Archeologist suggests much of Paleolithic cave art was done by women

Oct 11, 2013 by Bob Yirka weblog
Handprints in ancient cave art most often belonged to women. Credit: Dean Snow

(Phys.org) —Pennsylvania State University Archaeologist Dean Snow is reporting to National Geographic that studies he's undertaken of cave art dating back to the Paleolithic indicate much of it was done by women, not men as is commonly believed.

Dean Snow has been studying ancient handprints in caves at the behest of National Geographic for nearly a decade. It began, he says, after reading about work done by geologist John Manning—he'd found that average finger lengths in people vary by gender. Men tend to have longer ring fingers than for example, while the opposite is true for women. Some time later, he reports, he was looking at pictures of and noticed that the fingers on the hands appeared to conform to Manning's description of female hands. That set him off on a voyage of discovery. He began looking at cave art in a new way, and even developed an algorithm that offers the likelihood of a handprint belonging to a man or woman—he tested it on modern volunteers in Europe and found it to be approximately 60 percent accurate. He notes that differences between gender finger length in Paleolithic people was more pronounced than it is in modern humans who have more overlap. Because of this, he believes his algorithm is more accurate when measuring the people who made the cave art.

The cave art under review is early examples of hand stencils, where the person making them placed their hand against a wall then blew paint at it (through a straw or directly from their mouth) to create an outline. Such art has been found in caves in Australia, Africa, Borneo, Argentina and more famously in Spain and France. Snow says that thus far his studies have revealed that approximately 75 percent (24 out of 32) of such hand art was likely done by women.

Up until recently most scientists have assumed cave art was most likely done by men—the depictions of women and animals being hunted seemed to sum up the life of hunters, the male half of a hunter-gatherer society. That idea has slowly been changing as archeologists have begun to take a closer look. Biologist Dale Guthrie, for example, conducted a study of the hand art and concluded that they were most likely made by adolescent boys.

Snow theorizes that if were doing most of the cave art, it's possible they played a larger, more important role in how hunter-gatherer societies functioned than has been thought.

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More information: via National Geographic

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User comments : 14

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katesisco
1 / 5 (10) Oct 11, 2013
If this is by women, then it would indicate as sharing of power; the women's paintings foreshadowing the hunt for food.
HannesAlfven
1.3 / 5 (14) Oct 11, 2013
Perhaps I'm being rude, but you know, people used to ask much bigger questions about petroglyphs, cave art & the mythological archetypes ...
tadchem
3.9 / 5 (7) Oct 11, 2013
A study of 136 males and 137 females [Bailey and Hurd, 2005] found the digit ratio (index finger length divided by ring finger length) to be:
Males - mean 0.947, standard deviation 0.029
Females - mean 0.965, standard deviation 0.026

The overlap (the means are less than 1 SD apart) means that this is a very unreliable indicator of gender.
Sean_W
1.4 / 5 (10) Oct 11, 2013
I'd speculate that women were too valuable to send out on long hunting trips so they protected the kids, foraged nearer to the camps and used magic wall art in sacred caves to ensure a safe hunt for the men. People always see societies as not valuing women when only men are "allowed" to do the dangerous work.
Mr_Science
1.4 / 5 (10) Oct 11, 2013
I can't say this is conclusive by any means, however the theory seems logical. Women were, and mainly still are, the primary caregivers of children. If you start teaching the children early what hunting is and which animals to avoid their survival rate would go up. Maybe women were teaching their children with these pictures.
Neinsense99
2 / 5 (3) Oct 11, 2013
It is interesting research, but as it can't determine the sex of artists who used other methods, the gender ratio for paleolithic cave art, or paleolithic art as a whole, would seem to be still uncertain. Given that there was a division of labour in these societies, might there not be a disparity in the permanence of the art created by men and women? Hunters might create less permanent art, and might create it at locations away from the caves where it might not be preserved as well as the sheltered cave paintings.
Humpty
1.3 / 5 (12) Oct 11, 2013
Women could not have possibly have done this.

They were too busy whining about the lack of a decent bed and kitchen and enough slack in the yet to be invented chain, to get between them.

cantdrive85
2.1 / 5 (10) Oct 12, 2013
Maybe it would be a good idea to analyze the hands of modern masters. Seems to me to make such intricate artwork requires a dexterous hand, regardless of gender. Maybe those traits of finger/hand size relate to keener dexterity for this type of activity.
redsnr
not rated yet Oct 12, 2013
The hands on the wall aren't necessarily the ones who painted the whole cave. Further, the fact that animals are mostly represented doesn't plead for a female activity... though exceptions are always possible.
Mauricio
1.6 / 5 (7) Oct 12, 2013
Professor snow is getting a promotion in the university for such hard work. The dean and all her administrative friends recognize quality research any day...
Gmr
2 / 5 (4) Oct 12, 2013
A 60% rate for positives doesn't seem too much better than chance.

Add to that this:
He notes that differences between gender finger length in Paleolithic people was more pronounced than it is in modern humans who have more overlap.

I don't see any support for this, really, in the article, or any citations given... I'm not sure we have large enough population samples to assert this for paleolithic people.
hls
not rated yet Oct 20, 2013
"Up until recently most scientists have assumed cave art was most likely done by men—the depictions of women and animals being hunted seemed to sum up the life of hunters, the male half of a hunter-gatherer society." I think this is the most striking part of this story. It means that a number of researchers observed data and, with a limited understanding of it, they assumed that it fit into the narrative they had already constructed. Is this not a significant methodological error? I find it even more curious that so many of the commenters on this story have the response of attempting to fit these findings into this flawed assumption in a novel way, based purely on speculation. Why try to dismiss the relevance of this when it is so striking? To keep the narrative of the primacy of male agency intact? The assumption was flawed. Discard the assumption. Perhaps it won't undermine many of the findings it has informed, but one cannot argue against the utility of reviewing those findings.
Neinsense99
4 / 5 (1) Oct 20, 2013
"Up until recently most scientists have assumed cave art was most likely done by men—the depictions of women and animals being hunted seemed to sum up the life of hunters, the male half of a hunter-gatherer society." I think this is the most striking part of this story. It means that a number of researchers observed data and, with a limited understanding of it, they assumed that it fit into the narrative they had already constructed. Is this not a significant methodological error? I find it even more curious that so many of the commenters on this story have the response of attempting to fit these findings into this flawed assumption in a novel way, based purely on speculation. Why try to dismiss the relevance of this when it is so striking? To keep the narrative of the primacy of male agency intact?...
You presume much about motives and insinuate agendas. The research is interesting but it's limits are real too. Discard your own PC narrative.
alanrlight
5 / 5 (1) Oct 20, 2013
Women - or gay men. The finger length ratios are reversed for gay men.

Gay men in the arts? Nah.