12 September 2009
Also women were cave painters
Cave art seems always to have been thought of, for no especially good reason, as the work of men. Perhaps it is because much of the art lies in deep, dark caverns, or because many of the paintings and engravings are of large food animals such as mammoth and bison, which men might be supposed to have hunted. An American archaeologist has now proposed that at least some of the art is, in fact, the work of women. He has measured outlined handprints found on cave walls in France and Spain, some dating to 28,000 years ago, and he has shown that the relative lengths of fingers fit the proportions of female hands better than those of males.
"I had access to lots of people of European descent who were willing to let me scan their hands as reference data," said Dean Snow, of Pennsylvania State University. By matching their hand profiles against photographs of paint-outlined hands from the caves of El Castillo and Gargas, in northern Spain, and Pech-Merle in the Dordogne region of France, "even a superficial examination of published photos suggested to me that there were lots of female hands there".
The handprints were created by placing the palm, or possibly the back, of the hand against the cave wall, taking a mouthful of powdered pigment - usually red ochre - and blowing it. Sometimes a finger appears to be missing. Such absences have been attributed to mutilation, but bending the finger back while spraying the hand with the pigment powder would give the same effect.
Professor Snow believes that many of these hand prints are those of women. In two examples from Castillo, about 28,000 years old, "The very long ring finger on one example is a dead giveaway for male hands," he said. "The other has a long index finger and a short little finger - thus very feminine." At Pech-Merle, pigment-outlined hands encircle the famous 'spotted horses', the spots on which were created by the same blowing technique. By measuring and analysing the Pech-Merle hand stencils, Snow found that many were, indeed, female in proportion, raising the possibility, to say the least, that the horses were also created by women.
Handprints are not found in all, or indeed most, caves, however, and since many are those of men, it is so far impossible to say firmly which if any of the great animal friezes in caves such as Lascaux or Chauvet might be women's work. There is also the possibility that children contributed to the painting endeavours. The late Alexander Marshack noted that a zone near the floor in some caves had chaotic 'spaghetti'-like lines traced in the soft surface, and suggested that young cave-persons had been obtaining experience of drawing by torchlight in the gloom.
Source: Ties Online (11 September 2009)