The Hands of Gar gas

Toward a General Study
Beginning in 1906, the year of Cartailhac's writing on the hands outlined
in red and black in the cave of Gargas,
several articles and numerous allusions
have confronted the problem raised by the 160 or so hands grouped on the cave
walls. In 1952 the Abbe Breuil devoted forty lines to them in his Quartre cent siecles
d'art parietal, summing up his point of view at that time: "The majority of these
hands, outlined in black or red, sometimes in white or yellow, are left hands;
there are more than 150 of them, many of which appear mutilated, as if the
joints of one or several fingers had been cut off."
He adds one very important
detail which does honor to his power of observation: "It is certain that we have
here the same hand, with the same mutilation, in multiple examples." Finally,
he states, "Gargas is thus far the only European cave, among the approximately
dozen discovered containing hands in outline, in which these mutilations appear."
In 1958, upon republishing the text of Four Hundred Centuries in the Melanges
]. -B. Noulet, he added a mention of the outlined hands recently discovered in
the cave of Tibiran, a few hundred yards from Gargas.
Indeed, except for
Maltravieso in Estramadura, Gargas and Tibiran are the only caves in which
hands with missing fingers are to be found. Gargas and Maltravieso, further-
more, differ considerably from each other. In the latter cave, all the hands uni-
formly lack the last two joints of the little finger, while at Gargas we find ten
different forms out of the fifteen possible combinations obtainable by cutting
the finger. This variety in "mutilation," the grouping of hands in separate pairs,
the pairs of identical hands, and the distribution of red in relation to black have
gone unnoticed by writers on the subject. Assisted by Father Hours and Mon-
sieur Brezillon, we undertook a survey of the totality of hands in their topo-
1. Emile Cartailhac, "Les mains inscrites de rouge ou de nair de Gargas," L'anthropologie,
vol. XVII (1906), pp. 624-625.
2. Henri Breuil, Quatre cents siecles d'art parietal, Montignac, Centre d'etudes et de documenta-
tion prehistoriques, 1952, pp. 246-257.
3. Henri Breuil, "La decoration parietale prehistorique de la grotte de Gargas," Bulletin de la
Societe meridionale de speleologie et de prehistoire, vol. V (1954-1955 [1958]), pp. 391-409.
graphical setting, completing it in 1966. This first essay is intended not as a
solution to all the problems raised by the hands of Gargas, but rather to pro-
vide insight into the main aspects of their study as a whole.
Inventory of Hypotheses
The classical hypothesis, maintained by the Abbe Breuil, is that, like cer-
tain present-day primitives, the "Aurignacians" of Gargas cut off their fingers
for sacrificial reasons. Although plausible at first glance, this hypothesis has at
least two weaknesses: ( 1) It does not account for the variety of forms of subtrac-
tion of fingers. We must therefore suppose that the author considered them to
be anarchic, for he would otherwise have implied the existence of a veritable
"code of mutilation," which was not his view. (2) It accepts the possibility of im-
pairments which go as far as elimination of all fingers except the thumb on more
than fifty percent of the hands represented; this, upon reflection, seems extraor-
dinary. The hypothesis of mutilated hands has nevertheless been accepted by
most prehistorians and has passed into scientific tradition without being sub-
jected to strict verification.
The second hypothesis is that of the pathological origin of the amputations,
already raised by Hugo Obermaier and by Breuil; set forth by Dr. Dekeyer in
1953, it was revived and developed by Dr. Sahly.
According to his study, the
loss of fingers was caused by a thrombo-angitis obliterans, probably due to frost-
bite or dietary deficiency. This would explain the variety of missing joints and
the constant preservation of the thumb, normally spared by the pathological
process. The arguments against this thesis are: (1) At least ten percent of the
legible hands are intact. (2) Several of them are located in places unexplained
by the pathological hypothesis, such as the whole hand of point 25 (see fig. 3),
executed under a ledge about fifteen feet off the ground. (3) This hypothesis,
like the first, at no point takes into account the topographical distribution of
different mutilations nor, generally speaking, the fact that the distribution of
hands may present characteristics not due to chance.
