Adjust your image of cave painters

You may have heard that men and women have some subtle differences in morphology — there is considerable variation and overlap, of course, but there are discernable patterns. It’s not just the obvious breasts and shoulders and hips, either, but, for instance, slight differences in the hands. Men tend to have ring fingers that are longer than their index fingers, while those two fingers in women are of approximately equal length. Which makes it interesting that many Paleolithic cave paintings include tracings of the artists’ hands.

hands

You can see where this is going. We should measure digit lengths in these stencils!

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."

There need to be massive caveats to the interpretation of the data. In modern populations, variation and overlap means that assessments of sex from digit lengths only has 60% accuracy, which is terrible — I checked out my own hands with a crude visual inspection, and by my right I’m a woman, by my left I’m a man, and both have very slight differences. Their sample size is also very small: 32 hands that were clear and sharp enough to measure. But at the same time, they report that the degree of sexual dimorphism in the hands was much greater than is seen in modern populations Well, maybe: I’d like to see the dimorphism data for modern hunter-gatherer populations, in particular from African populations with their greater genetic diversity. Also, you can’t call it sexual dimorphism if you don’t have an independent measure of the sex of the handprints. Maybe there was greater non-sexual variation in hand shape and, for instance, women made all of the stencils, but 15,000 years ago 25% of women had “man hands”.

Still, at least the data says that the cave painters were more diverse than expected, which fits better with a hypothesis that both men and women were active participants in these surviving, visible aspects of Paleolithic culture.

Comments

  1. george gonzalez says

    I don’t quite see how they can make the leap from seeing female handprints to the conclusion that women did the cave drawings.

    Perhaps the artists were male and they were just saying “look at these nice dainty hands, unlike our big paws”.

    Sonot only is there insufficient and inconclusive evidence, the conclusion is perhaps unwarranted.

  2. says

    Cannot be! Everybody knows that wimmin were child rearing and gathering in the stone age and had had no time to be creative and inventive. Because evolutionary psychology sez so. /sarcasm.

    Even 60% accuracy is not so terrible for a 32 persons random sample. If 24 from that sample were female with 60% accuracy, then I would be even without calculations inclined to believe that at least some of them were women with 95% accuracy (although my guess might be wrong and I am too lazy to perform the calculations). And even one female cave painter throws the traditional view of prehistoric people if not under the bus, then at least under the tricycle.

  3. says

    Uh, those are hand stencils: they were made by putting one’s hand against the cave wall and then spraying pigment, like ochre, over it, leaving an outline. They were not drawn.

  4. flex says

    Wow! Just wow!

    That’s what I love about science. Cave paintings have been extensively studied for decades, and then some bright researcher thinks, “Hey? I wonder if we can determine the sex of the painters by examining the outlines of their hands?”

    So the researcher does so, and turns decades long assumptions about neolithic society on their head. Assumptions which were likely based more on how we perceive our own society than the evidence we have gathered about theirs.

    Of course independent verification is going to be necessary, but a field which seemed fairly static for a long time all of a sudden has dozens of interesting questions. All of which will now be studied.

    Of course, there will undoubtedly be suggestions that the stencils were really made by cavemen using the severed arms of women; because parsimony has something to do with parsnips.

  5. carlie says

    I would be definitely coded male, no question. My ring fingers are each a centimeter longer than my index fingers.

  6. carlie says

    Also, in case anyone isn’t aware – they did it by chewing the ochre up in their mouths and then spitting it onto the wall. I’m surprised I haven’t seen much on trying for any DNA samples, particularly from newly-discovered caves.

  7. karley jojohnston says

    When I first read this on twitter (National Geographic feed, I think) people were already flinging the “gatherers had more free time than the hunters” bullshit.

    Of course, they had to frame it as “women did this because the men did the important things”. They can’t let women have ANYTHING.

