Study: First Cave Painters Were Mostly Female

    October 11, 2013

Like many disciplines, archaeology suffers from an overtly masculine bias in the literature; however, a recent study of ancient cave art could overturn at least some of that bias.

National Geographic reported this week that Pennsylvania State University archaeologist Dean Snow traveled to eight sites famous for cave paintings in France and Spain. After analyzing the hand stencils and comparing relative lengths of fingers, he discovered that at least three of four hands was that of a woman.

“People have made a lot of unwarranted assumptions about who made these things, and why,” he said of the find, which was supported by the National Geographic Society’s Committee for Research and Exploration. His study will be published in the journal American Antiquity.

Those assumptions were made by researchers who saw the hand stencils in close proximity to paintings of game animals such as bison, reindeer, and woolly mammoths; while their conclusions led them to believe that male hunters were keeping “kill diaries” or conjuring magic hunting spells, this latest study contradicts those conclusions.

“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… It wasn’t just a bunch of guys out there chasing bison around,” Snow said of the antiquated research.

Hand prints have been found in caves all over the world from South America to Australia, but the most famous examples include 12,000- to 40,000-year-old paintings in northern Spain and southern France. Snow collected sample measurements from 32 hand stencils and ran them through a algorithm that referenced the hands of European descendants living near Penn State. Of the 32 ancient hand prints, 24 were found to be those of women.

Although the algorithm had some overlap due to human hand similarities, it predicted the sex of modern humans with 60 percent accuracy. To Snow’s surprise, when he ran the ancient hand prints through the algorithm, the ancient hands were sexually dimorphic, which means there was not as much overlap due to hand similarities. Or, as Snow put it, “Twenty thousand years ago, men were men and women were women.”

[Image via Dean R. Snow]