Art history (and all history, for that matter) has shortchanged women for a long time. A recent article about the authorship of the earliest cave paintings—the earliest images made by human beings—sets the discrimination clock back tens of thousands of years. Archaeologist Dean Snow studied the hand prints found in caves containing prehistoric artwork and found that 75% of the handprints were those of women. This theory, if true, shatters the idea of prehistoric men both hunting animals and exclusively documenting the hunt. With these simple handprints, such as those found in the Argentinian Cueva de las Manos (“Cave of the Hands”) (shown above), these first women artists reach into our time for recognition and question all the assumptions we’ve made (and sometimes still make) about artists based on gender.
According to British biologist John Manning, women usually have ring and index fingers that are approximately the same length, whereas men usually have ring fingers longer than their index fingers. (Note the “usually.” Your fingers may differ.) When archaeologist Snow came across Manning’s research a decade ago, he began to look closer at the hand stencils that appear in prehistoric cave art around the world. Ancient artists would blow paint through a tube onto their hand placed against the rock, thus leaving a negative impression of their hand. (Most stencils are of the left hand, probably because the artist held the tube in their right, dominant hand.) Snow realized that the ring and index fingers of many of these hands were the same length. Putting those findings together with Manning’s theory, Snow concluded that a large percentage of the hands belonged to women.
For the study published in the journal American Antiquity, Snow studied hundreds of hand stencils, but focused on the 32 clearest from the Cuevas de El Castillo in Spain and from the Pech Merle caves and the Caves of Gargas in France. Snow then set up an algorithm that could predict gender based on finger lengths with 60% accuracy when measuring the hands of modern subjects. Because 60% sounds a bit low for the claims Snow makes about the cave painters, he points out that the gender disparity in finger lengths was much more pronounced in prehistoric people. Prehistoric finger length differences between the genders “fall at the extreme ends, and even beyond the extreme ends,” Snow explains. “Twenty thousand years ago, men were men and women were women.”
If you accept Manning’s study, if you accept Snow’s findings, and if you accept the idea that the gender differences were even clearer in the stone age, what does that mean for the authorship of the cave paintings? Basically, it turns all the assumptions scholars have made about the paintings on their head. The consensus opinion accepted that adult men or perhaps young boys painted in the caves as a way of documenting the hunting of animals, perhaps as part of an initiation ritual or some other religious ceremony. These shamans (or shamans in training) painted the animals hunted as well as the hunt itself because hunting was an exclusively male domain. Women, it was assumed, helped by dragging the meal back to the cave and cooking it. Men then “signed” their work with handprints. But if those signatures are those of women, that would mean women were present at the hunt enough to paint it. Their assumed “gatherer” role in hunter-gatherer societies would be transformed overnight. Also, if the painters were the shamans or religious figures in the society, what does it mean if that group included women?
It’s amazing how the assumptions of predominantly male scholars have tipped the scales in favor of the prejudices of male-dominated societies when it comes to art. From the days when history painting seemed too brawny a genre for gentle ladies to more modern times when Grace Hartigan had to masquerade as “George Hartigan” because of the Abstract Expressionist boys’ club, gender-based assumptions about who can do what kind of art continually affirm the old joke about what happens when you assume—it makes an “ass” of “u” and “me.” If we can date this asinine behavior all the way back to the caveman and cavewoman days, then I think we’ve finally put to rest the idea that women (or any other group) are categorically incapable of anything less than the full spectrum of expression.
I still remember coming away from watching Werner Herzog’s 2010 documentary Cave of Forgotten Dreams about Chauvet Cave, a cave in France containing human-made images believed to be 32,000 years old, in total awe of just how long human beings have acted on the urge to create art. After reading Snow’s theory about women painters in caves such as those, I realized all the forgotten dreams of those women and so many women artists since. Those hands placed on those walls millennia ago reach forward across time and space and speak to us through art. Rediscovering that those voices were those of women should make us all want to reach back just a little more.