Horses in cave art: Were women mostly responsible?

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Four of the six hand stencils associated with the spotted horses mural in the Pech Merle cave in France were made my females, research suggests. Photo: Dean Snow/Pennsylvania State University
Four of the six hand stencils associated with the spotted horses mural in the Pech Merle cave in France were made my females, research suggests. Photo: Dean Snow/Pennsylvania State University

Could women have been responsible for many of the prehistoric cave drawings of horses?

It seems so, American research shows.

A Pennsylvania State anthropologist says he can determine the sex of some of the people who left their prints on cave walls, and most of them were women.

The famous spotted horse mural in the prehistoric Pech Merle cave in France was most likely made by females, the study suggested, noting that four of the six black hand stencils associated with the horses were made by women.

The assumption has long been that hand prints, whether stencils – involving paint blown around the hand – or actual paint-dipped prints, were produced by men because other images on cave walls were often hunting scenes.

Women leave their handprints on the cave wall
Women leave their handprints on the cave wall

The smaller handprints were assumed to be adolescent boys.

Dean Snow, emeritus professor of anthropology, came across the work of John Manning, a British biologist who about 10 years ago tried to use the relationships of various hand measurements to determine not only sex, but such things as sexual preference or susceptibility to heart disease.

Snow wondered if he could apply this method to the handprints left in cave sites in France and Spain.

“Manning probably went way beyond what the data could infer, but the basic observation that men and women have differing finger ratios was interesting,” Snow said.

“I thought, here was a neat little one-off science problem that can be solved by applications of archaeological science.”

When Snow saw a handprint in a book on Upper Paleolithic art, he realized that the image was female. A quick look at five other images found that two-thirds were female.

Unfortunately, most cave art photographs lack size indication, making it difficult to determine the relative size and the sex of the artist.

Snow visited several caves with art from the Upper-Palaeolithic period – about 40,000 years ago – and assessed the few existing images with size indications.

He also collected hand images from people with European and Mediterranean ancestry.

His findings have been published in the current issue of American Antiquity.

Snow found he needed a two-step process for the modern hands to successfully differentiate men from women.

Measurement protocols for hand scans (left) and hand stencils (right). Image: Dean Snow/Pennsylvania State University
Measurement protocols for hand scans (left) and hand stencils (right). Image: Dean Snow/Pennsylvania State University

He first measured the overall size of the hand using five different measurements. This separated the adult male hands from the rest. Snow found that step one was 79 percent successful in determining sex, but adolescent males were classified as female.

Step two compared the ratios of the index finger to the ring finger and the index finger to the pinky to distinguish between adolescent males and females. For the known hands, the success rate, though statistically significant, was only 60 percent. There is too much overlap between males and females in modern populations.

“I thought the fact that we had so much overlap in the modern world would make it impossible to determine the sex of the ancient handprints,” Snow said. “But, old hands all fall at or beyond the extremes of the modern populations.

“Sexual dimorphism was greater then than it is now.”

Sexual dimorphism implies that males and females differ. Not only were male hands larger, Snow found that development of the fingers, how long they are relative each other, also differs significantly.

The first step in the process showed that only 10 percent of the handprints on cave walls in Spain and France were left by adult males. The second step indicates that 15 percent were placed by adolescent males, leaving 75 percent of the handprints female.

“By just eyeballing, I’m more accurate with the modern hands than the formulas I developed,” Snow said. “There are some variables there that I’m not aware of yet. The algorithms are pretty good, but they could be better.”

Snow also looked at modern American Indian hands and found that the rules and algorithms developed for Europeans did not work. He noted that different populations required separate analysis.

His research was funded by the National Geographic Society.

Snow told the National Geographic: “There has been a male bias in the literature for a long time. People have made a lot of unwarranted assumptions about who made these things, and why.”

Scientists have long hypotheized that the drawings showcasing game animals — bison, reindeer, horses, woolly mammoths — were made by male hunters as a means of recording their exploits.

“In most hunter-gatherer societies, it’s men that do the killing. But it’s often the women who haul the meat back to camp, and women are as concerned with the productivity of the hunt as the men are,” Snow said.

“It wasn’t just a bunch of guys out there chasing bison around.”

In all, Snow examined hundreds of stencils in European caves, but most were too faint to be useful for analysis. The study ultimately includes measurements from 32 stencils, including 16 from the cave of El Castillo in Spain, six from the caves of Gargas in France, and five from Pech Merle.

Reporting: By A’ndrea Elyse Messer

Dean R. Snow. Sexual Dimorphism in European Upper Paleolithic Cave Art. American Antiquity, 2013; 78 (4): 746 DOI: 10.7183/0002-7316.78.4.746

 

Dean Snow, emeritus professor of anthropology, talks about Upper Paleolithic art on European cave walls.

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