There are too many ancient hand paintings with missing fingers for the whole thing to be a coincidence.

Did most Stone Age people have all their fingers? According to the paintings they left behind, many of them did not. Plenty of cave paintings depict hands with missing fingers, and a trio of researchers believes they know why: those people had their fingers deliberately amputated. Right now it’s still a guess, but the researchers believe future evidence will help illuminate a strange and fascinating practice from our distant ancestors.

Stone Age people are some of the most fascinating, from an anthropological perspective. Using nothing more than rocks, sticks, and their own ingenuity, these people managed to build tools, master fire, establish complex societies, domesticate dogs, and spread throughout nearly the entire globe. Starting around 50,000 years ago—a period that scientists refer to as the “Upper Paleolithic”—they started leaving behind all kinds of art and artifacts for modern scientists to discover.

Among those artifacts are cave paintings, where they recorded details of their lives for posterity. While the most well-known paintings feature pictures of bison or scenes of hunting, by far the most common artworks are simple hand paintings or tracings. Stone Age people left imprints of their hands on cave walls all over the world, and for some reason, a lot of those imprints are missing fingers.

There could be plenty of reasons for this—Stone Age people might simply lose a lot of fingers to frostbite—but something about this explanation doesn’t quite add up. For instance, these missing-finger paintings show up even in warmer climates where people really shouldn’t be suffering from frostbite.

Researchers from Simon Fraser University in Canada felt like there were too many missing fingers on too many paintings in too many parts of the world for the whole thing to be a coincidence. It’s impossible to ask these people what’s going on, so the researchers looked at modern and historical tribes to see if any of them do the same thing. What they found is that not only do people cut off their fingers, the practice is surprisingly common. The researchers found 121 cultures from around the world that had some sort of finger-amputation practice.

The reasons behind the amputations were extremely varied. Some people might cut off a finger as a religious offering or good luck charm—the paper describes cases where mothers would cut off and swallow their child’s finger to give them good luck in life—and there were plenty of societies where people would remove a finger while grieving the loss of a loved one. Then, of course, a finger might be cut off a serial criminal as punishment.

With a practice this widespread, it’s not difficult to believe that ancient people engaged in it as well. But that’s still not the same as proof, and the authors themselves admit that there’s a big difference between knowing that something could have happened and knowing that it actually did. Without concrete evidence of finger amputation, this is still just a hypothesis. But now that this paper has been published, archeologists will know what to look for. Perhaps we’ll find that evidence soon.

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