A Cross-cultural Perspective on Upper Palaeolithic Hand Images with Missing Phalanges
Hand images with missing phalanges occur at a number of Upper Palaeolithic rock art sites in Europe. It has been argued that they represent hand signals or a counting system, but there are reasons to believe they were actually produced by hands from which finger segments had been removed. Here, we report a cross-cultural study designed to shed light on this phenomenon. Our review of the ethnographic literature identified 121 societies from Africa, Asia, the Americas, and Oceania that engaged in finger segment amputation, and we were able to distinguish ten distinct amputation practices within this sample. When the contexts and what we can infer about the participants are taken into account, the scenario that best fits the rock art hand images is removal of finger segments during life in order to appeal for supernatural assistance. This has potentially interesting implications for social life in the Upper Palaeolithic because traumatic religious rituals have been found to foster strong interpersonal bonds among group members and hostility towards members of other groups.