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Hand images at Cosquer Cave. Researchers believe that Upper Paleolithic cave art depicting hands missing fingers may be explained by prehistoric ritual amputation practices.

Does Upper Paleolithic Cave Art with Missing Fingers Really Provide Evidence for Ritual Amputation?

In a research paper published in the Journal of Paleolithic Archaeology, three scientists: Brea McCauley, David Maxwell, and Mark Collard from the Simon Fraser public research university in British Columbia, Canada, say that they suspect “Upper Paleolithic people practiced ritualistic finger amputation.”

A report on PHYS.org says the researchers “were studying art on walls by early humans of the Upper Paleolithic and found a lot of pictures of hands with missing fingers… And a lot of those hands appear to be missing a finger or two, or even three or four.” Speculating as to what this “missing finger” design feature might have represented, the researchers note “that rough conditions could account for missing fingers, particularly frostbite.” But the scientists negated this idea for they found “missing-fingered art appears in some places that are too warm for widespread frostbite.” Thus, they say , “The sheer numbers suggest something else is going on.”

As an example of missing fingers in the art of people in warmer climates, the researchers point to the ‘Grotte de Gargas’ in France, in which “114 out of 231 hand images have missing fingers.” They also note that the painted hands on the cave walls at Grotte de Gargas “appear quite flat” which rules out the possibility “that some fingers were simply held back as the print was being made.” Fair enough.

Hand Paintings in Grotte de Gargas, France. (Yoan Rumeau/CC BY SA 4.0)

Hand Paintings in Grotte de Gargas, France. (Yoan Rumeau/ CC BY SA 4.0 )

At this stage in their research, the researchers “looked at history books and found that 121 groups of people living on different continents have been found to engage in finger amputation rituals.” Discovering that finger amputation rituals took many forms, for example, in religious ceremonies and in punishment rituals, the researchers concluded that “there is no way yet to prove that such rituals occurred, or that intentional cutting of fingers was carried out by people of the Upper Paleolithic ,” but they believe they have amassed sufficient evidence to warrant further investigation.

Chopping Off a Finger, the Ancient Way

Why on earth would someone cut off a finger to mourn a loved one? What is more, what kind of god wants human fingers as offerings? I mean, if indeed a god created us, why would folk give back severed parts of that creation? This all sounds a bit bizarre, until you read a short research article on ScholarBlogs which explains “Certain cultures believed physical representation of emotional pain is essential to the grieving process. In the Dani tribe in Papua, New Guinea, for example, “A woman will cut off the top of her finger if she loses a family member or child.”

Kurulu Village War Chief at Baliem Valley, Papua. (Paul/CC BY 2.0)

Kurulu Village War Chief at Baliem Valley, Papua. (Paul/ CC BY 2.0 )

Finger amputation was undertaken both to “gratify and drive away the spirits, while also providing a way to use physical pain as an expression of sorrow and suffering.” The Dani tribe members held deeply superstitious beliefs about amputation and held that “if the deceased were a powerful person while living, their essence would remain in the village in lingering spiritual turmoil” according to the ScholarBlogs article.

In the ancient past, for a person to ritually amputate a finger, he/she would first tie a string tightly around the upper half of the finger for about 30 minutes until it became numb, ready for a “nearly” painless removal. Then the finger would be placed on a flat rock and an axe head would be dropped as hard as possible - boom - job done. Then the person would cauterize the wound with a heated stone and either burn the severed finger to ashes, or find a fitting storage place that would enhance his/her home’s ritual environment.

Room for Doubt in the Scientists’ Claims?

It is morally honest and a tight adherence to the scientific method that led the three researchers to “not” conclude that the missing fingers they found in the Upper Paleolithic cave art represented any kind of ritual amputation. Why? Because although not a single article you will read covering this story will tell you, what has been ‘overlooked’ here, is all of the ancient cultures out there which also depicted people with three and four fingers, that did not practice ritual amputation.

Many of the cultures in Pre-Columbian Colombia, for example, the Muisca and the Tairona people, painted and carved 10s of thousands of depictions of three and four fingered people and never has a skeleton been dug up with ‘ritually’ amputated fingers. In bodies where fingers and limbs are missing, diseases and breakages are most often found in the bodies, indicating the removal of fingers was restricted for medical applications.

Hands at the Cueva de Las Manos in Argentina. (MrHicks46/CC BY SA 6.0)

Hands at the Cueva de Las Manos in Argentina. (MrHicks46/ CC BY SA 6.0 )

Any comprehensive scientific paper in the future which might aim to prove that missing fingers in art meant ‘ritual amputation’ might want to consider all of the cultures that didn’t chop each other up, yet still illustrated folk with missing digits in petroglyphs and pictograms.

Top Image: Hand images at Cosquer Cave. Researchers believe that Upper Paleolithic cave art depicting hands missing fingers may be explained by prehistoric ritual amputation practices. Source: Jean Clottes

By Ashley Cowie

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