A young doctor friend of mine is cycling around Patagonia. 2 months of cycling in diverse landscapes, from difficult to very challenging.
He came across the Caves of Hands, where people over several periods 7000 years ago depicted their hands on cave walls. He was quite struck by it, as he recorded his experience in his tent out in the Patagonian wilderness.
What is this thing with the hand, he speculated.
The following flowed out of me:
Most people don’t understand the abstract, and will satisfy themselves with the concrete level of acknowledgement of their existence: The people around them, family and those recognised as tribe and under the same rules as themselves. Before what we call consciousness some people left their marks on the world around them on a symbolic level. People, whom this made sense to, were probably the tribes’ shamans.
A handprint on a cave wall could have a spontaneous mark, but the subsequent marks both acknowledged those gone before, “the forbearers”, and the value in making their own mark to those following in the same position as themselves: Belonging to a very small group of people, who understand the value of time – in a conscious or instinctive way. Who sees a handprint as both real and symbolic. Who sees the world both as real and symbolic. That everything can MEAN something – everything can have a value – and not just the value ascribed to it through need or use – but an inherent value. An immanent value. Something inside the thing, the event, the ritual, the process.
From this approach to reality language grows, and from language, greater consciousness and wider naming of things. And with this, the abstract world of ideas growing INTO normal human beings, filling them with a larger world, a world where ideas can come alive, where ideas can exist as entities, become matter and action. And begin to grow into justice and catering to individuals, which in turn begin to regard themselves as valuable and their personal ideas worth fighting for, growing into systems of belief – politics, forbearer worship, deities, aesthetics, respect of life, humility as value, violence as value, purity as value.
The hand (on the grotto wall) is probably the most powerful sign of humanity – the finding of roots, the drying, the grinding, the mixing, the painting of a colour, most often red, the hand on the wall, I am here, I was here, here were humans, history is a memory of humans, humans die, but leave traces of themselves. Humans matter.