    Also, I’m pretty sure it would be the other way around with regards to free time…

  8. iknklast says

    Imagine my surprise to find out after all these years that I’m a man! (By both hands, in fact). I remember seeing something about this years ago, and my ex had fingers that were equal, so his measured out as a woman.

  9. fantysq (a Radical Feminist and a Militant Atheist) says

    My baseline assumption has always been that men and women were equally involved in the creation of those paintings. I’m an artist myself and I always found the thought that there were women just like me drawing on cave walls thousands upon thousands of years ago to be really awesome and inspiring.

  10. says

    I’m with fantysq – I always thought the painters were likely some men and some women, because women have been making art for millennia, why would it be different there? In fact, I wrote a fairly execrable story positing a completely women-based explanation for the Venus of Willendorf, that it was a woman, in love with the chief’s partner and not allowed to be with her, who created the statue as an homage to her love. The story was terrible, but the idea’s good.

    Oh, and I – trans woman – can only measure my left hand’s fingers, as my right ring finger is bent at a weird angle from a bad dislocation, an old goalkeeping injury – have ring and index fingers of exactly the same length. If I had to guess, I think my right ring finger is slightly, very very slightly, longer than my index, because even bent as it is, it’s almost the same length. The bend is upwards, if my hand is palm-down; if I put my right hand on a table, the ring finger sticks up from the others’ flatness, and I can’t straighten it at all.

    Anyway, bravissima to our long-forgone foremothers and their paintings, hanging right alongside those done by their male counterparts, whatever proportion they happened to be.

  11. says

    Hmm, my relevant fingers are close enough in visually-estimated length that I need a guideline to determine how I’m supposed to measure them accurately. The pointy end is easy enough to determine, but where do I measure from on the other end? Maybe if I make a fist and mark the point of the knuckle? Or should I draw a baseline between the webbing in the two gaps?

    Also, hands look really weird if you spend too much time staring at them. Is that little finger supposed to be there?

  12. Great American Satan says

    I know a transman with man hands. 60% accurate, could be worse! Myself, womanly on the left and a millimeter or two of manliness on the right, (not strongly identified) cis-dude.

  13. chigau (違う) says

    george gonzalez #1

    I don’t quite see how they can make the leap from seeing female handprints to the conclusion that women did the cave drawings.

    Since the ‘conclusion’ that the cave paintings were done by men was based on absolutely nothing, this is an improvement.

  14. starcatherus says

    @carlie #8

    There also exist the possibility of the use of straws or reeds to act like a Paleolithic airbrush. I remember seeing that someplace.

    I also agree with the other commenters. It is stupid to assume that all the cave paintings
    MUST have been done by men. Anthropology, like many disciplines, has come some
    ways in removing the sexist (and racist, especially in Anthropology) biases, but there is still much work to be done.

  15. Lars says

    Maybe if I make a fist and mark the point of the knuckle? Or should I draw a baseline between the webbing in the two gaps?

    Webbing doesn’t sound very reliable. I’d go for the knuckles.

    Also, hands look really weird if you spend too much time staring at them. Is that little finger supposed to be there?

    I’m pretty sure it’s some kind of parasite.

  16. left0ver1under says

    If it’s true that religion used to be mostly matriarchal, it would help explain this discovery. And who would you want as your tribe’s traditional storytellers? The men who kept dying while hunting and warring, or the women who tended to live longer?

    The history of women as midwives might relate to it. How many thousands of years have women been doing that? This NIH item talks about women as healers during the middle ages, but I’d bet the farm history goes much further back than that.

    http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1694293/

  17. ledasmom says

    I always thought you were supposed to measure from the crease at the base of the finger.
    My right index finger is significantly shorter than my right ring finger; on the left hand, they are approximately the same length. This could be because of an accident as a child that squashed the end of my right index finger in a door, but interestingly the right index finger and the left index finger are the same length, and the right ring finger is significantly longer than the left ring finger.
    Is it always true that the thumb on the dominant hand is wider than the thumb on the non-dominant hand? It holds true for my family, but we could be weird.

