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

Posted on 10/11/2013 4:34:06 PM PDT by nickcarraway

Three-quarters of handprints in ancient cave art were left by women, study finds.

Women made most of the oldest-known cave art paintings, suggests a new analysis of ancient handprints. Most scholars had assumed these ancient artists were predominantly men, so the finding overturns decades of archaeological dogma.

Archaeologist Dean Snow of Pennsylvania State University analyzed hand stencils found in eight cave sites in France and Spain. By comparing the relative lengths of certain fingers, Snow determined that three-quarters of the handprints were female.

"There has been a male bias in the literature for a long time," said Snow, whose research was supported by the National Geographic Society's Committee for Research and Exploration. "People have made a lot of unwarranted assumptions about who made these things, and why."

Archaeologists have found hundreds of hand stencils on cave walls across the world. Because many of these early paintings also showcase game animals—bison, reindeer, horses, woolly mammoths—many researchers have proposed that they were made by male hunters, perhaps to chronicle their kills or as some kind of "hunting magic" to improve success of an upcoming hunt. The new study suggests otherwise.

"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."

Experts expressed a wide range of opinions about how to interpret Snow's new data, attesting to the many mysteries still surrounding this early art.

"Hand stencils are a truly ironic category of cave art because they appear to be such a clear and obvious connection between us and the people of the Paleolithic," said archaeologist Paul Pettitt of Durham University in England. "We think we understand them, yet the more you dig into them you realize how superficial our understanding is."

Sex Differences

Snow's study began more than a decade ago when he came across the work of John Manning, a British biologist who had found that men and women differ in the relative lengths of their fingers: Women tend to have ring and index fingers of about the same length, whereas men's ring fingers tend to be longer than their index fingers.

A comparison of hand stencils

One day after reading about Manning's studies, Snow pulled a 40-year-old book about cave paintings off his bookshelf. The inside front cover of the book showed a colorful hand stencil from the famous Pech Merle cave in southern France. "I looked at that thing and I thought, man, if Manning knows what he's talking about, then this is almost certainly a female hand," Snow recalled.

Hand stencils and handprints have been found in caves in Argentina, Africa, Borneo, and Australia. But the most famous examples are from the 12,000- to 40,000-year-old cave paintings in southern France and northern Spain. (See "Pictures: Hand Stencils Through Time.")

For the new study, out this week in the journal American Antiquity, Snow examined hundreds of stencils in European caves, but most were too faint or smudged to use in the analysis. The study includes measurements from 32 stencils, including 16 from the cave of El Castillo in Spain, 6 from the caves of Gargas in France, and 5 from Pech Merle.

Snow ran the numbers through an algorithm that he had created based on a reference set of hands from people of European descent who lived near his university. Using several measurements—such as 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—the algorithm could predict whether a given handprint was male or female. Because there is a lot of overlap between men and women, however, the algorithm wasn't especially precise: It predicted the sex of Snow's modern sample with about 60 percent accuracy.

Luckily for Snow, that wasn't a problem for the analysis of the prehistoric handprints. 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."

Woman, Boy, Shaman?

Snow's analysis determined that 24 of the 32 hands—75 percent—were female. (See "Pictures: Prehistoric European Cave Artists Were Female.")

Some experts are skeptical. Several years ago, evolutionary biologist R. Dale Guthrie performed a similar analysis of Paleolithic handprints. His work—based mostly on differences in the width of the palm and the thumb—found that the vast majority of handprints came from adolescent boys.

For adults, caves would have been dangerous and uninteresting, but young boys would have explored them for adventure, said Guthrie, an emeritus professor at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks. "They drew what was on their mind, which is mainly two things: naked women and large, frightening mammals."

Other researchers are more convinced by the new data.

"I think the article is a landmark contribution," said archaeologist Dave Whitley of ASM Affiliates, an archaeological consulting firm in Tehachapi, California. Despite these handprints being discussed for half a decade, "this is the first time anyone's synthesized a good body of evidence."

Whitley rejects Guthrie's idea that this art was made for purely practical reasons related to hunting. His view is that most of the art was made by shamans who went into trances to try to connect with the spirit world. "If you go into one of these caves alone, you start to suffer from sensory deprivation very, very quickly, in 5 to 10 minutes," Whitley said. "It can spin you into an altered state of consciousness."

