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Ancestors Waving Hello and Goodbye

Handprints in Prehistoric Art

by Pomy

Humans have always been deeply intrigued by hands as a form of expression throughout different cultures and history. Hands have played a pivotal role in creating tools, making inventions and discoveries, and producing art. Hand stencils, an artwork from the past, creatively represent this enduring human inclination and fascination with their hands.

This blog comprehensively explores hand stencils as an artistic expression that spans human history and cultures. We can better appreciate these ancient artworks by exploring their symbolic significance and examining their materials and methods. Let’s delve further into this distinctive art form that has traversed the globe since ancient times, its enduring presence and importance in human cultures, and its relevance in historical and modern contexts.

Handprints in Prehistoric Art

Cave Art—Paintings: The earliest known human artistic expressions can be found in prehistoric cave paintings. Ancient artists made hand stencils on cave walls by blowing or spraying pigment around their hands, leaving a negative silhouette.

Symbolic Meanings: Archaeologists and paleoanthropologists interpret these handprints in various metaphorical ways. They suggest that the handprints may represent signatures, shamanic rituals, symbolic communication or spiritual practices. For instance, hand stencils found in one of the ancient caves in France intentionally omit fingers. Once thought accidental, they are now believed to be deliberate, symbolic acts within ritual contexts. This symbolism reflects early human attempts at abstract artistic expression, merging practical life experiences with spiritual beliefs. Handprints were also found on rocks along major ancient global caravan routes or inside caves, symbolising people’s communication with others while travelling as well as settling inside the caves.

Cultural Context: To fully comprehend hand stencils, it’s important to consider the cultural context of the people who created them. Why did people use hand stencils to leave a print of their hand on rocks or in caves? Some believe the handprints may have served as a form of signature, with large clusters potentially indicating identification with a specific tribal unit. Could they have been part of rituals, storytelling, or communication? Unravelling these mysteries requires interdisciplinary research involving archaeology, anthropology, and linguistics.

Cave art, originating over 30,000 years ago in a region on the border of France and Spain, was created when the population of all of France was about 5,000 people. It combines abstract, impressionist, and pictorial elements, continuing to astound despite the millennia that have passed, though its original social meanings may forever elude us.

Global Distribution

Hand stencils have been documented on all inhabited continents, including Europe, Asia, Africa, Australia, and the Americas, suggesting a widespread practice across diverse cultures. Some of these stencils can be traced back tens of thousands of years, highlighting their remarkable preservation despite the challenging environmental conditions. The fortunate placement of these handprints in sheltered locations within the protective cave environment and the longevity of the pigments used have allowed us to gain insights into this ancient art form that has endured for millennia. For example:

The Cueva de las Manos (Cave of Hands) in Argentina is a site that features thousands of handprints dating back over 13,000 years found by European settlers in the 19th century. In addition to hand stencils, the cave contains depictions of animals and dynamic hunting scenes. The paintings were made using natural mineral pigments and were likely created by ancestors of the hunter-gatherer communities. This site is considered one of the most important for early hunter-gatherer groups in South America and has been the focus of archaeological research for over 25 years. It provides insights into early Patagonian hunters’ behavior and techniques and is believed to have been used by Indigenous inhabitants who created the stencils using bone pipes.

The caves of Gargas and Cosquer in France contain hand stencils with missing fingers, sparking various theories regarding their origin, such as accidents, frostbite, or mutilation during some ritual practices. In Gargas cave, 114 out of 231 hand images lack at least one finger segment. Similarly, in the French cave Cosquer (located in Marseille), 28 out of 49 hand stencils exhibit missing digits. This discovery contributes to the growing evidence that Paleolithic cave paintings may encode hidden messages, and the fingers are not missing but folded as per researchers Irurtzun and Ricardo Etxepare (CNRS) suggest that Gargas’s hand stencils represent a Stone Age sign language-an early writing system or way of counting. 

Cosquer Cave, Marseille: Prehistoric cave art from 27,000 years ago, revealing missing digits, early human communication and artistry. Image courtesy: New Scientist.

Cosquer Cave, Marseille: Prehistoric cave art from 27,000 years ago, revealing missing digits, early human communication and artistry. Image courtesy: New Scientist.

The Maros cave sites on Sulawesi contain a hand painting dated at least 39,900 years ago, making it one of the oldest known images in the world. This discovery on Sulawesi Island expands our understanding of early cave art, previously believed to have originated in Europe. The art includes hand stencils and a painting of a babirusa (deer pig), possibly the oldest figurative art. These findings suggest that such art might have existed before the migration of modern humans from Africa over 60,000 years ago, and there are predictions of even older art to be found in Sulawesi, Asia, and Africa.

In Borneo, Indonesia, scientists have discovered ancient rock art dating back at least 40,000 years in the remote rainforests. Among these remarkable paintings are hand stencils created by early humans. They used red ochre, a naturally occurring pigment in the soil, and blew it onto cave walls, leaving impressions of their hands. These stencils provide a glimpse into our ancestors’ creativity and their connection with the environment across the vast Eurasian continent millennia ago.

