Handprints and the Human Experience

This post is going to be a bit different than the normal news reports, it’s more of a post for caregivers of young children. As a paleontologist, I study past life, and often try to imagine what different places may have looked like millions of years ago. Every so often, I have an experience that brings to light something from an ancient world and unites my random life events with those of an organism from long ago.

Usually, this occurs when I get to go fossil hunting. My life intersects with that of whatever creature whose bone I happen to pick up. It’s an incredible experience and feels a bit like time travel.

But recently, this occurred at home on a slow summer day. I believe that many caretakers of young kids will agree that some summer days move more slowly than others. It feels like every minute takes an hour and you’re just trying to make it to dinner. 

I was having one of those days when a question arose from my tiny co-habitant: “can I paint the bathtub?”

And of course I thought about having to clean up the whole thing afterwards. And the grout! Grout is so hard to clean. Even if the paint is ultra-washable. But instead of all of that I said, “Yes!” and off we went with the whole box of paint colors up to the bathroom where I dutifully placed globs of paint for strategic mixing around the tub. 

The tiny co-habitant climbed in and had a ball mixing the paint, painting their own body, and generally covering every inch of the tub (and the grout) in multiple colors. But something interesting occurred. 

My kid dipped her hands in the paint and started high-fiving the wall, leaving perfect, beautiful little hand prints as high as they could reach. After a few minutes, the bathtub looked like one of those caves with the handprint art.

Her beautiful little handprints.

That’s when it dawned on me. The people that helped the kids make that art in that cave so many thousands of years ago – maybe they were having a day where time ticked backwards and they were just trying to entertain the kids for a few minutes*. Maybe we haven’t changed all that much in the thousands of years since. Maybe the human experience is timeless.

And those little handprints are just so cute!

If you want to try it at home, I’d suggest Crayola Ultra-Washable fingerpaint (not an ad, just realistically very washable). It does stick to the grout though, so use at your own peril.

*Some caves, like [Cosquer Cave] in France have children’s handprints at a height of 8 feet off the ground (made either 27,000 years ago or 19,000 years ago). This implies that an adult picked them up to place those handprints, as ladders would not have fit in these cave chambers.

A handprint from Cosquer Cave. From Wikipedia.

Or [these] handprints symbolizing coming-of-age ceremonies from Mayan celebrations 1,200 years ago.

Handprints from Mayan celebrations. Photo courtesy of Sergio Grosjean.

Or [these], potentially the earliest cave art from 169,000-226,000 years ago in Tibet that may have been made by Neanderthals, Denisovans, or our own species.

Handprints from Tibet. Photo courtesy of D.D. Zhang et al. Science Bulletin.