Early Artists Were Female, Too.

Had to share this fascinating new research pertaining to ancient cave artwork and the female – so often throughout art history (sometimes consciously, sometimes not), women are disregarded as having little or no impact on the trajectory of art throughout human history. This new study of the hand prints found within some of the words oldest cave murals provides evidence that women were in fact taking part in even these early examples of artistic expression – perhaps even representing that the roles of women in these early anatomically modern human societies had greater social roles than even what we have come to recognize during the last century. While feminist archaeology has long since discarded the  ‘man the hunter’ ideology, there is unfortunately still pervading androcentrism in the realm of art, especially in the ancient world.

Also – this seemed like a great opportunity to discuss feminism in the field of archaeology, so check out an excerpt from one of my undergraduate research initiatives after the cave art article.

Below is an excerpt from the article from National Geographic.


“Women made most of the oldest-known cave art paintings, suggests a new analysis of ancient hand prints  Most scholars had assumed these ancient artists were predominantly men, so the finding overturns decades of archaeological dogma.

Archaeologist Dean Snow of Pennsylvania State University analyzed hand stencils found in eight cave sites in France and Spain. By comparing the relative lengths of certain fingers, Snow determined that three-quarters of the hand prints were female.

“There has been a male bias in the literature for a long time,” said Snow, whose research was supported by the National Geographic Society’s Committee for Research and Exploration. “People have made a lot of unwarranted assumptions about who made these things, and why.”

Archaeologists have found hundreds of hand stencils on cave walls across the world. Because many of these early paintings also showcase game animals—bison, reindeer, horses, woolly mammoths—many researchers have proposed that they were made by male hunters, perhaps to chronicle their kills or as some kind of “hunting magic” to improve success of an upcoming hunt. The new study suggests otherwise.

“In most hunter-gatherer societies, it’s men that do the killing. But it’s often the women who haul the meat back to camp, and women are as concerned with the productivity of the hunt as the men are,” Snow said. “It wasn’t just a bunch of guys out there chasing bison around.”

Experts expressed a wide range of opinions about how to interpret Snow’s new data, attesting to the many mysteries still surrounding this early art.

“Hand stencils are a truly ironic category of cave art because they appear to be such a clear and obvious connection between us and the people of the Paleolithic,” said archaeologist Paul Pettitt of Durham University in England. “We think we understand them, yet the more you dig into them you realize how superficial our understanding is.”

Sex Differences

Snow’s study began more than a decade ago when he came across the work of John Manning, a British biologist who had 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.


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

Photographs by Roberto Ontanon Peredo, courtesy Dean Snow

One day after reading about Manning’s studies, Snow pulled a 40-year-old book about cave paintings off his bookshelf. The inside front cover of the book showed a colorful hand stencil from the famous Pech Merle cave in southern France. “I looked at that thing and I thought, man, if Manning knows what he’s talking about, then this is almost certainly a female hand,” Snow recalled.

Hand stencils and hand prints have been found in caves in Argentina, Africa, Borneo, and Australia. But the most famous examples are from the 12,000- to 40,000-year-old cave paintings in southern France and northern Spain. (See “Pictures: Hand Stencils Through Time.”)

For the new study, out this week in the journal American Antiquity, Snow examined hundreds of stencils in European caves, but most were too faint or smudged to use in the analysis. The study includes measurements from 32 stencils, including 16 from the cave of El Castillo in Spain, 6 from the caves of Gargas in France, and 5 from Pech Merle.

Snow ran the numbers through an algorithm that he had created based on a reference set of hands from people of European descent who lived near his university. Using several measurements—such as the length of the fingers, the length of the hand, the ratio of ring to index finger, and the ratio of index finger to little finger—the algorithm could predict whether a given hand print was male or female. Because there is a lot of overlap between men and women, however, the algorithm wasn’t especially precise: It predicted the sex of Snow’s modern sample with about 60 percent accuracy.”

Check out the rest of the article here, it’s a fascinating read.


Below is an excerpt from one of my undergraduate papers, entitled “Feminist Theory in Archaeology: The Search for the Female Through Excavation and Reinterpretation.” If you’re not terribly interested in delving into feminist anthropology and gender theory, perhaps don’t read further!

