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Were the First Artists Mostly Women?
October 8, 2013 4:52 PM   Subscribe

Were the First Artists Mostly Women? The National Geographic outlines a recent study on those handprints found near Neolithic Cave Art. By looking at finger length of the hand outlines on those walls, researchers hypothesize that 75% of the artists of iconic cave painting were women. Some adherents to other theories (the jubilent male hunter as artist; the hopeful male hunter as artist, the shaman as artist, the exploring young boy as artist) are not so convinced.
posted by julen (33 comments total) 17 users marked this as a favorite

 
Manic Pixie Cave Painter?
posted by From Bklyn at 5:05 PM on October 8, 2013 [1 favorite]


What if some of the shamen were shawomen?
posted by acb at 5:10 PM on October 8, 2013 [6 favorites]


The new work raises many more questions than it answers. Why would women be the primary artists?

Why, indeed. Obviously, the only thing neolithic women were good for was cooking dinosaur omelets, and vacuuming with pet mammoths while wearing a leopard miniskirt.
posted by The Toad at 5:11 PM on October 8, 2013 [14 favorites]


From the linked article: "The new study doesn't discount the shaman theory, Whitley added, because in some hunter-gatherer societies shamans are female or even transgendered."
posted by Houstonian at 5:11 PM on October 8, 2013 [1 favorite]


Must... take... everything... away... from women.
posted by Napierzaza at 5:12 PM on October 8, 2013 [5 favorites]


Or hopeful women hunter, or the jubilant woman hunter or exploring young girl.



Speaking of shaman/women people don't talk enough about how it's very likely beer was invented by women. Now they use women in bikinis to sell it.

woo

woo

long way baby.
posted by edgeways at 5:14 PM on October 8, 2013 [3 favorites]


@edgeways nonono it was a "jubilant" male (is this supposed to be a compromise of a gay male or something?) that invented alcohol. Sorry, females just haven't been up to much over the past 20,000 years, solid fact.
posted by Napierzaza at 5:18 PM on October 8, 2013 [1 favorite]


"We'll have some bison over here, some decorative hand prints there and finish with a dynamic spear and arrow display. It will really tie the cave together..."
posted by jim in austin at 5:18 PM on October 8, 2013 [2 favorites]




I remember reading somewhere (I think in the NYRB in 2008 or 2009) that researchers agreed that cave artists were mostly lusty males because they would enjoy painting the "vulviform" motifs so often found in the oldest cave art.
posted by paper chromatographologist at 5:24 PM on October 8, 2013


The end of the thing was deeply ?? Also, I thought Neanderthals were 'human' but Homo Neanderthalensis... Quick check to Wikipedia kind of backs me up in that, you know, we're all homo.
Though I do like the interpretation that the cave paintings were done by adolescent boys because they're mostly about women and scary animals. Which, was an amazing - I mean, I would have thought he'd have gone to see the cave paintings in the flesh(as it were) - to keep himself from making this kind of statement in the first place.
posted by From Bklyn at 5:27 PM on October 8, 2013


why are computers considered to be technology but sewing isn't?

In the early days of computing, programming was considered to be women's work, a low status job like sewing. Once men moved into the field it became evident that programming was challenging, cerebral work that women were by nature ill suited to perform..

Clearly, these findings are evidence that the importance of cave painting has been greatly overstated.
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 5:34 PM on October 8, 2013 [4 favorites]


In the early days of computing, programming was considered to be women's work

Maybe because it looked like being a telephone operator? Talk about software patches....
posted by thelonius at 5:42 PM on October 8, 2013


Assuming they were all men is stupid. Assuming you can tell the handprint of a young boy from that of a small-handed person of any gender is stupid. Assuming they were all women is stupid. Assuming a completely vanished culture with completely unknown attitudes toward gender made cave painting a single-gender job because Reasons? That's pretty fucking stupid.

