Negative Hands

“I was here.”

Recently, I caught a minute or two of a TED Talk in which the speaker was discussing “negative hands”. I was really confused by this, having never heard the term before. It kind of sounds like some form of abuse to me.

But the speaker explained that back when early man started doing art on cave walls, one of the first innovations was to place your hand on a wall, then spit paint over and around it, and when you removed your hand, you left a “negative hand” painting on the wall.

I’ve been looking at photographs of negative hands for decades. They always make me wish I could go to the site and touch the hand, while imagining the artist placing his or her hand in the same spot. (It’s a wish I would never fulfill, though, because I wouldn’t want to damage the work.)

What an amazing feeling that would be. Standing right where the ancient artist stood. Touching her, his or their hand. That would feel like some sort of time travel conversation. Artist, in a faint, distant voice: “I was here.” Me: “I know! Thank you! Lovely to meet you!”

The motivation for putting negative hands on a rock wall is fairly simple to understand. I’m sure that for as long as there have been humans on this planet, we have all wanted to make our mark on the world. We all want to say that we were here. It’s as primal an instinct as an animal marking its territory.

We do this in so many ways. We create art. We tag walls. We name things after ourselves if we can, and after others if we haven’t quite “made it”. We write. We invent things. We make scientific discoveries. We pass on our genetic code. We mark graves. We teach others. We build things. We try to nurture and lift up the next generation so that they’ll remember us. We do good works. More and more of us, unfortunately, prefer to live in infamy.

We are all mortals, and so we reach for immortality in creative ways. But like it or not, it will be time to go for each one of us eventually. Some of us will be remembered much longer than others. We will hope those memories are fond. Some will be remembered without really being remembered, as their innovations morph into common household objects that get taken for granted, or when their descendants display similar quirks, or when their art is labeled, “artist unknown.”

Whether we succeed or not in making our mark, I’m glad that we are driven to try. It’s that instinct that brings about change, and, hopefully, improvement. Change can bring about beauty as well as destruction, so we must learn to tread lightly.

I hope, dear readers, that your marks upon this world are positive ones. When all is said and done, that’s all that matters. Either way, I wish for you a life well-lived, because, yes indeed, you are here.

ARGENTINA Patagonia Cueva de las Manos Cave of the Hands. Prehistoric rock paintings of human hands in red black and orange 13 000 to 9 500 years old. Wouldn’t these people be stunned to know that their hands are now seen on the internet by more people then they imagined would ever exist?

Are you wondering what to bring to Thanksgiving dinner? How about my book, Notes on Gratitude? Place your orders now! (Or any other time, since we’re on the subject.) And… thanks!

Author: The View from a Drawbridge

I have been a bridgetender since 2001, and gives me plenty of time to think and observe the world.

4 thoughts on “Negative Hands”

  1. Wonder why they didn’t do a whole negative body. Would you pose for that if the paint is sprayed and not spit on? 😊 Love ancient cave art. Studied it in art history. Still have my notes and drawings after all theses years, and I don’t hang onto just anything. In the picture above, the majority are left handed and there’re few stubby fingers. Wonder if it was created all at once or if layers were added over time. Could be interesting to create a story about an individuals hand print and what lead up to them adding their negative print.

      1. I look forward to reading your story then. Maybe it will come to you in one of your surrealistic dreams. You haven’t treated us with one of your creative short stories lately. Maybe it’s time?

      2. Perhaps it is. 🙂 But I seem to be in the midst of an embarassment of riches these days, in terms of blog inspirations. My list is now two pages long. But if that’s the worst problem I have, I’ll take it.

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