The third hypothesis is that of bent fingers, which we have formulated
and will here develop.
It was G.-H. Luquet who, in Art et religion des hommes
fossibles ( 1926), seems to have presented it for the first time. M. Frank Bourdier
has kindly reminded me that P. Saintyves, in "La main dans la magie,"6 had
revived this hypothesis, which has probably not received the attention it de-
4. Doctor Sahly has kindly made available to me the contents of his work, now in prepara-
tion, on the hands ofGargas. I am not competent to evaluate the pathological alterations of some
of the hands at Gargas; they offer a very interesting field for research, but do not, in my view, ap-
pear to explain the features which emerge from a study of the whole.
5. Andre Leroi-Gourhan, Les religions de la prehistoire, Paris, Presses Universitaires de France,
1964, p. 102. See also Leroi-Gourhan, Prehistoire de l'art occidental, Paris, Mazenod, 1965, p. 109.
6. In Aesculape, no. 6 (March 1934 ).
The Hands of Gargas 21
serves. It is, in any case, perfectly possible, by bending the fingers and placing
either the palm or back of the hand against the wall, to reproduce all of the
mutilations at Gargas. Although we do not theoretically exclude the procedure
of spraying from a distance, the technique which produces the effect closest to
that of the original hands consists in applying ochre powder with a brush (a
simple tuft of hair, straightened and bound) on the damp surface of the wall.
The operation can be performed in three stages: ( 1) application at the base and
curve of the thumb; (2) application between the spread fingers; (3) application
on the outer border. The procedure takes scarcely more than thirty seconds.
Whatever the mode of execution, and even if we grant the possibility of
voluntary or pathological mutilations, two critical operations should normally
have been in order: inquiry into the possible scheme of hand groups within the
cave as a whole, and the analysis of the digital forms, since there is no reason to
reject a priori the hypothesis of a deliberate arrangement.
The Digz'tal Forms
If we take into account the acceptable degree of legibility of approximately
half of the figures, it would appear that with rare exceptions the subtractions
usually involve the first two joints. In order to establish a code of the finger
combinations we simply noted the fact that a subtraction had been practiced on
one finger or another. Since the thumb seems never to have been cut off, we
therefore find fifteen possible basic combinations (fig. 1) from that of the whole
hand (form A) to that of the hand with four missing fingers (form 0).
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
A 8 c D t
11 3 13 + 1
0 ~ ~ ~ ~
~ ~ ~ ~ 0
K L M N 0
4 + + 5 44
Fig. 1. Table of digital forms showing frequencies. Forms not present are marked by a cross. In the
second line the form of bent index/little finger ( j') is omitted since it is not represented.
Not all forms are represented in the cave, and the order of frequency re-
veals an interesting feature: the combinations 0 A C H N K, represented by a
relatively high number of figures, are the easiest to assume by bending the
fingers. The combinations B C F G, which are rare, are still relatively easy to
reproduce. The others, D I J L M, are more difficult. A certain figurative logic,
independent of the criterion of ease, is apparent in the choice of digital forms.
We note a very marked preference for the series of contiguous fingers, as shown
in table A.
accounted for
forms not
accounted for
1 finger
2 fingers
3 fingers
1 finger
2 fingers
3 fingers
2 3 4 5
F ........ F
G ....... G
H ....... H
K ........ K ....... K
N ....... N ........ N
I ....... . . ...... I
....... . ]
]' ....... . . ...... ]'
L ........ L ....... . ...... L
M ...... . ....... M ....... M
As we see at first glance, neither "ritual" amputation nor pathological de-
cay fit this description. It implies, rather, that these finger positions were famil-
iar enough to the paleolithics at Gargas to produce a selection in terms of ease
of movement. Had it been simply a matter of pressing the bent fingers against
the wall, all combinations could have been obtained. The fact that those that
are most difficult to produce with upraised hand seem absent leads us to think
that the choice of finger positions corresponded to a manual code in common
practice like that still used for the hunt by the Bushmen (fig. 2).
a b
Fig. 2. Hunting or narrative gestures of the Bushmen in the Kalahari desert, representing
(a) monkey, (b) warthog, (c) giraffe. Compare with forms A, K, and Cat Gargas.
