One of the earliest forms of human art is the hand stencil or hand print. The theme appears on cave walls around the world, from Europe to North Africa to Australia and Indonesia, where one print was found to be 40,000 years old. But researching the ancient artwork is difficult—not only do many of the prints exist in remote areas or caves, many of the sites have very limited visitation to protect the artwork and maintain temperature and humidity. That’s why Hipolito Collado, head of archaeology for Spain’s Extremadura region, has undertaken a project to take high resolution 3D scans of all the hand stencils in the 36 European caves in Spain, France and Italy where they’ve been found so far.
“It’s about making inaccessible art accessible,” Collado tells Marianne Barriaux at Agence France-Presse. According to the website for Project Handpas, the goal of the scanning is to create a database of all the high-resolution hand art so researchers and students can examine the images more closely.
"Due to different technical, logistical and cultural factors, rock art seen as a link among the proposed European areas (in Spain, France and Italy) has never received the importance and cultural spread that it should worth," writes the team.
The research will help researchers figure out who made the hands and what the symbols mean. Many of the stencils are missing fingers. Researchers are not sure if the people who made them lost digits to frostbite or in hunting accidents or if it represents some sort of sign language. Virginia Hughes at National Geographic reports that a 2013 study of the handprints indicated that three-quarters of the prints came from women. However, one archaeologist tells Hughes that based on his own analysis, he believes the prints were created not by women but by adolescent boys.
“Hand stencils are a truly ironic category of cave art because they appear to be such a clear and obvious connection between us and the people of the Paleolithic,” archaeologist Paul Pettitt of Durham University in the UK, tells Hughes. “We think we understand them, yet the more you dig into them you realize how superficial our understanding is.”
Pettitt tells Barraiaux that he doesn’t think the hand prints are just random graffiti from passing humans. He says that many of the prints are intentional, placed over bumps in the wall or are found in the deepest parts of the caves, meaning they took some effort to get to. “It must have been very frightening, it must have been quite a degree of exertion, a lot of climbing in the darkness,” he says. “You don’t do that for fun.”
The new database, Collado hopes, will help researchers figure out who made the handprints and why. So far, the Handpas Project has documented prints from many caves in Spain and is currently scanning handprints in Italy. Barraiaux reports that they have yet to get permission to scan caves in France.