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Cave Art in the Upper Palaeolithic Era to Determine Gender Roles?

By Edited Nov 13, 2013 1 1

A Review of:
Snow, Dean R. 2006. Sexual dimorphism in Upper Palaeolithic hand stencils. Antiquity 80: 390-404.

Men and women have had different roles in society for centuries, but it is not known if they had different roles in the Upper Palaeolithic era. In this era, hand stencils were being made in caves, most prominently studied in France and surrounding areas. Cave art has been studied for many years and is very interesting to a lot of archaeologists, but the theory at question is if there was sexual dimorphism in the hand stencils and what that could possibly display about the people living there in that time period. This article encourages us, as a human population, to further research our history and find more information on hand stencils that could possibly change our view of the human past significantly.

Modern day Europe has plenty of data available on current gene pools, which are mostly composed of Upper Palaeolithic origin. Snow decided to use this information as a start for some of his research because of its being readily available. It is well known, based on this data of European adults, that, on average, males have larger hands than females. It was determined by multiple measurements and techniques that were applied to try to find the most efficient tests to use, that digit ratios were the best measurements to use to distinguish between the male and female hand. The experimenter, Snow, took hand measurements of 54 males and 57 females, all of European descent, as a sample population to compare the hand stencils found in the caves with.

Snow studied six hand stencils found in four different caves in France. He took digital photographs of the stencils in the caves and put a 10-centimeter scale next to them in order to later measure the hand length and the digit length of all five individual fingers. By plugging the digit lengths into an equation, as shown in the Stage 1 Analysis, the six hand stencils were classified into categories of their probable sex. Four of the black colored hand stencils-one from Abri du Poisson, one from Les Combarelles, and two from Pech-Merle-were all classified as being "strongly female" according to their digit lengths and absolute hand lengths in the Stage 1 Analysis. The only red hand stencil from Pech-Merle was classified as being "strongly male" and the final hand stencil from Font de Gaume was classified as "weakly female." These results after the first analysis were good, but there was a slight problem because the test of measurements that was used assumes that all hand stencils are of adults, therefore possibly categorizing any sub-adult males into the female category. In order to fix this minor mishap, the Stage 2 Analysis was carried out.

Measurements for the second analysis were based on an equation that was developed to plug in ratios of the index finger to the ring finger and the index finger to the little finger. On average, based on the living population sample, both of these two ratios are significantly higher for females then they are for males, regardless of overall hand size. These measurements of Stage 2 should never be used alone because they are very inaccurate when used by themselves. However, the way they are being used in this study as a second calculation makes it reassuring in order to clear up the ambiguous cases. Surprisingly though, the results of the Stage 2 Analysis did not clear up the "weakly female" hand stencil from Font de Gaume. Instead, the only two hand stencils that had the results change was the one red stencil from Pech-Merle which changed from "strongly male" to "weakly male" and the black hand stencil from Les Combarelles which changed drastically from "strongly female" to "strongly male." After all of the research and measurements were analyzed, the results show that out of the six hand stencils four were females, one was an adult male, and one was a sub-adult male.

This study done by Snow has clearly shown that it is possible to classify hand stencils from the Upper Palaeolithic era. By doing both the Stage 1 and Stage 2 analyses, the found results showed that females made more of the hand stencils then males. This information displays that females were present in that area and seem to be very active in the making of the hand stencils in the caves that were studied. It could be considered that if females were more active in the making of the cave art, they could also have been more active in other aspects of the society. These results could cause us to question the fact that maybe human males did not always have higher status then human females. Men and women could have been equally significant in their society unlike most of the societies in our own human past.

With further research, it could be discovered whether humans in the Upper Palaeolithic era were more right hand dominated, much like the human population today. Observing the hand stencil pictures that were taken in this research, assuming all of the stencils were done facing upward and flat against the surface, it looks as if right-handedness was just as dominate at that time as in modern day. If it can be discovered whether a pigment tube was used, it would be easy to assume this right-handedness, because there is a tendency of right-handed people to put there left hands against the surface when using a pigment tube. It is easy to see that the hand art, and cave art in general, was made for a purpose by both males and females, young and old, alike. Our view of the Palaeolithic could be drastically changed forever depending on further research of the sexual dimorphism of hand stencils.

The cave sites studied were too small to make a generalized assumption and more research will need to be conducted in order to find out more about this intriguing topic. People today like to assume that females were always of a lower status then males because it has been that way in majority of our known history. This article makes us question that fact and urges us, as a human population, to further study these caves all over Europe. Once more information is found, it will be easy to generalize about whether females and males were equally active in the making of these hands stencils or not, which could also show what roles women played in the Upper Palaeolithic.



May 1, 2012 9:35pm
Interesting subject and food for thought.
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