there are also hand-prints of both genders and of all ages. Still, it is important to know that most were female hand-prints. What is the extra value of women over men? Let me be succinct and point out to reproduction. Only within a woman’s body reproduction can take place and a soul can descend into a fertile womb. This quality of a woman had her, more than others, touch prehistoric cave walls inviting a spirit back into her womb. Again, I like to point out how prehistoric caves resemble human flesh, with their stalagmites and stalactites resembling membranes, male and female genitals.
To enter Earth’s womb made prehistoric people set of long and laborious journeys into dark and dangerous deep caves. Then, arriving there, in a womb like interior, performing or reacting a conception ritually (and perhaps not only ritually as the cave of Laussel suggests), but more importantly spiritually by communicating with the dead must have been a consolatory and a rewarding ritual when, a few months later, a baby was welcomed to the community. Communications with the dead might have been assisted through shamanistic rituals, enhanced by the illusions the visual stimulating cave paintings created, and by the intake of paint pigments, which might have been used as psychedelic drugs.
Perhaps shamans or psychedelic drugs weren’t even needed. Imagine changing stages of consciousness by dwelling for a longer time deep in a cave that is completely dark and still, in a cave that isn’t affected by the outside world. No rain, no wind, no thunder, no light other than that of torches and ear deafening silence. Imagine the smell of smoke and a sense of being inside a living organism that shows its fleshy interior. This was the strange world where the dead lived as it was cold and dark, yet it looked alive and organic too. Here you were as close to the dead as possible and here communication with the dead should be able to take place.
A combination of a wish to communicate with the deceased, alternating stages of consciousness, and the belief that the dead were dwelling behind these fleshy walls, inside an organism in which you had descended too, here contact with the dead was possible. Although the deceased lived in stone, these fleshy coloured walls, seemed to move and pulsate under the lights of torches, and these walls didn’t look impenetrable.
It was a matter of finding the thinnest spot, but touching, by feeling the wall. And thus, the thinnest curve in a rock that allowed communications were touched with red hand prints. And if prehistoric cave dwellers felt communicating with a deceased family or tribal member was answered, a white hand print, was added with a white hand stencil signature.
A supporting idea for white hand prints marking established contact with the dead, is to be found the hardship a small community suffered by crawling into a deep cave, a seriously dangerous and laborious task, a task that was only worth to be undertaken if it served a cause worth its hardship and danger. Bringing back a wise dead family or tribal member would fit such cause. Not only as a remedy against overwhelming sense of loss, also to regain wisdom, elementary knowledge or status to a tribe.
What can be brought up against my idea? Many things, like that some hand prints were from men and children. However, it isn’t hard to imagine a grief-stricken child in need for communication with a lost parent being helped by other tribal members or their shaman. Refuting my idea by stating that if white hands represented the dead touching and answering to the call, these hands should have been mirrored, fails as one can’t touch a stone wall from within. But one can use different coloured hand-prints.
Putting a few aspects together; hand prints serving communication, prehistoric people thinking that their ancestors lived on in the world of rock, most hand prints were applied by women, supports an idea that pregnant women were assisted by their tribe or community to enter a cave, touch the ancestral world in order to communicate with a deceased soul to invite them back into the realm of the living. Red hand prints were left on cave-walls as to testify people attempted to contact deceased tribal members, white hand images were added as a sign communicating with the dead had taken place.
Hand images have emerged around the world over a period of some 40,000 years. Any symbol, be it a hand or a circle, can represent a multiplicity of meanings and motives or change in their meaning related to rituals, sacred rites or ceremonies. I have highlighted only my idea. There are many ideas and theories.
N.B. Inevitably I am, as a lay person, simplifying and generalizing archaeological research. I hold a degree in Philosophy, studied ‘Religion and Rituals in Prehistory’ at Oxford Department of Continuing Education, and have read many books on prehistoric art. However, my essay is presenting an idea (only), unpretentiously, and it welcomes criticism.
Paula holds an MA degree in Philosophy and she is the owner of mindfuldrawing.com. Her pen and pencils are always fighting for her attention nevertheless they are best friends; Paula likes her art to be brainy and her essays to be artistic.
