Can we reliably identify if handprints in prehistoric caves were made by males or females?

Recent years there has been a focus on estimating the gender of prehistoric artists who left hand stencils in caves and rock shelters around the world. This includes the famous Upper Palaeolithic handprints in Spain and France, as well as studies on more recent handprints from South Africa and Australia. These gender identifications are based on a series of measurements and indices, and results have been used to argue that both males and females were involved in prehistoric painting. A recent study, published in Journal of Archaeological Science, now reassess the reliability of using these metric approaches.

Handprints from El Castillo cave Spain dated around 40,000 years ago (Source: PEDRO SAURA | AP PHOTO/AAAS)

So far, few forensic or biological anthropological studies assess how gender can be estimated from handprints. Therefore, the authors recorded 100 right handprints of 50 men and 50 women from Bordeaux University. Subsequently, for each print five linear measurements were recorded and two indices calculated. This allowed a wide array of statistical tests to be applied to the sample, and incorporated chance-corrected classifications and randomised samples. Overall, it seems that there are clear differences between male and female handprints, but also a considerable amount of overlap. Especially, the calculated indices do not seem a reliable method to identify a male or female maker.

The authors therefore argue that especially when applying classification methods derived from handprints of recent humans to unrelated, e.g. prehistoric populations, more caution is needed. While size is a reliable (92%) indicator of gender and responsible for the largest proportion of handprint variation, this is exactly the factor which, as part of overall body proportions, differs significantly between populations; for example based on climate, health and nutrition. Therefore, using recent standards can be misleading for sex classification of Upper Palaeolithic handprints.

The authors conclude that attempts to estimate sex from handprints depicted in Palaeolithic cave art using morphometric data from recent populations should be avoided. However, they do not propose an alternative method, nor discuss what can be derived about prehistoric hand size based on the fossil evidence. Therefore, it seems like a good topic for further work to further assess how commonly males and/or females were involved in this prehistoric symbolic activity.

Reference: P. Galeta, J. Bruzek and M. Laznickova-Galetova. 2014. Is sex estimation from handprints in prehistoric cave art reliable? A view from biological and forensic anthropology. Journal of Archaeological Science.

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