Feminist theory in academia has proven to be a continual source of new and intriguing interpretations regarding gender ideologies, cultural mindscapes and societal norms.  Although often perceived as combative and increasingly superfluous in contemporary American society, Feminist theorists are proving themselves vital to the continuing resonance of anthropological theory, particularly in regards to their contributions to the subfield of archaeology.  Women applying this feminist perspective to archaeological excavation and interpretation face the difficult task of discerning the lives and actions of women throughout time and history who’s lifeways have been lost or overlooked by an arguably androcentric academic environment.

Within past anthropological theorizing, the actions and significance of women within society have often been misconstrued or ignored due to the pervasiveness of this bias, perpetuated by male centered societies and the exclusion of women in academia largely until the 19th-century. Mary Hawkesworth states that “Dissatisfaction with paternalistic politics premised on malestream conceptions of ‘women’s nature’ sustains feminist epistemological challenges to men’s claims to ‘know’ women’s nature or what constitutes ‘women’s best interests.”[1]  Feminist theorists within the archaeological community (this including specifically feminists or gender archaeologists), combat these exclusive ideas, and contribute to the growing awareness of a gendered historical past through new methods of archaeological excavation, new ways of interpreting previously ungendered data or artifacts, and new means of understanding the concept of past gender and sexuality through the reconstructions of ideologies in archaeological data.


In terms of their earliest beginnings, (as with many other fields in academia), women were not directly introduced into archaeological work, but rather were pulled into the field by male relations – often their husbands.  The wife of a predominant archaeologist would often follow him from excavation to excavation, doing what might be referred to as “archaeological housework- extensions of gender appropriate roles typical of Western society.”[2]  In other words, their tasks might include cleaning artifacts, copying notes, organizing specimens, and completing any errands that were designated as specifically indoor activities.  Women such as this were often referred to as the “hidden spouse”[3]– the background player, which would not be seen, heard, or given any direct say in the interpretation of said archaeological materials/data.  This was of course common throughout most disciplines and workplaces prior to movements towards women’s independence, but in terms of archaeology, women’s interpretations and theories were lacking from the very beginning.

In her article on feminist scholarship, Kelley Hays-Gilpin stated that “The self-image that characterizes male archaeologists as masculine, strong and active – as the ‘cowboys of science’, promoted a system of negative rewards for publicly engaging in feminist discourse of any kind.”[4] Therefore, the brunt of the actual excavation work was left to the men, who were considered to be more well equipped for digging, hauling and lifting, certainly not the cleaning or sorting.  It was considered among male archaeologists that allowing females onto the excavation site would prove too distracting for the men, who would then have to abandon the necessities of fieldwork (spitting, taking their shirts off, swearing), which of course, were entirely vital to the process.

Even though this bias may be lessened in contemporary excavations, men sometimes still regard women as being unable to compete in terms of heavy lifting or excessive digging. In regards to this inequality on the field, Hays-Gilpin’s wrote that “Women were seen as incompatible with the tightly defined all-male social setting of the excavation, where easy companionship and consequent productivity reigned until a woman threatened to disrupt it.”[5]  Of course, comparable to their exclusion from the field, women were also left out of the process of interpreting artifacts, sites, remains, etc.  Their elucidations (although certainly founded in an understanding of the removal of women’s roles from anthropological theorizing), were not factored into the creation of 19th century interpretive models, which elevated the position of males throughout history, and failed to appreciate or value the contributions of women.

Female skeletons did not receive as much attention as males, females graves were always considered secondary to male graves, and in general, a Western bias was placed on almost all archaeological data.  This implied that because women took up very particular roles in 19th and 20th century Europe and America, that all women present within the archaeological record must have been just as subdued and uninvolved, and were therefore not considered during the formation of interpretive models.  As a result, any conceptions of the roles undertaken by women in the societies under study would have been ignored, and a vital piece in the understanding of society was clouded.


Margaret Meade and her instructor Franz Boas were early proponents for female social advancement, in contest with the preexisting theoretical model known as biological determinism,[6] which Boas worked against in developing his own theoretical standpoints.  By turning down the biological determinist views of sex and gender (which viewed these categories as static, unchanging and mutually exclusive), Boaz and Meade opened up the academic field to the concept of questioning previous notions of gender roles and means by which individuals within societies presented themselves as belonging to a particular sexual category.  In her ethnographic work, Meade made use of psychoanalytics to determine the ways in which males and females in different societies all over the world express and understand their gender and their sex.

