National Geographic News
Hand stencils surround a mural of spotted horses.

Handprints in ancient cave art most often belonged to women, overturning the dogma that the earliest artists were all men.

Photograph courtesy Dean Snow

Virginia Hughes

for National Geographic

Published October 8, 2013

Women made most of the oldest-known cave art paintings, suggests a new analysis of ancient handprints. Most scholars had assumed these ancient artists were predominantly men, so the finding overturns decades of archaeological dogma.

Archaeologist Dean Snow of Pennsylvania State University analyzed hand stencils found in eight cave sites in France and Spain. By comparing the relative lengths of certain fingers, Snow determined that three-quarters of the handprints were female.

"There has been a male bias in the literature for a long time," said Snow, whose research was supported by the National Geographic Society's Committee for Research and Exploration. "People have made a lot of unwarranted assumptions about who made these things, and why."

Archaeologists have found hundreds of hand stencils on cave walls across the world. Because many of these early paintings also showcase game animals—bison, reindeer, horses, woolly mammoths—many researchers have proposed that they were made by male hunters, perhaps to chronicle their kills or as some kind of "hunting magic" to improve success of an upcoming hunt. The new study suggests otherwise.

"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."

Experts expressed a wide range of opinions about how to interpret Snow's new data, attesting to the many mysteries still surrounding this early art.

"Hand stencils are a truly ironic category of cave art because they appear to be such a clear and obvious connection between us and the people of the Paleolithic," said archaeologist Paul Pettitt of Durham University in England. "We think we understand them, yet the more you dig into them you realize how superficial our understanding is."

Sex Differences

Snow's study began more than a decade ago when he came across the work of John Manning, a British biologist who had found that men and women differ in the relative lengths of their fingers: Women tend to have ring and index fingers of about the same length, whereas men's ring fingers tend to be longer than their index fingers.

 

A comparison of hand stencils
These hand stencils found in the El Castillo cave in Cantabria, Spain, were probably made by a man (left) and a woman (right), respectively.

Photographs by Roberto Ontanon Peredo, courtesy Dean Snow

One day after reading about Manning's studies, Snow pulled a 40-year-old book about cave paintings off his bookshelf. The inside front cover of the book showed a colorful hand stencil from the famous Pech Merle cave in southern France. "I looked at that thing and I thought, man, if Manning knows what he's talking about, then this is almost certainly a female hand," Snow recalled.

Hand stencils and handprints have been found in caves in Argentina, Africa, Borneo, and Australia. But the most famous examples are from the 12,000- to 40,000-year-old cave paintings in southern France and northern Spain. (See "Pictures: Hand Stencils Through Time.")

For the new study, out this week in the journal American Antiquity, Snow examined hundreds of stencils in European caves, but most were too faint or smudged to use in the analysis. The study includes measurements from 32 stencils, including 16 from the cave of El Castillo in Spain, 6 from the caves of Gargas in France, and 5 from Pech Merle.

Snow ran the numbers through an algorithm that he had created based on a reference set of hands from people of European descent who lived near his university. Using several measurements—such as the length of the fingers, the length of the hand, the ratio of ring to index finger, and the ratio of index finger to little finger—the algorithm could predict whether a given handprint was male or female. Because there is a lot of overlap between men and women, however, the algorithm wasn't especially precise: It predicted the sex of Snow's modern sample with about 60 percent accuracy.

Luckily for Snow, that wasn't a problem for the analysis of the prehistoric handprints. As it turned out—much to his surprise—the hands in the caves were much more sexually dimorphic than modern hands, meaning that there was little overlap in the various hand measurements.

"They fall at the extreme ends, and even beyond the extreme ends," Snow said. "Twenty thousand years ago, men were men and women were women."

Woman, Boy, Shaman?

Snow's analysis determined that 24 of the 32 hands—75 percent—were female. (See "Pictures: Prehistoric European Cave Artists Were Female.")

Some experts are skeptical. Several years ago, evolutionary biologist R. Dale Guthrie performed a similar analysis of Paleolithic handprints. His work—based mostly on differences in the width of the palm and the thumb—found that the vast majority of handprints came from adolescent boys.

For adults, caves would have been dangerous and uninteresting, but young boys would have explored them for adventure, said Guthrie, an emeritus professor at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks. "They drew what was on their mind, which is mainly two things: naked women and large, frightening mammals."

Other researchers are more convinced by the new data.

"I think the article is a landmark contribution," said archaeologist Dave Whitley of ASM Affiliates, an archaeological consulting firm in Tehachapi, California. Despite these handprints being discussed for half a decade, "this is the first time anyone's synthesized a good body of evidence."

