Women Were Likely Responsible For Majority Of Ancient Cave Handprints
October 16, 2013

Majority Of Ancient Cave Wall Handprints Were Made By Women

[ Watch the Video: Hands On Cave Walls Were Mostly Female ]

redOrbit Staff & Wire Reports - Your Universe Online

Using a technique that can tell the gender of the person who left handprints on a cave wall based on various hand measurements, a Penn State anthropologist has discovered that the majority of these markings were made by women.

Experts had long believed that these cave handprints, whether they were actually paint-dipped prints or stenciled, were made by men because the majority of other images on the walls typically depicted hunting scenes. Smaller handprints were believed to have been made by teenage or pre-teen boys.

Ten years ago, UK biologist John Manning attempted to use the relationships between a variety of  hand measurements to determine a number of different characteristics (including sex) of various individuals. In the new study, emeritus professor of anthropology Dean Snow adapted Manning’s hypotheses to handprints left in cave sites in France and Spain.

“Manning probably went way beyond what the data could infer, but the basic observation that men and women have differing finger ratios was interesting,” the professor explained in a statement. “I thought here was a neat little one off science problem that can be solved by applications of archaeological science.”

Snow reviewed the images in a book of Upper Paleolithic art, and quickly determined that one image was made by a female. He reviewed five other images and found that two-thirds of them also belonged to women. He went on to visit several caves, and also collected images from individuals of European and Mediterranean ancestry. He found that he needed a two-step process for modern hands in order to successfully tell male hands from female ones.

[ Watch the Video: Determining Sex Of Handprints On Cave Walls ]

“He first measured the overall size of the hand using five different measurements. This separated the adult male hands from the rest. Snow found that step one was 79 percent successful in determining sex, but adolescent males were classified as female,” Penn State explained in a statement.

“Step two compares the ratios of the index finger to the ring finger and the index finger to the pinky to distinguish between adolescent males and females,” the university added. “For the known hands, the success rate, though statistically significant, was only 60 percent. There is too much overlap between males and females in modern populations.”

Snow said that he initially believed that the amount of overlap in the modern world would make it impossible to determine the gender of the people behind ancient cave handprints. However, writing in the latest edition of American Antiquity, he said that sexual dimorphism (the difference between males and females) was greater in the past than it is today.

According to the university, the first step showed that only 10 percent of all handprints left on the Spanish and French cave walls studies by Snow and his colleagues were created by adult men. The second part of the study determined that 15 percent of the handprints came from adolescent males, meaning that women were responsible for three-fourths of the handprints found in those caves.

"By just eyeballing, I'm more accurate with the modern hands than the formulas I developed. There are some variables there that I'm not aware of yet. The algorithms are pretty good, but they could be better,” Snow said. His work was funded by the National Geographic Society.

Image 2 (below): These are images of male and female hand with measurements that determine gender. Credit: Dean Snow/Penn State