Horse painting and hand stencils from the Pech Merle caves in France. Charcoal residue from the horse on the right has yielded a radiocarbon date of 24,640bce
Image credit Jean Vertut
Writing for National Geographic Virginia Hughes asks, “Were the First Artists Mostly Women?” It now appears that three-quarters of the hand stencils found in prehistoric cave paintings belonged to women -
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.”
Full article here.