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.

Museum Asks For Your Help Reassembling Medieval Cross

medieval
Replica of the stone, image courtesy WIkimedia Commons

The National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh is asking for your help in reassembling an early medieval carved stone.

The Hilton of Cadboll Stone was carved in Scotland around 800 AD by the Picts, a mysterious people who have left little in the way of a written record but created some incredible art. The stone was carved shortly after the Picts converted to Christianity and includes one of Scotland’s earliest representations of Jesus.

This particular stone has had a rough time in the past 1200 years. At some unrecorded date it was snapped off from its base, then later defaced by Protestant reformers. In 1676, the Christian cross on one side of the stone was chipped off and replaced with an inscription commemorating a local man, Alexander Duff, and his three wives.

While one side is still impressive, as you can see here, it seemed the rest of the stone had been defaced beyond all hope of restoration until a recent excavation at the original site uncovered the stones’ base.Unfortunately it’s smashed into some 3,000 pieces, and that’s where you come in. The museum has put every piece through a 3D scanner and is launching a website where you can try your hand at reassembling it.

The project is part of the museum’s upcoming exhibition Creative Spirit Revealing Early Medieval Scotland, which will open October 25. It focuses on the Early Medieval period (around 300-900 AD), an time between Scottish and Viking influence and marking the arrival of Christianity and emerging powerful elites. The online reassembly will begin on that date at the special website Pictish Puzzle.

The museum is especially calling for gamers to help out because, they say, gamers are better at manipulating 3D images and finding patterns.

Might be a fun break from killing zombies.

Could A Malaria Vaccine Be On The Way?

malaria
USAID and the President’s Malaria Initiative support the distribution and use of bednets to protect against malaria. Bednets are important for children and pregnant women who are most vulnerable to the disease. Photo: Alison Bird/USAID

The UK drug company GlaxoSmithKline is applying for regulatory approval of the world’s first malaria vaccine, the BBC reports.

The move comes after tests that the company said were promising. For the past several years, GlaxoSmithKline has conducted tests of its vaccine on almost 15,500 children in seven African countries. The company reports that 18 months after vaccination, there was a 27 percent reduction in malaria cases in infants aged 6-12 weeks and a 46 percent reduction in children aged 5-17 months.

Now it’s applying to the European Medicines Agency to start marketing the vaccine. GlaxoSmithKline’s research was supported by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the company says it will make the vaccine affordable for poorer nations.Ninety percent of the world’s malaria cases are in the poorer regions of sub-Saharan Africa where the vaccine was tested. Globally, malaria kills 800,000 people a year. It’s also a major hazard for adventure travelers. While antimalarial pills are generally effective, they can have serious side effects. A vaccination would go a long way to easing the burden on people who choose to visit the tropics.

Approval for the vaccine could come in 2014. Unfortunately, the percentages the company is quoting do not indicate that it will be as effective as many of the vaccines we are used to. Other measures are still needed like the education of the public of the dangers of standing water and the need to use mosquito netting. More innovative methods for fighting the disease like infecting them with bacteria are also being studied.

Hopefully GlaxoSmithKline’s vaccine will be just the first generation of a series of improving vaccines that will one day relieve the world of a dangerous disease.

Canadian Researchers Uncover Remains Of Tragic Arctic Expedition

Arctic
“Man Proposes, God Disposes” by Edwin Henry Landseer, 1864. Wikimedia Commons.

A few days ago we talked about the story of Dr. John Rae, a nearly forgotten Arctic explorer who in 1854 went in search of the missing Franklin Expedition. This was a Royal Navy expedition that set out in 1845 to find the Northwest Passage from the Atlantic to the Pacific through the frozen arctic north of Canada. Rae talked with the local Inuit people and heard the survivors had all died, some resorting to cannibalism before they succumbed to the elements. The public was so shocked that they turned their ire against Rae, whose career was all but ruined.

Now a Canadian research team is investigating the site to try to find out more about what happened. It’s known that the expedition involved two ships, the HMS Erebus and the HMS Terror, and that they came to grief near King William Island in September 1846, where they got trapped in the ice hundreds of miles form the nearest town.

The crew tried walking out, but none made it more than 40 miles. All 129 officers and crew died.

A Canadian team, led by Parks Canada has made five expeditions to find traces of this tragedy. They’ve been focusing their efforts on King William Island, where this year they found some 200 artifacts and human bones. They also scanned 486 square kilometers of seafloor with sidescan sonar in the hopes of finding one of their ships preserved in the frigid waters, but they had no luck.

The artifacts have been brought back to a lab to be studied. They’ve already found evidence that some of the metal objects were reused by the local Inuit. The bones will be returned to the site and given a proper burial next year.

Arctic Explorer Gets Belated Recognition

arctic
Wikimedia Commons

When I took my family to the Orkney Islands of Scotland last year I saw this curious memorial in St. Magnus Cathedral, Kirkwall. It’s for an Arctic explorer named John Rae. While the name struck a bell, I knew virtually nothing about him.

Most people don’t, and that’s a shame. Rae grew up in the rugged Orkney Islands in the 19th century. Although he trained as a doctor, the wilderness was his true love. He got work with the Hudson’s Bay Company, which owned large swatches of land in northern Canada and made millions off of the fur trade. Rae set off to Canada to work as a surgeon for the company, spending ten years at the remote outpost of Moose Factory.

Rae soon distinguished himself by spending large amounts of time with the Cree and Inuit, learning their languages and customs and gaining their respect for his ability to endure the tough conditions of the Canadians north.

When the Franklin Expedition, a Royal Navy group that was searching for the Northwest Passage connecting the Atlantic and Pacific, went missing in 1845, Rae was the man that was called upon to find them. He spent several years trying to track them down. In the course of his search he mapped many previously uncharted regions and found the Northwest Passage, the very thing the Franklin Expedition had failed to do.

In 1854 he learned from the Inuit that several years before, the last of the Franklin Expedition had died of starvation. The remaining survivors had resorted to cannibalism before they, too, succumbed. The site of the tragedy was deep in the back country and the Inuit refused to take him there.

When Rae filed his report, he was immediately criticized for not checking on the natives’ story himself and for daring to suggest that members of the Royal Navy would eat each other. His reputation was ruined. Even though another expedition did go to the site and concluded that there was strong evidence that the Franklin Expedition had resorted to cannibalism, the damage had been done. Rae died all but forgotten in 1893. Of all the great explorers from the Victorian era, he is the only one not to have been given a knighthood.

Now the Arctic explorer has been given some belated recognition with a new statue in Stromness, not far from where the local Hudson’s Bay Company office used to be. It was unveiled on the 200th anniversary of his birth.

You can learn more about the adventures of Dr. John Rae in this excellent article.