Puzzling Cave Paintings Indicate That Paleolithic People Were Amputating Their Fingers

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The impressions of the hand of ancient humans are a widely common motif in cave art. However, puzzling cave paintings discovered in France and Spain indicate that Paleolithic people were amputating their fingers. Now, the scientists believe they have an explanation for this weird behavior.

As we, humans, rely mostly on our hands to perform the majority of our day-by-day activities, it sounds baffling that our ancestors were amputating their fingers on purpose. However, that’s precisely what archaeologists think and, even more, researchers believe that Paleolithic people adopted such a practice as a religious ritual.

“Finger amputation was a reasonably common behavior in many regions in the recent past. The available data seem to fit reasonably well with the hypothesis that some Upper Palaeolithic people engaged in finger amputation for the purposes of religious sacrifice,” explained Mark Collard, an archaeologist at the Simon Fraser University in Canada.

Puzzling Cave Paintings Indicate That Paleolithic People Were Amputating Their Fingers

In France, at the Grotte de Gargas in Hautes-Pyrenees, researchers found 231 hand stencils created by approximately 50 different individuals, out of which 114 are missing one or more digits. Also, at Cosquer Cave and Maltravieso in western Spain, scientists recorded about 50 and, respectively, 71 hands impressions with missing fingers.

While it was common in Upper Paleolithic for ancient humans to lose fingers due to frostbite or other traumas, the researchers think that many of the cave paintings indicate that Paleolithic people were amputating their fingers for religious purposes. However, other scientists are not agreeing with the conclusions of the new study.

“This pattern matches precisely the effects of frostbite. The pattern corresponds to the differing susceptibility of fingers to frostbite, with the thumb not affected,” said Ian Gilligan of the University of Sidney.

The scientists behind the new research, on the other hand, are pretty sure they got it right, even though they admit that there might be another explanation for the puzzling cave paintings. “While the case for favoring the amputation hypothesis is not airtight, we are of the opinion that it is strong enough to warrant treating the hypothesis as if it is correct for the purposes of further investigation, and this is what we did in the study reported here,” said the researchers in the study’s report published in the Journal of Paleolithic Archaeology.


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