ScienceShot: Were Most Cave Paintings Done by Women?

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Some handprints accompanying the most famous ancient cave paintings of ice age mammals such as horses and mammoths—long attributed to males—may have actually belonged to women. That’s the conclusion of a new study, in which a researcher compared the silhouettes of 32 handprints found next to 12,500- to 40,000-year-old cave paintings in southern France and northern Spain. Many of the prints, possibly one of the first forms of artist’s signature, are small, which has led some scientists to infer that the art was painted by adolescent males. But the new work, reported this month in American Antiquity, concludes that 24 of the hands belonged to females, based on both the length of the hand and fingers as well as the ratios of lengths of the index finger, ring finger, and little finger. Of the eight remaining handprints, only three depict the hands of adult males; the rest are of adolescent males. It’s likely that each of the hands stenciled on the cave walls—such as these in El Castillo cave in Spain—belong to the artist, not a model, the researcher contends. For one thing, the caves are typically small, so two people would probably have had trouble fitting into the small space together. Also, more than three-fourths of the hands depicted are left hands, which is the most likely one to be stenciled by a right-handed artist.

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