Ok, well maybe I'm overstating things. The ring-finger-length measurement is interesting, but per the article only 60% accurate, and that's only if you assume that measurement was the same for prehistoric folks. The article says the (presumed) gender dimorphism of the hand measurements was actually greater than the modern norm...but we still can't be sure that we're looking at gendered handprints. Maybe some groups of humans had shorter ring fingers regardless of gender.

It's not that I don't care about who made the cave paintings, it's just that the unspoken question that underlies these kinds of articles is basically "Is it possible or impossible that women ever did anything worth a damn?" and I find the hyped-up, war-of-the-sexes tension both overblown and tiresome. Does it seem logical that at least some women made the prehistoric artifacts we find? Given that they are half of the population and there is no biological reason they could not have, yes. Is it possible to know whether women did as much of it/none of it/more of it as men did, looking across vast timespans and with very little evidence? Unlikely.

Is it possible that our fevered interest in proving or disproving which gender is Better At Everything is an artifact of our fucked-attitudes toward gender and power? I think so.
posted by emjaybee at 5:46 PM on October 8, 2013 [20 favorites]


When I read this, I chortled. Out loud. I've read and heard so many romanticized histories of this art (masquerading as history or anthropology or essential human knowledge) that balance great sweeping narratives of primal masculinity and the greatness of man on the back of assumption and projection and not-so-many facts. Even if it is eventually conclusively disproved, it still makes me happy to see assumptions and projection laid bare.
posted by julen at 5:46 PM on October 8, 2013 [1 favorite]


New Yorker Cartoon: "Kip paints caves."
posted by ovvl at 5:51 PM on October 8, 2013


...cave artists were mostly lusty males because they would enjoy painting the "vulviform" motifs so often found in the oldest cave art.


Because women would have no imagination whatsoever to recognize their own ability to bring forth life or worship the Mother goddess.
posted by BlueHorse at 5:52 PM on October 8, 2013 [6 favorites]


I was here. I came this way.

With the rabbit brush
You dig from your fields
I wove a carrying basket
And worked it into a dark
Design of eagles' claws.
My signature -- inked
With sneezeweed dyes.

With the feathers you pluck
From your turkey and burn
I wove a blanket,
A cope to wear when
Winds blow chilly.

With the yucca you ignore
I shod my feet and washed my hair
Weaving sandals from the leaves
And making soapweed suds from the roots.

With the yarrow leaves the wind scatters
I made tea, hot and strong.
To warm and cure and calm.

With the clay beneath your feet
That gumbo which sticks to your boots,
I coiled pots, mugs,
And sacred feather holders.

With the soft inner bark
Of the juniper, I diapered my baby,
Or crushed it between my hands
To make a nest for the spark
From my fire bow.

I ground red hematite
Between two stones and mixed it
With my honey-colored urine
Then slapped my painty palm
Against the canyon wall, saying,

I was here. I came this way.

An Anasazi Woman Speaks, Ginny Odenbach
posted by Scientist at 6:41 PM on October 8, 2013 [17 favorites]


Speaking of shaman/women people don't talk enough about how it's very likely beer was invented by women. Now they use women in bikinis to sell it.

Is there a link for that theory? I love reading about ancient beer history. I've kind of figured it had to be a collective human effort to figure out the basics of fermentation. Years of men and women eating should have been spoiled old stuff that made you suddenly feel like your crushingly miserable existence was actually pretty fucking rad...
posted by Drinky Die at 7:23 PM on October 8, 2013


When I read this, I chortled. Out loud. I've read and heard so many romanticized histories of this art (masquerading as history or anthropology or essential human knowledge) that balance great sweeping narratives of primal masculinity and the greatness of man on the back of assumption and projection and not-so-many facts. Even if it is eventually conclusively disproved, it still makes me happy to see assumptions and projection laid bare.

Yeah. Having grown up reading (and having to listen to) all sorts of bumpf about how There Were No Great Women Artists and how Women Cannot Create Real Art (because Testicles, apparently) and bullshit psychoanalysis and all sorts of similar crap, it gives me a bit of a laugh to see women get credit for something in the same biased way that men got credit for it before. Sometimes a blunt corrective is a good thing.
posted by jokeefe at 7:33 PM on October 8, 2013


Is it possible to *know* whether women did as much of it/none of it/more of it as men did, looking across vast timespans and with very little evidence? Unlikely.

