To Unlock the Secrets of Prehistoric Hand Paintings, Experts Catalog Them in 3D

Archaeologists have been going from cave to cave, taking scans and high-resolution photos of all of Europe’s prehistoric painted hands.

It’s dark and surprisingly warm in a cave in western Spain that hides our most intimate connection to the prehistoric past — hand silhouettes painted tens of thousands of years ago.

Archaeologist Hipolito Collado and his team had not entered the Maltravieso Cave in the city of Caceres for close to a year to avoid damaging the 57 faded hands that adorn the walls, precious remnants of a far-flung piece of history we know little about.

Why did our ancestors or distant relatives paint hands in caves? Was it merely to make their mark, or part of a ritual to commune with spirits?

Do they tell us anything about the role of women during the Paleolithic era that ended some 10,000 years ago? And why are some fingers missing?

In a bid to unlock some of these mysteries, Collado, head of archaeology for the government of the Extremadura region where Caceres is located, has set out to catalog all of Europe’s prehistoric painted hands.

Crouching under low hanging rocks or abseiling down crags, he and other archaeologists have been going from cave to cave, taking scans and high-resolution photos of all the hands they encounter.

They then post them in detailed, 3D format in a free-to-use online database, as part of an EU-funded project called Handpas.