The Hands of Gargas 23
Analysis of Sets
The topography of the outlined hands is composed of three clearly estab-
lished sets (fig. 3). Set I occupies a length of thirty-five meters on the left-hand
wall of the first chamber. Set II occupies part of the right-hand wall of the same
chamber. Set III is located in the second chamber; it includes one isolated hand
under a ledge of the left wall (27) and, on the right-hand side, thirty-eight hands
,-- - - - - - - - - - - - -
First hall
Second hall
Passage '
10 20 JOm.
Fi'g. 3. Plan of the Gargas cave showi'ng locati'ons of different seri'es of hands and signs within
sets I, II, and III.
arranged around a pillar or inside a small chamber hollowed out of this pillar.
There are, finally, under the very low ceiling, toward the "dungeon," two hands
outlined in white (28). The hands, then,. occupy very sharply delimited sections:
the two sides at the entrance and the second chamber's pillar, hollowed· out into
a s r i l ~ l l apselike chamber. The isolated. subjects are located beneath a vault,
one (27) facing the pillar at the entry to an elevated gallery a.nd the other two at
the end of a series in the passage which follows the pillar. The general arrange-
ment in distinct sets, with figures placed at the entry or at the ends of galleries,
recalls that of most caves which contain animal figures.
Set I can be divided into five sections, according to the different groups
arranged upon them. The wall surface is animated by folds of greater or lesser
depth (fig. 4, nos. 1, 4, 11, 14, 18), forming niches or straightened between the
flat and convex panels. We have used these irregularities of the surface to de-
termine the sections. This sort of division appears to correspond to the rhythm
imposed upon the paleolithics as upon ourselves, for each section thus deter-
mined presents characteristics that can be superimposed on those of other sec-
tions. The tendency of set I considered as a whole presents some rather curious
features, as shown in table B.
concavity Flat or convex surface Total
Section 1 . .. 1 red spot 4 5
Section 2 . .. red spots 4 + 4 8 16
Section 3 . .. 1 4 8 13
Section 4 . .. 1 11 11 23
Section 5 . .. 2 3 36 41
The number of hands therefore increases as we proceed from the entrance
to the furthest end point (from five to forty-one elements). The same phenome-
non seems to occur within each section beginning with one or two hands placed
in concave parts and developing into two or three groups of increasing size. We
find the situations repeated five times in a row.
Set II (fig. 5) includes two sections arranged on a rather convoluted sur-
face, opening into a gallery (37) at the entry to which we find two pairs of red
lines and a series of dots of the same color. The first section, beginning at the
entrance (38), is formed of six black hands plus one red; the second section has
nine black hands and four red. In each of these sections we find an oval depres-
sion smeared with ochre. Here too, beginning with the entrance, the hands in-
crease from seven to thirteen as they pass from one section to another.
Set III, apart from the isolated hand no. 27 (fig. 5), is arranged around
and within a free-standing mass (29). Walking around it, we find the following
groups of figures (fig. 6): a red spot (A), one black hand placed in a hollow (B),
then two red hands (C), then an oval depression smeared with red (D); next
The Hands of Gargas


Fig. 4. Division of all the hands of set I into sections.
Continuous lines = black hands, dotted lines = red hands,
cross-hatching = red spots, parallel lines = yellow spots.
Set II
# ~ ~ ,
# '
. '
, '
: \
. ' I \
I t
I •
I \ •
: ,·.. !! ~
.. • ii
Set Ill
~ ~ ~ . , . ~ - ~ ~ )
,,... ·.· ...
