Popular Science Monthly/Volume 62/November 1902/Scientific Palmistry




RISING from the waters of Kejemkoojic Lake in Nova Scotia there stands a series of smooth slaty rocks which appear to one approaching in a canoe so tempting a surface for the scratching of inscriptions that they are completely covered, as far up as one can read, with pictures, names, dates and meaningless scrawls, superimposed upon one another and successively the work of the aboriginal Micmac Indians, the French and the English. The oldest of these are undoubtedly precolumbian, while at the present day additions are continually being made by vandalistic excursionists.

In spite of the superposition of these varied scrawls, Col. Garrick Mallory, who has made them the subject of special study, was able to separate the genuine Micmac inscriptions from the others and has published many of these in the United States Reports of the Bureau of American Ethnology. Among those he found the accompanying Fig 1. Indian Petroglyph from the Kejemkoojic rocks, Nova Scotia, one half the size of the original drawing. After Mallory. figure of the palmar surface of a human hand (Fig. 1)[1] which shows a remarkable degree of detail and must have been the result of an unusually careful observation. The figure will be better appreciated, perhaps, if the reader will first scrutinize the palmar surface of his own left hand in a strong light and compare it with his other hand and with the hands of two or three of his friends. It will be noticed, first, that the surface in question is marked by two distinct sets of markings; first, the wrinkles, which form the chief consideration of that means of amusement known as 'palmistry' and which are caused by the movements of the fingers and their muscles, and secondly the papillary ridges, which form the fundamental sculpture of the skin and run in approximately parallel directions across both the palm and the palmar surface of the fingers, their general plan being unaffected by the presence of the wrinkles. By a more careful study of the papillary ridges it will be seen that they are often discontinued, reinforced by new ones, forked or, in a few cases, looped, and that in certain spots the usual course is interrupted by the insertion of a figure or 'pattern,' as it is technically called, in the form of a spiral, a whorl or a loop. Such patterns are of constant occurrence in the balls of the fingers, while the palm usually, though not always, possesses from one to four or five of them, located in certain definite localities, as at the base of the fingers or upon the raised, pad-like outer side of the palm, the hypothenar area. In rare cases such a pattern is met with upon the thenar area, at the base of the thumb (Fig. 6, a) but the fine parallel wrinkles almost always found in this region render it difficult to see.

It will be seen, now, by turning to the figure, that each of the above details has been indicated by the Micmac artist, not literally, as we should do it, but symbolically, that is, by something to suggest each detail. Thus in the drawing there are two sets of palmar lines; the foundation or background, consisting of fine lines approximately parallel, and evidently indicative of the papillary ridges, and the superimposed angular ones with little or no system, which represent the wrinkles. As for patterns, it is possible that the little curve near the outer margin may represent the hypothenar pattern, which, though not a constant element, is of frequent occurrence; and, at all events, the patterns at the finger tips are well indicated save in the case of the index finger where the omission is probably accidental. Here also the difference in the form of the separate patterns is well shown; that of the thumb is a spiral, a usual form for that digit, those of the third and fourth fingers are whorls and the curious cross or mark like the Arabic number four, found upon the little finger, may represent certain of the components of that form known as a loop.

Turning from Indian anatomy to Indian morphology, from the observation of facts to the construction of explanatory theories, we have the followng remarkable passage in one of the reports of the Berliner Gesellschaft für Anthropologie as cited by Col. Mallory, in connection with the figure of the hand and representing a conversation with one of the Bella Coola Indians of British Columbia.

The frequency with which partial representation of the eye are met with appeared to me so striking that I requested Mr. Jacobsen to ask the Bella Coola Indians whether they had any special idea in employing the eye so frequently. To my great surprise the person addressed pointed to the palmar surface of his finger tips and to the fine lineaments which the skin there presents; in his opinion a rounded or longitudinal field, such as appears between the converging or parallel lines, also means an eye, and the reason of this is that originally each part of the body terminated in an organ of sense, particularly an eye, and was only afterward made to retrovert into such rudimentary conditions.[2]

This explanation is, of course, the merest guess-work, resulting from a fancied resemblance between an eye and the shape of a pattern, but by a singular chance, the theory comes nearer the truth than one would at first suspect, since these scrolls and loops, not only of the fingers, but those of the palm as well, are in reality rudiments, not of eyes, but of walking pads; a conclusion which, although it may seem at first a little fanciful, is reached by a simple course of reasoning and rests upon the comparison of easily available data, namely an inspection of the volar, or lower surfaces of the paws of various mammals.

