The Strange Truth About The People Who Painted Cave Art

“Fine art is that in which the hand, the head, and the heart of man go together.” —John Ruskin, The Two Paths, Lecture II: The Unity of Art

In A Nutshell

For decades, archaeologists thought that the paintings made by prehistoric people were done by men. However, new evidence strongly suggests that it was actually women who did the cave paintings. In addition, the cave painters were very good at correct anatomical details—better than most classically trained painters and even modern natural history artists.

The Whole Bushel

The oldest cave paintings in the world are about 40,800 years old and were found in 1908 in the Cave of El Castillo, in Northern Spain. Another major discovery happened in 1994 when Chauvet Cave was discovered in Southern France. It contains some of the most detailed and well-preserved cave art dating back to 28,000–30,000 B.C. Most of the paintings contain pictures of wildlife and often of men hunting animals like bison and deer. The general thought behind the meanings of the paintings is that they were made as a way to somehow influence or improve a hunt, although no one really knows for sure.

Since most of the depictions were of hunting and of animals, the general thought was that it had a masculine feel to it. If it was women doing the paintings, she may have been more inclined to paint other things. However, new research seems to indicate that the drawings were in fact made by women.

Dean Snow of Pennsylvania State University measured the hand sizes of the painters in eight different caves in Spain and France. They know the size of the hand because that is how the artist signed their work. They placed their palm on the wall of the cave and blew red dye, leaving a perfect impression of their hand for archaeologists to look at thousands and thousands of years later. When doing the measurements, they determined that 24 of 32 handprints were women.

This theory is backed up with other research about the time and dedication it took to make the paintings. For example, most amateurs would not be able to paint something as good as some cave paintings. In fact, some of the depictions were better than more modern artists. When four-footed animals walk, they walk in a pattern called the “foot-fall formula,” which goes left-rear, left-fore, right-rear, right-fore. In an examination of 39 paintings they found that 52 percent of 39 paintings had the animals anatomically correct for the foot-fall formula.

That number may not sound like a lot, but artists before 1880 only got it right 16.5 percent of the time—not even Leonardo da Vinci got it right. In 1880, Eadweard Muybridge’s famous Horse in Motion picture was made public and for the first time there was definitive proof as to how horses ran. Even after artists knew for sure how horses ran, they only got it right 42 percent of the time. The cave painter’s accuracy rate was even better than natural history museums.

Not only were cave people aware of how the animals ran, but they were able to depict that artistically. This indicates that they spent time studying and putting effort into their paintings; for them it was part of their survival. Match that with the prehistoric humans’ constant need to hunt—having a man sit out on a hunt could possibly lead to devastating results for the entire tribe. However, having a non-hunter do the paintings would be incredibly advantageous.

Show Me The Proof

National Geographic: Were the First Artists Mostly Women?
PLOS One: Cavemen Were Better at Depicting Quadruped Walking than Modern Artists
National Geographic: World’s Oldest Cave Art Found—Made by Neanderthals?

  • Rijul Ballal

    Well they didn’t have much to do other than worry about the local wildlife…

    • Gieaux Motor

      Just like modern times…

  • Sweet-Sativa

    I wonder what people and places looked like then. It would be cool to travel back in time and paint with these ladies.

  • TheMadHatter

    Everyone who can’t hunt gets to draw on the walls? That’s where little kids get it from!

  • Glad to see men weren’t total Neanderthals back in the day. If a had a cave full of women, I’d give them some paint or crayons too.

  • Ed

    This really makes you wonder all the knowledge people back then had about nature. It’s like the scientists of today focusing purely on that stuff. They must have known so many things we have no idea about today.

  • patrick weidinger

    Interesting

  • Thorshammering

    Wow. People get paid to do this… Hand size? Were people smaller back then? Are they comparing a primitive man and womans hands to get a solid standard for hand size? To me it seems like this would be a rainy day project for hunters, or it could be an injured hunter who misses the hunt, or it could be a nighttime activity because night = death, or it could be the cave elder who no longer hunts… Would you expect someone who never hunts to get the stride of an animal correct? Im not trying to down prehistoric women or anything, but these theories are horrible… “For example, most amateurs would not be able to paint something as good as some cave paintings.” Do we know what the typical amateur painters of the day drew like? Oh we don’t?

