One of the most spectacular examples of prehistoric cave paintings are the dappled horses of Pech Merle, a panel of horses drawn more than 29,000 years ago in a cave in Southern France. Discovered in 1922 by three teenagers from the village of Cabrerets, the caves feature more than 800 prehistoric drawings.
The dappled, or spotted, horses have been a subject for controversy for decades, because of their spots. Up until the discovery of these murals, DNA from the bones and teeth of horses that lived 7,000 to 20,000 years ago showed that they were either black or bay. It is not until they are domesticated that animals start to display a wider variety of coat colors. Were these horses proof that spotted horses also existed in the wild? Or an attempt by the artists to be be artistic?
To answer that question, researchers used compared the DNA of modern horses and those that lived during the Stone Age. The spotted gene existed in the ancient samples, so the drawings were, indeed a realistic depiction of an animal that coexisted with the artists.
Were cave artists women?
Research into the cave paintings has yielded more recent discoveries about the artists, this time. It turns out that contrary to researchers assumptions that the cave paintings were done my men, perhaps returning from a successful hunt and telling their stories, the artists may well have been women.
How do they know? By the hand prints. Many of the cave paintings exist next to hand prints or stenciled outlines of hands.
Take a step sideways here. In 2002 a British biologist, John Manning, studied the shape and relative dimensions of human hands, such as the relative length of different fingers hoping the shape and dimensions might reveal such characteristics as gender, sexual preference and susceptibility to heart disease.
When archaeology professor Dean Snow of Pennsylvania State University saw Manning’s work, he realized that the shapes of male and female hands differ in predictable ways — and, more intriguingly, that the hand prints he’d seen in photos of cave paintings looked distinctly female. Using Manning’s work, Snow conducted two studies, the latest of which was published in 2013.
Snow analyzed hundreds of images of hands. He found that male and female hands differ in predictable ways, but only within a particular ethnic population. So to analyze prehistoric cave paintings in Europe, Snow used as benchmarks the hands of ethnic Europeans whose ancestry matched that of the people who lived in Europe in the Late Stone Age.
Snow found 32 images in ten cave painting sites in France and Spain that were clear enough for analysis. His analysis concluded that 24 of the hand prints were female, 5 were adolescent males, and 3 were adult males. The analysis focused on the length of the hand and fingers as well as the ratios of lengths of the index finger, ring finger, and little finger.
So, it’s entirely possible that these fabulous, realistic and fascinating cave paintings came from the imaginations of the women.