Paleolithic Women

Handprints in ancient cave art most often belonged to women, overturning the dogma that the earliest artists were all men.  PHOTOGRAPH COURTESY DEAN SNOW for National Geographic

Handprints in ancient cave art most often belonged to women, overturning the dogma that the earliest artists were all men. 

By Arlene Decker

Humans started evolving during the Pliocene epoch, splitting away from the chimpanzees that had evolved earlier. By the Pleistocene epoch, which started 2.6 million years ago, we were evolving from Homo erectus into Neanderthals. Life was plentiful on the planet despite a cycle of ice ages that came and went during this time and as the atmosphere continued to warm up, the evolution of humans continued into the present Holocene period which is characterised by receding polar caps and expanding and shrinking forests. By 8000 BCE humans had developed hunting skills and spread across Africa and south-west Asia. This period, known as the Stone Age, or Paleolithic period, is the longest period of human history and is thought to have begun 10,000 years ago, coinciding with the end of the Ice Age and the beginning of the Holocene period. Traditionally the Paleolithic period is considered to have begun when hominids first started making tools, but new evidence suggests that this could have been up to 3 million years ago. Most humans during this time lived on a non-productive economy which consisted of hunting, gathering and scavenging.

This is what you get when you google Paleolithic humans - men. Google Images. 

This is what you get when you google Paleolithic humans - men. Google Images. 

Now the accepted popular conception is that men at the time were the big game hunters that went out and killed large animals for food, made tools and generally expressed their testosterone in this fashion. While the women were gatherers, collecting berries and nuts and other fruits and vegetables, or child bearers or minders - without any prominent roles in the subsistence strategies of their group. This conception still very much exists in the minds of people today - both at an academic level and popular cultural level. In Distorting the Past: Gender and the Division of Labor in the European Upper Paleolithicauthor Linda Owens sets out to debunk the man as hunter myth. Observing that our cultural perspectives and their heritage affect the interpretation of data with a strong bias concerning how they were—and still are—collected, studied, and explained, Owen deftly presents evidence that shows that many present-day hypotheses about Paleolithic people derive from unreliable ethnological reports which have been reinterpreted in studies later used in the formulation of new hypotheses. At every turn she describes subtle evidence of gender bias in the views of both male and female anthropologists with respect to women’s roles in subsistence. Not only does she find generalizations to be frequently simplistic, she also finds that women’s contributions to subsistence to be grossly underestimated. Even down to the fact that the vegetal remains found at different archaeological sites have previously been ignored with greater emphasis placed on the remains of hunted animals. The book shows that, most likely, the role of large game hunting in Paleolithic subsistence was actually rather limited when compared to those activities thought to be—until recently—much less important and relevant than large game oriented hunting.

Distorting the Past is largely centered on studying the activities often associated with women, such as gathering, fishing, small game hunting, small scale agriculture, clothes making, child minding, and emphasising how crucial they were to the survival of the group. It stresses their importance not only in terms of dietary factors, but also notes that these activities supply those groups with materials that were used to make clothing, containers, tools, etc.The analyses of the activities and their importance, using a vast array of information sources, clearly show that the traditional feminine activities had much more importance in terms of subsistence than generally thought. It also makes clear that assumptions about female biology and the typical factors which are usually put forward to attribute to them the roles of gatherers, child bearers, and minders, and to disassociate them from any prominent roles in the subsistence strategies of their group are more the excuses that support biased accounts and studies than solid data. In many cases, these claims are supported by little or no evidence at all, and in most of them, they are gross generalizations which are clearly false, as these factors and their effects vary greatly in the way they affect women’s lives. In many ethnographic reports, men are also the sole tool makers because many researchers assume that women did not produce stone tools. Owen shows that the concept of men being the only ones who manufactured stone tools is an assumption made even by contemporary skilled female flintknappers. This illustrates, of course, how deeply entrenched these ideas presently are, even for people who are active in the field and can clearly see and document that women also can flintknap and make good caliber tools.

Paleolithic stone tools. Google Images. 

Paleolithic stone tools. Google Images. 

