Hand stencils are an intriguing feature of prehistoric imagery in caves and rockshelters in several parts of the world, and the recent demonstration that the oldest of those in Western Europe date back to 37 000 years or earlier further enhances their significance. Their positioning within the painted caves of France and Spain is far from random, but responds to the shapes and fissures in the cave walls. Made under conditions of low and flickering light, the authors suggest that touch—‘palpation’—as much as vision, would have driven and directed the locations chosen for these stencils. Detailed study of the images in two Cantabrian caves also allows different individuals to be distinguished, most of whom appear to have been female. Finally, the project reveals deliberate associations between the stencils and features on the cave walls.