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Who painted the Ice Age caves of Europe?

December 7, 2013

In the period from 35 to 11 thousand years ago, humans painted, engraved and drew in caves, especially in the southwest regions of France. Scores of caves are decorated. Above all else, animals are depicted – mammoths, horses, wild cattle, deer of various species, bison, bears, rhinoceroses, felines, and many other species, along with some fish and birds. Human figures and depictions of therianthropes – animal-human hybrids – are less common but there is a fair amount of erotic graffiti. There are also abstract, geometric hieroglyphs, often in a consistent style. As well, there are finger flutings and both positive and negative handprints.


Typically, the painted caves were not homes; they were visited, not lived in. Who entered them? In those cases where the floor has been preserved, the footprints tell us that children and adolescents, as well as men and women, used the caves. (3, 7, 8, 9, 13, 21). There is the extraordinary case of a lone child who entered Chauvet cave about 26 thousand years ago – that is, some 9000 years after the pictures were created and not long before the cave was sealed by a rock fall. The child carried a torch and knocked the ash off it by swiping it on walls. Its visit is dated from that ash (3, 6, 8, 21).


In several cases (Bédeilhac, Gargas, Rouffignac), babies or toddlers were lifted and their handprints are found on the walls (3, 8, 9, 13). Researchers have also discovered that in Rouffignac cave, children 2–5 years of age were held aloft to leave finger flutings in wet red clay that coats the limestone (17, 19). The same is recorded for 30 thousand year-old finger flutings in Australia (2). Indeed, it has been argued that much of this art was created by children and adolescents, rather than by adults (3, 13).


More interesting, perhaps, was a study that used differences between men and women in the ratios of certain finger lengths to suggest that other finger flutings in Rouffignac cave were done by women and girls (19). A more recent study by Snow (17) sampled complete, negative handprints – hand stencils made by blowing pigment over the hand held against the rock – at Pech-Merle, Bernifal, Gargas, Rocamadour, Grotte du Bison in France, and at El Castillo and Maltravieso in Spain.  The total of reliably measurable prints was 32. The conclusion was that 8 handprints were by adult and sub-adult males. The remaining 24 were by females. (It is possible, however, that a single individual is responsible for more than one of these prints.) These results confirm one conclusion from an earlier study by Guthrie (13), that only a minority of handprints are those of adult men. They disconfirm his further assumption that the majority of handprints are those of adolescent males.


Snow is very aware that this result goes against the common assumption in archaeology that the cave artists all were male. And bloggers have been quick to seize on the idea that works near the handprints, such as the famous spotted horses of Pech-Merle, were created by women artists (5).


While it is not my aim to discredit the thesis that women were cave artists, I draw attention to circumstantial evidence indicating that males sometimes created the art.


To begin, we can look at Aborigine rock art, a living tradition with a history that reaches back as far as some European cave art. In this tradition, the vast majority of rock painting and chiseling is done by men (Robert G. Bednarick, pers. comm.)


A second point is that some European cave art is located in difficult, even dangerous to reach places. In other cases, the painters climbed on high walls or erected scaffolding (1, 7, 8, 9). If the women who entered the caves were usually accompanied by children, it seems unlikely they would then be responsible for such extreme activities and the art associated with them.


Then there is the graffiti. This can be highly abstracted and stylized but often takes the form of the vulva or of a feminine back and rump line (7, 13, 21). Of course it’s possible that such depictions were created by women. A similar theory has been proposed for the so-called Venus figurines of the period. They have been considered as examples of self-portraiture, with their lozenge-shaped, distorted forms the result of foreshortening as the carver looked down at her body (11, 15, 16). And carved depictions of pregnant or birthing women might have been done by women (7). But the full-frontal, pictorially unsophisticated depiction of denuded female genitalia seems an unlikely specialty for women artists, whereas this subject matter is often fetishized by sex-obsessed males. In particular, it has been suggested that these pictures were the work of adolescent males (13).


