Cave Women Were Artists Too

The stenciled hand prints painted on the walls of Spanish caves 40,000 years ago are mostly women's hands.

Stone-age hand prints on the walls of Spanish and French caves have long been assumed to be those of men and adolescent boys, but new research shows they are mostly those of women.

The discovery starts with the work of British physician John Manning who gathered hand and digit measurements of patients to see if there were significant differences between men and women, as well as people from different populations in other parts of the world.

That research of more than a decade ago showed there were, indeed, differences in digit ratio lengths between men and women -- what's called sexual dimorphism -- although about a significant fraction of the modern hands overlap and can't be so easily distinguished by gender.

"They published a popular book about digit ratios," said anthropologist Dean Snow of Pennsylvania State University, the author of a paper in the current issue of American Antiquities about the cave hand prints. "That's when I stumbled on it. I thought surely someone had used this in the archaeological community. But I was surprised to find that nobody had done this in connection to the rock art."

So that's what he did, visiting caves in Spain and France to measure and photograph ancient hand prints and stencils (the first being made with hands dipped in paint then pressed against the cave wall and the second being made by spit-spraying paint on the hand pressed against the wall to make an outline).

"The first surprise was that it wasn't half and half," said Snow, regarding the gender of the hands represented in Spanish and French caves.

On the contrary, fully 75 percent of the hand prints he studied appear to be those of women. Only 10 percent were clearly those of adult men and 15 percent are probably those of adolescent boys. If anything, the sexual dimorphism in hands of those early southern Europeans was more pronounced than it is today, he said.

"I've used the same criteria to assess stencils in El Castillo and La Garma caves (both in Cantabria), said archeologist Paul Pettitt of Durham University in the UK, "and I would say that my unpublished data are consistent with the notion that stencils are of the hands of adult females."

Pettitt also cautions against jumping to too many conclusions about Snow's discovery.

"It may or may not be justified to assume that these females were the individuals who created the stencils," Pettitt explained. "We should distinguish between the stenciled and the stenciler. To play devil's advocate, how could we eliminate the hypothesis that it is male/female pairs who create stencils, the male stenciling the female?"

Secondly, Pettitt points out that the hand prints do not automatically imply that all cave art was done by women. In fact there is growing evidence that hand stencils and the more figurative art in the caves were done at very different times by entirely different people.

"It's been pointed out before that when we think of 'cave artists' we unconsciously think of bearded male hunters," said Pettitt. "Snow's work admirably reveals that adult females were being immortalized on cave walls."

Snow has also attempted to apply the same techniques to ancient hand prints in North America, but without success. Those will probably require an entirely different analysis.

A close-up of one of the 30 hand stencils from El Castillo.

Early Artists

Most scholars have assumed that all prehistoric artists were male, but new evidence suggests women and even young girls produced at least some cave drawings, according to a study in the latest Oxford Journal of Archaeology.   The study focused on finger flutings made on the walls and ceiling of Rouffignac Cave in the Dordogne, France. The flutings -- lines drawn with the fingers on soft surfaces -- as well as other art in the cave are thought to be 13,000 to 14,000 years old, based on stylistic considerations. The figures pictured here were likely created by a 5-year old girl. The researchers came to this conclusion based not only on her hand dimensions but also on the height of the places where she had been able to reach.

Everyone's an Artist

"It has always seemed possible that cave art could equally be created by men and women, just as art in our culture and other cultures is created by both men and women," co-author Leslie Van Gelder told Discovery News.   Van Gelder, an archaeologist, is program director of the Masters Programs in Educational Leadership for Walden University.   She and co-author Kevin Sharpe took detailed measurements of the flutings, specifically the lines drawn by the ring, middle and index fingers. Prior research had determined that relative finger length, also known as digit ratio, can be a marker for gender differences affected by hormones. These flutings, created by the same young girl who made the drawing in the previous slide, are considered to be one of the first examples of symbolic activity produced by a child during the Paleolithic.


Digit ratio theory holds that men tend to have ring fingers that are slightly longer than their index fingers. In women, these fingers are about the same length, or the index digit is slightly longer.   The researchers concluded that five of the artists were female and two were male. Based on the overall size of the flutings, they also believe patterns on the roof of one chamber in the cave were made by the fingers of children -- both male and female -- aged between two and five years old.   "Given the current height of the chamber, such children would have needed to be hoisted aloft by adults," Van Gelder and Sharpe concluded in a separate Antiquity paper. The flutings pictured here, which were produced by a young woman, have helped to spark a debate as to whether the younger members of the group were held up by the adults. Additionally, similarities in the finger profiles of the cave artists suggest a familial connection.

Individual Expression

Since each finger marking ties to a specific individual, "it gets interesting to start to see the places they went and with whom," said Van Gelder.   "This research is some of the first to truly identify individuals and, as such, they really come to life, not as something general, but instead as real people with the same idiosyncrasies to their flutings as we might have with our handwriting," she added. Three individuals, one male and two younger females, created the drawings pictured here by running their fingers along a wall as they walked. The horizontal lines each one produced offered a glimpse into the height of each individual.

Driven to Draw?

It remains unclear why these ancient artists produced such patterns in the caves. "There is no specific evidence of 'ritual' behavior," said Van Gelder, such as repeated markings in specific areas of the cave. The lines created in these flutings by one of the female artists are vertical and very orderly, suggesting the possibility of deliberate forms of communication.

Vacation Home?

There is also no evidence supporting the idea that the cave was inhabited during the Paleolithic. "Caves rarely were (inhabited)," Van Gelder said. "In this region, people relied on rock shelters, which were far warmer and closer to major rivers and such." Instead, it is possible that men, women and children visited the Dordogne cave "in a single period of time of perhaps a few weeks." These dynamic flutings were created by the same women who made the work the appears in the previous slide.

Making Art History

Archaeologist Jean Clottes is the former director of prehistoric antiquities for the Midi-Pyrénées region of France and served as a scientific advisor on prehistoric art to the French Ministry of Culture.   He told Discovery News that Van Gelder and Sharpe's "seminal work on finger flutings being done by children, sometimes held up by adults, is remarkable."   Clottes added: "Gendering the persons -- I do not like the term 'artist' -- who made drawings in the caves, or left traces of their hands and fingers there, has always been a challenge, so this kind of work, bold and cautious at the same time, is quite welcome."

From Lines to Shapes

Van Gelder has been studying the cave markings for nine years, but hopes to conduct further research because many questions still remain unanswered. "As more data becomes available," she said, "one hopes we will continue to develop a fuller picture of the people who lived in those times and be able to see them more in their complexity as human beings." This photo illustrates an example of where flutings are interconnected with figurative art, a topic which will be further explored in future research. In this case, an etching of a mammoth, called the Patriarch, appears beside the flutings.