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I recently visited an exhibition about climate, nature and culture during the last glacial period.

One interactive exhibit about cave paintings sported a plaque saying:

"...Jetzt wissen wir, dass es genauso viele Künstlerinnen wie Künstler gab, wenn nicht sogar mehr."

My translation to English:

"...Now we know that there were as many female artists as male artists, if not more."

I have been asking myself, and now all of you:

How do we know that? What evidence has survived that can discriminate between the sexes of the painters?

Photo of plaque with added emphasis: Höhlenkunst. Welche Bedeutung haben die Bilderhöhlen? Vielleicht erzählen manche ein Schöpfungsgeschichte oder andere Mythen, die wir nicht mehr kennen? Vielleicht sind die Wände Kontaktzonen zu einer Welt im Jenseits?
Die Bilderhöhlen verzaubern uns mit Licht und Schatten, Formen und Farben. Lange dachte man, Höhlenkunst sei eine Männersache oder diene Initiationsriten für männliche Jugendliche. Jetzt wissen wir, dass es genauso viele Künstlerinnen wie Künstler gab, wenn nicht sogar mehr.

Translated text:

Cave art

What is the meaning of the picture caves? Maybe some tell a creation story or other myths that we no longer know? Maybe the walls are contact zones to a world beyond? The picture caves enchant us with light and shadow, shapes and colors. For a long time it was thought that cave art was a male thing or served initiation rites for male youths. Now we know that there were as many female artists as male artists, if not more.

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    Helcome to History SE. Entering text as graphic is problematic because it sabotages search functions. Also, you're obviously quoting, but without proper attribution.
    – o.m.
    Sep 4, 2022 at 8:57
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    Presenting text in the form of images also interferes with screen readers used by some users who are visually impaired: the built-in screen reader in Windows 10 will read this as (randomly picked example) "image 128 by 256 pixels" or some such.
    – njuffa
    Sep 4, 2022 at 9:25
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    You might also add exactly the venue you encountered this. Liike perhaps lokschuppen.de/eiszeit/ausstellung ? Sep 4, 2022 at 9:35
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    I had hoped by including the relevant section as text the image would only serve as illustration and not put off anybody. I do not know the precise author of that plaque, as it was only presented in the context of the exhibition. Which I have attributed, if incompletely. I am sorry. LangLangC: Yes, you are correct. I saw this in Rosenheim, but I believe the exhibition is touring. @axsvl Thank you for the link. I will definitely follow that up! Sep 5, 2022 at 9:42
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    Nobody is 'put off' (I guess from 'I'm not';)), as these comments are 'suggestions to improve' the question. (The 'relevant' quote was actually quite good/helpful already)) You can 'fix this' with an edit-in of relevant parts (like source of exhibition/Rosenheim), instead of merely only commenting. Have a look at help center and History Meta perhaps starting with FAQ. Sep 5, 2022 at 14:40

2 Answers 2

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A significant portion of cave paintings are so called "hand stencils": People pressed one hand onto the wall and applied color around the hand.

Cueva de las Manos, Perito Moreno, Argentina. The art in the cave is dated between 7,300 BC and 700 AD,[a] stenciled, mostly left hands are shown. Image: Cueva de las Manos, Perito Moreno, Argentina / Wikipedia

So from these paintings, we can infer the shape of the artist's hand. It had been known for a long time that among the hand stencils there were bigger and smaller hands. One older interpretation was that the bigger hands belonged to older, experienced (male) hunters, and the smaller hands belonged to young (male) "novices", maybe as some kind of intiation ritual.

But about ten or twenty years ago, scientists started to look closer into the hand shapes, and found interesting results. The proportions of a male hand and a female hand tend to be different. For example, with males the ring finger is typically significantly longer than the index finger. With females it's the other way around, or both fingers are of about equal length.

One of the first scientists to look into this was Dean Snow, an anthropologist from Pennsylvania State University. According to an German article on wissenschaft.de, the homepage of the German science magazine "bild der wissenschaft", he leafed through a photo book with pictures of stone-age cave art. There, he ran across a hand stencil that clearly didn't originate from a man, but from a woman. In that book alone, out of the six stencils shown, four were from female hands.