Whitley rejects Guthrie's idea that this art was made for purely practical reasons related to hunting. His view is that most of the art was made by shamans who went into trances to try to connect with the spirit world. "If you go into one of these caves alone, you start to suffer from sensory deprivation very, very quickly, in 5 to 10 minutes," Whitley said. "It can spin you into an altered state of consciousness."

The new study doesn't discount the shaman theory, Whitley added, because in some hunter-gatherer societies shamans are female or even transgendered.

The new work raises many more questions than it answers. Why would women be the primary artists? Were they creating only the handprints, or the rest of the art as well? Would the hand analysis hold up if the artists weren't human, but Neanderthal?

The question Snow gets most often, though, is why these ancient artists, whoever they were, left handprints at all.

"I have no idea, but a pretty good hypothesis is that this is somebody saying, 'This is mine, I did this,'" he said.

Follow Virginia Hughes on Twitter.

124 comments
Patricia Goodwin
Patricia Goodwin

Great article, interesting! I'm glad researchers are looking with new eyes. However, I don't see why researchers think ancient peoples were alone in the caves when caves seem a perfect place to be safe and warm at night. Maybe because researchers are more or less alone in the caves? I love the comment below about the quality of the drawings and the awe that quality creates in the onlooker (greg wells). Most people are awestruck by drawing ability. I can see how the drawings would have been considered sacred. Whoever had the ability and talent would have drawn them, man, woman or child. The drawings do seem to have been made by someone who may have been taught (or who may have taught themselves) more than just basic skills. 

Fred Freuden
Fred Freuden

The comments below are laughable. If you actually took time to read the article, you would find that the author did nothing to suggest women were superior to men, or that women exclusively dominated the cave painting movement. it just pointed out that 75% of cave paintings were done by women. But as usual, an article that so much as hints pointing out the accomplishments of women, or even something cool and important that women happened to do, without fail, men discredit it. 

Ming Tian
Ming Tian

"Women made most of the oldest-known cave art paintings, suggests a new analysis of ancient handprints. Most scholars had assumed these ancient artists were predominantly men, so the finding overturns decades of archaeological dogma."


Did you check EVERY cave in the world? EVERY painting in the world? Doubt it. It could be either women or men who did it most if you look at it like that, but who cares? It's finger painting.


Also, dogma about men being the only artists? From who? I've never heard anything of the sort or any of these "scholars". Most people generally never cared about the sex of the people making cave-paintings. I would assume that most people (including myself) would've thought that men and women equally contributed in it. I doubt anyone ever has thought it was ever mostly, or even completely, men who did this. It has nothing to do with a "male bias" in literature.


This article is just more useless "battle of the sexes" garbage. Give it up. It's amazing how women can do something (if this is even true) so insignificant and minor (yes it is) and it will be viewed as an amazing accomplishment. They made some finger painting in a cave, good for them. Not really a big deal.


Respect lost for National Geographic for making this just another "men vs women" article.

Ming Tian
Ming Tian

"Women made most of the oldest-known cave art paintings, suggests a new analysis of ancient handprints. Most scholars had assumed these ancient artists were predominantly men, so the finding overturns decades of archaeological dogma."


Did you check EVERY cave in the world? EVERY painting in the world? Doubt it. It could be either women or men who did it most if you look at it like that, but who cares? It's finger painting.


Also, dogma about men being the only artists? From who? I've never heard anything of the sort or any of these "scholars". Most people generally never cared about the sex of the people making cave-paintings. I would assume that most people (including myself) would've thought that men and women equally contributed in it. I doubt anyone ever has thought it was ever mostly, or even completely, men who did this. It has nothing to do with a "male bias" in literature.


This article is just more useless "battle of the sexes" garbage. Give it up. It's amazing how women can do something (if this is even true) so insignificant and minor (yes it is) and it will be viewed as an amazing accomplishment. They made some finger painting in a cave, good for them. Not really a big deal.


Respect lost for National Geographic for making this just another "men vs women" article.

D. Merrill
D. Merrill

Original intent impossible to decipher if you haven't lived their life.  What I'm getting when I'm reading the wall is:


Wanted: rich beefy hunter type, preferably good provider, snappy dresser.  Reply to  curvy female artiste ℅ this cave.


Rock art paint in my area has eroded away.  Pfffft, gone!  The lines have to be out of the rain, or pecked into the rock to survive.  What I assume is that the bulk of primitive painting has disappeared from France and Spain because it was not in a cave.  I'm guessing that the early painters had the same trouble with green fading away that we do.  So most of the color is gone too, even in weather protected caves.

