Hands by Kathleen Rollins

A few weeks ago, Kathleen Rollins contacted me to see if I was interested in reviewing book 3 in a trilogy she has written dealing with very early explorers in the Americas.  “Set 14,000 years ago, [the books] follow a group from West Africa that crossed the Atlantic to what is now southern Mexico and a group from the South Pacific that set out to find the edge of the world and found a new world instead.  In the latest book, the third in the series, members of the two groups meet.” Now doesn’t that sound intriguing??

Since I love helping other writers, I suggested to Kathleen that she tell readers a little about her research and what prompted her to write about such a long ago time. Over to you, Kathleen.


“So why did you choose to write a series of novels set 14,000 years ago?” M. K. Tod asked.

The answer begins with a series of handprints.

One summer, a friend and I took a trip out west, ending up in Canyonlands National Park in Utah. A camper we met our first day in the park told us we didn’t need to carry a gallon of water each when we were hiking because we could find water in potholes. Based on that questionable advice, we set out on a two-day hike, carrying mostly dehydrated food and about two quarts of water each. Canyonlands is a very beautiful park, but it’s amazingly hot and dry in July. The potholes we passed were all empty. By late afternoon, we had no water left and we’d seen no one else along the way to ask about water sources. Finally, we decided to split up (I can only assume we were delusional from heat exhaustion) to look for water. A short while later I was completely lost in a land of red rock, searing heat, and silence.

As I rounded a rock edge, I saw a series of faded handprints on the ledge just above my head. I could have reached up and put mine on top of them. They were exactly the same size as my hands. No other sign of habitation survived nearby. No one had lived in the area since the water table dropped so precipitously the land could no longer support the native communities.

I stared at the prints, feeling as if someone from long ago was talking to me but I didn’t understand the words. One hand next to the other, with five fingers spread apart.

Children stick their hands in mud or finger paint and plop them down with satisfaction on clean paper or walls.  Of course.  We are the ones with five fingers and an opposable thumb.  Our hands are our sign.  Is that what the hands on the rock were – a sign that people lived there and marked that space as theirs?  Or was it a warning like the hand raised in the STOP gesture?

Was it a count?  Did the hands mark a family, a clan, a sacred place?  The prints yielded no answers.

Eventually, I reconnected with my friend and we did find water in potholes, which I decided was a gift from the ancient people to the crazy visitors.  Without concerning ourselves about how sick we might get from drinking this water, we dropped down on all fours like animals, slurped our fill, and filled our bottles. But the handprints stayed on my mind long after the trip was over, and fascination with them has taken me down some interesting and controversial paths ever since.

HANDS2I had stumbled upon the most universal of ancient rock art signs. Handprints are not the oldest art, but they are the most common form of ancient art, found all over the world. The handprints in El Castillo cave (photo) in Spain are at least 37,300 old, perhaps the work of our Neanderthal relatives.

The handprints we find painted on or scraped into the rock show us that people had a clear sense of self-awareness. The fact that this self-awareness goes back 40,000 years fascinates me.

In some cases, the artists combined positive and negative images, creating some by blowing pigment over the hand and others by painting the hand and pressing it to the stone.  When combined in large numbers, these images make a powerful display.  The most famous wall of hands is in Cueva de los Manos (Cave of the Hands) in Argentina, where the sheer number of hands creates a sense of formidable solidarity.


But the hands are only the beginning of the mystery of ancient rock art. Recent finds connect some rock art images with star formations and celestial events. HANDS4The Chaco Canyon illustration (photo, below) combines a hand, a crescent moon, and a giant star, widely thought to represent a super-nova that occurred in 1054.  Is the handprint the sign of a human witness to this amazing event?

In Lascaux Cave in France, red dots and handprints were followed later by the famous drawings of horses, aurochs, bison, and lions (photo below).  The drawings are sensitive and skillful, showing a clear knowledge of the animals and their power, both physical and spiritual.  They’re about 32,000 years old.


Rock art in the American Southwest often includes an image believed to be a shaman undergoing transformation, accompanied by spirit guides such as snakes.  In this state, the shaman is able to cross from this middle world to the Underworld or Upperworld.  When problems arose from imbalance within a person or within a community, it was the shaman’s role to correct that imbalance, even when it arose between the living and the dead or between the world of spirits and the world of humans.  The ecstatic experience of the shaman, often aided by chanting, drumming, fasting, and using hallucinogenic drugs, is recorded on the rock. These drawings are the work of people who had a complex spiritual understanding of the structure of the world and their place in it.

COSOThe thousands of Coso rock art images in California depict not only bighorn sheep, a major game animal, but also a vaguely human figure with concentric circles in its head where the face would be, a rayed headdress, and a patterned body (photo).  Dr. Alan Garfinkle has connected these figures with religious belief once held by local tribes that an Animal Master spirit allowed the rebirth of the animals each spring.  This figure would be invoked on the rock to provide the new animals the people needed to hunt.  Sometimes the Spirit figure would be shown with a basket of seeds (reminiscent of the Kokopelli figure in Anasazi rock art who carries a sack of seeds on his back).  The Animal Masters, as Dr. Garfinkle calls them, are often shown without gender, but are occasionally identified as male, as female, or as both.

What started with a line of handprints in the canyon country has led me to a study of rock art around the world. In all cases, I’m astounded by the sophistication of the artists. These are not doodles. They reflect a complicated physical and spiritual world we are only beginning to understand. The Coso pictographs in California were drawn over thousands of years. The last of the series were made when the numbers of bighorn sheep were falling dramatically, perhaps because of the lower water table or because of increased hunting. The last pictographs are all bighorn sheep figures, drawn right on top of the old symbols. Many are very large, up to 7’ across. Dr. Garfinkle interprets this as a direct plea to the spirit of the bighorn sheep to feed the people.BigHorn

It’s way too easy to underestimate ancient people. Frequently, fabulous feats of engineering by ancient people are dismissed as mysteries that can never be solved. In some cases, people refuse to believe ancient humans were capable of these feats, so they ascribe the accomplishments to aliens. I believe they were the work of humans – really amazing, brilliant humans.

In the Misfits and Heroes novels, I wanted to show people 14,000 years ago who were just as emotionally complex, inventive, and spiritually inquisitive as any of us.

The first book, Misfits and Heroes: West from Africa follows a group of people from the coast of what is now Senegal across the Atlantic. I chose West Africa because the very earliest identified settlement in the Americas is in northeast Brazil, at a site called Pedra Furada, and the closest place to northeast Brazil is West Africa. (In 2010, a young woman named Katie Spotz rowed a boat from Senegal to the coast of South America, solo, in 70 days, and that included a detour.)

The second book, Past the Last Island, follows a group island-hopping across the South Pacific, starting in what is now Indonesia, traveling through Melanesia and Polynesia, and ending up in the New World. Interestingly, scientists have now found traces of Polynesian DNA in skulls of an extinct indigenous people in Brazil called the Botocudo, who were eradicated by the Portuguese in an attempt to quell dissent. Some scientists feel the infusion of Polynesian DNA may have come from people arriving in South America from the South Pacific. The presence of the Monte Verde site in southern Chile, with human occupation dated to 33,000 years ago, backs up this theory.

The third book in the series, A Meeting of Clans, details the first contact between the two groups.

If you’re interested in further information on all things ancient and their echoes in the present, check out Kathleen’s blog Misfits and Heroes. Thanks for guest posting on A Writer of History and providing such an interesting look at ancient times.

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