The most typical, that is, the least modified mammalian paw is one with five toes and in which the entire volar surface, from the tips of the digits back to the wrist or heel, comes in contact with the ground during the act of walking. In such paws, as, for example, those found in most rodents and in many of the carnivora, it will be seen that the weight is borne by a series of ten projecting pads or permanent callosities, five of which are situated at the ends of the digits, while the remaining five are placed upon the surface of the palm' or sole, and possess the definite arrangement shown in the accompanying diagram, (Fig. 2, a) namely, one each for the thenar and hypothenar areas, the raised portions associated respectively with the inner and outer margins, and three placed in a transverse row at the bases of the four fingers and corresponding to the intervals between them. In accordance with their positions, these pads may be conveniently named the thenar, the hypothenar and the first, second and third palmar (or plantar, in the case of the hind foot). Those at the ends of the digits may be designated as apical and numbered consecutively from one to five.

In actual cases, owing to the various modifications necessitated by habit and environment, such a diagrammatic arrangement is seldom completely realized, but often in an embryo, before the special modification characteristic of the adult form has been introduced, the condition closely approximates the typical one (Fig. 2, b). How these modifications may affect the original plan may be well seen by a comparison of the fore-paws of the mink and the common cat (Fig, 2, c and d), two carnivores representing different stages in the coalescence of the three palmar pads to form the characteristic cushion adapted for silent progression. In the mink these pads are still semi-distinct and the middle one exceeds the others in size, suggesting that, in the cat, this latter element forms the main bulk of the cushion, a conclusion proved to be the fact from the study of kitten embryos, as, in successive stages of these the lateral pads appear at first distinct, then attached to the middle ones as a pair of lateral wings, and finally become completely fused. In the adult cushion the part furnished by each element is still traceable in the irregular contour of the resultant

Fig. 2. Arrangement of Pads on Mammalian Foot, (a) Typical arrangement; diagram. (b) Typical arrangement; forefoot of rat embryo, (c) Forefoot of mink, showing a slight modification of the type, (d) Forefoot of cat, showing fusion of palmar pads. Abbreviations: A, apical pads; P1-P3, palmar pads; Th, thenar pad; H, hypothenar pad; h. p, hair papilla; I-V, the digits.

mass. The noticeable projecting spur near the wrist is a modified hypothenar pad, but the small bristle-bearing papilla still farther up has nothing to do with it and is not a pad.

A singular modification of the type, and one which forms a necessary link in our present inquiry, is seen in monkeys, in which, owing to their arboreal life and the consequent substitution of climbing for walking, the pads have become low, flattened mounds, and the usual hard covering has softened to a soft epidermis marked with curiously disposed ridges, the seat of a highly developed tactile sense. The volar surface of the paws thus forms a delicate organ of touch, specially adapted to perceive the varying conditions of the tree-boughs, a power Fig. 3. Volar Surface of Right Hand of Large Monkey (Innus): (from author's Illustration in Anat Anzeiger, 1896). Acc. H, Accessory hypothenar pad (other abbreviations as in Fig. 2). often of vital importance to the animal (Fig. 3). The epidermic or papillary ridges cover the entire volar surfaces and designate the position of the typical pads by elaborate patterns in the forms of scrolls, loops and whorls as may be seen by a comparison of the figures with the typical diagram. It will be noticed, however, that aside from the usual ten pads, there is seen a small accessory hypothenar, situated between the hypothenar and the third palmar, and that upon the fingers, aside from the apical patterns, there are suggestions of loops and other figures placed upon the first and second joints. The morphological significance of these extra parts is not known at present, and it is probable that they have not other meaning than an attempt to increase still farther the sensitiveness of the surface in places not covered by the original pads.

