When archaeologists first entered the 25,000 year old Pech Merle cave in France and saw paintings on the walls, they presumed that the first artists had to be men.
How wrong they were!
From analyzing stencils of hand sizes of paintings from eight sites in France and Spain, Penn State University archaeologist Dean Snow concluded that women made three-quarters of them.
It has long been “archaeological dogma” that the handprints, hundreds of which exist in caves around the world, were made by men. Paintings of “game animals” such as bison, horses, reindeer and wooly mammoths have been found near them and led researchers to theorize that the handprints were made by men to record a hunt or as a sort of “hunting magic” to increase success, says National Geographic.
An emeritus professor of anthropology, Snow arrived at his theory after coming across the work of a British biologist, John Manning who, ten years ago, had studied the relationships of different hand and finger measurements. Men and women, he found, differ in the relative sizes of their fingers, with women tending to have ring and index fingers that are about the same length, while men’s ring fingers are often longer than their index fingers.
On looking at a handprint in a book on Upper Paleolithic art, Manning realized that it had to be that of a woman. After perusing photographs of five more handprints, he concluded that two-thirds were those of women.
Snow then looked at more photographs of hand prints found in caves but these were only so helpful, as most were not labeled with measurements to indicate their actual size. His next step was to visit caves in France and Spain to see the handprints themselves.
He then created a reference set of hand images from people of European and Mediterranean ancestry and developed an algorithm to look at different measurements and ratios (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) to predict whether a handprint was male or female.
The algorithm was only 60 percent accurate for hand images of men and women today as there is quite a lot of “overlap” in their hands now. But on using the algorithm to examine 32 stencils of prehistoric handprints (16 from the cave of El Castillo in Spain, 6 from the caves of Gargas in France and 5 from Pech Merle in France), Snow found an intriguing result:
As it turned out—much to his surprise—the hands in the caves were much more sexually dimorphic than modern hands, meaning that there was little overlap in the various hand measurements.
“They fall at the extreme ends, and even beyond the extreme ends,” Snow said. “Twenty thousand years ago, men were men and women were women.”
Snow determined that 24 out of the 32 prehistoric handprints were from women, a total of 75 percent. Only 10 percent were from adult males. The remaining 15 percent were from adolescent males.
Not everyone agrees with Snow’s findings. Evolutionary biologist R. Dale Guthrie, who has examined Paleolithic handprints by analyzing the width of the palm and thumb, contends that most were made by adolescent boys, as they would have been more likely to explore caves and “drew what was on their mind, which is mainly two things: naked women and large, frightening mammals.”
Others welcomed Snow’s findings. Archaeologist Dave Whitley of ASM Affiliates, an archaeological consulting firm in Tehachapi, California, rejects Guthrie’s view that the handprints were made for purely functional purposes and suggests that shamans – some of whom were female or transgender in hunter-gatherer societies — made most of the paintings. “If you go into one of these caves alone, you start to suffer from sensory deprivation very, very quickly, in 5 to 10 minutes. It can spin you into an altered state of consciousness,” he comments.
As to why women, whether shamans or not, may have decided to make cave art, speculation is wide open. Snow notes that the main question he gets is why people did this at all. His answer? ”I have no idea, but a pretty good hypothesis is that this is somebody saying, ‘This is mine, I did this.’”
As Snow explains, women in hunter-gatherer societies may not have been involved in killing animals, they certainly played a role in the hunt. ”It’s 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,” he says.
Perhaps some of those women wanted to leave a record that they, too, had done their part in the hunt?
Photo via Wikimedia Commons