Cave painting from Pech-Merle, Dordogne: measurement of the hand stencils suggests that some artists were female

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Cave art seems always to have been thought of, for no especially good reason, as the work of men. Perhaps it is because much of the art lies in deep, dark caverns, or because many of the paintings and engravings are of large food animals such as mammoth and bison, which men might be supposed to have hunted.

Cartoons have often suggested that women played a part, however, with the animals shown as a shopping list, or as home décor.

An American archaeologist has now proposed that at least some of the art is, in fact, the work of women. He has measured outlined handprints found on cave walls in France and Spain, some dating to 28,000 years ago, and he has shown that the relative lengths of fingers fit the proportions of female hands better than those of males.

“I had access to lots of people of European descent who were willing to let me scan their hands as reference data,” said Dean Snow, of Pennsylvania State University.

By matching their hand profiles against photographs of paint-outlined hands from the caves of El Castillo and Gargas, in northern Spain, and Pech-Merle in the Dordogne region of France, “even a superficial examination of published photos suggested to me that there were lots of female hands there”.

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