The older I get, the sparer my spiritual universe becomes, and the more I wonder if I would have felt more comfortable in a Paleolithic world. There is something essential– self-confidently spiritual, as star-bright and as earthy as a diamond–about the cave paintings and other artifacts our most ancient ancestors left behind. I especially love the handprints from that time that are found on cave walls in many places of the world. If you have not seen them, they are handprints just like you used to make in school – the artist covered her or his hand with paint and pressed it to the wall or outlined it with paint. Some of these are single prints, almost as if they are a signature, while others are in elaborate patterns and seem to have a meaning that goes beyond the imprint of a single person.
To me, nothing symbolizes all that is good about being embodied on Earth like a handprint. It is with our hands that we have always gathered or grown the food that keeps us alive, built the homes that shelter us, held our babies who are the next generation, and made objects that ease our lives. Our hands are how we go beyond ourselves to reach out to other people and to create art that expresses the inexpressible within us and speaks to those who will live tens of millennia after us.
I love the Paleolithic handprints because they also remind me that, once, humans were new upon the Earth, that decisions about what kind of communities we would live in, how we would treat one another, whether we would be a short-lived or a long-lasting species had yet to be made. What would it be like to live without the burden of knowing the history of our world for the past few centuries or that we are responsible for the forecasts of global doom?
But the meaning of the handprints to me goes beyond what they symbolize to how they connect us to those who made them. According to David S. Whitley’s Cave Paintings and the Human Spirit, some of the hand prints in California were made by young girls participating in a celebration of their growth into womanhood. Marija Gimbutas in Language of the Goddess says that the majority of handprints appear to have been made by women. Why might this be?
Of course, we cannot know exactly what the people who made the prints or paintings in the caves were thinking as they laid their hands against the cave walls, but the women artists could hardly have missed their own connection to whatever concepts of the sacred they were depicting or touching. They were the partners of nature in creation, bringing into being what nature had set into motion. In their birthing, which was likely much more dangerous than our own, they experienced the intimacy of life and death up close as they knew that giving birth could so easily end in either one, or both. Perhaps leaving a remnant of their physical being was the most sacred act they could imagine.
Because the women who made the handprints gave birth, despite its danger, our generation lives. Our existence, our DNA, and their handprints are all that remains of their physical being on the planet. Perhaps they had elaborate myths and rituals, an oral literary tradition, shelters and artifacts, a history of achievements and migrations, but these have been lost. What we really have, all we really have, is that one-to-one connection between ourselves and others and from that we need to remake the world anew each day.
This season of late spring we are now in, when the soil is still wet and we dig our fingers into it, is the time when we most live through our hands after a winter of gloves and coat pockets. Tomorrow, when I wash the Earth off my hands to prepare the meal of greens and vegetables for my family, much as the hands of those who made the handprints must have done, I will look at them as doorways to the sacred, a dialogue with women from long, long ago, a reminder that my spirituality can be as fresh and new as the Paleolithic dawn.