The famous paleolithic cave paintings in places like Pech Merle in France are full of images of game animals like bison and mammoths, a fact that has traditionally led many archeologists to assume that most of the artists behind the paintings were men. But those caves also contain a good number of hand prints and stencils, and a new study looking at cave sites in France and Spain concludes that the majority of those hands belonged to women — suggesting that these early artists may in fact have been female.
"There has been a male bias in the literature for a long time," Dean Snow, a Pennsylvania State archeologist and the lead researcher on the study, told National Geographic. "People have made a lot of unwarranted assumptions about who made these things, and why."
For his study, Snow examined hand stencils from eight different cave sites and categorized them by gender (women and men tend to have different ratios between the lengths of their fingers). His finding: three quarters of the stencils appeared to come from women.
Does that mean that women were behind the paintings as well? It's hard to say. And to make things even more confusing, National Geographic points out that one evolutionary biologist looked at similar Paleolithic hand prints and concluded they belonged to... teenaged boys. But a number of researchers find the new results convincing, including archeologist Dave Whitley, who called the findings "a landmark contribution" in the article.
Of course, regardless of who the prints belong to or what the relationship was behind the artists and the hand printers, it still doesn't answer some of the fundamental questions behind the paintings, like what their creators thought they meant. As archeologist Paul Pettitt told National Geographic: "We think we understand them, yet the more you dig into them you realize how superficial our understanding is."