Cave Paintings: Most Early Artists Were Female

A new analysis of the handprints found in prehistoric cave art in France and Spain has challenged the long held belief that cave art was produced by males. Archaeologist Dean Snow of Pennsylvania State University has published his research on prehistoric art and found that three quarters of the handprints were female. Until now it has been impossible to identify the owner of the handprint’s gender, but Snow has developed a method by which he compares the size of  the handprints and the relative lengths of certain fingers. Snow puts the measurements from the hand stencils through an algorithm he created based on a set of modern male and female human hands. His findings not only identify the gender of the artists, but also show that the hands in the cave demonstrate a greater level of sexual dimorphism than handprints of humans living today. This suggests that the physical differences between men and women were more extreme in our ancestors than today and offers an interesting insight into how our bodies have changed over the ages.

Prehistoric stencils of human handprints, the earliest form of the signature, now giving us insight into the gender roles of early human beings.

Prehistoric stencils of human handprints, the earliest form of the signature, now giving us insight into the gender roles of early human beings. El Castillo cave, Cantabria, Spain.

It has long been assumed that the men in these early hunter-gatherer societies produced the artwork that may have been a type of “hunting magic” or to chronicle their kills. However, new archaeological findings, of both Snow and others, have produced evidence that the women had a greater role than previously thought and were far more involved in the hunt.

“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.” – Virginia Hughes, National Geographic, 8 October 2013

If the cave paintings were indeed predominately created by women, then this changes many long standing views on art; mainly, who were the first artists. If Snow’s findings are true, then the answer could very well be women. It is interesting to think that while the men were out on the hunt, the women were inside the caves, performing the “magic” behind the hunt, to encourage success. If the women hauled the meat back to the camp, as Snow says, then this implies they had more contact with the animals and could easily have studied them up close, perhaps alluding to the accuracy of the painted animals’ anatomy. Yet these findings, as exciting as they are, raise even more questions: Were the paintings only created by women? When did they create the artworks in relation to the hunt; before or during? Could some of the women have been even more involved with the hunt, even going out on the physical hunt with the men? Does the shaman theory still hold true? In many cultures throughout history, the role of shaman has often been held by females or even transgendered individuals so there could very well have been a female shaman that entered the caves  to encourage a trancelike state through sensory deprivation. Were the early human societies organised as a matriarchy, patriarchy or neither? Were there strict gender defined roles within this early society or was there a greater level of what we now know as sexual equality? New discoveries in the subject of history often raise more questions than they answer, however, this is one of the main reasons why history is so fascinating; our knowledge and understanding is forever changing with each new discovery.


NBC News Article, Prehistoric cave prints show most early artists were women, Ndihi Subbaraman, October 15, 2013

National Geographic article, Were the First Artists Mostly Women?, Virginia Hughes, 8 October 2013


About startlediguana

Miscellaneous art history blog made for a module at uni. The likelihood of future posts is slim at best, like sliced cheese.
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