    • KRP

      How do you know that women didn’t hunt? The theory that women also painted isn’t actually a new one. Handprints believed to belong to both men and women have been found.

      There are lots of different theories regarding the purpose of the paintings, but none hinge upon them being merely “rainy day” projects. This is largely because a lot of them are found in places that were very difficult to get into back in those days.

    • moco25

      Good point, there doesn’t seem to be conclusive evidence either way…

    • dereule101

      Prehistoric man had the luxury of not hunting on rainy days?

    • EozS

      Uh, I’m pretty sure they factored in hand size at the time.

  • Valentine Smith

    If they were hunter-gatherer societies, the women would likely be putting as much time into gathering as the men did into hunting. (Using the KungSan as example.) So the “cave-housewife” part of it is just plain stupid — as if women had nothing to do all day but sit around and paint pictures. Doesn’t mean women didn’t paint. If there was an abundance of food, as there probably was in those pre-agricultural times, people of both sexes had time for non-survival pursuits including “arts and crafts.”

    • Liege_Lord

      I would speculate that they gathered as well, they didnt paint in caves 24/7… also, who said they were nomadic? It could be a localized or migratory culture where they frequent the same location and spend months in a sedentary lifestyle.
      Open your mind, it seems logical.

      • Valentine Smith

        If you re-read what I wrote you’ll find what you said is in agreement. I was responding to things said in the article, and posit a hunter-gatherer lifestyle rather than one in which “having a man sit out on a
        hunt could possibly lead to devastating results,” or in which “ having a non-hunter do the paintings would be incredibly advantageous.”

        Hunter-gatherers do not necessarily lead lives as desperately dependant on hunting as this assumes, and they typically get more of their nutrition from gathering, which is a vital role often taken by those who aren’t out hunting, i .e. the women. Typically hunting is less likely to be successful than gathering, so when meat is obtained, there is great rejoicing, but the sustenance gathered by women is essential to survival. Again, I’m just basing this on the known remnants of hunter-gatherer societies. But, to amplify the other part of it, their lives need not be ones of desperation, and short of time like ours tend to be. “Primitive” people would be shocked at how little leisure we have!

        And “nomadic?” You asked who said anything about nomadic. You did. I didn’t.

    • moco25

      True and women would be cooking, caring for the kids, gathering berries and root tubers and what not, as well as making blankets, clothes, etc. so really, it’s likely the elder men/shamans, possibly injured or sick men or even hunters who were just using their spare time were doing these……this was probably linked to a spirituality as well which has typically been male dominated for millennia in most cultures.

  • Jone_of_Snark

    I have always loved what Picasso said when he viewed the Lascaux paintings: “We have learned nothing.”

    And if anyone is interested in the Chauvet Cave, I highly recommend the DVD “Cave of Forgotten Dreams.” The close-ups of the paintings (which we as mere mortals will never, ever see with our own eyes) are simply astonishing in their accuracy and detail. The ancient footprints preserved in calcite, the cave bear skulls encased in stalagmites; it truly is the world’s greatest time capsule.

  • the big un

    Just as I thought even back then men doing all the graft while the ladies ponce about making things look “nice”

  • Ally

    Why did no one think to measure the hand prints before?

  • Chris Chapman

    Watched a programme a while ago where westerners went to live with a tribe in the Amazon who live a hunter gatherer style lifestyle for the most part with small scale jungle agriculture supplimenting their diets.

    The presenters commented how shocked they were at the amount of time the tribe had for leisure pursuits and socializing. In fact they were of the opinion they had far more free time than your average westerner!

    • moco25

      I’m sure that’s probably true.

  • moco25

    It sounds sketchy how they determined it was mostly females doing these paintings and not men…hand size based on hand prints on the walls? People were smaller back then and if it was mostly women doing these, how would they know the men’s hand sizes?? What standard were they basing this on? Maybe male children or teens were doing these paintings?? I mean it makes sense it would be women because you’d figure the men would be hunting…..but they wouldn’t necessarily be hunting all the time…I’m sure they had times of plenty and times of famine……possibly stored food for winter as well….so I’m sure men would have had time to paint, as well as children and teenagers. This article seems like a lot of guesswork.

  • vcxz

    “cave painters were very good at correct anatomical details—better than most classically trained painters and even modern natural history artists.” WHAT A FUCKLOAD OF BULLSHIT!