  18. Snoof says

    @georgegonzales

    You could equally have said:

    ‘I don’t quite see how they can make the leap from seeing male handprints to the conclusion that men did the cave drawings.

    Perhaps the artists were female and they were just saying “look at these nice big hands, unlike our little hands”.

    Sonot only is there insufficient and inconclusive evidence, the conclusion is perhaps unwarranted.’

    That logic cuts both ways.

  19. says

    The other excuse I’m seeing now is that men were the artists, and they just dragged in the women to hold their hands up.

    I suggested that we could go one further: maybe the men chopped the hands off women and were marking the walls as trophies.

    It’s really interesting to see all these efforts being made to justify a strong dichotomy in the behavior of men and women. There’s no a priori reason to assume the painters were necessarily of either sex, but people just have to add these elaborations in violation of Occam’s Razor. Why, I don’t know.

  20. crocodoc says

    Erm… wouldn’t it be obvious, even in a 100% patriarchic society, that women who spend all their time in the cave, doing girlish things like cleaning up, tending the fire, giggling and raising children, they would also contribute some embellishment work? I mean, even to super-alphamales that would seem like womens’ work, wouldn’t it?
    So the real surprise for me is that anyone ever thought of male-only artwork.

  21. brainguy says

    I really respect PZ’s insights and conclusions, but the 2d 4d ratio literature is nearly all from the realm of evolutionary psychology–a discipline that PZ deems unscientific. Had these data suggested less gender equality in cave artistry, rather than more, would PZ have even entertained the idea that the conclusions might be justified?

  22. says

    Had these data suggested less gender equality in cave artistry, rather than more, would PZ have even entertained the idea that the conclusions might be justified?

    If your uncle were a chicken, would he lay brown, white, or speckled eggs?

  23. beergoggles says

    I wonder how sexual orientation plays into this since I’ve heard lesbians tend to have hands where the ring finger is longer, and gay men have hands where the index and ring fingers are closer in size (which seems to be the case for myself and my husband)…

  24. Tethys says

    My ring finger is visibly longer than my index finger on both hands. I have largish, strong hands on the end of long thin arms and have gotten lots of flak for this from men who feel that my hands being as large as their hands is somehow emasculating.

    It makes me wish for my Grandpa to come show them exactly what a large man hand looks like, because mine are dainty and artistic looking in comparison to the sledgehammers that the males in my family have.

  25. rq says

    Well, according to my hands, I am a man. Must reinvent myself as such.
    Also, how do they know all those handprints were from individual artists? Maybe one person just went around leaving their handprints, while others did other kinds of drawing (right? right?). Either way, it’s more believable that there were men artists and women artists (that is, that cave artists were diverse!), than assume that men did all the home decorating back in the day (and you know what they say about men who love interior decorating these days…).

  26. susan says

    Hunh. I’ve always assumed all of the cave artists were women. This is the first evidence I’ve ever seen that any of them were men.

  27. octopod says

    Yeah, I’m not seeing a good reason here to revise my flat priors on the gender of cave artists — that particular dimorphism is way too weak to shift me away from 50/50, or 45/45/10, or whatever the overall population was. But for those who were assuming 100% male, I suppose this makes them revise their expectations pretty hard.

  28. sigurd jorsalfar says

    But for those who were assuming 100% male, I suppose this makes them revise their expectations pretty hard.

    No it does not, octopod. It makes them post things like the very first comment in this thread.

    Which comment now has me thinking perhaps all those great masters of the past few hundred years were really women but they just got their husbands to sign their paintings for them because they wanted to say “look at these bold virile signatures, unlike our wimpy scrawls”.

  29. slatham says

    That is, if simpler assumptions like handedness cannot be shown to hold for these interpretations, then bigger socialogical ones are really out on a limb.

