Ancient Tibetan handprint art discovery sparks debate

Ancient Tibetan handprint art discovery sparks debate
Courtesy of Cornell University.

Upon the recent discovery by researchers at Cornell University of a series of hand and footprints dating at about 200,000 years old, there has been a debate sparked as to whether this is the earliest piece of artwork to be discovered. The purported handprint art was discovered by a team of archaeologists and geologists in Tibet, and while the precision of its age and intent is still in flux, it does beg the question: is a handprint placed upon the Earth a work of art?


By the village of Quesang, on a limestone boulder beside a hot spring, archaeologist Tom Urban and his team found these series of hand and footprints. This past week, Urban and others published a study entitled “Earliest parietal art: hominin hand and foot traces from the middle Pleistocene of Tibet”. And Urban seems more than convinced that this discovery is an intentional act of creation by a pair of our ancient ancestors.


Based on the findings of the researchers at Cornell University, the handprint art is believed to have been made by children, aged between 7 and 11. “This would make the site the earliest currently known example of parietal art in the world and would also provide the earliest evidence discovered to date for hominins on the High Tibetan Plateau,” the study states. “This remarkable discovery adds to the body of research that identifies children as some of the earliest artists within the genus Homo.”


Without diving too deep into the endless and unanswerable question of “What is art?”, there are clearly many angles to take this finding and what it implies. Is a finger painting by a child—whether it be on paper or on the plaster walls—any less art than a painstakingly crafted jewel of the Renaissance? While they certainly are judged in completely different ballparks, they are both physically manifested creative intent. 


To hone in on a more comparable reference point: is a child’s finger painting any less art than the ancient cave drawings researchers have poured over for centuries? If the dating of these prints is accurate, this also makes them 100,000 years older than what we thought to be the earliest examples of art. And is the deliberate act of leaving a series of hand and footprints for oneself and others to see any less valid than simple etchings of animals? 


This handprint art is all the more resonant in the debate of early art because it is something so universal and relatable. Which of us haven’t as youths placed a hand or a foot in soft mud or sand, perhaps even drawing an image or a name with a finger, and felt ourselves inhabited by the spirit of artistry? While Cornell University’s discovery may still be contested and examined in regards to its exact place in time, what is certainly true is that one day, long ago in Tibet, some young people chose to leave their mark upon the land, and it is still stirring thoughts and questions to this day.


If that isn’t art, what is?