The new study doesn't discount the shaman theory, Whitley added, because in some hunter-gatherer societies shamans are female or even transgendered.

The new work raises many more questions than it answers. Why would women be the primary artists? Were they creating only the handprints, or the rest of the art as well? Would the hand analysis hold up if the artists weren't human, but Neanderthal?

The question Snow gets most often, though, is why these ancient artists, whoever they were, left handprints at all.

"I have no idea, but a pretty good hypothesis is that this is somebody saying, 'This is mine, I did this,'" he said.


TOPICS: Arts/Photography; History
KEYWORDS: godsgravesglyphs; nonext; smashthepatriarchy; teenagedboys; womenartists

1 posted on 10/11/2013 4:34:06 PM PDT by nickcarraway
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To: SunkenCiv

GGG ping.


2 posted on 10/11/2013 4:35:42 PM PDT by Squawk 8888 (I'd give up chocolate but I'm no quitter)
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To: nickcarraway

Perhaps they were decorating?


3 posted on 10/11/2013 4:36:09 PM PDT by Harmless Teddy Bear (Proud Infidel, Gun Nut, Religious Fanatic and Freedom Fiend)
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To: nickcarraway
60 per cent accuracy?? Ye olde "close enough for government work" comes to mind.

And the Grant Money just keeps flowing....

4 posted on 10/11/2013 4:37:09 PM PDT by Sacajaweau
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To: nickcarraway

Or possibly, at the time men’s hands were more similar to women’s hands.


5 posted on 10/11/2013 4:37:58 PM PDT by eclecticEel (Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness: 7/4/1776 - 3/21/2010)
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To: nickcarraway

I’m inclined to go with young male artists rather than females.


6 posted on 10/11/2013 4:38:04 PM PDT by Sacajaweau
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To: nickcarraway
Most pictures were naked women and wild animals. Here's a clue...

What do young men like to do most?

7 posted on 10/11/2013 4:44:30 PM PDT by Sacajaweau
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To: nickcarraway

They were doing their nails.


8 posted on 10/11/2013 4:47:01 PM PDT by kaehurowing
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To: Harmless Teddy Bear

Or making “honey-do” lists.


9 posted on 10/11/2013 4:48:18 PM PDT by Squawk 8888 (I'd give up chocolate but I'm no quitter)
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To: nickcarraway

Perhaps the artists were male, and they asked a lot of women “Want to come up and look at my etchings?”


10 posted on 10/11/2013 4:48:46 PM PDT by PapaBear3625 (You don't notice it's a police state until the police come for you.)
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To: Sacajaweau

Or old men with fond memories.


11 posted on 10/11/2013 4:51:33 PM PDT by doc1019
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To: nickcarraway
The first artists were men.

The first canvas was a snowbank.

12 posted on 10/11/2013 4:52:26 PM PDT by tacticalogic ("Oh, bother!" said Pooh, as he chambered his last round.)
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To: Squawk 8888

Cave Woman - “What do I have to draw you a picture? I want two deer, a mammoth and get rid of that sabertooth down by the river.”


13 posted on 10/11/2013 4:52:48 PM PDT by Harmless Teddy Bear (Proud Infidel, Gun Nut, Religious Fanatic and Freedom Fiend)
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To: eclecticEel

Or they were kids, and it was raining out.


14 posted on 10/11/2013 4:52:51 PM PDT by HomeAtLast (The original Tea Party entailed a willingness to do without some tea.)
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To: nickcarraway

Dear God, who (with a life) cares?


15 posted on 10/11/2013 4:58:18 PM PDT by ChildOfThe60s (If you can remember the 60s.....you weren't really there)
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To: nickcarraway

If I had been there I would have been drawing on the walls of the cave and I am female!


16 posted on 10/11/2013 5:02:20 PM PDT by Ditter
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To: nickcarraway

Maybe they were trying to clean all that paint off their cave house walls?


17 posted on 10/11/2013 5:04:32 PM PDT by zeestephen
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To: Harmless Teddy Bear

“Perhaps they were decorating?”

Naah! They were just re decorating and changing the cave walls for each season.

Now we know where and when the re decorating gene came from for our wives, mothers, sisters and other women.