  30. unclefrogy says

    I never seriously thought about who actually did the paintings before though I may have done sort of unconsciously thought of men doing them because I’m a man but I am terrible at drawing and that ability is far out of my reach. The study even if not conclusive does offer new ways to look at the evidence we have. That there is indication that both sexes were involved in the making of the “art” also would suggest that everyone was likely involved with the caves in there ritualistic use. Add in the studies of sound inside those caves and I imagine that the “theatrical” experience would have been amazing.
    The audience would be much smaller but the drama would compare well with any high mass in any grand cathedral with pipe organ or a Verdi opera at the Met.
    uncle frogy

  31. says

    Men tend to have ring fingers that are longer than their index fingers, while those two fingers in women are of approximately equal length.

    Eh, just about everyone I know doesn’t fit this pattern, so I tend not to pay much attention to it. Both of my ring fingers are longer than my index fingers, so anyone analyzing my hand patterns would conclude I was a male with small hands.

  32. timothya1956 says

    In the Carnarvon Ranges National Park (central Queensland, Australia), there are a number of cave locations with hundreds of hand stencil paintings. One striking feature about them is that the hand size correlates with the height of placement on the wall (small at the bottom, larger in the middle, biggest at the top). Now if the height of placement also correlated with the finger length ratios, the hypothesis would be more strongly supported.

  33. says

    Also, hands look really weird if you spend too much time staring at them. Is that little finger supposed to be there?

    I think it’s pretty clear what’s going on with these cave paintings–the cave dwellers were sampling the mushrooms growing in their little homes, followed by a “did you ever really look at your hand?” moment. These people were really not so different from us.

  34. says

    feralboy12:

    I think it’s pretty clear what’s going on with these cave paintings–the cave dwellers were sampling the mushrooms growing in their little homes, followed by a “did you ever really look at your hand?” moment.

    LRRR: People of Earth – oh, that hippie’s starting to kick in – we’ve all learned a valuable lesson today, I realise now that – dude! My hands are huge! They can touch anything but themselves. Oh, wait.

  35. chigau (違う) says

    timothya1956

    (small at the bottom, larger in the middle, biggest at the top)

    ohno
    Maybe there were also *gasp* children doing the paintings!

  36. carlie says

    What’s going on with the finger length thing:

    It’s described as a dominant/recessive gene, but with sex influence on how the trait is expressed. In males the allele acts as dominant, causing a long ring finger, but in females it is recessive, causing a short ring finger. So given that heterozygotes tend to be the majority genotype, those males will have a longer ring finger and the females will not.

    HOWEVER, this is something of a “just-so” story when you actually look at population data. Take a look at the graph here, and also the associated studies; the peaks are almost entirely overlapping, meaning that even that explanation might be worth bupkus.

  37. carlie says

    I think it’s pretty clear what’s going on with these cave paintings–the cave dwellers were sampling the mushrooms growing in their little homes, followed by a “did you ever really look at your hand?” moment.

    I find it quite difficult to believe that there aren’t any paint tracings done in the same style but with penises instead of hands as the stencils in those caves.

  38. ledasmom says

    carlie:

    I find it quite difficult to believe that there aren’t any paint tracings done in the same style but with penises instead of hands as the stencils in those caves.

    Maybe the cave painters had hand-shaped penises.

  39. Lofty says

    Proof that humour has been around forever.
    “Bad joke, Thag! You owe me a new patch of clean wall!”

  40. Ogvorbis: Apologies Available for All! says

    feralboy12 @41:

    I think it’s pretty clear what’s going on with these cave paintings–the cave dwellers were sampling the mushrooms growing in their little homes, followed by a “did you ever really look at your hand?” moment. These people were really not so different from us.

    Now I have this image of them sitting around, a la Rajkummar (he of The Zombie TZT Thread some time ago) asking, “How do you describe the colour green to a blind person?”

    chigau @ 43:

    timothya1956

    (small at the bottom, larger in the middle, biggest at the top)

    ohno
    Maybe there were also *gasp* children doing the paintings!

    I suppose someone should drop the nigh unto innevitable quote, “What about dwarfs and midgets?” into this, but it will not be me. No way. Nope. Not gonna do it.