To supply the next and final link in our chain of reasoning the reader may be asked to consult his own hand and compare it with Fig. 3. Upon this the apical pads, or patterns, as they may now be called, will be easily seen, much as in the Micmac drawings, and it is probable that one at least of the palmar patterns, and perhaps also the hypothenar, will be in evidence. Individual human hands differ greatly, however, in the patterns represented, the limits in the authors collection of one hundred palm-prints being shown in Fig. 4, both taken from whites of American parentage, yet differing from each other in the matter of patterns more than the first and more atavistic one differs from that of the monkey. In the same way Fig. 5 represents the extremes of a collection of about sixty sole-prints where the differences are as great as in the palms.

The great individual variation of these parts in the human being is not without significance and furnishes an excellent illustration of the biological truth that the perfection and constancy of an organ are directly proportional to its necessity in the life of the organism. Thus

Fig. 4a. Fig. 4b.
Fig. 4. Tracings from Palm Prints, showing Range of Variation.

in an arboreal primate, an exact appreciation of the contact surfaces of the tree-boughs among which it climbs and swings is of vital importance, and the slightest defect or deviation from the standard in the organs furnishing that intelligence would be apt to prove fatal; but

Fig. 5a. Fig. 5b.
Fig. 5. Tracings from Sole Prints, showing Range of Variation.

when such a being assumes a terrestrial life, so high a degree of sensitiveness in palms and soles is no longer necessary and the organ is allowed to lapse. Individual variations, no longer discouraged, tend to increase, and that which was once a necessary and vital arrangement of the papillary ridges becomes of little importance. The influence of environment becomes entirely removed, and the only reason for the farther continuance of these parts is the conservative power of heredity, which may perpetuate, apparently for a vast period of time, characteristics no longer of necessity to the organism.

Briefly stated, the law described above is this: that only useful and important parts retain a certain normal form in the various individuals of a given species, and that, as they become of less importance, they tend more and more to vary individually, the range of variation increasing with time and the degree of uselessness, if such an expression may be allowed; conversely, an organ that is seen to possess marked individual variation is shown to be of secondary importance, and may be either a rudimentary organ, that is, one on the way towards a greater perfection in the future and in which the variations represent the numerous experiments or attempts to find the form best adapted for a special purpose, or, again, it may be a vestigial organ, or one in which its point of highest usefulness is passed and in which the variations represent various degrees of degeneracy, or stages in its gradual eradication from the organism.

Returning to the case under consideration, a brief mention should be made of another feature of the monkey palm or sole besides that of the patterns, and that is the low but evident mounds upon which the patterns are placed and which more properly represent the elevations or pads themselves. Although these have suffered more in the transition to the human form they are commonly not absent, even in the adult and may be seen with especial clearness in the embryo. In many adult hands the three palmar pads are clearly brought out by simply bending back the fingers and looking across the palmar region, and this notwithstanding the fact that the modern, rather ingenious 'science' of palmistry locates here four 'mounts' rather than three, and associates them with the fingers instead of with the intervals between them; an interesting illustration of what even the most careful observation will do without a rational basis.

The endless variety shown in the disposal of the epidermic ridges as outlined above will suggest several important lines of study, as, for example, the discovery of a system or of laws governing the variation; the possible influence of heredity upon the variation; and through this the possibility of the discovery of characters which may serve as criteria of race; the use of the markings in personal identification, and so on; and, although the simple scrutiny of a few palms may suffice for a preliminary examination, a need will soon be felt of some method by which a permanent and accurate record may be made, something in the form of a print or impression which may be available at all times for purposes of study and comparison. Numerous methods of preparing such records have been elaborated at length by Mr. Francis Galton whose eminent labors upon the comparison and classification of the apical patterns have resulted in an elaborate and accurate system of personal identification, and for these the reader is referred to Chapter III. of his 'Finger Prints.'[3] The method found by the present author to be the most practicable is a slight modification of Galton 's printingink method and may be best explained by a quotation from a set of direction prepared for the use of those willing to assist him in the collection of prints.

The method of printing is a simple one, the only needful apparatus being (a) a tube of best quality black mimeograph ink, (b) a rubber roller six inches long, such as is sold with photographic outfits, and (c) white, unruled paper of a suitable size and quality. A large slate for spreading the ink is a useful accessory, but a smooth sheet of paper pasted upon a flat board or piece of cardboard will fulfil the requirements in this particular.

