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.
Cave paintings at the Altxerri cave system in the Basque region of northern Spain are about 39,000 years old, making them some of the oldest in Europe, Popular Archaeology reports.
A team of French and Spanish scientists analyzed the paintings, which include images such as the bison shown here, as well as finger marks, a feline, a bear, an unidentified animal head and more abstract markings. This early dating of these images puts them in the Aurignacian Period, believed by most archaeologists to be the first flowering of modern humans in the region, although whether or not there were still Neanderthals in the area at this time is an open question.
A later set of paintings in another part of the cave system, which has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site, date from “only” 29,000-35,000 years ago.
By comparison, the art at Cauvet Cave in France is about 31,000 years old, although it is of a much higher quality. The beautiful paintings there were the subject of Herzog’s breathtaking 3D documentary Cave of Forgotten Dreams.
The Field Museum in Chicago is the first venue in North America to host an impressive 3D reconstruction of the famous prehistoric cave paintings of Lascaux, France.
“Scenes from the Stone Age: The Cave Paintings of Lascaux” showcases the best-ever full-sized replica of the paintings, including many never before seen by the public. Visitors will feel like they’re in the cave itself as they enter into a tunnel that has the same paintings and relief as the original. The works are lit by simulated oil lamps and torches to replicate what they would have looked like to the Paleolithic artists who made them some 15,000-20,000 years ago.
Lascaux contains hundreds of images of animals, geometric shapes and an enigmatic human figure with a birdlike head. The artists used the natural contours of the stone to give the figures a 3D effect and the illusion of movement.
Also on display are period artifacts and a reconstruction of a Stone Age family, with descriptions of their surprisingly advanced culture.
The original cave was closed to the public in 1963 in order to preserve the fragile paintings, which were already beginning to show wear due to the changes in temperature, humidity and a rise in carbon dioxide due to more than a million visitors entering the cave. Now experts are trying to remove a growth of fungus, bacteria and algae that threaten the paintings.
“Scenes from the Stone Age: The Cave Paintings of Lascaux” runs from March 20 to September 8.
El Castillo Cave in Cantabria on Spain’s northern coast was one of the UNESCO World Heritage Sites investigated for the study. The earliest dates were a minimum of 40,800 years ago for a red disk, 37,300 years for a hand stencil, and 35,600 years for a club-shaped symbol. The red disk is at least 4,000 years older than anything previously found in Europe and arguably the oldest cave art anywhere.
These early dates have sparked an interesting debate. The paintings are from the transition period between Neanderthals and the arrival of modern humans. No cave art has been firmly attributed to the Neanderthals and scholars have long debated the level of their intelligence.
Researchers used uranium-series disequilibrium dates of calcite deposits overlying art in eleven caves to determine the dates. Like radiocarbon dating, this technique measures the change in radioactive isotopes. Unlike the more common radiocarbon dating technique, however, which studies the half-life of carbon 14, this technique studies the rate of decay of uranium 234 into thorium 230, a process that happens at a precise rate. It can date calcite up to 300,000 years old.
Very thin films of calcite were sampled from just above the paintings. Being on top of the paintings, they are younger than the art, thus the paintings could be centuries older than the minimum dates given.
The results have been published in the journal Science. Meanwhile, the team is sampling more cave art in the hope of finding even earlier dates.
One of the advantages of living in Europe is that you can visit lots of historic sites with your kids. This fosters an interest in the past, reduces museum fatigue and is a great way to learn together.
I live in Cantabria, on the north coast of Spain, a region filled with historic sites from Napoleonic forts to preserved Roman towns. Cantabria is most famous for the prehistoric cave art in ten caves that have been given UNESCO World Heritage status. From about 17,000 to 11,000 years ago, people decorated Cantabria’s many caves with pictures of bison, horses and other animals. They often used the natural contours of the rock to give the animals a three-dimensional look. In addition to the animals, there are strange patterns of lines and dots. Archaeologists have spent generations arguing over what these mean, but of course we’ll never know for sure.
My son is going on a school trip this week to Cantabria’s most famous cave, Altamira, and he’s looking forward to visiting a place that Dad has never seen. Yes, my 6-year-old is already competing with me for travel stories! And now he’s reminding me that I haven’t been to the Madrid train museum either. OK, kid, you win.
For more on the Paleolithic cave art of Cantabria, check out this video by Turismo Cantabria, which only has 267 views on YouTube. Sounds to me like Turismo Cantabria need to do more marketing. This is a great part of Spain for hikes, beaches and food, and makes a great alternative to the usual tourist circuit.