A Woman’s Place is in the Cave

As Virginia Woolf once wrote “For most of history, Anonymous was a woman,” though recent analysis of Upper Palaeolithic cave art suggest that she may not be quite right. New studies of prehistoric handprint cave paintings (dating to approximately 30,000 years ago) are trying to identify the gender of the original ‘artists’, and asking whether they may have been created by the females of community rather than, as previously assumed, the males.

Dean Snow of Pennsylvania State University has analysed handprints from 8 caves in Europe to determine the sex of their owners, aiming to refute what he calls “unwarranted assumptions about who made these things, and why.” Snow’s analysis draws on the biologist John Manning’s studies of relative finger length. He found that while women often have ring and index fingers of approximately the same length, men’s ring fingers are usually longer than their index. Applying this insight to the Prehistoric cave paintings, Snow created an algorithm using a study of modern handprints belonging to people of European descent who lived near his university. This used various measurements – finger length, hand length, ratio of ring to index finger length and ratio of index finger to little finger length.

DigVentures - A Womans Place is In the HomeHis analysis of modern populations did not prove to be particularly precise with an accuracy rating of approximately 60% suggesting a ‘levelling out ‘ of sexual dimorphic characteristics (basically, modern men and women’s hands averaged out at a similar size). However, when he ran the prehistoric prints through his algorithm the results were showed far more sexual differentiation.

Snow studied hundreds of prints but, unsurprising due to their age, most were too faint or smudged to be useful. In the end 32 prints were selected for use from cave sites in France and Spain, including the caves of El Castillo in Spain, and Gargas and Pech Merle in France. The test was in fact much more useful for prehistoric hands as they proved to be more sexually dimorphic with little overlap between the two sexes, creating much more precise results. According to his model, the results showed that 24 out of 32 of the prints tested were created by women – or 75% in total.

So what does this mean for our ‘Anonymous’ women of deep Prehistory?  Snow thinks that a gendered division of labour in cave paintings also supports the hypothesis that other activities – like hunting – were also organised along gender lines. If the bison, reindeer and horses depicted in the paintings were hunted by men, it was the women who often hauled the meat back to camp. Although he points out that hunting was vital to the whole community (and not just the men who carried it out) his conclusions seem to fall back on the ‘Man the Hunter’ view of prehistory, and some archaeologists are sceptical about the results.

Biologist R Dale Gunthie previously carried out a similar analysis the results of which he claimed showed the prints were those of adolescent boys. This also seems like a sensible proposition, perhaps linked to some coming of age ritual hunt undertaken by young men of a certain age.

Certainly this new study raises interesting issues about the position of women in prehistoric communities, and takes a bold step in trying to identify the ‘anonymous’ people of the past with new techniques. More importantly, it makes us question as archaeologists whether there are any other traces of women throughout history that we have wrongly interpreted as the work of men – and that’s no bad thing.

It seems, for Upper Palaeolithic art at least, a woman’s place may very well have been in the cave.

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Written by Aisling Serrant

An all round museum educator and enthusiast, Aisling's the Family Festival Coordinator at the Museum of London Docklands.

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