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Stone Age Sign Language: An Analysis of Cave Paintings of Mutilated Hands


The mystery behind prehistoric hand stencils found in caves has puzzled archaeologists for years. These stencils, made by spitting red and black paint over outstretched hands, can be found in ancient sites all around the world. One cave in particular, Gargas cave in France, stands out because around half of the hand stencils have missing fingers. Researchers have speculated that these missing digits could be the result of accidents, frostbite, or ritual mutilation. However, a new study suggests that the hand stencils may actually represent a Stone Age sign language, offering a potential insight into the origins of writing.

The Mysterious Hand Stencils

Hand stencils with missing digits are most prevalent in Gargas cave and another French cave called Cosquer. These missing fingers cannot be explained by accidents, frostbite, or ritualistic practices, as the missing digits are varied and do not correspond to the typical patterns observed in other contexts. Instead, many researchers believe that these patterns were deliberately created and could represent a form of communication.

The Possibility of Sign Language

Researchers Aritz Irurtzun and Ricardo Etxepare have suggested that the prehistoric hand stencils may represent a Stone Age sign language. They argue that language may have originated from both hand signs and vocalizations, and the use of symbolic hand gestures alongside spoken language is still evident in many societies today. To test this hypothesis, Irurtzun and Etxepare analyzed the physiological ease of making the hand gestures represented by the stencils. Their findings suggest that the hand gestures can be made in the air, indicating that they could correspond to specific signs in a sign language system.

Hints of a Hidden Code

The idea that prehistoric cave paintings contain hidden codes is not new. Graphic marks, ranging from simple lines to complex configurations, have been found alongside depictions of animals. These symbols may have served as a form of proto-writing, encoding information in a way similar to how the Latin alphabet encodes the English language. Additionally, recent research suggests that some of these symbols may have been used to create a hunting calendar to record the behavior of prey.

Origins of Writing

If the hand stencils indeed represent a Stone Age sign language, it could potentially be considered an early form of writing. While the exact age of the hand stencils is uncertain, they are believed to be significantly older than the first formal writing system, cuneiform, which developed around 5,500 years ago. Further research, including 3D imaging and analysis of paint marks, is underway to support this hypothesis and explore the origins of writing.


The analysis of prehistoric hand stencils with missing digits suggests the possibility of a Stone Age sign language and the earliest form of writing. These findings shed light on the complex communication systems used by ancient humans and open up new avenues for understanding the development of language and writing.

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