Feminist theory really came to fruition in the 1960’s and 1970’s with the feminist movements for societal advancement for women, and it was during this time that the interest for gender research began to take hold. The publication of “Archaeology and the Study of Gender” by Conkey and Spector in 1985 was a major stepping stone for feminist theorizing in archaeology, and I reference this piece frequently as an excellent source of archaeological examples. Following this publication, “symposias, workshops, and dedicated conferences brought together researchers interested in integrating archaeology, feminist theory, women’s studies, and the interpretation of a gendered past.”[7]

The collective goals of feminist archaeologists and theorists all tend to gravitate towards the verification of the importance of women’s roles in the past, almost as a means of validating the contemporary societal position of women, in a world that is arguably still largely male-oriented.  These goals tie into the objectives of feminist theorists in general, in that the intentions remained to advance and legitimate the presence of women in contemporary society.  A broad definition of these goals would be “…challenging the way archaeology is practiced, the way it is presented, and the nature of archaeological interpretation.”[8]  Alison Wylie stated that one of her main goals as a feminist theorist was “…to address questions that are relevant to women or, more generally, to those oppressed by gender-structured systems of inequality.”[9]  This could relate both to women as well as men whose gender roles seemed to conflict with what society would consider appropriate.
Barbara Voss stated in regards to her feminist agendas, “they [feminists] called for new approaches to archaeological interpretation that would promote gender-inclusive models of the past, question the universality of a rigid sexual division of labor, and challenge the ways that men’s purported activities are valued more than those believe to be performed by women.”[10]  Other goals of feminist archaeologists and theorists are to identify the presence of women and specifically female activities within the prehistoric archaeological record, particularly in terms of the gendered activities that express female agency and societal activeness.  The search for these prehistoric women requires some reflexivity, in terms of reexamination of previously accepted modes of thinking which emphasize prehistoric males as the agents of change and advancement.  Accompanying the material aspects of the goals of feminist archaeology is the theoretical aspect- which is aimed at primarily changing prior conceptions of how theory is traditionally applied to male-gendered ideologies. Many of the ideologies behind the exclusion of women from the field were one in the same with the academic conceptions of females through time, (and more broadly), conceptions of gender.  Much of the theoretical interpretation regarding women’s roles within past societies focused around the notions of males as the pervasive leaders, hunters, doers, fighters, actors, etc. Whereas women’s roles were categorized as the opposite: gatherers, passive participants, victims, etc.  These categorizations of gendered roles are propagated by 18th and 19th century generalizing theories such as the theory of Unilinear Trajectory, Cultural Evolutionism, and Biological Determinism, which emphasized and privileged progress and mechanism over nature, indigenous cultural traits, and arguably, male over the female.Margaret Conkey stated that “We have categorized most of the human past into periods defined by technologies or economies (e.g., the Stone Age, the Iron age, hunter-gatherers, village agriculturalists); the centrality of tools and technologies in explaining our evolutionary success is much heralded. However, by not only questioning these assumed centralities and objects of knowledge as being highly gendered ideologies but also pursuing other possible factors and processes that must have been at work over the course of human cultural life.”[11]  These notions came primarily from the beliefs about biological implications of gender, and more specifically the ideas concerning what appropriated gender roles for women should be.  Here we can clearly see the impact of Western ethnocentrism on women of all societies and all times – the idea that ‘if women in our society do these things and act this way, women of all previous societies must have acted similarly and done comparable things.’


This concept was rooted in older beliefs about sex and gender (there being little differentiation between the two in the context of biological determinism), particularly the notion of gender as static, fixed, and unchanging.  Any evidence pointing towards the contrary that was found on archaeological sites was easily ignored or simply unnoticed.  As Hawkesworth’s article on the epistemological basis of feminist theory appropriately states, “The classic texts of Western history, philosophy, literature, religion, and science, riddled with misinformation about women, are handed down as sacred truths. When individual women attempt to challenge the adequacy of such misogynist accounts, they are frequently informed that their innate inabilities prelude their comprehension of these classical insights.”[12]

This implies that our Western education has privileged men for centuries, and this has caused a negative reaction against women who attempt to break these established models. The presence of contemporary feminist archaeologists confirms the contesting of these male-centered academic roots, and the “…rejection of the equation of human behavior with the behavior of men.”[13]

The last point is extremely important, as it deals with the negation of the Eurocentric bias, assuming that all women throughout time behaved as they did in contemporary 19th and 20th century societies. This western bias often also relates to differentiation in gender theory, such as the search for gender variants within the past through archaeology. In an article on Queer Theory and Near Eastern archaeology, Karina Croucher stated that “A male gaze on the female subject is inherent in our way of observing the past, it is not only a gendered gaze, it is also a heterosexual gaze- masculist and heteronormative.”[14] This implies that even in analysis of archaeological materials and the formulation of ideological formulas from such materials, this bias exists.