It ltl

Fig. 5. Division of hands of set II and figures on
right-hand wall of set III. Same symbols as for fig. 4.
come four red hands (E), followed by six red hands together with another red
oval depression (F). Finally, we enter the small chamber in which there are
fifteen black hands and ten red ones plus bent fingers in profile. Again, there is
an ascending progression: 1, 2, 4, 6, 25.
The fact that density increases between the entry and end chamber in the
eight series of separably distributed figures can hardly be viewed as accidental.
The proportion of red hands to black follows a comparable progression.
We see that with one exception (section 5) the number of red hands follows
the development of each series. Furthermore, the general proportion of red
hands goes from twenty-two percent in set I and twenty-five percent in set II of
the first chamber to fifty-eight percent in set III of the second chamber.
The Hands of Gargas
Set Ill

:·· .. \ \\'4
I . I .
: ,. r · .. l
.. ... ·\·· ...
" to\ ;.,:.· ••
\.. /.· .. F
' I
, '
I \

' 0 I
\ I
\ I


Fig. 6. Arrangement of niches with red spots and of hands of set III. Same symbols as for fig. 4.
Set I
Section 1 Section 2 Section 3 Section 4 Section 5 Summary
Group .......... 1 2 3 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 18 20 21 22
Black ........... 1 4 4 4 6 1 3 6 5 8 2 2 27 3 77
Red ............ 2 1 2 1 6 3 1 6 22
Total ........... 1 4 = 5 4 4 8 = 16 1 4 8 = 13 1 11 11 = 23 2 3 33 3 = 41 99
% red hands ..... 0% 2% 3% 10% 7% 22%
Set II Set III
Group .......... 38 36 27 B c E F G
Black ........... 6 9 15 1 1 1 15 16
Red ............ 1 4 5 2 4 6 10 22
Total ........... 7 13 20 1 1 2 4 6 25 38
% red hands ..... 5% 20% 25% 0% 0% 0% 5% 10% 16% 26% 57%
The Hands of Gar gas
To sum up (see table C), the black or red hands are located in ascending.
series within each set from the entrance toward the furthermost limit. In addi-
tion, in five out of seven cases (sections 1 , 2, 3, and 5 of set I, set III) the series
begins with one or two black hands placed within a hollow. It is difficult tore-
ject the hypothesis of an order and equally so to explain it. We do observe a cer-
tain affinity with those caves in which numerous subjects are arranged panel by
panel with transitional figures in passages or at the entrance to galleries, but no
cave has yet shown such a serial crescendo, such a clear play of red in relation
to black.
Repetitions and Alternation of Colors
Another curious fact, already pointed out by the Abbe Breuil, is the repe-
tition in several copies of the same hand. Given the conditions of application on
granular rock and the variable state of preservation, it is not always easy to
establish the identity of the hands. The general outline nevertheless remains
perceptible enough, allowing us definitively to attribute the same origin to two
adjoining hands of very similar proportions. The results are set forth in table D.
2 repetitions 3 repetitions
black red black red
Set I
group 8 ........ N,C
group 10 ....... H
group 13 ....... c
group 15 ....... c A,O
group 16 ....... x, 0
group 21 ....... 0,0,0,0,0 0 0
group 22 ....... 0
Set II
group 38 ....... H
group 36 ....... X 0
group E ........ K
group F ........ 0, F
group G ....... A 0,0 A
We find at least twenty-seven cases of repetitions involving two or three
each, and greater legibility of certain figures would most probably produce many
more. Pairing combined with the increase of number from entry toward end
chamber in several cases determined the meeting of a pair of black hands with
one of red ( 15, 16, 21, 36, 29-G). Whether or not these convergences are inten-
tional is difficult to determine.
Horizontal Hands
A certain number of hands are horizontally arranged. Some are isolated
in the recesses at the beginning of sections ( 11, 19); others are included in
groups (set I, 10, 13, 21, 29-G). Since this arrangement affects those finger
combinations most frequently represented in the cave, it is difficult to separate
the possibly intentional from that which derives simply from the relative fre-
quency of the different forms. These horizontal hands do nevertheless recall
certain animals (mostly bison) represented vertically in groups of figures in
caves such as those at Niaux, Santimamine, and Altxerri.
