Human Handprint

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Hand prints in Fish Canyon, Utah

If there is a single symbol for all humanity it is the image of the human handprint. I've seen the handprint reproduced on 6 continents and across all ages of human creativity. I have seen both petroglyphs and pictographs. From the Paleolithic to modern times the images persist in our visual vocabulary. They may well be the very first artistic expression. To me, they are the original 'selfie' the very first way that people recorded their passage. That urge to leave a visual mark that says "I was here" is uniquely human.

Negative hand prints like Fish Canyon (above) and El Castillo (below) are not as simple to make as we might assume. To make them someone ground up pigment and aerosolized it by packing it in a tube or their mouth. It's easy in theory but difficult in practice. 

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36,000 year old hand print in el Castillo Cave, Spain

One thing that I am particularly moved by about hand prints is their personal nature. True, the hand print is a symbol of all humanity but each person’s print is different. Seeing them leaves me feeling connected to the individual who made the print in an intimate way. Even a handprint that is as old as this one in El Castillo fills that sense of connection. 

36,000 years ago, someone placed their hand on a wall in El Castillo and seeing their hand print makes me feel connected to them.

What these symbols meant to their creators is lost to time. We simply cannot know what the handprints in El Castillo cave meant to someone 36 millennium ago. But we can still feel the connection, the personalness, the commonality of the image.

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Hand hand in Actun Uayazba, Belize

How can you look at such a personal representation and not feel connected not just to the person that made it but to all of Humanity?

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Cueva de las Manos, Argenting photo by Gregory Crouch for the nonprofit Ancient Art Archive

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Three Rivers Petroglyph Site, New Mexico

-Stephen Alvarez

January, 2024

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