Ice Age ancestors were handy artists

Researchers at the University of Sheffield have been exploring how our Ice Age ancestors used intricate hand stencils to decorate their cave dwellings over 20,000 years ago.

Dr Paul Pettitt and Dr Rebecca Harrison reconstruct Ice Age cave art

Dr Paul Pettitt from the University's Department of Archaeology and Dr Rebecca Harrison, Leverhulme Research Assistant, painstakingly reconstructed the ancient art form, now on display at the Royal Society in London as part of Many Hands, an exhibition exploring the deep history of hands in art.

The team experimented with different techniques to produce the art of our ancestors. Dr Pettitt said: "We have known for a long time that these paintings were produced by spraying watered down ochre (a natural pigment), but what we don't know is the technique they used to achieve the final result. Our technique, in which we use a shell to hold the dye and blow it across our hands through hollowed out bones or reeds, gives the best result."

The Ice Age art has been found in hard to reach places within the cave dwellings, in countries such as Spain (Malaga, Asturias and Cantabria) and France (Pech Merle in Lot). Dr Pettitt has worked in these sites and is also set to explore hand stencils in the spectacular caves of La Garma and El Castillo in Spain. The stencils themselves, as the researchers found, were also very difficult to produce. Dr Pettitt explained the significance of this: "Clearly the difficulty in getting to the parts of caves that they were left in, and in creating the stencils, was an integral part of the creative experience; almost as if the act of creation of the stencils was more important than the art."

Dr Pettitt added: "The location of the art within the caves means that it must have been very difficult for our Ice Age ancestors to produce. We now have an idea of how they were able to do this, and from experience I can say it's a highly skilled and rather tricky process! We're intrigued as to why humans that existed between 20,000 and 30,000 years ago created art, and how it functioned in their society.

"This is a question we'd really like to research. Our findings support the notion that the art was created as part of wider rituals in the dark caves, and that creating them probably added to heightened emotional states created by discomfort, breathlessness, light-headedness and disorientation, almost a form of magic, if you like."

The Leverhulme Trust, an organisation that provides funding for research and education, funded the project. The Leverhulme Trust's Dr Harrison said: "It's interesting because the hand stencils themselves are a direct record of these people. You can tell various things about the people from their hand print – their sex, age, even whether they were right or left-handed, so it really is a valuable source of information."

Notes for Editors:
Many Hands will run until 20 January 2012 and is open to the public by appointment - please contact Felicity Henderson via to arrange your visit.

To find out more about the University of Sheffield's Department of Archaeology visit: Department of Archaeology

To find out more about the Royal Society, visit: Royal Society

For further information please contact: Amy Stone, Media Relations Officer, on 0114 2221046 or email