Cave Art May Have Been Painted By Mostly Women, Scientists Say

cave art
Hand stencil in Pech Merle Cave. Courtesy French MInistry of Culture

The prehistoric cave art of Europe may have been painted mostly by women, a new study covered by National Geographic suggests.

Archaeologist Dr. Dean Snow of Pennsylvania State University came to this conclusion through studying one of the most enigmatic icons of prehistoric European cave art–hand stencils. In many European caves, there are negative images of hands produced by placing the hand against the cave wall and blowing paint all around it. They range from 12,000 to 40,000 years old, an astonishingly long artistic tradition.

Men’s and women’s hands are different, especially in the relative length of the fingers, so Snow examined 32 of these these stencils from caves in Spain and France. He found that 75 percent of the hands were female.

It’s long been assumed that most cave art was done by men, since so many of the subjects have to do with hunting, generally a male activity in hunter-gather societies. Of course, what Snow’s data really show is that the majority of hand stencils in the sample are of women, which doesn’t say anything about the rest of the art. It could be that there was a separation in the sexes as to who painted what, or perhaps the majority of prehistoric artists were indeed women.

The biggest contributor to the study was the cave of El Castillo in Cantabria, northern Spain, where 16 stencils were measured. This cave is open to the public, so you can take a look at the hands yourself and come to your own conclusions. Gargas and Pech Merle in France were also in the study and open to the public.

Hand stencils have been found in areas as far apart as Argentina, Africa, Australia, and Borneo. It would be interesting to see what results Snow’s study would have on these artistic traditions.