Sam H.
Sam H.

I wonder if this had anything to do with the religious assumptions of that time period. A lot of the books I have read that make guesses at what life was like back then, paint a picture of women being less then men. Yet the religious guesses paints a picture of equality. Keeps you guessing that's for sure!

Myriad Mercurial
Myriad Mercurial

When you see a picture of cave art being made the representation is almost always of a caveMAN, usually painting depictions of his hunts. If one stops to think about it in terms of humans you know, however, that image immediately becomes suspect. Cowboy poets exist, but in all the couples you know who is most likely to decorate the house? I imagine these images were likely used to augment stories told to children as well as to decorate the home, where women traditionally reigned. 

Pavel Lujardo
Pavel Lujardo

Guys never cared much about interior decoration.

Maggie Boys
Maggie Boys

If you believe that the paintings are about fecundity and producing humans to match the vast herds of horses, aurochs, mammoths, etc, then it makes sense that women painted them. Also, it was very likely the women who did the butchering, and so would have understood the animals' anatomies. What a lot of people seem to miss is that these paintings were done over thousands of years in a pretty consistent STYLE. It must have required training to use these materials so skillfully and within a set of conventions, yet with a lot of sensitivity to how the animals actually moved. You don't create the Hall of the Bulls first time out.

Justin Town
Justin Town

good, I hypothesize that the women were taught this by the men and were relegated to mere hand-printing while the men executed the more complex drawings. lol

raphael ortiz
raphael ortiz

Besides what I wrote below my more poetic response to the research about hands that I conversed with myself about, about 35 minutes ago is simply that I know that my artist wife and I often went into our cave together with our ever ready flashlight and improvised, painted sacred animals and put our hand prints on them that they multiply in great numbers and that the Gods feeling the vibration of our wishes through our hands into the wall of the cave, hearing our thumping on stalagmites, shouting and screaming secret word, spinning and leaping, creating a collaborative ritual to inspire the Gods to bring the animals in great numbers to our valley on the day of the mother of abundance and the hunt, the day of the full moon  ...   

raphael ortiz
raphael ortiz

Once we accept the research there are all kinds of questions to ask... Was it an initiation a passing on or connecting of some kind with the animals???  Were the animals female or male??? But if the Zebras are female and are pregnant thats an important fact in the context of the entrancing cave and the transfer of spirit from hands to the Pregnant Zebras and from the pregnant Zebras to those being initiated??? Does it matter if the Zebras were painted by others by mature artists sanctified priestess and priests, shawomyn and shamen other than those they initiated? Were the initiated young womyn and young men linked to the animal spirits by touching near or on the animals linked forever by hand-print??? Does it matter if the animal paintings and hand prints are of different generations? Why are the techniques of representation different, why blow the mineral dust without water or for that matter spray the mineral pigment dust mixed in water... Certainly there is not enough saliva to blow spray the mineral pigment directly from the mouth with or without the tube free of clumps...                                                                             If the intention were not more than adventurous youths doing graffiti at a ritual site, it's a stupid find... If the sites where the hand prints are found is to have any value it is that both the hand prints and animals are ritual events with sacred meaning that as they link speak to reaching out to life in its primacy of procreation within which fecund womyn have primacy a primacy realized in the Venus of Willendorf... 

greg wells
greg wells

After reading all the comments I must reflect. I recently returned from the Grotte de Niaux in France.  Whether created by man,woman, or child, the paintings I experienced were not just the etchings of clumsy hack artists.  These were graceful, well  proportioned figures.  What does that tell us?  Many of us if given pencil and paper couldn't come close to creating a drawing that would be recognizable.  There were no practice pictures.  Whoever made these drawings were extremely motivated to reach remote areas  without light. 

Seeing them was a life changing moment. I am grateful to have had the opportunity. Many of the caves are now closed to the public.

greg wells
greg wells

After reading all the comments I must reflect. I recently returned from the Grotte de Niaux in France.  Whether created by man,woman, or child, the paintings I experienced were not just the etchings of a clumsy hack artists.  These were graceful, well  proportioned figures.  What does that tell us?  Many of us if given pencil and paper couldn't come close to creating a drawing that would be recognizable.  There were no practice pictures.  Whoever made these drawings were extremely motivated to reach remote areas  without light. 

Seeing them was a life changing moment. I am grateful to have had the opportunity. Many of the caves are now closed to the public.

