Hand stencils surround a mural of spotted horses.

Photograph by Dean Snow

Horses, bison, woolly mammoths and reindeer live in timeless form, painted deep in the recesses of caves like Pech Merle in France, and El Castillo in Spain.  Painted handprints may give us a clue as to the artists who made them.

A recent study analyzed hand stencils found in eight cave sites in France and Spain.  Measurements of the hand size and finger lengths of these handprints offered insight that by and large, women were the makers of these magnificent works of ancient art.  Read the full article at National Geographic

Prehistoric handprints and stencils span all continents and began appearing on rock walls around the world at least 30,000 years ago.  One thought is that handprints served as a signature, a symbol of one’s presence, and a way to mark the art that was individual and personal.  “Our hands are one of the features that make humans unique, something that links us all,” said Pennsylvania State University archaeologist Dean Snow.

But why would the cave artists be women?

We know that women assisted in hunting (especially net hunting).  It is likely women also helped butcher and prepare the meat and hides.  But, beyond child rearing and food production, what else did women do in ancient times?  What were their roles?

In ancient society, women held positions of honor.  There is archaeological evidence that women had a place as shamans, healers and spiritual leaders.  Women likely also served as tribal leaders, especially where lineage was matriarchal. Carvings and figurines from the Paleolithic and Neolithic periods picture the divine as a woman – a nourishing, life-giving, protective Goddess.  I believe the relationship between women and the Goddess is what brought women into the caves as artists.


Mysterious and otherworldly, caves were – and still are – sacred places, considered the belly of the Earth Mother; the womb of creation.  I can easily imagine women taking offerings and performing ceremony deep within the earth, sacred art intertwining with shamanic ritual, hunting magic and fertility rites.

Women and Goddess, together creating life.

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