Snow decided to look closer into this, visited several caves with stone age art in Europe and got high-res photos from other caves. Additionally, he took measurements from the hands of contemporary people from the respective regions. He found that only about 10% of the stone age hand stencils had originated from adult males, and 15% from juveniles. The vast majority of 75% of the stencils clearly had originated from adult females. According to Snow's measurements, the sexual dimorphism of the human hand was even more pronounced 30.000 years ago than it is today. He had feared that because of the significant overlap today, it might be hard to assign the sex of the stencils' creators. But the stone age hands all fell into the extreme areas of the modern statistical distribution.

Snow published his findings in a paper in the journal "Antiquity" in 2006. Since, other scientists also found that at least the hand stencils weren't as much of a "male domain" as had been assumed before, for example Paul Pettitt (Durham University) et al., also in "Antiquity".

Obviously, this method won't work for other cave paintings like depictions of animals.

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    "For example, with males the ring finger is typically significantly longer than the index finger. With females it's the other way around, or both fingers are of about equal length." When I looked this up, the research seemed to be divided on the topic.
    – Nobody
    Sep 4, 2022 at 18:48
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    @pipe Divided as in one of the first results when you search for it is a Wikipedia article calling the method a pseudo-science with lots of citations for the claim that the ratio between the length of those fingers is not meaningful: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Digit_ratio
    – Nobody
    Sep 4, 2022 at 21:29
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    "Can you hold your hand on the stone while I paint it?" - "Sure, go ahead". Why would the hand shape of the cave painting have any relation to the artist? Sep 4, 2022 at 22:44
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    @YanickSalzmann Just from looking at that picture, most of the hands appear to be left hands. Assuming that handedness ratios aren't something that has changed significantly in the last 30,000 years (which I have no evidence for on either side), it's going to be much easier for most people to paint around their own left hand with their right than it will be to do the reverse. If you're going to paint around someone else's hand, I'd expect a more balanced mix of hands, based on the angles involved. It's by no means certain, but it seems logical to me.
    – Bobson
    Sep 5, 2022 at 0:38
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    @Nobody I scanned through the Wikipedia article. It appears that "in males the ring finger is typically significantly longer than the index finger, and vice-versa for women" is not contentious (statistically significant datasets exists). What is accused to be pseudoscience is the reason behind why this difference exists and what traits can be predicted based on the finger's ratio. This latter does not matter for the above answer.
    – Dhara
    Sep 5, 2022 at 8:05
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The evidence for equal male/female participation seems to be 'hand stencils'.

I'm sure the conclusions that have been reached about the sex of each hand are correct. And yes, in a narrow sense, it makes each participant an 'artist'.

But only in a narrow sense. A male or female hand print 'signing' a hunting scene would be more persuasive (though it might only indicate 'I killed this beast'). A wall full of prints just records 'there were this many people'. It tells us nothing about who organised the project.

"Maybe the walls are contact zones to a world beyond?" I'm afraid the gender 'evidence' is just as fanciful, though attractive to today's thought.

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  • So if a graffiti artist comes up with the idea of "let's all tag that wall", that makes that one person the sole artist because the others "just participated"? I don't think so. And what makes a hunting scene more important than a hand stencil?
    – DevSolar
    Sep 6, 2022 at 7:35
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    A better analogy might be a letter to a newspaper with multiple signatures. One person wrote it. The rest just agreed and signed.
    – Laurence
    Sep 6, 2022 at 12:12
  • You distinguish between hunting scene ("art") and hand stencil ("signature"). I don't, and I don't quite like the distinction. Either says "this was us, and this was our life".
    – DevSolar
    Sep 6, 2022 at 13:00
  • @DevSolar The second merely says: "I have at least one hand". Sep 6, 2022 at 14:09
  • @GregoryCurrie The former merely says: "I can draw lines on a wall".
    – wizzwizz4
    Sep 6, 2022 at 22:09

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