Robert Greenfield
Robert Greenfield

Of course they were female.  If male, you'd see one or two hand prints and then the rest of the wall would be filled with stencils of male genitalia.

K. Claws
K. Claws

By a show of hands:  75% female!?.. probably the last vestiges of a peaceful cave art party, everything since then is definitely plagiarized.

Miriam Sutter
Miriam Sutter

It doesn't  really counts if the handprints are female or not. What counts is the new way of thinging history!

Robin B Smith
Robin B Smith

There's no evidence to suggest that the handprints were those of the Artists. Handprints exist in many places where there are no paintings at all, rather like "Killroy wuz here" graffitti.


Linda Wood
Linda Wood

I have thought for some time, since seeing the first hand print art, that those were women's hands. Good to know I am not alone in that theory.


Carol Miranda
Carol Miranda

Loved the article, and much more about women and their contributions to civilization is in our book called:

"STONE AGE DIVAS" by Gloria Bertonis and Carol Miranda

www.stoneagedivas.com and available on Amazon.com

Jeremy Greene
Jeremy Greene

Origins of Beauty [From Eduardo Galleano’s _Mirrors:Stories of Almost Everyone_ (Nation Books, 2009) page 3]

There they are, painted on the walls and ceilings of caves.

Bison, elk, bears, horses, eagles, women, men, these figures are ageless.They were born thousands upon thousands of years ago, but they are born anew every time someone looks at them.

How could our ancestor of long ago paint so delicately?How could a brute who fought wild beasts with his bare hands create images so filled with grace?How did he manage to draw those flying lines that break free of the stone and take to the air?How could he? …

Or was it she?

John Dooley
John Dooley

It should be noted that all they did was measure finger lengths of hand prints and determined that the hand prints might be female. This says nothing about the paintings and who painted them, only the hand prints.

Thomas Pope
Thomas Pope

I don't understand the notion that it should be controversial that earlier belief systems or that society in general during these time periods would have been matriarchal. We find Gaia figurines all over early human society. If they believed in a Mother Goddess, would it not make sense that by and large women would also have been spiritual and cultural leaders? 

feng-yuan chiu
feng-yuan chiu

We always get a lot of inspirations from what have been found out. But we have more joys and tons of creation from what have still not  been unveiled  during those explorations. And different histories and myths dug out in the ancient traces are loomed together or covered by each other, evolving into those modern stories to enrich our lives. Thanks to those archaeologists, their efforts to discovery of the former lives provide us so much different and fantastic ways to rethink and imagine the meanings of human being.    


Simon Peter
Simon Peter

Instead of basing things pertaining to sexuality, we should rather look at them as art form from the past that early men used to do in order to maybe pass the time or to record things that they wanted.

We can't say whether they were patriarchal, which would be a reason why the men would do the paintings. I don't think their reason to paint was to tell the future generations about themselves but for their own unknown reasons. Secondly, what does it matter if the painting were done by a man or a woman? It might have been that anyone could do the paintings, or just the female coz the men might have been busy or just the males, coz maybe the women may have been busy or by the children because they and nothing to do and painting formed as a wonderful way to spend some time.


My English is not A-Level but I do hope I have got my point across.

Michael Murphy
Michael Murphy

“After Altamira, all is decadence.”   

Pablo Picasso after seeing the prehistoric paintings in the Altamira Caves.

John Olechnicki
John Olechnicki

I love reading about this sort of stuff. Cave art really excites me! Such a direct link to the past. I hope I can see some cave art for myself one day!

Sean Hao
Sean Hao

may be they just want to paint, you know, there's no papers or anything likewise in the past unfortunately. Obviously they can't do that on the ground, because it could have been treaded. Therefore, the only feasible way is to inscribe the paintings onto the wall especially in the caves, because most caves would not be corroded. 

Patty Capetola
Patty Capetola

maybe they left them as a kind of family portrait, or growth chart, or a way to say hi to the future.  i don't think we've changed very much since then; it's possible they did this just for fun.

Joseph Paton Marshall
Joseph Paton Marshall

This is startling but revealing news. Do you remember that motto of the Ladies Home Journal: Never underestimate the power of a woman"? C'est vrai.  Le plus change le plus le meme chose.

Raquel Baigorria
Raquel Baigorria

EXACT! I THINK THAT THEY WERE YOUNG BOYS AND WOMEN!!!

IN WINTER TIME LONG DAYS INSIDE MAYBE,THEY HAD NO LIGHT!THEY ,I SUPOSE,THEY ,PROBLABY THINKIT ABOUT IT, AND IN THE SUMMER THE MALE ADULTS WENT'ON HUNTING...I THANK THEY FOR TOO LET US THEY ART!.