It’s interesting to note that Owen does not put women completely into large prey hunting scenarios. This could be because it’s wrong to assume that diet in prehistory was dominated by big game. Instead, Owen prefers to show that both men and women could have had a large variety of roles, depending on a long list of circumstances and factors. She does mention that women who were not pregnant or nursing would have been completely able to take part in those big game hunting activities, but the importance of women’s role in the diet and subsistence in general during Paleolithic times is mostly asserted by showing the importance of the so called “feminine activities.”

It’s possible to extrapolate that if traditional women’s activities were of equal importance to the survival of the group then it’s possible women would have had a more equal share in determining the movements of the tribe and where to settle for periods in order to make good use of abundant wild crops. Paleolithic humans spread all across Africa and south-west Asia at the time and women could have played a significant part in determining this spread. Owen shows that the past was inhabited by diverse kinds of people, who responded to specific settings and problems in manifold ways. In these contexts women were at times hunters, fishers, craftspeople, collectors, killers, educators, sisters, mothers, grandmothers and shamans. In this more balanced view of hunting and gathering societies, men and children are also central actors, and we begin to see Paleolithic life in which the myths that generations of scholars have helped to create are no longer the only illuminated points.

To many the climax of the Paleolithic society was in the expression of art found in the many instances of cave art found in France and Spain. These absolutely beautiful and still mysterious paintings were the first true expressions of landscape art.  We are still unsure what motivated the paintings or who the painters really were. Was it an expression of the mysterious forces behind all life? Or was it the expression of observable happenings and direct experiences of life back then?  Or was it an attempt to bridge the two? Up till recently the accepted theory was that because mostly the men hunted, they must have also painted these paintings in caves, perhaps to chronicle their kills or as some kind of "hunting magic" to improve success of an upcoming hunt. But as we have just seen in Distorting the Past,  men may not have been the only hunters and certainly hunting was not the form on which tribes relied on their subsistence. So what does that mean for this idea that men made these cave paintings? Did men make these cave paintings? 

In 2012,an archaeologist called Dean Snow from Pennsylvania University had been reading about the work of John Manning, a British biologist who found that men and women differ in the relative lengths of their fingers. Women tend to have ring and index fingers of about the same length, whereas men’s ring fingers tend to be longer than their index fingers. One day after reading one of Manning’s studies, Snow pulled a 40 year old book about cave paintings off his book shelf. The inside front cover of the book showed a colourful hand stencil from the famous Pech Merle cave in southern France. Snow recalls: “I looked at this thing and I thought, Man, if Manning knows what he’s talking about, then his is almost certainly a female hand”. 

These hand stencils found in the El Castillo cave in Cantabria, Spain, were probably made by a man (left) and a woman (right), respectively.  Photograph by ROBERTO ONTANON PEREDO, courtesy of DEAN SNOW for  National Geographic

These hand stencils found in the El Castillo cave in Cantabria, Spain, were probably made by a man (left) and a woman (right), respectively.

Photograph by ROBERTO ONTANON PEREDO, courtesy of DEAN SNOW for National Geographic

In a study supported by the National Geographic Society’s Committee for Research & Exploration in 2013, Snow went on to analyse hand stencils found in eight cave sites in in France and Spain. By comparing the relative lengths of ring and index fingers as per Manning’s studies, Snow determined that three-quarters - that’s 75% - of the handprints found across these caves were Female. 

"There has been a male bias in the literature for a long time," said Snow "People have made a lot of unwarranted assumptions about who made these things, and why."

So what does this tell us? It certainly supports Linda Owens theory that women played a more active role in societies of the paleolithic period than we have been previously led to believe. It also shows the need to keep challenging assumptions made by past studies particularly those concerning gender. Bias, whether conscious or unconscious, will always exist and needs to be seen for what it really is.  

It also tell us that it was women who were mostly the first landscape artists of society. These Paleolithic women were leaving their mark on the insides of these caves trying to communicate and express themselves in some way. Maybe they were documenting their physical world; maybe they were documenting their spiritual world; or maybe they were shamans trying to bridge the veil between the two worlds. We will never know for certain, but what we do know is they were at least saying I am here, I am a woman, and I am awesome.