At the roots of these ideas are a number of theoretical approaches to feminist archaeology and gender, each of which resonated with the male-driven academic communities, who often categorized gender an empirical factor that required little attention or interpretation. There are six basic theoretical concepts that outline the presence of gender differentiation within societies, accompanied with anthropological interpretations. All of which are laid out in Margaret W. Conkey’s “Programme to Practice: Gender and Feminism in Archaeology,” which was an incredibly influential piece for feminist archaeologists and theorists. These theoretical concepts consist of: “gender as sociobiological strategy,”[15] “gender as social construction,”[16] “gender as evolutionary process,”[17] “gender as political economy,”[18] “gender as agency,”[19] and “gender as performance.”[20]


Gender as a sociobiological strategy relates mostly to Darwin’s ideas of reproductive fitness, posturing that “…gender is the culturally meditated means by which sex groups seek to maximize their reproductive fitness by contributing more genes to the genetic constitution of future generations.”[21] This concept is entirely biological, and places gender into a category of physicality that is static and unchangeable. Sociobiological strategy also dictates that the specialization of tasks taken on by men and women within early societies result from their doing of what best fits the physicalities of gender: females raise children, which their bodies allow them to produce, and males perform hunting tasks, which are aided by their larger stature. This concept leaves no room for shifting within and between gender categories, and sees no differentiation between gender and sex. In reality, it seems quite biased to assume that we can prescribe gender to archaeological populations, I that “…classifying human representations …by sex or gender is a hopelessly biased act. …Archaeologists can never know how individuals constructed their own gender identities at any given moment.”[22]

The concept of a socially constructed gender is a theoretical approach that argues the opposite of the later- instead of gender as something that is biologically unchangeable; this theoretical concept “…rejects the stability of either sex or gender as categories.  Construction of our analytical categories (even the very term ‘gender’), is deeply embedded in historical, sociocultural, ideological, and material contexts. ”[23] Instead of being something static and unchanging, proponents of the social construction of gender see it as something that is formed by the things we use, the places we live, and the ways in which we interact with each other.  The question then being asked by archaeologists who follow this theoretical approach is the origin of gender itself, and its relationship with archaeological material, particularly material culture.

“Gender as an evolutionary process”[24] looks at political and social history of societies, as well as the changes to anthropological theory over time as it related to feminist archaeology.  This also assumes that as aspects of culture evolve synchronically, (for example technology, weaponry, social hierarchy, etc.), gender evolves right along with them, as would only make sense in an evolutionary approach to the progress of society.  Conkey stated that “While the egalitarian relations of foraging peoples are reiterated in nonhierarchical gender relations, an intensification of gender hierarchy is posited to correspond with each level of increased sociocultural ranking or stratification. …The appearance of patriarchy is linked to the emergence or incurrence of the state, with its admission of hegemonic power relationships and overt power differentials.”[25]


Evolutionists such as Tylor or Morgan would have followed a conception of gender such as this, one that sees the institution of gender as being static, formulaic and an easily explainable phenomenon comparable to the advancement of technology, or the means by which ancient matriarchal societies fell out of usage.  This idea is also corresponds to a belief that “…the widely observed male dominance in present-day societies is seen as anything but normal or natural,”[26] which is clearly a negative in the eyes of feminist theorists, who argue against static conceptions of gender and synchronic gender models.

“Gender as political economy,”[27] which relates to the differentiation of the importance of women’s roles in subsistence level economies compared to their roles in production oriented economies.  Whereas women would have taken many different roles in; for example, a Hunter/Gatherer economy, they would constitute the production of a large amount of the group’s diets in terms of vegetal resources, in a production level economy (take for example the Industrial Revolution), the economic contributions of women to society would appear minimal. Similarly, “gender as agency”[28] assumes that gender is intricately related with society, in that people create their gender through a series of acts of agency within their interactions with other members of their culture.