In printing, a bit of ink should first be squeezed from the tube upon the slate or other surface used and should be spread evenly by rolling the rubber roller back and forth in various directions, until a thin layer of uniform thickness is spread over the flat surface. When the surface is in exactly the right state the palm or sole to be printed should first be wiped dry and applied to it, pressing it down from above and taking care not to move it from its original position. The pressure should be applied especially to all regions which, like the center of the palm, are naturally raised above the level of the other parts, and the fingers should be spread a little apart and pressure applied between them. In removing the member from the inked surface hold the corners of the latter and lift it quickly, beginning at the wrist or heel. By now placing the member in the same position upon a clean piece of paper and by repeating the pressure and other manipulations a print will be obtained. Finally, a little turpentine may be used to clean the roller and the surface of the skin.

Prints formed by the above methods reproduce the exact course of every papillary ridge and may be studied at ease, drawn upon and compared with one another in ways never possible in the case of the actual surfaces; besides which, the contrast of the black ridges with the white interstices (white if the ink has not been used too plentifully) causes the markings to show with far greater distinctness than when presented in the uniform tints of the natural flesh.

In order, however, that such a print should furnish much instruction, it should be interpreted, that is, mapped out morphologically into its natural areas, a proceeding which is always the first step in the study and which causes the prints to appear somewhat as in the examples given in Fig. 6. In the case of the hand, such an interpretation should begin by the determination of five fixed points, or tri-radii, four of which, the palmar tri-radii, are below the bases of the four fingers and the fifth, the carpal tri-radius, low down near the wrist and of more uncertain occurrence. These tri-radii are points about each of which three sets of ridges come in contact, their boundaries forming links which radiate from the point at about equal angles from one another. In some cases there will be produced in this way a small triangle of neutral ground from the angles of which the three lines proceed, while in others the three radiating lines proceed from a point.

When these points are determined the palm is marked out into areas by simply continuing the radiating lines until they pass beyond the margin or coalesce with one another, a proceeding best followed at first with a finely pointed hard black pencil, and afterward repeated for the sake of clearness with a colored pencil, preferably red. In tracing these lines it will be noticed that they often follow the interspaces and not the ridges, and that these latter often break or fork, sometimes causing a moment's consideration concerning the best direction to follow. A lens may occasionally be used to advantage, but usually it is better in doubtful cases not to scrutinize the details too minutely, but to let the lines of interpretation follow the general trend of the markings, rather than individual spaces or ridges.

When the interpretation is complete it will be seen that the palm is separated into its elemental areas as in the illustration given in Fig. 6. The two short lines going up between the fingers from each of the palmar tri-radii are termed the digital lines, and serve to limit the small triangular digital areas; while the third set of lines, usually more extensive, form the four primary lines and run across the palm, marking the boundaries of the three palmar areas. When a carpal tri-radius is present, its extensions define a carpal area adjacent to the wrist and also separate the two largest areas, the thenar and the hypothenar; in cases where it is wanting, a slight divergence of the lines in about the middle of the wrist at the margin of the palm shows the point from which the line should be drawn that separates the two latter areas. Such a case may be termed a 'parting,' and where this occurs there is no definite carpal area.

These, then, are the elements into which a human palm may be divided, and among these there is the greatest conceivable variation, both of size, arrangement and mutual relationship. If even a small collection of interpreted prints be made and compared (Fig. 6), they will be found to be absolutely individual and distinct, the differences being due to variations in the elementary areas, both in themselves and in their relationships to one another. This variation is so great that it seems at first to be entirely without system, and much like the detailed though purposeless descriptions of the palmist, whose classification of the wrinkles and other features, though worked out into the minutest details, is wholly artificial and arbitrary; yet the exact correspondence of the areas with the patterned mounds of the monkey palm show that we are dealing here with definite morphological parts, and the variations that occur are caused by reduction, hypertrophy, fusions, separations and other principles with which the morphologist is familiar.

Thus, considering the three palmar areas alone, they will be found either all distinct (Fig. 6, a and b) or two of them may be confluent (Fig. 6, c, P2 and P3), or semi-confluent (Fig. 6, d, P1 and P3). They may be open, i. e., may extend to the margin (Fig. 6, b, P1 and P2) or closed (Fig. 6, c, P2 and P3). Semi-confluent areas may also be termed

Fig. 6a. Fig. 6b.
Fig. 6c. Fig. 6d.
Fig. 6. Tracings of four Palm Prints, to Illustrate Various Modifications.

divided, since this condition is brought about by the division of one of the areas by a primary line, and in the same way a single closed area (Fig. 6, b, P3) may be termed circumscribed, since this condition is brought about by the fusion of the two primary lines which serve as boundaries.