18 posted on 10/11/2013 5:20:23 PM PDT by Grampa Dave ( Boycott Reno & Las Vegas until those in control there, remove Reid from the senate!)
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To: Sacajaweau

60% - that’s a whole 10% above a random coin toss.


19 posted on 10/11/2013 5:26:44 PM PDT by Kirkwood (Zombie Hunter)
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To: Harmless Teddy Bear
Perhaps they were decorating?


20 posted on 10/11/2013 6:32:15 PM PDT by Rodamala
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To: nickcarraway
The new study doesn't discount the shaman theory, Whitley added, because in some hunter-gatherer societies shamans are female or even transgendered.

What dreck! Educated idiots make me want to puke. Did these fools consult the fossil evidence to determine the statistical distribution of ring finger length between localized groups or between genders? If they are foolish enough to compare modern statistical placement did they adjust the results by the percentage of males that have short fingers and women that have extended ring fingers?

A survey any night among patrons at the local tavern or any day around the water cooler at work will find these people getting teased for being statistical anomalies or for possibly playing for the wrong team.

As a final note, where did those freaky guys get their implants and hormone shots 20,000 years ago?

21 posted on 10/11/2013 7:00:28 PM PDT by higgmeister ( In the Shadow of The Big Chicken!)
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To: nickcarraway

Maybe they were trying to decide what color to paint the inside of the cave. (They never did make up their minds).


22 posted on 10/11/2013 7:11:37 PM PDT by yefragetuwrabrumuy (The best War on Terror News is at rantburg.com)
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To: Rodamala
That would explain the girlish hand prints
23 posted on 10/11/2013 7:22:27 PM PDT by Harmless Teddy Bear (Proud Infidel, Gun Nut, Religious Fanatic and Freedom Fiend)
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To: Ditter
If I had been there I would have been drawing on the walls of the cave and I am female!

As would have I! And my daughter. But not my son. I don't think this theory is too much of a stretch. Just take a walk through your local Hobby Lobby and see toward whom most of the merch is aimed. Girls are crafty.

As a little girl I would spend hours and hours drawing and coloring...wait for it...HORSES! Who doesn't know of at least one or two little girls who has gone through an obsessive horse drawing phase of life? Not to mention kitties and doggies, etc. I'm telling you it's as much a compulsion for girls as trucks or banging things with sticks are for boys. And since the girls and women were pretty much holed up in those caves for months I would not be the least bit surprised if they filled them up with pretty animals (and fantastical pictorial descriptions of brave hunters among them..think prehistoric Tiger Beat! Ha! Or maybe the hunting scenes happened when a pesky brother or bully kid wanted to make a girl cry, so he "shot" the pretty animals with a crappy stick figure hunter.)

What? "It could happen!"

24 posted on 10/11/2013 8:12:32 PM PDT by To Hell With Poverty (Ephesians 6:12 becomes more real to me with each news cycle.)
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To: To Hell With Poverty

I didn’t have cave walls to draw on when I was a kid, I used the side of the garage. LOL!

I am an artist now, are you? I paint animal portraits. :)


25 posted on 10/12/2013 6:26:45 AM PDT by Ditter
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To: Squawk 8888; StayAt HomeMother; Ernest_at_the_Beach; decimon; 1010RD; 21twelve; 24Karet; ...

The handprints are of teen boys, getting initiated into the prehistoric hunting cults.

26 posted on 10/12/2013 11:09:50 AM PDT by SunkenCiv (It's no coincidence that some "conservatives" echo the hard left.)
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To: nickcarraway
Were the First Artists Mostly Women?

Well, yes...and a few gurly men and boys.

27 posted on 10/12/2013 11:12:45 AM PDT by RoosterRedux (The only true wisdom is in knowing you know nothing -- Socrates)
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To: nickcarraway

How many of the stencils are multiple products of the same person?


28 posted on 10/12/2013 10:44:19 PM PDT by Rockpile
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To: Ditter

Me, I’m a graphic designer who has worked mainly in museum/aquarium settings. Lots of large graphic panels and...HUGE WALL MURALS. LOL!

And, when I was little my sister and I drew all over the walls of our basement play area. ;)


29 posted on 10/13/2013 8:54:53 PM PDT by To Hell With Poverty (Ephesians 6:12 becomes more real to me with each news cycle.)
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