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Palaeolithic people may have amputated fingers in religious ritual, study suggests

Early in human history, people were willing to make enormous sacrifices in order to satisfy their deities. Some cave dwellers even cut off their own fingers, according to new research.

Palaeolithic people may have amputated fingers in religious ritual, study suggests
These are examples of negative hand images with missing fingers on calcite draperies in Cosquer Cave,
located in Calanque de Morgiou, France [Credit: Jean Clottes]
It was a mystery archaeologists couldn’t figure out for decades. Cave paintings nearly 27,000 years old sometimes depicted hands with missing fingers — but why?

A team of anthropologists and archaeologists from British Columbia’s Simon Fraser University now believe humans in the Upper Palaeolithic era amputated their fingers in religious rituals and that the incredibly painful experience might have helped groups of humans form intensely strong bonds.

Master’s student Brea McCauley and supervisors David Maxwell and Mark Collard combed through records dating back to the 1600s for examples of researchers and travellers who noted the practice of finger amputation.

McCauley, who led the team, was surprised to find examples of finger amputation on every continent humans inhabit.

“We did not expect, in the slightest, to find 121 societies that engaged in finger amputation,” McCauley said in an interview.

Palaeolithic people may have amputated fingers in religious ritual, study suggests
Closwer view of hand images in Cosquer Cave [Credit: Fanny Broadcast/
Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images]
In one instance, a cave in France featured hand paintings from 50 different individuals, including men, women and children. Many had fingers missing.

The team posited that finger amputation was likely done as either a sign of mourning or as a sacrifice in order to appeal to a deity for assistance. And the ritual may have helped, but likely not in the way early humans thought.

Group amputations of people’s fingers in a highly ritualized practice probably had the “side effect” of creating powerful bonds among participants, said Collard, an archaeology professor at SFU.

Existing research suggests deeply uncomfortable experiences can in fact make people more loyal to others who share the same trauma, explained McCauley.

“These rituals that might be painful or might cause emotional distress create really strong communities. They bind people as though they are family,” she said.

“So that means they are really likely to look out for one another and that means they might be hostile to other groups because they are so bounded inward.”

While these rituals were happening during the Upper Palaeolithic era, modern humans spread across much of the world and out competed neanderthals.

The research is published in the Journal of Paleolithic Archaeology.

Author: Wanyee Li | Source: The Star Vancouver [December 07, 2018]


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