Evidence #36 | September 19, 2020

Hand Gestures (Mesoamerica)

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The gesture of stretching forth one’s hand before a speech act is present in several Book of Mormon narratives and is also a common visual motif in ancient Mesoamerican art.

Hand Gestures in the Book of Mormon

The gesture of stretching forth one’s hand before a speech act is mentioned in several Book of Mormon narratives. For instance, when the Lord commanded Abinadi to prophesy against King Noah and his wicked priests, Abinadi was specifically instructed to stretch forth his hand (Mosiah 12:2). Amulek stretched forth his hand when preaching to the recalcitrant followers of Nehor in Ammonihah (Alma 10:25). As Samuel the Lamanite prophesied to the people of Zarahemla atop their city wall, he stretched forth his hand (Helaman 13:4). And when the risen Lord descended from heaven and spoke to the Nephites assembled at the temple in land Bountiful, He stretched forth His hand (3 Nephi 11:9).

According to David Calabro, “The most common use of the idiom stretch forth one’s hand(s) in the Book of Mormon occurs immediately preceding a description of speech.”1 Based on analysis of preceding and subsequent verb usage, it appears that this gesture was used in many cases to “increase the force or urgency of the speech.”2 Furthermore, “One can posit that the desire for contact as a symbol of acceptance is a consistent aspect of this gesture in the Book of Mormon. In every instance of this gesture, the one performing it is presenting a message whose acceptance is critical to the welfare of either the addressee or himself.”3

Hand Gestures in Ancient Mesoamerica

Unprovenanced Olmec Plaque dated ca. 1,000 BC. Houston, et al. The Memory of Bones, figure 7.29.a.

Archaeologists and art historians now widely recognize an ancient cultural practice in Mesoamerica where important people and deities stretched forth their hand to give a major speech. “That the Maya and other Mesoamerican peoples highlighted some kinds of speech as more important, more authoritative, than others is made evident by a convention in which an extended index finger secured emphasis.”4

For example, La Venta Altar 3, dated ca. 600 BC, depicts two people, one heavily bearded, with hands outstretched in a speech gesture:

La Venta Alta 3. Photo by Linda Schele (1942-1998).

 Similar depictions are on La Venta Altars 4 and 7 and Tres Zapotes Stela D. Izapa Stela 5, dated ca. 300 BC, shows a bearded old man with an ear spool wearing a conical hat and tending a flaming incense burner. His left hand is stretched out in a speech gesture: 

Izapa Stela 5 Left Ground Panel Scene. Image via V. Garth Norman.

Izapa Stela 5 also shows a younger man with an elaborate headdress holding a stylus or perforator in his left hand. A speech scroll comes out of his mouth, and his right hand is extended in a speech gesture:

Izapa Stela 5 Right Ground Panel Scene. Image via V. Garth Norman.

Kaminaljuyú Monument 65, discovered in 1983, dates to ca. 150 BC. The front surface depicts 3 seated rulers, each with an elaborate headdress, and each with his arm stretched out in a speech gesture. This image is from a 3D laser scan:5 

Kaminaljuyú (KJ) Monument 65 Font.

The back side of Kaminaljuyú Monument 65 also depicts an elite personage with a hand outstretched in a speech gesture:

Kaminaljuyú Monument 65, Back Side.

San Bartolo is a Guatemalan site with spectacular murals that date to ca. 100 BC. The following scene depicts two enthroned gods flanking a dancer. Both gods have their arms stretched out in speech gestures. “As in the case of the San Bartolo gods, they both sit cross-legged and point with their extended index fingers, a convention for discourse that is present from Olmec Times to the Sixteenth Century”:6

San Bartolo Drawing by Heather Hurst, West Wall Mural.

The outstretched hand motif signifying speech is also attested at Teotihuacan in Central Mexico ca. AD 250. “Two of the figures appear to be presenting decorated cloth, and another emits a large speech scroll while gesturing with his extended index finger. From the late Preclassic to the late Postclassic periods, this hand gesture denotes speech in Maya art.”7

Teotihuacan Plano Relief Vessel, Drawing by Karl Taube.

The Dresden Codex was painted ca. AD 1300 near Chichen Itzá in Yucatan. It is a copy of an earlier document painted ca. AD 900–1000.8 Page 9 shows Itzamna with his hand outstretched talking with the youthful maize god. Several other figures in the Dresden Codex are also depicted with hands stretched out in speech gestures:

Dresden Codex p. 9b.


David Calabro, “Hand Gestures in the Ancient World: Some Basic Tools,” in Ancient Temple Worship: Proceedings of the Expound Symposium 14 May 2011, ed. Matthew S. Brown, Jeffrey M. Bradshaw, Stephen D. Ricks, and John S. Thompson (Orem and Salt Lake City, UT: The Interpreter Foundation and Eborn Books, 2014), 143–157.

David Calabro, “Ten Ways to Interpret Ritual Hand Gestures,” Studia Antiqua 12, no. 1 (2013): 65–82.

David Calabro, “‘Stretch Forth Thy Hand and Prophesy’: Hand Gestures in the Book of Mormon,” Journal of the Book of Mormon and Other Restoration Scripture 21, no. 1 (2012): 46–59.

Mosiah 12:2Mosiah 16:1Alma 10:25Alma 13:21Alma 15:5Alma 19:12Alma 31:14Alma 32:7Helaman 13:43 Nephi 11:93 Nephi 12:1

Mosiah 12:2

Mosiah 16:1

Alma 10:25

Alma 13:21

Alma 15:5

Alma 19:12

Alma 31:14

Alma 32:7

Helaman 13:4

3 Nephi 11:9

3 Nephi 12:1

  • 1 David Calabro, “‘Stretch Forth Thy Hand and Prophesy’: Hand Gestures in the Book of Mormon,” Journal of the Book of Mormon and Other Restoration Scripture 21, no. 1 (2012): 47. Calabro found that two instances of stretched-forth-hand imagery in the text describe “a gesture of supernatural destructive power” and that the lack of an accompanying speech act in these instances agrees with the consistent use of this gesture (in this context) in the Bible (see pp. 51–52).  
  • 2 Calabro, “‘Stretch Forth Thy Hand and Prophesy’,” 48.
  • 3 Calabro, “‘Stretch Forth Thy Hand and Prophesy’,” 49.
  • 4 Stephen Houston, David Stuart, and Karl Taube, The Memory of Bones: Body, Being, and Experience among the Classic Maya (Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 2006), 250.
  • 5 See Travis F. Doering and Lori D. Collins, “Revisiting Kaminaljuyú Monument 65 in Three-Dimensional High Definition” in The Place of Stone Monuments: Context, Use, and Meaning in Mesoamerica’s Preclassic Transition, ed. Julia Guernsey, John E. Clark and Barbara Arroyo (Washington, DC: Dumbarton Oaks, 2010), 259–282.
  • 6 Karl A. Taube, William A. Saturno, David Stuart, and Heather Hurst, The Murals of San Bartolo, El Petén, Guatemala, Part 2: The West Wall (Bernardsville, NC: Boundary End Archaeology Research Center, 2010), 75.
  • 7 Karl A. Taube, “Tetitla and the Maya Presence at Teotihuacan” in The Maya and Teotihuacan: Reinterpreting Early Classic Interaction, ed. Geoffrey E. Braswell (Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 2003), 283.
  • 8 See Harvey M. Bricker and Victoria R. Bricker, Astronomy in the Maya Codices (Philadelphia, PA: American Philosophical Society, 2011), 489–682.
Hand Gestures (Mesoamerica)
Book of Mormon

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