Part of the Monte Castillo cave complex, the Cueva del Castillo contains multiple layers spanning different historical periods, making it an important archaeological site. These layers contain evidence of human activity and cultural progression, ranging from the Proto-Aurignacian to the Bronze Age.

Hand stencils in Indonesian caves, found alongside depictions of animals and abstract symbols. Image courtesy: National Geographic

Hand stencils in Indonesian caves, found alongside depictions of animals and abstract symbols. Image courtesy: National Geographic

At the cave’s centre is the Panel de las Manos, the oldest known cave painting. This incredible artwork, a large red stippled disk, has been dated to over 40,000 years old using uranium-thorium dating. Interestingly, most of the over 150 hand stencils in the cave were created by female hands, challenging the traditional belief that men primarily produced cave art.

Apart from the hand stencils, there are more than 100 images, including charcoal and red ochre paintings of animals, club-shaped figures, and red disks created by blowing paint over handprints. This artistic heritage spans from the Lower Paleolithic to the Bronze Age and even extends into the Middle Ages.

Quesang on the Tibetan Plateau Researchers have discovered intentional hand and foot impressions on soft travertine deposited by an inactive hot spring. The impressions, likely made by two children based on the size of hand prints, were dated approximately 169,000 to 226,000 years ago. This find represents the earliest known parietal art in the world and the earliest evidence of hominins and their artistic expression.

Discovered at a hot spring on the Tibetan Plateau, these 200,000-year-old hand and footprints could represent some of the earliest known cave art. Courtesy: Smithsonian Magazine

Discovered at a hot spring on the Tibetan Plateau, these 200,000-year-old hand and footprints could represent some of the earliest known cave art. Courtesy: Smithsonian Magazine

Pech Merle, located in the Lot département of Occitania, France, is an ancient hillside cave adorned with prehistoric art. The cave from 25,000 BC features dramatic murals painted by our distant ancestors. These artworks belong to the Gravettian culture, which is 40,000 years old, with some potentially from the later Magdalenian era, 15000 BCE. Inside the cave’s accessible 1,200 meters (3,900 feet), visitors encounter lifelike images of mammoths, equids, bovids, reindeer, and human-stencilled handprints. The delicate paintings were likely created using a spitting technique. Pech Merle’s unique preservation, including children’s footprints in ancient clay, adds to its allure. While other caves within a 10 km (6.2 mi) radius also hold Upper Palaeolithic art, they remain closed to the public.

Replica of a cave painting from Pech Merle, situated in the Lot département of Occitania, France. Courtesy: Wikipedia

Replica of a cave painting from Pech Merle, situated in the Lot département of Occitania, France. Courtesy: Wikipedia

Ancient Hand Printing Techniques and Pigments Used

Ancient artists created hand stencil paintings by using a fascinating technique. Here’s how it worked:

Hand Placement: A person would place their hand against the cave wall. Typically, the left hand was used for this purpose.

Pigment Application: The artist would blow, spray, or spit a liquid pigment around the hand. This pigment was made from natural materials and could be red, black, or other colours.

Prehistoric artists created red pigments primarily from iron oxides like hematite, which they ground into fine powder for use in cave art. They also used ochre, a clay earth pigment that varies in colour from yellow to deep orange or brown, often mixed with animal fat for durability. For black pigments, they used manganese dioxide and charcoal. Although specific painting tools are not well-documented, and no ancient brushes or grinding tools have been found, the surviving pigments reveal their techniques, which likely included brushes, fingers, or other improvised methods.s

Negative Silhouette: As the pigment settled around the hand, it created a negative silhouette. The hand remained unpainted, while the surrounding area was pigmented.

Result: A stencilled handprint was left on the rock surface. These hand stencils, found in prehistoric cave paintings, glimpse ancient artistic expression.

In summary, our hands have left an indelible mark on human history—both literally and metaphorically, from ancient cave walls to contemporary sign languages.  The connection between these ancient practices and modern uses of handprints in art therapy and activities like creating “hand turkeys” illustrates the enduring significance of hands in communication and artistic expression. Just as prehistoric artists used handprints to communicate and create, people today continue to find meaning and expression by tracing and decorating their hands. This continuity highlights the timeless role of hands in human culture, bridging the past and present through shared practices of communication and art.


  • Chauvet, J.-M., Brunel Deschamps, E., & Hillaire, C. (1996). The Cave of Chauvet-Pont-d’Arc: The Art of Earliest Times. Thames & Hudson
  • Sci-News article on 39,900-year-old Indonesian cave paintings rewriting the history of art: Sci-News
  • CBC Radio. “200,000-Year-Old Handprints May Be the World’s Oldest Artwork, Scientists Say.” Quirks & Quarks, CBC, 2021, CBC
  • Wikipedia page on Pech Merle: [Pech Merle – Wikipedia]
  • New Scientist article on cave paintings of mutilated hands possibly indicating Stone Age sign language: NewScientist
  • UNESCO World Heritage Centre page on Cueva de las Manos, Río Pinturas, Argentina: UNESCO
  • National Geographic article on early human hand stencils and symbolism: National Geographic PDF
  • National Geographic article on cave art in Sulawesi: Ancient Cave Art Possibly Created by Neanderthals


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