Bonnie Sheppard
Bonnie Sheppard

Standing deep in the caves at Niaux with three other people, we all gasped aloud as our guide switched on a torch in the darkness to illumine the drawings in the cavern. I have visited many of the world's great museums and galleries before and since that revelatory moment, and nothing has taken my breath away like these drawings did. I was stunned the direct communication between the artist(s) and me over a 15,000 year span. I thought of our human connection and the desire to illustrate. But not once did I think - is this a male or female display. After reading the comments here, I wonder why folks get so distressed or annoyed to think it might have been women. Incidentally, I haven't read too many people's responses who think this is a positive assertion. Do we have to  assume, always, it is male?  It is simply a superb example of the desire or need to express thought through incisive, elegant line.

Bill Webb
Bill Webb

This guy certainly knows how to get attention without bothering to do any real science

Nati Barquero
Nati Barquero

There is a theory by Gourhan that states that the paintings found in the caves were symbolism; and the people of that time are believed to have worshipped a Goddess; goddess of fertility, mother nature etc. So if the hand prints are women's hand prints, wouldn't it make these paintings some sort of fertility ritual? The hand print being a symbol of "the one who gives life", like if a woman's hand validated the painting/the ritual.

miriam lizada
miriam lizada

I think most of us have made hand prints when we were kids. We did it on the beach and on paper with watercolors. We also made traces of our hands with pencils or ballpoint pens. We made hand prints simply because they are there.


Tony Cooley
Tony Cooley

When I was an active caver, I would turn out my light and relax when I had to wait for another caver to explore a lead and return. I did it to save my carbide, which powered my light source, but I also enjoyed this because I found the darkness restful.  The statement that ten minutes of darkness would result in altered consciousness sounds ludicrous.  I may have acclimated to darkness as a result of the amount of caving I used to do, but it is hard to imagine that simple exposure to darkness would have that effect.  If the shaman went in for that purpose, I suppose he/she could use the darkness to help.  I wouldn't think it would be a universal response.

Jungel Kalashnikov
Jungel Kalashnikov

@Fred Freuden Probably because men were out doing other s*** and not hanging out in the cave painting for fun. I don't understand why we need to gender everything. It will be interesting looking back after 40 years to see how we had to stain everything with out identity crises. 

Ming Tian
Ming Tian

Also, who says the only type of art was cave-painting? And who says the only type of painting was only in caves? What about sculpting? Painting on rocks outside or using some other type of cloth-like item to paint on? What about music? Dance? Etc. etc.


The title of this is very misleading, "Were the first artists mostly women?", but who says the first artists were cave-painters? If you take the above examples I gave it could be men or women who, cave paintings don't tell us anything about the first ARTISTS, only about the first *cave-painters*, which is only ONE TYPE of art.

Keiko Sono
Keiko Sono

@greg wells Thank you for your insight. For many years I have used these paintings in my art class as a starting point in discussing what constitutes good drawings. As you described, the grace and subtlety found in these paintings are remarkable, much as what we value now in modern and contemporary art. I use a photo of figures engraved in a prehistoric cave side by side with a drawing by Matisse. The similarity is stunning, they could've been done by the same artist.


But these qualities are so subtle and refined, many people don't seem to get it, as evidenced in the comments here. What I have always found astonishing is that the people in the community must have recognized that these artists had talent, that they had the same ability to recognize this art as graceful and skillful, as you and I do, in order for these artists to be spared of their duties to spend time in remote caves to paint. Refined and sophisticated taste is not a product of modern culture, it is a deep, intuitive sense that helped human species evolve and succeed.

Jan Priddy
Jan Priddy

@Simon Peter I'd suggest "early people" not "early men" since you are concerned about accuracy

Steven Douglas
Steven Douglas

@Nati Barquero Thats a good thought. And we do see a lot of earth mother worship in early agrarian societies. But just from my limited knowledge, I think these hunter gatherer societies predate that. 

Julianne Chladny
Julianne Chladny

@Jungel Kalashnikov your response is considered misogyny - if there was no prejudice there would be no need to highlight the accomplishments of Women in particular - in the ROLE that they take on and continue to play in the development of Human existence and education. If you were Educated in visual Art and/or archaeology - you know what a difference this finding makes to the History of Art and Language in terms of who the major Players really are. Women in general are certainly NOT equally mentioned with QUALITY representation in History Books; as such we have an amassing population of male supremacy, and Women pay the price Physically, without Justice through legal infrastructure. 

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