Ancient Women Artists May Be Responsible for Most Cave Art

woman-cavepainters.jpg

Cave art often depicts game species, a subject near and dear to hunters. Men must, therefore, have been the painters, right? Wrong.

New findings will shake up the widely-believed archaeological theory that these ancient artists were mostly men recording their kills or engaging in some sort of magic ritual. Many feature game such as bison, reindeer, horses and woolly mammoths.

When scientists looked closely at a sample of hand stencils, a common motif in cave art, they came to the surprising conclusion that about three-quarters were actually drawn by women, according to new research.

The most famous examples of hand stencils and handprints are the 12-40,000-year-old cave paintings in southern France and northern Spain 

After specifically looking at the lengths of fingers in drawings they applied the general rule of thumb for general differences between men and women’s hand structure established by British biologist John Manning, about a decade ago researchers they came to the not so surprising conclusion that women tend to have ring and index fingers of about the same length, whereas men’s ring fingers tend to be longer than their index fingers.

Algorithm

Archaeologist Dean Snow Dean Snow of Pennsylvania State University began his study a decade ago after discovering the work of John Manning. Intrigued, Snow dusted off a 40-year-old book about cave paintings and found a picture of a colorful hand stencil from the famous Pech Merle cave in southern France.

'I looked at that thing and I thought, man, if Manning knows what he's talking about, then this is almost certainly a female hand', Snow told National Geographic.National Geographic.

He created an algorithm using a reference set of hands from people of European descent. Based on the model and measurements, Snow found that 75 percent of the hands belonged to women.

Using several measurements—such as the length of the fingers, the length of the hand, the ratio of ring to index finger, and the ratio of index finger to little finger—the algorithm could predict whether a given handprint was male or female.

Because there is a lot of overlap between men and women, however, the algorithm wasn't especially precise: It predicted the sex of Snow's modern sample with about 60 percent accuracy.

'There has been a male bias in the literature for a long time. People have made a lot of unwarranted assumptions about who made these things, and why.', said Snow

His findings suggest the woman's role in prehistoric society was much greater than previously thought.

Were cavewomen the first painters?

The 32 hand prints found in the caves, however, were more pronounced in their differences than those of the modern men and women.

In most hunter-gatherer societies, it's men that do the killing. But it's often the women who haul the meat back to camp, and women are as concerned with the productivity of the hunt as the men are," Snow said. "It wasn't just a bunch of guys out there chasing bison around."

However, his findings have not been universally accepted.

Several years ago, evolutionary biologist R. Dale Guthrieevolutionary biologist R. Dale Guthrie performed a similar analysis of Paleolithic handprints and says the vast majority of handprints came from adolescent boys.

Young boys would have explored caves for adventure, Guthrie, an emeritus professor at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks told NatGeo.NatGeo.
'They drew what was on their mind, which is mainly two things: naked women and large, frightening mammals,' he added.

The question Snow gets most often, though, is why these ancient artists, whoever they were, left handprints at all.

"I have no idea, but a pretty good hypothesis is that this is somebody saying, 'This is mine, I did this,'" he said.

The mystery of the cave paintings is definitely not solved.

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