Many of the hands at Gargas are small, hands of adolescents or even of chil-
dren. This is worthy of note, for most of the footprints left in the clay of the caves
by their paleolithic visitors correspond to those of young people (Pech-Merle,
Niaux, Aldene, Le Tuc d'Audoubert). It is easy to conceive explanations which
allude, for example, to initiation rites, but it is far more difficult to support these
explanations with direct proof. In the present case, it is certain that youthful
and very young subjects did actively participate in the operations carried out in
the cave.
Finally, the analysis of the whole leads us to observe that the hands of
Gargas appear in groups of increasing density- groups in which there is, as
well, an increase in the relative frequency of red hands- from the entrance to-
ward the back. The hands are often arranged in pairs of the same kind, and
among them we find some, in either black or red, horizontally arranged. The
use of red in preference to black is not clearly evident, but the combinations
C N B E are not represented in red.
The "Code"
If, as seems to be the case, the hands are not randomly distributed but
correspond to a more or less clearly organized arrangement, we find a first
point of similarity with all other decorated caves; the figures are distributed in a
series of panels forming a chain whose elements are united by isolated figures
which are themselves placed in the gaps between the panels. This sort of repre-
sentational framework is comparable to that of Lascaux or Combarelles, for ex-
ample. Certain hands, such as 18-19 at the edge of a large crevice, or 27, are
located in spots where we normally find animal figures such as stags or ibex.
Furthermore, the nave (in 29 on the map) occupies a place comparable to the
niches or galleries filled with animals and signs such as we find in the far inte-
riors, notably at Trois-Freres, Le Porte!, and La Pasiega. One is thus led to
hypothesize a possible homology between hands and animals or signs in other
The Hands of Gargas
caves. In other words, the hands might have been equivalent to animals or
signs, and the play of fingers might have expressed the different themes. It there-
fore followed that we try out the different digital combinations in order to see
whether or not this homology is acceptable.
To arrive at a reading, we made use of our two visual summaries and of
photographs. When instances of a contradiction between them arose, the cor-
responding figures were considered as merely probable, and appear with ques-
tion marks on table E. They represent ten percent of the figures; fifty-eight per-
cent of the total of 159 hands are decipherable with acceptable certainty. For
forty-two percent of the hands, the inadequate preservation of the documents
produces faulty decoding.
Despite the uncertainty that characterizes almost one-half of the figures,
we can deduce, from the table of digital combinations, the following:
( 1) There are considerable disproportions in numbers among the different
figures: form 0 (four fingers missing) represents almost half (forty-seven per-
cent) of the total of legible hands; A (all fingers present) and C (middle finger
missing) together form more than a quarter (twenty-seven percent) of the lot,
with none of the other forms attaining ten percent.
(2) Sets I, II, and III present rather clear differences:
Set 1: 30
Set II: 4
Set III: 10
2 1
The three sets share in common forms 0 and A in clearly equivalent pro-
portions for the forward part of the cave (0 = 52 and 50%, A = 10 and 12% ),
while the proportions at the back show a diminution of 0 (39%) and an in-
crease of A (19% ). C (middle finger missing) is very well represented in set I
and absent in the two others. His common to both I and II; Nand E are found
in I and III. The other forms (KG F) characterize set III. We thus obtain the
following basic forms: I = 0 A C, II = 0 A H, III = 0 AN.
If the homology with animal figures is entertained, the confrontation of
the different digital forms with the zoological groups should reveal parallelism
in proportions. If we no longer consider the distributed sets, but the totality of
identified hands, the parallelism with the caves containing animals becomes
very striking (table F).
It is very interesting to observe that the four subjects mainly represented
show the same general proportions. It may not be wholly a matter of chance
that the points of similarity obtain for the caves in the Pyrenees, for in other re-
gions the proportions among the four main subjects are different: horse, twenty-
seven percent; bison, sixteen percent; mammoth, nine percent; ibex, seven and
one-half percent.
