While almost every culture that practiced rock art used the hand as a motif, the handprints left by the Esselen in a few remote caves hidden deep in the wilderness of the Los Padres National Forest of central Monterey County are among the most unusual.
When you study the Esselen handprints, you begin to realize that they are not just casually smeared on the cave walls, nor are they simple, crudely-drawn figures. Rather, they were very carefully painted--the unique signatures of the individuals who painted them.
On closer examination you notice that the prints are not all right hands; a sizeable percentage of them represent the left hand. And there is individual variation in the way the hands were painted. The most common style, shown in the photograph below, consists of approximately eight to ten individual white lines, with line pairs often joined at the fingertips. In most hands, the lines are slightly curved. However, a few hands are fashioned from straight lines, while others include jagged lines. At least one handprint has a swirl of lines which converge in the palm!
The handprints are found only within a small portion of northern Esselen territory. Most of the Esselen handprints which we know about--about 250--are situated in a single rockshelter located a few miles from Tassajara (designated CA-MNT-44). Several other caves or rockshelters containing smaller numbers of handprints are found in the same valley, and the next valley to the west has the weathered remains of a few more. Several similar figures are found in the Salinan painted cave known as La Cueva Pintada (CA-MNT-256). They are slightly different, and may have been made by a Salinan who had seen the Esselen handprints.
The method by which the handprints were made appears to have been complex. Many of the figures have slightly blurred fingertips. It is possible that a small amount of white pigment was applied to the fingertips and transferred to the cave wall as a rough gauge of the dimensions of the hand. The rest of the lines were then individually painted using a brush.
We don't know why these handprints were placed on the cave walls, or why they were associated primarily with this one portion of Esselen territory. And it is very likely that we will never know.
But while we don't know the actual details, we can speculate about some of the possibilities, as did Robinson Jeffers in his poem, Hands.
The first thing on which we can speculate is the purpose of the handprints.
It is possible that they were a clan symbol, which may have been related to tribal initiation rituals.
If the handprints were created during initiation ceremonies, it is easy to imagine several individuals undergoing the ritual each year. At some point during the ceremony they would carefully add their own handprints to the walls, symbolically taking their places as adults of the tribe as their handprints join the many others on the cave walls.
If the handprints were not used as part of an initiation ceremony, they may have been associated with some other ritual event.
Close examination of the handprints shows that some are more faded, and possibly older, than others. However, they do not really look like they were painted two or three at a time over hundreds or thousands of years. Perhaps use of the handprint in initiation or other rituals is a more recent innovation, possibly during the few hundred years before the arrival of the Spanish.
The "idea" for the use of the hand as a primary motif in rock art within northern Esselen territory most likely originated with a towering sandstone formation located less than a half mile from the main cave. This spectacular formation rises two or three hundred feet above the valley floor, and can be seen from much of the valley. The rock formation has the overall shape of the human hand, with a series of vertical grooves weathered into the sandstone defining the fingers.
The natural forces of wind and rain, freezing and thawing, are gradually destroying these magnificent symbols. We recently visited a site which was first recorded in 1948. At that time, one of the panels include a nine-pointed star, formed by charcoal lines, and three handprints. Over half of the figure is now gone, sloughed away by natural erosion. Only four of the points of the star and two of the handprints remain, and they have faded badly.
Time will gradually destroy all of these figures. Detailed photography has been done in the main cave, and several of the smaller caves, so that even after the figures themselves are gone their images will be preserved. These figures may be fading, but they, and the people who made them, will not be forgotten.
Photographs by Trudy Haversat and Gary S. Breschini.
Text and photographs copyright 2002 by Trudy Haversat and Gary S. Breschini.