    Damn.

    ledasmom @ 46:

    Maybe the cave painters had hand-shaped penises.

    Thus selecting for women who prefer digital stimulation?

    SallyStrange @48:

    The study isn’t evidence of much. The reactions, on the other hand…

    Well, I freely admit that my little cis-gendered middle class white college educated male brain had never even entertained the possibility that men and women were both colouring on the walls. Though with one Boy and one Girl, it shouldn’t have been a surprise.

    Thanks, PZed.

  41. kittehserf says

    Surely it was Ayla and Jondolar doing the paintings. They’ve done everything else except invent the wheel, haven’t they?

  42. David Marjanović says

    And even one female cave painter throws the traditional view of prehistoric people if not under the bus, then at least under the tricycle.

    Well said.

    I would be definitely coded male, no question. My ring fingers are each a centimeter longer than my index fingers.

    o_O

    O_o

    On the Internet, no such agency knows you’re artiodactyl!

    When I first read this on twitter (National Geographic feed, I think) people were already flinging the “gatherers had more free time than the hunters” bullshit.

    *headdesk*

    Bullshit indeed. Hunting isn’t something you need to do every day, and not really something you can do every day either.

    Is that little finger supposed to be there?

    I find mine very useful :-)

    (They’re partially opposable!)

    If it’s true that religion used to be mostly matriarchal

    ~:-| Where are you taking that idea from?

    Oh, perhaps from Marija Gimb”woo”tas, who thought the Neolithic of Europe was matriarchal?

    Is it always true that the thumb on the dominant hand is wider than the thumb on the non-dominant hand?

    …No idea. It could be true for me, but I’d need calipers to find out for sure; I’ve never noticed or heard of this.

    Erm… wouldn’t it be obvious, even in a 100% patriarchic society, that women who spend all their time in the cave, doing girlish things like cleaning up, tending the fire, giggling and raising children, they would also contribute some embellishment work?

    Cave art is deeeeeeeeeep in caves, not near the entrances where people sheltered. It’s highly unlikely that people went to those places except for the art – for likely religious purposes.

    Now add the assumption that the shaman is naturally male, and suddenly there are no girls in the underground treehouse.

    and have gotten lots of flak for this from men who feel that my hands being as large as their hands is somehow emasculating.

    *facepalm*

    It makes me wish for my Grandpa to come show them exactly what a large man hand looks like

    My great-grandpa, I’m told, used to flatten wasps with one bare hand. That’s European wasps, maybe twice the volume of a dainty little American yellowjacket.

    Hunh. I’ve always assumed all of the cave artists were women.

    Why?

    Both of my ring fingers are longer than my index fingers, so anyone analyzing my hand patterns would conclude I was a male with small hands.

    But then, see comment 27. Relative finger length is thought to be correlated to testosterone levels during pregnancy, or so I’ve read a few times.

    I think it’s pretty clear what’s going on with these cave paintings–the cave dwellers were sampling the mushrooms growing in their little homes

    Not even. The black color? That’s manganese oxide. People took that (with water) into their mouths and then sprayed it over their hands…

    I find it quite difficult to believe that there aren’t any paint tracings done in the same style but with penises instead of hands as the stencils in those caves.

    :-) It’s too fucking cold there!

    The study isn’t evidence of much. The reactions, on the other hand…

    Heh.

    I suppose someone should drop the nigh unto innevitable quote, “What about dwarfs and midgets?” into this, but it will not be me. No way. Nope. Not gonna do it.

    Damn.

    *learns to bake Internets*

  43. timothya1956 says

    Hand stencilling seems to be an interesting case of cultural convergence. It has been observed at sites in Australia, Europe, South America, South East Asia and Africa. The age range seems to be from 9000 to 31,000 years before the present (no ages are given for the oldest Australian examples). A summary is available at:

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

    It doesn’t seem that anyone has tried to identify the sex or age of the stencillers.