The paintings that decorate the interior of some 40 caves, and that were made in the Upper Palaeolithic, have attracted the attention of experts for decades for an enigmatic motif: some of these drawings show incomplete hands. David Maxwell, Brea McCauley and Mark Collard, researchers at the Simon Fraser University (located in British Columbia), they published a study that proposes a novel response: the missing fingers were severed for ritual purposes. "Because this has been a relatively common practice in the most recent past and in different areas of the world, we think that there is a possibility that it was also carried out in the Upper Paleolithic," affirms EL PAÍS Brea McCauley. The article appeared a few days ago in The Journal of Paleolithic Archeology.
In their work, Canadians focused on caves in France and Spain, countries where the largest number of paintings showing incomplete hands has been found. The images are between 22,000 and 27,000 years old. The hands in these sites were recorded by casting pigment on them or by covering them with paint before resting them on the rocks, that is, as the positive or negative of a photograph. The French caves selected were those of Gargas, Cosquer, Tibiran, Margot and Arcy-sur-Cure, while the Spanish ones were those of Fountain of Trucho (Huesca) and Maltravieso (Cáceres). In Fuente del Trucho 50 hand drawings have been identified (five show mutilations), while in Maltravieso the number is 71 (61 have one or several missing phalanges).
Some experts had already advanced certain hypotheses. For example, the Australian archaeologist Ian Gilligan He argues that people lost fingers because of the cold. On the other hand, British researchers from the University of Durham think that these drawings correspond to a system of communication based on signs; people folded their fingers, they did not cut them. The Canadians were dissatisfied with these explanations, since drawings in more icy areas do not show mutilations; It has also been impossible to demonstrate patterns that confirm a communication system through those hands.
The experts of the North American country reviewed first the ethnographic bibliography that has approached the systematic mutilations in phalanges. Then they decided to work with a database, belonging to the Human Relations Area Files, to identify communities throughout the world -between the seventeenth and twenty-first century- that have made this practice. Thus, they located 121 groups motivated by 10 specific reasons. The most common was the voluntary sacrifice dedicated to a deity or supernatural force, although the expressions of mourning and the way of demonstrating belonging to a community also stand out. Amputations were also found as trophies of war, as well as by the result of methods of punishment for a serious offense.
Researchers at Simon Fraser University believe that these mutilations were carried out thousands of years ago. "The images of the incomplete hands may be telling us something important about the dynamics of social life in Europe during the Upper Paleolithic", appears in the conclusions of the article. "Cutting a finger, in these circumstances, can demonstrate your commitment to the deities or to the companions of the group," says Brea McCauley.
However, experts stress that it is necessary to carry out more detailed work so that this is proven. "The next step we want to take is to look at the contexts of these sites and their surrounding areas in a more profound way, with the intention of seeking evidence about these ritual amputation practices beyond what is drawn in the caves," adds McCauley.