Touched by the hands in Pech Merle

by Ingrid Robeyns on August 4, 2018

We visited the Cave of Pech Merle yesterday, which is famous for its prehistorical paintings of bisons, mammoths, horses, and other animals. Those paintings have been made by people who, according to our guide, were almost identical to us, except, she said, that they were taller than us – on average 1 meter 85 centimeter. Pech Merle has a website that is a bit slow (at least, given my present internet-conditions), but it has a very interesting part where you can enter the cave virtually.
I’ve visited many caves in my life, but never one with prehistorical paintings, and was very impressed. If you ever get a chance to see them, do go see them! Although the crown piece of the cave are two dotted horses, which are large and in excellent condition and include something of an optical illusion (avant la lettre?) — I was especially touched by the painting of the hands of the people. There are a number of hands, painted in black, close to the dotted horses, presumably by a man (or several men); and then there is this single hand in red, which is presumably from a woman. At first, I was surprised to note that the hands touched me more than the animals (which may be seen as artistically more sophisticated). I guess that seeing a hand brings the presence of the human being closer than seeing a non-human animal. People, almost identical to us, who made paintings in a cave, some 20.000 years ago, that we can still watch today…



Dave 08.04.18 at 7:40 am

Is there still a tree whose roots grow through the cave? For some reason that’s what I remember most about Peichel Merle.


Bill Benzon 08.04.18 at 11:47 am

Such handprints are common in cave art. I’ve always assumed they’re the equivalent of “Kilroy was here”. In a pre-literate world there’s no way you can sign your name. But you can make a handprint, thus registering your individual presence.


Bob Michaelson 08.04.18 at 11:50 am

I’m surprised that they allow visitors in the cave; my understanding is that many such sites suffered so much deterioration from the presence of visitors that they are no longer allowed inside. For example, at Lascaux tourists now can only enter a replica of the cave.


Ingrid Robeyns 08.04.18 at 1:01 pm

Dave – yes, the Oak tree is still there and the root still all the way through the cave too!

Bob Michaelson – you’re right, I believe Pech Merle is also one of the very few (perhaps the only remaining?) cave were visitors are allowed in. With very strict time limits per visit, and obviously also very restricted visitor numbers. Lights are switched off after every painting has been shown. The guide also told us that the conditions in the cave are constantly monitored, for conservation reasons. I asked her about how exactly the visitors can contribute to harming the cave, and she said the heath of human bodies and the lightening on the paintings are the issues of concern.


J. Bogart 08.04.18 at 2:01 pm

Why is there a presumption that the black handprints were done by men and the red one by a woman? Is it just size? Just curious about the analysis.


Lobsterman 08.04.18 at 2:25 pm

The hand is good, the animals are good, the hand next to the animals is best.


Ingrid Robeyns 08.04.18 at 3:03 pm

J. Bogart – someone asked this question to the guide, who said that it can be deduced from the shape of the hand – the size of the hand, but also the relative length of different fingers, apparently. But I assume this must all be probabilistic, and hence the caution with which these statements are made.


Roland Stone 08.04.18 at 7:44 pm

“I believe Pech Merle is also one of the very few (perhaps the only remaining?) cave were visitors are allowed in.”

Not the only one; at least the Font-de-Gaume, near Les Eyzies-de-Tayac, can also be toured. No hands, but still deeply touching art.


Dr. Hilarius 08.05.18 at 5:36 am

Thank you for this. Another reminder that the desire for self-expression and art has been a constant in human history.


Kiwanda 08.06.18 at 1:52 am

Doesn’t compare with being at such a place, but there’s always Werner Herzog’s documentary about the Chauvet cave; that’s the one with the amazing horses (and lions and rhinos….) drawn thirty thousand years ago.


ph 08.07.18 at 3:47 am

Thank you for this. Wonderful! Cave use/habitation often spans tens of thousands of years (Cresswell Crags e.g.) raises real challenges regarding interpretation. Here’s a link to some recent research on ‘people like us’ and other surmises:

I visited the Lascaux 3 exhibition and was really impressed. The advantage of the museum is one can (often) just sit and absorb the experience of the spaces. Highly recommended.


maidhc 08.08.18 at 7:35 am

Just to second Kiwanda’s recommendation, Werner Herzog’s “Cave of Forgotten Dreams” is really good. Especially for those of us who will probably not ever get to go to the real places. (The cave he films has some real access problems.)

Be sure to stay right to the end. There are some great shots among the credits.

(Not sure why so many people leave the theatre before the film is over?)

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