Were the First Artists Mostly Women?

ARTS

A new analysis suggests that women made some of the oldest-known cave art paintings. This study offers a radically new interpretation of art, ancient gender roles, and how modern scholars interpret the past. (National Geographic News)

Use our resources to explore how art influences and documents our lives.

Ancient artists often left stencils and handprints in decorated caves—possibly a prehistoric signature. Archaeologists and art historians think the artists placed their hands on the cave wall, and simply dusted pigment over it. Artists stenciled these handprints in Cuevas de las Manos, Argentina, between 9,000 and 13,000 years ago. Photograph by Marianocecowski, courtesy Wikimedia. This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

A new study has analyzed handprints left in caves by ancient artists—possibly a prehistoric signature. Archaeologists and art historians think the artists placed their hand on the cave wall, and simply dusted pigment over it. Artists stenciled these handprints in Cuevas de las Manos, Argentina, between 9,000 and 13,000 years ago.
Photograph by Marianocecowski, courtesy Wikimedia. This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

Discussion Ideas

  • Review the Nat Geo News article. Why do you think people assume ancient cave paintings are the work of male artists?
    • Gender Roles in society. The subject matter largely consists of game animals—in some cases, animals actually being hunted. In most hunter-gatherer societies, men are assumed to have done the hunting. Archaeologists, anthropologists, and art historians think cave paintings are probably depictions of, or part of rituals for, successful hunting parties.
    • Gender Roles in culture. An evolutionary biologist quoted in the article thinks cave paintings were actually done by adolescent boys: “For adults, caves would have been dangerous and uninteresting, but young boys would have explored them for adventure . . . ‘They drew what was on their mind, which is mainly two things: naked women and large, frightening mammals.’”
  • Review the Nat Geo News article and the two outlined assumptions above. How does the new analysis challenge these assumptions about ancient gender roles?
    • Gender Roles in society. Women may have had similar opportunities and motivation to depict (or hope for) a successful hunt. “It wasn’t just a bunch of guys out there chasing bison around,” says the lead researcher. “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.” Women are also shamans (or spiritual leaders) in many hunter-gatherer societies, another archaeologist notes.
    • Gender Roles in culture. Review the quote from the article: “For adults, caves would have been dangerous and uninteresting, but young boys would have explored them for adventure . . .” Really?! Do you think girls are not interested in exploration or adventure? Do you think they’re not interested in large, frightening mammals? Do you think they’re not interested in ancient anthropology and biology—that is, naked men and women? Nat Geo has a whole lot of female explorers who beg to differ!

National Endowment for the Arts, come back, we miss you!

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