In size an area may vary between a very large one (Fig. 6, b, P1} and a greatly reduced one (Fig. 6, d, P2), and in the latter case the reduction may become so extreme as to end in the complete loss of an area, a condition which would be obtained if we should consider the second and third palmar tri-radii of Fig. 6, d, which are here very near together, to approximate still closer until they became entirely coincident, a condition not infrequent.

These modifications of areas may be readily expressed in terms of the primary lines which determine and bound them, and as each of these four lines possesses a large number of possible positions, they may be made the basis of a classification by which an individual palm not only might have a definite place in a series, but might also be conveniently designated and briefly described; furthermore, the terms constantly occurring in such a description might be expressed by obvious symbols, thus reducing it to a simple formula. To illustrate this the four palms given in Fig. 6 may be described in terms of the primary lines as follows:

(a) Line 1, open to margin; line 2, open to margin; line 3, fused with eighth digital line; line 4, recurrent, dividing third palmar area.

(b) Line 1, open to margin, low; line 2, open to margin; line 3, fused with line 4; line 4, fused with line 3.

(c) Line 1, involved in pattern, returning above; line 2, fused with line 4; line 3, recurrent, dividing third palmar area; line 4, fused with line 2.

(d) Line 1, open to margin; line 2, fused with line 3; line 3, fused with line 2; line 4, dividing first palmar area.

By the employment of a few obvious symbols these descriptions might be transformed into formulæ, as, for example:

(a)0 — 0 — d8 — P3/4
(b)0 — 0 — 4 —  3
(c)In H ret. above — 4 — P3/3 —  2
(d)0 —  3 —  2  — P1/4

This exposition of individual differences in the course of the papillary ridges, and the suggestion of methods of recording, interpreting and describing them, leads us away from the realm of morphology to that of their practical use in establishing personal identity and thus brings us to the work of Mr. Francis Galton, who by the patient observation of a long series of years has elaborated a system by which personal identification may be established by the use of the apical patterns. As a result, primarily, of the suggestions of Sir William Herschel, Galton in his anthropological laboratory at South Kensington, has spent years in collecting data for his work, and to him belongs the entire credit of having established the two essential facts upon which all claim to the value of such markings in the point at issue must rest, namely; (1) their absolutely individual character, and the impossibility of an exact duplicature in two individuals and (2) their permanence throughout life.[4]

That the method of employing the prints of the apical patterns in identification, as advocated by Galton is, in the hands of an expert, an exact one, there can be no doubt, and it has been already accepted by the English government and introduced in the province of Bengal and a few other places, proving a dangerous rival to the more obvious but less accurate system of Bertillon, which depends upon various physical measurements; but the disadvantages occurring from the minuteness of the parts upon which the observation depends and the necessity of a lens, obstacles which would demand in all cases the employment of a trained expert, would necessarily limit the application of such a system to a few places where adequate means could be furnished.

As a practical extension of the Galtonian system; one in which the minute details of the apical patterns are replaced by larger and more definite markings, the present author advocates the use of prints, not only of the whole palms, but of the soles as well, a system in which in the vast majority of cases the cursory study of the main lines and areas alone would be sufficient, while only in the almost impossible case of general correspondence in the markings of two individuals in all four members would resort to what Galton terms the 'minutiæ' be necessary. In the collection of one hundred palm prints alluded to above, there are but two or three cases where the general formula is the same in the hands of the same side, and in these the other hands and the two sets of soles are widely different. If this should prove to be about the usual average, then an identity of general plan, that is a similar course in the four primary lines, may be expected to occur once in every 25 left hands. Continuing this line of reasoning, the chance of the coincidence being repeated in the right hand would be but 252, or 625, and if the same figures be true of the soles, then in complete sets the chance of correspondence in the gross details would be 254, or once in 390,625 times. But such 'identity' is by no means a complete one and really means, not an identity at all but a general similarity in the course of the four primary lines and in the areas defined by them. If such very obvious details as the occurrence of patterns, or the condition of the carpal area be also taken into account the chance of coincidence would be many times decreased. Furthermore, as Galton has conclusively proved by careful statistical study of the apical patterns, even in those identical in general plan, the 'minutiae,' that is, the disposition, number and length of the ridges forming the patterns are always very different.

