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Cave Walls

Pigment prints. Artist unknown. Hands from the walls of the Chauvet cave, Ardèche, France. c. 30,000 B.C. © Jean-Marie Chauvet, Eliette Brunel Deschamps, and Christian Hillaire.

Mixed in with the hand-drawn pictures in the caves are clear examples of printing. The most common of these printed pictures are of the human hand. Sometimes the image is dark, obviously made by impressing a pigment-covered hand onto the wall, while in other cases the hand appears as a negative, clear but surrounded by colored material. The hands we find in prehistoric caves represent two of the fundamental forms of printing. The positive images (those made by the hand itself carrying the pigment) are examples of relief printing, the system that underlies printing with moveable type or with wood or linoleum blocks. The negative images (those blank hands surrounded by colored pigment) are examples of stencil printing, in which image-bearing pigment is passed through or around some form that holds the picture information.

This painting, dating from about 15,000 years ago, is from the cave at Marsoulas in southern France. The image has been built up by blowing dots of red pigment onto the cave wall; this pictorial form, of assembling a picture with random dots, is virtually identical to the stochastic printing used by some digital printers today.