Study finds women had a major hand in Europe's ancient cave art

Most Stone Age hand paintings were made by women, not men, as previously believed

French Culture minister Aurelie Filippetti shows her hand covered with paint during the launching of the building of the facsimile of the Chauvet cave, which contains some of the earliest known cave paintings on Oct. 12, 2012 in Vallon-Pont-d'Arc.
Jeff Pachoud/AFP/Getty

Ancient cave paintings in Europe were the handiwork of women more often than men, found a study of Stone Age hand stencils published in the latest issue of the journal American Antiquity. The findings undermine previous assumptions that men were the artists behind the masterpieces.

An anthropologist at Pennsylvania State University found that three quarters of hand stencils drawn on several caves in France and Spain belonged to women. Only around 10 percent were made by adult male hands, and the other 15 percent were done by adolescent males.

Professor Dean Snow reached his conclusions by relying on previous research that had found men and women tend to have different finger lengths. For modern and stone-age European males, ring fingers are longer than index fingers. For women, they're about the same length.

The cave paintings Snow analyzed were 20,000 to 40,000 years old. 

Because most Stone Age hand art is typically surrounded by drawings of big game and men serve as hunters in most hunter-gatherer societies, earlier scientists assumed that the artists were men.

“I think that there was a tendency for people to ascribe these paintings to men most of the time because the hand signs are associated with content – mammoths and bears and horses and even rhinoceroses – and the association seems to be with hunting,” Snow told Al Jazeera.

In the early 20th century, one scientist explained the small size of the hands by attributing them to a group of pygmies. Another insisted that it had to be the work of teenage boys.

Snow said it’s impossible to know if the cave paintings of animals were done by men or women, but he said it was remarkable that there was a testable hypothesis in studying ancient humans.

Snow attempted a similar study on Native American art, but found it didn’t yield the same results as the finger-length pattern he based his study on only applied to European hands.

He added that both men and women produce art in hunter-gatherer societies today, pointing to Native Americans in the arctic where both sexes spend time creating art over the long winter months.

“That impulse is there, and both the men and women are doing it,” Snow said.  

In the study, Snow noted a January 1980 New Yorker magazine cartoon that underscores 20th century assumptions of how cave art came to be. While several Stone Age women are painting on a cave wall, one says to the others: “Does it strike anyone else as weird that none of the great painters have been men?”

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