Neanderthal Handprints

A recent comment here by Mr. Steele has reminded me of this sonnet I wrote several years back. Part of the idea for the poem came from reading some theories about the earliest humans and what may have been the beginnings of human speech and art.

No one can say exactly when recognizably human speech began, or how sophisticated it became how quickly, or even when it became anatomically possible. DNA evidence has told us a lot of things in the last decade or so, but it apparently can’t answer this question, and bone and fossil evidence is hampered by the largely soft-tissue aspects of our voice boxes. Work with apes and other animals has suggested that they can learn fairly complex symbolic communication even if they don’t have the vocal chord apparatus to speak in a conventional sense, and of course animals do communicate sonically otherwise, from birdsong to the elaborate EDM-like sounds of marine mammals. Human brains with symbolic thought preceding human voice boxes could have communicated in other ways too, ways that might sound musical. Steele’s comment includes lots of links.

Neanderthal Handprints

These stenciled handprints have been dated to Neanderthal times

One thing we do know about paleolithic age humans: they had a thing for handprints. Any child who’s made a Thanksgiving turkey by tracing their fingers, or any parent who’s received it, knows something of that art-form. Stone age people used a stencil method. A hand would be placed on a rock wall and a mouth would be filled with some ochre pigment which would be blown over the hand, leaving a negative stencil. The colorful drawings of hunted animals on cave walls may be striking artistic creations, but these handprints of humans who lived tens of thousands of years ago touch one—yes, I use that word deliberately.

Neaderthal Handprints

And later, the written word. Here’s the text of my sonnet.

The poem opens by assuming that Neanderthals, who may not have had the ability to articulate speech, and who likely didn’t have projectile weapons, could have used silent hand signals when hunting. The poem closes by referring to a find which was first interpreted as evidence of a Neanderthal ritualized burial: a stone-age body’s bones mixed with flower pollen covered by a rock. I bring that into our times by using an altered phrase from the hymn “Amazing Grace”  and wondering who may see our bone fragments mixed with flowers in an unimaginable future time.

This poem has never impacted anyone I’ve performed it for as much as it does me. It could be that few are interested in these earliest humans and the nature of their lives so long ago, and so this is a poor choice for an image, or that could be from other faults in its writing—but I get misty every time I perform it. To consider that someone, a creature more or less like me—who has the knowledge that they will someday die, who perhaps has no other way to say they were here, once—made a stencil of their hand maybe 50,000 years ago is moving to me. If I were to stand beside them while they were doing this, it would be certain that neither of us would have spoken language to discuss this. But we could both point to that hand, stenciled on the rock. That’s art.

The player gadget to hear my performance of  my “Neanderthal Handprints”  should be below, but if you don’t see it, this highlighted hyperlink will also open a new tab that can play it.


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