South-Western Cape, South Africa

The appearance of handprints brought completely new and major change in human artistic life, being associated with specific events and occasions in the life of pastoralists. Although the authorship of southern African rock art handprints has been much debated, the prints found in Tibet, for example, are dated to be older than 226.000 years.

They represent a conceptual and technical departure from the carefully drawn images of humans and animals which characterize much of the earlier art and should be seen as a totally new approach, a change in the role of painters and painting.

Produced by smearing the palm with wet pigment, using only one colour and placing them on the wall to leave an imprint of the hand. Shades of ochres red to orange were the most commonly used colour and only very occasionally white or black.

Photo taken from Grant S. McCall `s page

Whilst human and animal images are constantly reworked in different forms, shapes and combinations, handprints are unique, yet it keeps repeating itself. Two different varieties were found in a Cape (always a positive print, meaning it works as a stamp), one being the normal plain paint, common in the area all the way from the coast to the mountains and the so-called decorated or lined version, effected by wiping off a pattern with a finger into nested curves or ‘U’ shapes, on the already paint smeared palm or hand prior to imprinting on the cave wall. Interestingly the decorated form appeared only at the coast and in the Sandveld area near the coast.

Not being limited only to this region, art of handprints is a worldwide phenomenon mystery. But what is it all about?

Clearly something very personal is revealed by human handprints, as they used their own hand as an identification tool on sacred spaces. In each case the handprint signifies a particular person, it might as well indicate a pretty clear self-awareness an individual human being?

Several individuals were involved in hand print production at the majority of sites. This strongly suggests that hand printing was a group-activity rather than a solitary endeavor. Could be of young boys performing initiation ceremonies like in northwestern Australia or female initiation rites involving seclusion of young girls at puberty.

Spiritually the palm of the hand could be connected more closely with power and healing, as a particular sacred part of the human body. Giving and receiving energy, as in the way Shamans healed by laying on their hands and drawing the illness from the patient into their body. The creation of handprints being similar to those of the elves, both practices were consolidating power on the walls.  

Video Introduction – Hand Prints of the Past

The image of human handprint has been found all over the world. This 15 minute video made by North 02 is a nice outlook into the subject.