Aside from this, another line of proof of the impossibility of complete duplicates is furnished by an examination of the hands and palms of so-called 'identical' twins, or twins which are of the same sex and otherwise closely resembling one another. In such cases we have a strong biological warrant to expect a closer resemblance in these and all other parts than could possibly be the case with any other two individuals, but even here, although the correspondence as to the general formulæ is, as a matter of fact, identical or nearly so, the variation in proportions, in the number of ridges forming a given area, and in other similar details, is so great that no one would be deceived into considering them really identical.

If the use and practical application of the system above outlined may be briefly alluded to here, it will be seen that the cases where such a system would be of great importance are numerous and varied. Aside from the case of criminals where the possession of a set of prints by the authorities would be a far better and surer guide than the usual 'Kogues Gallery' photograph or even a set of Bertillon measurements, there are cases of accidents of various sorts in which the bodies may be sufficiently mutilated to render recognition uncertain or impossible; cases of claimants of estates, like the famous Tichbourne claimant; cases of the supposed restoration of lost children, and many others.

With regard to criminals, prints could be made and filed away at headquarters, as is now done with photographs and written descriptions, for in the case of a suspect who has taken refuge under an alias, the mere hesitation to submit to the process would increase suspicion, and one could have no just ground for refusal. Should a refractory case occur, the use of chloroform would violate no principle of humanity, and the mere threat of it would be apt to enforce compliance.

In accident cases, as in the classical one of Jezebel, to whom Galton has feelingly alluded, the palms and the soles are apt to be the last external parts to be destroyed, being protected respectively by the involuntary clenching of the hands and by the heavy soles of the shoes. With regard to the durability of the epidermic ridges Galton states that they are still present and plainly seen in many Egyptian mummies and in an experiment made by the author upon the feet of an infant belonging to the prehistoric cliff-dwellers of southern Utah, where the bodies were not even embalmed but simply dried in the rarefied mountain air, the thenar and apical patterns could be definitely traced after a comparatively simple preliminary treatment.

To provide for both accident cases and those involving all forms of claimants, it would be a very simple matter for families to take and preserve a set of prints of each individual, although it would be still better, as in all cases of public versus private supervision, if each community were required by law to add such a set of prints to the birth records of each of its citizens, records which could be easily taken at the entrance to the public schools or at some other definite time when the child is old enough to voluntarily assist in the process. These records could be easily duplicated by photography if wanted for comparison at a distance, but in most cases the sending of the formulae either alone or with the addition of a few details would suffice, and could be easily telegraphed.

To insure the rapid selection of a given print, especially in a large collection, some method of classification other than by name and family would be requisite and this could be done by filing the actual prints alphabetically and making a card catalogue of the formulæ and descriptions, the arrangement of which would depend upon certain features selected from these.

By such means it would be easily possible to keep even a great number of records in a very compact form, and in the larger towns and in cities this would demand the use of a special room in the municipal building and the maintenance of a clerk to take and file the prints and to be on hand for consultation in case of need, yet the small expense involved in this would be trivial in comparison with the large amounts which would often be saved by a prompt and accurate determination.

It is, then, a matter of certainty that a system of personal identification founded upon the epidermic markings of palms and soles would endure all the tests required of such a system and would be in point of absolute accuracy, rapidity of application, simplicity and convenience in classification much superior to any system now in vogue. Its uses would be as numerous as are the cases in which the identification of a body, living or dead, becomes for any reason a matter of importance and it may be prophesied that the countless cases where doubt, uncertainty and great expense are involved, and which are now of constant occurrence, may be ultimately prevented through its establishment.

  1. Tenth Annual Report of the Bureau of Ethnology, p. 740, Pig. 1255.
  2. Verhandlungen der Berliner Gesellschaft für Anthropologie, March 20, 1886, p. 208. (Translated by Col. Mallory.)
  3. Published by Macmillan & Co., 1892.
  4. See for this Galton's numerous publications on the subject and especially his two books on 'Finger Prints' and 'The Decipherment of Blurred and Indistinct Finger Prints.' Macmillan, 1892-94.