Paleolithic European cave artists: exploring identities and challenging myths

Hand painting and the appearance of the “hand” motif on rock is a phenomenon seen all over the globe, dating as far back as 32,000 BP (Aurignacian period) at several European sites, 12,000 BP in Borneo, and 9,000 BP in North America.[4]

Hand motifs in North America. (source: bradshawfoundation.com)

Hand motifs in North America. (source: bradshawfoundation.com)

Red ochre hand motifs are abundant in the famous cave site of Chauvet Cave, France. They are found throughout the entirety of the cave system. The works found in this particular cave were painted during the Aurignacian culture, dated to approximately 32,000 years ago. The entirety of the Brunel chamber, for example, is covered in more than 400 ochre-painted palm prints. The Red Panels Gallery’s “Panel of Hand Stencils” is comprised of several red ochre hand stencils as well as two drawings of animals–one horse and one mammoth. The hand stencils sit within the outlines of the animals.[3]

Panel of the Red Dots in Chauvet Cave, France. (Source: dons maps.com)

The Panel of the Red Dots, another “hand-painted” work, is unusually abstract and is perhaps one of the earliest examples of pointillism–that is, the composition of a non-abstract form through the purposeful placement of pigmented dots. In a departure from the more commonly seen wall art composed of mostly-unmodified handprints, this large image in the shape of a bison was created by the artist(s) pressing the circular palmar portion of the hand against the wall, eventually forming an impressionistic animal-shaped piece. The consistency of the dots suggests that the painting was created by one person and was preconceived.

Hand motifs in Europe. (source: bradshawfoundation.com)

Hand motifs in Europe, Borneo, Australia, and South America. (source: bradshawfoundation.com)

Who were the makers of this art, how was it created, and what did it mean?

Archaeologists (demographically skewed toward male participation, historically) have long assumed that the makers of Paleolithic cave art were male, especially with the abundant depictions of animals and hunting scenes. Archaeologists uncovering these scenes over the last century have for the most part released interpretations imbued with the modern western understandings of gender divisions of labor, and imposed modern social meanings upon the artistic clues left by prehistoric peoples. Women appeared not to have a significant role in the creation of art or creation of any sort, for that matter (except for perhaps clothing, cooked food, and offspring…sound familiar?) Most explanations for the art have centered on shamanistic activity or teenage boys.[4] There is, in fact, no empirical justification for the idea of male-dominated cave art– it is likely a perception colored by our own cultural biases and history, in which male artists have played the most prominent artistic and religious roles.

Woman and child cave artists. (Image by Arturo Asencio)

Woman and child cave artists. (Image by Arturo Asencio)

New research by Penn State archaeologist Dean Snow, published in the 78th issue of American Antiquity in 2013, is turning the tables on our assumptions about the genders and identities of Paleolithic cave artists. Snow initially had the idea for studying handprint “signatures” left in caves after learning about hormone-related studies showing sexually dimorphic differences in finger ratios–of ring fingers and index fingers, specifically.

Drawings of average male and female hand morphology. Finger length ratios are often more varied and/or pronounced than those pictured. (Source: Dean Snow)

Drawings of average male and female hand morphology. Finger length ratios are often more varied and/or pronounced than those pictured. (Source: Dean Snow)

Ring finger length has been found to be highly correlated to in-utero testosterone exposure, and therefore a majority of men have a long ring finger relative to other fingers, namely in comparison to index finger length. Women, however, tend to have ring and index fingers of about equal length. Studies has found these ratios to be statistically reliable indicators of sex. Applying these studies to handprints at 8 Paleolithic cave sites, Snow found that a majority of handprints were almost certainly made by women. He was also able to distinguish, via hand morphology, that the smaller handprints were in fact not produced by adolescent boys. [1][2]
This has incredibly interesting implications for our reconstruction of social and gender roles in Paleolithic European groups. It would be interesting to see more investigations of this nature expanded to hand motif art throughout the globe, and well as in an even greater survey of European hand motif art for more evidence and theoretical fine tuning.

A short explanatory video produced by Dean Snow and Penn State University.

 

Sources:

1. Snow, Dean. Sexual Dimorphism in European Upper Paleolithic Cave Art. 2013. American Antiquity 78(4), 746–761.

2. http://news.psu.edu/story/291423/2013/10/15/research/women-leave-their-handprints-cave-wall

3. http://www.bradshawfoundation.com/hands/

4. Wikipedia.com/cave_painting

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European cave art: Altamira Cave, Spain

Altamira

Altamira Cave.

Parietal cave art has been the subject of wonder, fascination, and speculation ever since the first discoveries were made in Western Europe in the late 19th century. It has long been a phenomenon exclusively associated with Western European hunter-gatherer groups living from the Aurignacian period until the end of the Last Glacial Maximum. However, some recent finds in Africa, India, Australia and the Ural Mountains have shown that this type of artistic expression was by no means unique to European groups. Regardless of location, however, almost all of these sites link the spread of artistic creation with the presence of modern humans. One contentious exception is the Spanish site of El Castillo, explored in another post.

(More after the jump…)

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