Excerpts from The Nature of Paleolithic Art (2005)

The Nature of Paleolithic Art by R. Dale Guthrie (2005, The University of Chicago Press). (Photo shows Paleolithic hand stencils from El Castillo, Spain)

Art behavior evolved for creativity, the same way that lungs evolved for breathing. (p. 391) Creativity is something more than just doing things differently or unconstrained novelty. It is about beautiful alternatives within apt constraints. (p. 397) I suspect much of it [cave art] was done at a time in life when creative play provided the most fun. So calling it “art for art’s sake” may not be quite accurate. (p. 399) Paleolithic art certainly appears to me to be less “meaning-full,” less belief bound, and more a matter of individual perception and experiment. (p. 433) Paleolithic art is a silent touch from distant ancestors, their marks are a reminder of our own vitality and mortality, a prompter to savor our present in this ancient arena of life…. The truly good message from Paleolithic art is that one would be wise to play: play physically, play mentally, and, above all, play artfully. (p. 460)

How Were Negative Handprints Made? (p. 118)

How the images of these Paleolithic handprints were produced remained a controversial puzzle for decades. Casteret (1934) was the first to propose that they were made from liquefied pigment sprayed on with the mouth. During the 1960s and 1970s several researchers presumed that spraying pigments onto cave walls probably required some sort of device like a blowpipe or hollow tube. But Pedel (1975) and Barriere (1976) championed direct blowing with the mouth as the main process…. Both Groenen (1987) and Lorblanchet (1991) have argued that complicated paraphernalia are not necessary. Rather, all that is needed is to nibble off a bit of common oxide pigment or charcoal and to spit a fine spray on the wall. It requires a little practice, mainly the knack of spitting tiny amounts in little high-pressure sput-sput-sput fine jets. At its best, this results in a smoothly graded spray, like a modern airbrush. Of course, many images were made hastily with cruder, spit-splatter-spray glops of pigment chunks here and there.

While many hand images are well made (they are the ones usually reproduced in coffee-table art books), most are rather rudimentary and incomplete. Some are hardly recognizable, with one or two jets of ocher leaving a faint negative of two fingers without terminal ends. That is why different scholars provide different lists of caves with handprints or have had widely varying estimates of total handprint numbers for the same cave - it depends on what level of smear one counts as a hand.

I encourage you to try this method of hand stenciling at home. Use red powdered cake coloring, not ocher, as the latter is inordinately difficult to clean off your face. The best result is had by keeping the mouth about 20 centimeters away from the hand and background. It takes only a minute per hand. The most rudimentary Paleolithic ones may have been done in a matter of seconds.

Paleolithic Art Caves and Abris That Contain Handprints (p. 123)

Abri du Poisson, France
Abri Labattut, France
Altamira, Spai
Arcy-sur-Cure, France
Baume Latrone, France
Bedeilhac, France
Bernifal, France
Chauvet, France
Cosquer, France
El Castillo, Spain
Erberua, France
Font de Gaume,France
Gargas, France
Grotte du Bison, France
La Fuente del Salin, Spain
La Fuente del Trucho, Spain
La Garma, Spain
Le Bayol, France
Les Combarelles, France
LesFieux, France
Les Marveilles, France
Les Trois Freres, France
Maltravieso, Spain
Moulin-de-Laguenay, France
Paglicci, Italy
Pech-Merle, France
Roucadour, France
Roc-de-Vezac, France
Tibran, France
Tito Bustillo, Spain

Usually the prints of the hands are rather clear, but sometimes spray creeps into the silhouette. From experiments using my own hands I can say that this happens when parts of the hand do not make complete contact with the wall surface…. This phenomenon is also responsible for the false appearance of deformed hands…. (p. 122)

The suggestion that adolescents made the majority of Paleolithic handprints may seem heretical. But this possibility is not a new idea. Virtually all twentieth-century scholars of Paleolithic hand images and imprints have arrived at similar conclusions. This may surprise you, as the hand studies have not been widely disseminated…. The evidence is circumstantial, yet a strong association seems to exist. First, we have the evidence that very few Paleolithic people explored the dark caves. Second, we find a predominance of young boys making handprints in many of the same caves where we find other images made using similar materials and techniques. (p. 126)