Archaeology Magazine Archive

A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America

Special Introductory Offer!
Amputee Art Volume 56 Number 6, November/December 2003
by Bernadette Arnaud

[image] Were missing digits, like this 30,000-year-old thumb tip, a Paleolithic artistic statement? (© Pawel Valde-Nowak) [LARGER IMAGE]

A major debate that has raged in the world of prehistoric art took a new twist with the recent discovery of a ritual deposit containing two adult finger bones in a cave in southern Poland.

Hand stencils are a common motif on the walls of Paleolithic caves and shelters in Europe, Asia, Africa, and the Americas. "Mutilated" hand representations, with partially or completely missing fingers, have usually been seen as indicating illness or accident or even a system of communication. The idea of ritual amputation was often dismissed because of a lack of evidence, until now.

The 30,000-year-old finger bones, including a thumb tip, were unearthed in association with perforated teeth of arctic fox, a boomerang carved from a mammoth tusk (the oldest boomerang ever found), a shell pendant, some bone beads, and numerous carved objects.

Pawel Valde-Nowak, who excavated the site at Oblazowa, explains, "This proves that at the beginning of the Gravettian period in the Danube Basin, fingers were amputated in a ceremonial context, which gives the depictions of hands a very particular symbolic meaning."

© 2003 by the Archaeological Institute of America