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In a time before mirrors, I imagine hands were the most personal aspect a person had of themselves. They’d see their hands doing things all the time, but never a clear reflection of their own faces. You bring up interesting points. Whatever these people thought, isn’t it wonderful that we can see they were real people who lived so long ago?
Linda, You offer a deep yet also practical insight that I completely overlooked. Many thanks!
I contact you soon for catching up.
I see on the image shown of the red and white handprints -also the figures of fleeing animals-deer possible-to me my first thought at seeing this image was to grap these animals-get a hold of them-a direct story telling of their need of food in those hard times of survival. It is the first meaning this image suggest to me-GET THE ANIMAL.
I do not question ” the spirits of theancestors interpretation”. Their world must have been full of spiritual believe to conquer their outside world -filled with pain and hardship in the struggle to survive -to stay master of their iside world also of sickness,dreams and all kinds of fear bringing mindprocesses .
We will never know for sure what made them paint certain images-it will always remain speculative theory.
Indeed, our interpretations are speculative and show us too what we project on prehistoric peoples. We know a lot, but we will never know for sure. This uncertainty is fascinating. At least, to me. Thank you for your reflection. Interesting!
Great article Paula, right up my alley! It is easy to see the distinction between the ‘living’ red hand prints and the ‘deceased’ white hand prints, and their association with connecting with ancestors imprints left on stone. When I was putting together my family genealogy and history, I often entered a trance state and spoke with ancestors, especially when I got ‘stuck’ and didn’t know where to go next, an ancestor would pop up and start talking to me. They often came to me in my dreams, both whilst asleep and awake. As Jung said, ” When I worked in my family tree, I understood the strange communion of the the destiny that unites me to my ancestors! ” and that, ‘ they are waiting for us to connect with them.” We make the descent into the heart-caves of our ancestors. Joseph Campbell said, “The cave you fear to enter holds the treasure you seek.” In MDR, Jung (pg. 88) echoes a similar statement, “My own understanding is the sole treasure I possess, and the greatest. Though infinitely small and fragile in comparison with the powers of darkness, it is still a light, my only light.” http://jungiangenealogy.weebly.com/ancestral-gnosis.html Anyways, thought you’d be interested in Koonalda cave, in the Nullabor plains, which was known by aboriginal people as the ‘womb cave’. In First Footprints dvd narrated by Ernie dingo, aboriginal people discuss what their ancestors used it for. To them, it was the birth place of the World, where they were born into life from the Womb of the Earth. It was a major initiation site, going back to approximately 22000 years ago, and there are lots of finger fluting (scaping into the soft limestone) imprints, and the aboriginal people say that was part of their initiation as they pulled themselves up and out of the womb and into the World. http://www.visual-arts-cork.com/prehistoric/koonalda-cave-art.htm and https://www.environment.gov.au/system/files/pages/c7ba631f-b529-4679-af5e-ec1114b34d08/files/fs-koonalda-cave.pdf 🙂
Dear Bridget, I am going to enjoy your links, especially the womb cave link. I had no knowledge of this cave having limited myself to West-European caves.
Many many thanks for your valuable comment, that surely is my cup of tea!
You are most welcome Paula. You will find the womb cave Koonalda Cave links I sent you from a basic ‘archeological perspective’ only, yet as I wrote, First footprints, ABC TV in particular episode 1 Super Nomads, 50,000-30,000 years ago, and episode 2 The Great Drought; 30,000 To 15,000 Years Ago, ( in which you’ll find the Koonalda Cave) will be particularly interesting to you, as archeologists talk with aboriginal elders and they share their ancestral stories with them, related to artifacts, cave paintings, topographical changes, megafauna etc… Here is a pdf link: https://files.clickviewapp.com/v1/files/5ef641bf342341b595865fc634058036 and here is a link to the ABC TV programs: http://www.abc.net.au/tv/programs/first-footprints/ 🙂
Here’s an excerpt to watch! https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=129&v=xrqW3Lt7THw
I invite you to my new post too: https://bridgetcameron.wordpress.com/2017/09/24/heart-cave/ cheers 🙂