Ancient Women Hand Archaeologists a Sexist Surprise

Measurement protocols for hand scans (left) and hand stencils (right). Image: Dean Snow, PSU

Measurement protocols for hand scans (left) and hand stencils (right). Image: Dean Snow, PSU

Determining the mark of a man isn’t difficult in modern society. Say you come across a room filled with beer can pyramids. Chances are they were made by men. A complete mess of a kitchen table complete with chicken wing bones stuck to the table and half-eaten pizzas draped across the backs of the chairs? Typical male bravado. An office cubicle pranked by a series of lawsuit-inducing phallic graphics? Look no further than the juvenile male copyboys.

Similarly, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that most of the cave paintings left behind by ancient humans were put there by men. Who else would paint a series of pictures depicting the vicious slaughter of animals and other men? So naturally, anthropologists assumed that ancient men also put the handprints left amongst the gory scenes there. It’s just like assuming a series of photocopied asses was the work of the same men who left the phallic reasons for firing them.

But not so fast, says Dean Snow of Penn State University. Just like there are ways to tell a woman’s ass from a man’s even from a photocopy, we can figure out if men or women left ancient handprints. And it turns out that women were just as in to graffiti as their male counterparts.

Snow came up with a methodology for taking five measurements of a handprint and using ratios of finger and palm size to work out phalangelical gender. In modern humans of European descent, relative sizes of pieces of the hand were able to correctly identify male versus female ownership 79 percent of the time. What’s more, the remaining 21 percent of error was entirely made up of adolescent boys.

Small hands aren’t just for carnies.

After some further research, however, Snow was able to determine that hands of ancient humans were even more dimorphic than today’s. That is, the subtle differences between hands of the opposing sexes were even greater. Based on this knowledge, he figured out a way to further separate the handprints left by women from those left by pimply faced caveboys.

The results? Only 10 percent of the handprints on cave walls in Spain and France were left by adult males. And only 15 percent were left by caveboys. That leaves a whopping 75 percent of the handprints for the women.

Now for the criticism.

I have no clue how Snow was able to figure out that hand dimorphism was greater in ancient humans than today. Why not? The stupid research paper is behind a pay wall. I won’t go on a giant tirade about scientific journals and paying for access to scientific results, but come on, let’s make the information freely available so its out there for everyone to use and build on.

And now, a video on the findings that may or may not be more entertaining than the preceding 450 words.

The study, “Sexual Dimorphism in European Upper Paleolithic Cave Art,” was published in the Society for American Archaeology by Snow and Snow alone.

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About bigkingken

A science writer dedicated to proving that the Big Ten - or the Committee on Institutional Cooperation, if you will - is more than athletics.
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