Men and women might have had their fingers deliberately chopped off during religious rituals in prehistoric times, according to a new interpretation of palaeolithic cave art.

In a paper presented at a recent meeting of the European Society for Human Evolution, researchers point to 25,000-year-old paintings in France and Spain that depict silhouettes of hands. On more than 200 of these prints, the hands lack at least one digit. In some cases, only a single upper segment is missing; in others, several fingers are gone.

In the past, this absence of digits was attributed to artistic licence by the cave-painting creators or to ancient people’s real-life medical problems, including frostbite.

But scientists led by archaeologist Prof Mark Collard of Simon Fraser University in Vancouver say the truth may be far more gruesome. “There is compelling evidence that these people may have had their fingers amputated deliberately in rituals intended to elicit help from supernatural entities,” said Collard.

    • WaDef7@kbin.social
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      7 months ago

      To be fair when it comes to this kind of research comparison with modern hunter gatherer societies is the closest thing you can find to evidence, some things never enter the archaeological record.

      Perhaps we’ll never find conclusive evidence pointing to any one of the theories on these missing-finger handprints.

      • zeppo@lemmy.world
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        7 months ago

        Right. With no written documentation or known modern descendants of the culture, it’s all speculation. I don’t know why they’d leap to conclude it was intentional religious sacrifice vs. accidents or amputations following injury.

    • ashar@infosec.pub
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      A family friend sacrificed part of her finger as a child. This was as a Hindu, and happened in the Indus river.

  • jordanlund@lemmy.world
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    OR - now bear with me here… OR one or more fingers were curled under when the tracing was made for reasons we can’t comprehend.

    Maybe it was some ancient numbering system, or an attempt at a calendar. There’s really no way to know.

  • snooggums@kbin.social
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    Hands are actually pretty easy to injure, and modern medicine is the reason most of us get to keep them all our lives. I’ve known enough farmers and construction workers who are missing digits to assume a significant number are likely to be from injury in agricultural or hunting contexts. Frostbite would be another easy source of injury depending on climate.

    While I could see a possible religious practice coming out of reverence for injured hands contributing too, this seems like the age old archeology practice of assuming anything is intentionally done for religious reasons if they don’t have a neat and tidy singular explanation.

    • Uranium3006@kbin.social
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      Yeah it’s more likely it was a realistic depiction of real life where people would be randomly missing some fingers

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    Flintknapping is extremely prone to finger and hand injuries, and nobody understood infection back then. Probably everyone was making and using stone tools constantly. Might explain things.

  • mo_ztt ✅@lemmy.world
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    Collard and colleagues first published their finger amputation thesis a few years ago but were criticised by other scientists, who argued that the amputation of fingers would have been catastrophic for the people involved. Men and women without fully functioning hands would be unable to cope with the harsh conditions that prevailed millennia ago.

    Sounds pretty fair.

    Since then, Collard, working with PhD student Brea McCauley, has gathered more data to back the amputation thesis. In a paper presented at the European Society conference, they said their latest research provided even more convincing evidence that the removal of digits to appease deities explains the hand images in the caves in France and Spain.

    Oh really? Sorta interesting, okay, what’s the evidence?

    The team looked elsewhere for evidence of finger amputation in other societies and found more than 100 instances where it had been practised. “This practice was clearly invented independently multiple times,” they state. “And it was engaged in by some recent hunter-gatherer societies, so it is entirely possible that the groups at Gargas and the other caves engaged in the practice.”

    That is not convincing evidence.

    Sure, it’s possible. If someone assembled some data that showed that in the modern day, ritual amputation is way more common quantitatively than accidental loss of digits, and showed that they were able to reject some other plausible explanations (e.g. showing that there wasn’t a particularly cold climate in that area that would cause frostbite to be more common than normal), then sure. But that’s not this paper, it sounds like.

  • ZombiFrancis@sh.itjust.works
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    I think it is a relatively new phenomena where it isn’t a regular thing to lose a portion of a digit.

    Also in a similar level of inquiry these researchers are engaging in: the guy who lost a finger wrestling a coyote is also likely to be the one to tell that story.

    “Oh no middle finger guy? Yeah I know that story. It was coming right at him.”

    • Devi@kbin.social
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      I used to work at a zoo and a lot of the older keepers had a finger or part missing to some animal or another back when health and safety was less, used to be common in factories too, Tony Iommi lost bits in a factory and has spoken about how it wasn’t that unusual.

  • AutoTL;DR@lemmings.worldB
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    This is the best summary I could come up with:


    Men and women might have had their fingers deliberately chopped off during religious rituals in prehistoric times, according to a new interpretation of palaeolithic cave art.

    In a paper presented at a recent meeting of the European Society for Human Evolution, researchers point to 25,000-year-old paintings in France and Spain that depict silhouettes of hands.

    In the past, this absence of digits was attributed to artistic licence by the cave-painting creators or to ancient people’s real-life medical problems, including frostbite.

    “There is compelling evidence that these people may have had their fingers amputated deliberately in rituals intended to elicit help from supernatural entities,” said Collard.

    In a paper presented at the European Society conference, they said their latest research provided even more convincing evidence that the removal of digits to appease deities explains the hand images in the caves in France and Spain.

    Collard pointed to rituals still carried out in Mauritius and other places, such as fire-walking, face-piercing with skewers and putting hooks through skin so a person can haul heavy chains behind them.


    The original article contains 663 words, the summary contains 175 words. Saved 74%. I’m a bot and I’m open source!