The Strange Truth About The People Who Painted Cave Art

By Robert Grimminck on Friday, April 4, 2014
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“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?