Researchers suggest ritual finger amputation may explain missing fingers in Upper Paleolithic people

December 4, 2018 by Bob Yirka, report
Examples of Upper Palaeolithic hand images, including some with missing phalanges. a Negative hand images from Grotte de Gargas (Hautes-Pyrénées, France). b Negative hand images on calcite draperies in Cosquer Cave (Calanque de Morgiou, France). Credit: © Jean Clottes, used with permission

A trio of researchers at Simon Fraser University in Canada theorizes that ritualistic finger amputation during the Upper Paleolithic explains the number of missing fingers in depictions from that time. In their paper published in the Journal of Paleolithic Archeology, Brea McCauley, David Maxwell and Mark Collard outline the reasons for their theory, even as they acknowledge more evidence is required to prove it.

Archeologists studying art on walls by early humans of the Upper Paleolithic have found a lot of pictures of hands with missing fingers—much of the art consists of prints or outlines of hands. And a lot of those hands appear to be missing a finger or two, or even three or four. The researchers with this new effort note that rough conditions could account for missing fingers, particularly frostbite. But it seems like more fingers are missing than would seem likely—people learn not to let their fingers freeze, for example. Also, the missing-fingered art appears in some places that are too warm for widespread frostbite. The sheer numbers suggest something else is going on.

In Grotte de Gargas, in France, for example, 114 out of 231 hand images have missing fingers. In another cave in France, the average is even higher, 28 out of 49. The researchers also note that hand paintings on the cave walls at Grotte de Gargas appear quite flat, ruling out the possibility that some fingers were simply held back as the print was being made. They also looked at history books and found that 121 groups of people living on different continents have been found to engage in finger amputation rituals.

The researchers note that finger amputation rituals could take many forms—some early people might have done it as part of a religious ceremony or as a way to mourn the loss of a loved one. Others may have had it done to them as part of a punishment . There is no way yet to prove that such rituals occurred, or that intentional cutting of fingers was carried out by people of the Upper Paleolithic, but the researchers contend that there is enough evidence to warrant further investigation.

Explore further: Archeologist suggests much of Paleolithic cave art was done by women

More information: Brea McCauley et al. A Cross-cultural Perspective on Upper Palaeolithic Hand Images with Missing Phalanges, Journal of Paleolithic Archaeology (2018). DOI: 10.1007/s41982-018-0016-8

Related Stories

Is it okay for children to count on their fingers?

June 23, 2017

Is it OK for children to count on their fingers? Generations of pupils have been discouraged by their teachers from using their hands when learning maths. But a new research article, published in Frontiers in Education shows ...

Amputees' brains remember missing hands even years later

August 30, 2016

Our brains have a detailed picture of our hands and fingers, and that persists even decades after an amputation, Oxford University researchers have found. The finding could have implications for the control of next generation ...

Recommended for you

Archaeologists discover Incan tomb in Peru

February 16, 2019

Peruvian archaeologists discovered an Incan tomb in the north of the country where an elite member of the pre-Columbian empire was buried, one of the investigators announced Friday.

Where is the universe hiding its missing mass?

February 15, 2019

Astronomers have spent decades looking for something that sounds like it would be hard to miss: about a third of the "normal" matter in the Universe. New results from NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory may have helped them ...

What rising seas mean for local economies

February 15, 2019

Impacts from climate change are not always easy to see. But for many local businesses in coastal communities across the United States, the evidence is right outside their doors—or in their parking lots.

The friendly extortioner takes it all

February 15, 2019

Cooperating with other people makes many things easier. However, competition is also a characteristic aspect of our society. In their struggle for contracts and positions, people have to be more successful than their competitors ...


Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

not rated yet Dec 04, 2018
Um, isn't it still a feature of Japanese Yakusa and related crime-syndicate culture ? Yubitsume, or the cutting off of one's finger, is a form of penance or apology.
not rated yet Dec 06, 2018
If I remember correctly. that came out of historical practices of the Samurai sub-culture.

Usually such exercises in self-mutilation & self-flagellation are common among zealot religious cults & clandestine extremist political fanatics.

A less extreme example would be tattoos shared by military units, gangs, & similar group-bondings.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.