The final point concerns the astonishing accuracy of many of the animal depictions. These are very closely observed, in some cases showing seasonally specific hide condition and fat deposits, as well as sex and age (9, 13). Characteristic postures and interactions between animals are displayed in many cases. Indeed, it has been thought reasonable to accept these depictions as showing features of extinct species not deducible from skeletal remains (11). For instance, pictures of the European cave lion, Panthera leo spelae, show that the males lack the mane that is characteristic of present-day African lions.


The pattern of injuries in Neanderthal women and children suggest they were as much involved in hunting game animals at close quarters as were the males (4). But that seems not to have been the pattern for our Homo sapiens forbears, who divided the tasks of hunting and foraging along the lines of sex. Indeed, game hunting may have served as a form of sexual display (14). So it was males, rather than women, who studied living animals in close detail. The survival of those hunters and their relatives depended on their sensitivity to animals’ signals and habits. Undoubtedly, they acquired a deep respect for and reverence of the animals they hunted or lived alongside. The cave paintings testify to the awe with which these animals were regarded and the painters’ close familiarity with them. It is likely that some of those artists were male.



1. Aujoulat, Norbert, Lascaux: Movement, space, and time, New York: H. N. Abrams, 2005.

2.   Bednarik, Robert G. ‘The cave petroglyphs of Australia,’ Australian Aboriginal Studies, 2 (1990): 64–8.

3.   Bednarik, Robert G. ‘Children as Pleistocene artists,’ Rock Art Research, 25 (2008): 173–82.

4.   Berger, T. D. and Trinkaus, E. ‘Patterns of trauma among the Neandertals,’ Journal of Archaeological Science, 22 (1995): 841–52.

5.   Burke, Janine ‘Hands on the wall: were the first artists actually women? The Conversation posted September 7, 2013

6.   Clottes, Jean, Paul G. Bahn, Maurice Arnold (eds.), Chauvet Cave: the Art of Earliest Times, P. G. Bahn, (trans.), Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 2003.

7.   Cook, Jill, Ice Age Art: Arrival of the modern mind, London: British Museum, 2013.

8.   Curtis, Gregory. The Cave Painters: Probing the Mysteries of the World’s First Artists, New York: Anchor Books, 2007.

9.   Desdemaines-Hugon, Christine, Stepping-Stones: A Journey through the Ice Age Caves of the Dordogne, New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010.

10. Fagan, Brian M. Cro-Magnon: How the Ice Age Gave Birth to the First Modern Humans, London: Bloomsbury Press, 2010.

11. Fisher, E. Women’s creation. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1979.

12. Gould, Stephen Jay, ‘A Lesson from the Old Masters,’ Natural History, 105, (8),  (1996): 16–24.

13. Guthrie, R. Dale, The Nature of Paleolithic Art, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005.

14. Hawkes, Kristen, ‘Showing off: Tests of another hypothesis about men’s foraging goals,’ Ethology and Sociobiology, 12 (1991): 29–54.

15. McCoid, Catherine Hodge and McDermott, LeRoy D. ‘Toward Decolonizing Gender: Female Vision in the Upper Paleolithic,’ American Anthropologist, 98 (1996): 319–26.

16. McDermott, LeRoy, ‘Self-representation in Upper Paleolithic Female Figurines,’ Current Anthropology, 37 (1996): 227–75.

17. Sharpe, Kevin and Van Gelder, Leslie, ‘Evidence for cave marking by Palaeolithic children,’ Antiquity 80 (2006): 937–47.

18. Snow, Dean R. ‘Sexual Dimorphism in European Upper Paleolithic Cave Art,’ American Antiquity, 78 (2013): 746–61.

19. Stapert, Dick, ‘Finger Flutings by Palaeolithic Children in Rouffignac Cave: Comments on a paper by Sharpe & Van Gelder,’ Antiquity, 81 (312) (2007):

20. Van Gelder, Leslie and Sharpe, Kevin, ‘Women and girls as Upper Palaeolithic cave “artists”: Deciphering the sexes of finger fluters in Rouffignac Cave,’ Oxford Journal of Archaeology, 28 (2009): 323–33.

21. Whitley, David S. Cave Paintings and the Human Spirit, Amherst: Prometheus Books, 2009.


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