Table E
0 A c H N K B G E F X Total
Set I:
Section 1 group 1 .......... 1 1
- 3 .......... 1 ? 1 ? 1 ? 1 4
Section 2 group 8 .......... 2 2 4
- 9 .......... 1 1 ? 2 4
- 10 .......... 2 ? 3 2 1 8
Section 3 group 11 .......... 1 1
- 12 1 1 2 4
- 13 .......... 2 3 3 8
Section 4 group 14 .......... 1 1
- 15 .......... 3 2 2 4 11
- 16, 17 ....... 6 3 ? 2 11
Section 5 group 18, 19 ....... 1 1 2
- 20 .......... 1 2 3
- 21 .......... 18 1 14 33
- 22 .......... 2
1 3
Set II:
group 38 ................... 1 ? 1 3 2 7
- 36 ................... 4 9 13
Set III:
group 27 ................... 1 1
- 28 ................... 2 2
- 29 B ................. 1 1 2
- 29 c ................. 1 1 2
- 29 E ................. 3 1 4
- 29 F ................. 2 1 3 6
- 29 G ................. 6 2 3 2 1 11 25
Total (gross) .................. 48 16 13 7 5 5 3 2 2 1 57 159
Total (corrected) .............. 44 12 13 7 5 4 3 2 1 1 57 149
Table F
The Pyrenees
Niaux Santimamine Altamira ceiling
as a whole
0:47% bison: 49% 52 % 70% 78%
A: 13% horse: 28% 28 % 11% 9%
c 14 % ibex: 6% 17% 11% doe: 9%
H: 7.5% deer: 4% 1.5% 4% wild boar: 4%
It would then appear, according to these figures, that the hands at Gargas
present the same structure of representation as the figures of the other decorated
To sum up, the hands of Gargas are found in a series grouped into three
sets, whose numbers increase from group to group proceeding from the cave's
entrance to its back end. The red f i g u r e ~ show the same order of increase. The
hands in each panel are frequently identical pairs, and sometimes these are in a
group. The combination of fingers does not convey a purely random distribu-
tion; they seem to have had a meaning, and a parallel can be established be-
tween the sets of hands at Gargas and those of animal figures in the caves of the
Pyrenees. This parallelism is discernable through both the relative density of
each form and the localization of one or another in the walls' irregularities or on
its panels. Although it is possible to see the hands of Gargas as symbols com-
parable with those of animals, their exact determination remains a matter of
conjecture. It is merely likely that forms 0 and A, which are the most constant,
correspond respectively to the bison (or the wild ox) and to the horse.
In the case under discussion, we have, most probably, one of direct trans-
position, for a circumscribed ethnic group, of the hunter's gestural symbols in
wall painting. Some confirmation of this transposition is to be found in the fact
that those combinations of bent fingers which are more difficult to reproduce
are not to be found on the walls at Gargas.
Even if we do not acknowledge the possible existence of a certain composi-
tional order in the caves, we cannot avoid observing that the disorder of the
hands at Gargas curiously coincides with that of the animals in the Pyrenean
caves. Once we agree that the hunters at Gargas cut off no fingers whatever,
and that they mixed the different mutilations as others mixed the bison and the
horses, the problem appears in the light of normal incidence, and the myth of
the "mutilated people of Gargas" loses much of its baleful character.
The notion that hunters amputated all the fingers of a hand in order to in-
crease their luck in hunting or that, for a similar reason, they cut off fingers of
those hunters-to-be, their children, does not correspond to an act of economic
stability, even and particularly within primitive society. The loss of fingers due
to pathological factors is, after all, not impossible, but it does not fit the struc-
ture of the whole. A familiarity, like that of many hunting peoples, with the
play of fingers as a silent signaling of the presence of game of one sort or an-
other does not strain credibility. What is remarkable, if this hypothesis is valid,
is their transposition of the hunting signals to the cave walls. However we ex-
plain the art of the caves, the certainty of a fact such as this would provide a
new opening upon the thought of paleolithic man.

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