In regards to this concept, Conkey stated that “If gender itself is taken to be produced by the goal-oriented actions and performances of individuals or groups, this opens the door to reassessments of everything from technology (as gendered labor practices) to apparently simple artifacts.”[29]  This concept of theory argues that gender is produced by active participants in society, rather than born into particular sex roles.  Lastly, “gender as a performance”[30] indicates that gender is not a physical or present force evident within society, but is rather present in the way that people present themselves within their society or culture through their particular actions or the ways in which they decorate their bodies.  Feminist theorists are often in favor of this theoretical position, as it denies the static nature of gender presented in the prior theories, and does not assign gender and sex as being mutually exclusive.

To put into context the implications of these new feminist means of interpreting data, one might examine the changing understandings of the roles of the archaeology of prehistoric women, and the ambitions of feminist archaeologists to validate the existences of their prehistoric counterparts. Ericka Englestad’s article on past gender constructions stated that “Traditional archaeological interpretations of prehistory were predominately androcentric so the initial challenge was simply to envision women as present and active agents in the past.”[31] Various methods of feminist archaeology are available for the reinterpretation of previously accepted androcentric data, these including “…burial analysis, cross cultural regularities of gender roles, ethnohistory, ethnoarchaeology, iconographic research…”[32] etc.

In terms of the relationship between feminist theory and other anthropological theories (particularly postmodernism and ethnographic research), Vicki Kerby stated that “…modes of feminist theorizing engage questions of representation, difference, and the critique of knowledge. Feminism, then, has been central to that recent process of questioning that now goes under the general heading of postmodernism.”[33] The postmodernist approach to experimental forms of ethnography is greatly aided by feminist interpretive models (although the two sets of theorists are not always on the same page).

Both are extremely reflexive in their ambitions to look back upon their own cultures and societies, as being aware of cultural biases allows anthropologists to study others as objectively as possible. Feminists play an important role; however, in the development of ethnographic knowledge due to their somewhat marginalized positions as female scientists. Kerby stated that “…many feminists believe themselves to be the trustworthy translators of cultural differences, because, as women, they too are defined as Other. As Chandra Talpade Mohanty describes this imperial conviction, it rests on an unquestioned assumption that women have some kind of privileged access to the ‘real’, the ‘truth’, and can elicit ‘trust’ from other women purely on the basis of their not
being male.”[34]


Feminist anthropologists working as ethnographers also produce holistic works which attempt to incorporate more than just the single male voice common throughout male ethnographies (take for example Malinowski’s Argonauts of the Western Pacific).  An example of a feminist ethnography that succeeds in portraying the accurate voice of the interlocutor is Translated Woman by Ruth Behar, which behaves more as a dialogue rather than an objectifying monologue.  In this particular piece, Behar writes about the life of an aged Mexican woman through the use of her own words and voice, transcribed verbatim.  One of the goals of feminist theorists in terms of ethnographic research is the hope of improving the practice in itself to be more all-inclusive of gender differentiation between societies.

These ethnographic components of feminist theory relate intricately to the means by which feminist theorists practice archaeology, and work to bring new interpretations to old assumptions. A core aspect of feminist theory in archaeology is the understanding of the roles of women in prehistory and antiquity through the understanding of ethnographic populations, which may show continuity in the gender structures within that particular society.  The ‘man the hunter’ hypothesis was greatly combated by the usage of feminist ethnography to demonstrate that the women of the !Kung tribe in Africa contributed considerably to the productivity of their society through gathering of vegetal resources, and therefore could be compared to women of the past, who would have likely done the same.  As post-modernist ethnographers, “…share an expressed desire to uncover a ‘better practice’ for anthropology, a practice that will redress the sexist and/or ethnocentric exclusions that the discourse of anthropology has perpetrated.”[35]


Feminist theory in archaeology has expanded the academic community’s understandings of the roles and presences of women through history and prehistory, through a process of questioning previously held beliefs regarding the dominance of males in past and contemporary societies.  The epistemological knowledge handed down through western society has perpetuated this model, which follows an evolutionary trajectory of gender as a societal progression rather than an element of individual agency. Feminist theorists in archaeology are re-imagining these past conceptions of gender and giving agency back to the actors (both male and female), who’s participation in the course of time have been overlooked.  The contributions of feminist theorists in anthropology and archaeology stand as evidence of the need to continually reexamine societal norms, and former anthropological theories, with the onset of new conceptions of gender, sex, and associated roles of such categories.

Further Reading:
– Mary Hawesworth (Rutgers)
– Kelley Hayes-Gilpin
– Barbara Voss (Stanford)
– Margaret Conkey (UC Berkley)
– Karina Croucher (U Manchester)
– Ruth Behar  


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