Since when is knowing something with total certainty a prerequisite for doing archaeological or historical research? Should we refrain from researching the role of women in, say, ancient Greece because we cannot "know" about their day-to-day lives with nearly the same certainty that we know about high-status men's lives?

Is it possible that our fevered interest in proving or disproving which gender is Better At Everything is an artifact of our fucked-attitudes toward gender and power? I think so.

This was not research designed to "prove which gender is Better At Everything". It was one study -- among tens of thousands of other studies about many other topics -- which happens to challenge a long-held scholarly assumption about how stone age societies were organised. I don't think a daily news post on Nat Geo qualifies as "fevered interest", either.
posted by dontjumplarry at 8:04 PM on October 8, 2013 [1 favorite]


Inspired by Scientist's poem, here are some hands in Sikyatki bowls: hand, hand, and depiction of a hand (you can mouse over or click on the thumbnails to see them in larger sizes).
posted by gudrun at 8:26 PM on October 8, 2013


This is quite interesting to me, because Anthropology and especially Archaeology it's full of "just so" stories concocted on slender threads of evidence. Many of those stories were constructed to confirm the biases of 19th and 20th century anthropologists. So it's been fascinating to see new evidence and new narratives develop, ones that have a more balanced and nuanced approach to gender.
posted by happyroach at 9:28 PM on October 8, 2013


Here's the actual scholarly article (pdf.)

I think it's interesting that the researchers try and address many of the criticisms of the NatGeo article mentioned in this thread. The author states up front that they're not saying anything about gender but only about sex - because gender is a cultural construct which for the most part can't be recovered from archaeological data.

All the study really seeks to do is investigate the whether we can make physiological determinations from physical evidence, taking into account genetic changes between populations and the overlap in hand dimensions with respect to sex and age. I'm not an anatomist or evolutionary anthropologist but I'm hoping that someone can come along and look at the method to see if it's appropriate. The questions of the motives of artists, meanings of their or their gender are left to those examples where we have ethnohistorical data.
posted by elephantday at 11:03 PM on October 8, 2013 [2 favorites]


the jubilent male hunter as artist; the hopeful male hunter as artist, the shaman as artist, the exploring young boy as artist

We know next to nothing about these people - as should be demonstrated by considering what very little would be left of our cultures in several thousand years time, when all the building materials that could be (generally much smaller than the more recent pyramid blocks or monolith stones) have been carried off and repurposed, and our paper and digital technology has crumbled.

The abundance of attempted psychological descriptions of a people we are lucky to have any remains of at all is preposterous, and entirely embodies our own prejudices. No surprise that sexist assumptions should come to the fore. These studies would do much better to consider what we actually can detect (such as these gender clues) and what we can assume to be likely practical possibilities, and much less of the attempts to psychologise a group of people we know so little about.
posted by iotic at 12:11 AM on October 9, 2013


CAVEMEN WERE STILL WHITE THOUGH?
posted by Napierzaza at 5:01 AM on October 9, 2013


Men? Women?

I imagine the first cave painters were primarily confused and perhaps also artists. Struggling, with what evidence they have, to see why practicing artists would be segregated by gender back then.
posted by Slackermagee at 5:12 AM on October 9, 2013


Is it possible to know whether women did as much of it/none of it/more of it as men did, looking across vast timespans and with very little evidence? Unlikely.

Umm. We can determine a whole heck of a lot from archaeological evidence, as TFA shows. Please don't let your frustration with current cultural norms color the work that's being done by archaeology - they have put a lot of work into attempting to filter out modern cultural biases from the field recently. Also note that archaeology and history can only tell us about the trends and aggregates - that there were exceptions in the specific is undoubtable, but it's more important to get the picture of what the "in the general" looked like right. This may seem unfair at times, especially from an early-21st c. perspective, but it does not make the work any less important.

Gender roles (and gender definitions!) in society is a Big Deal in anthropology and archaeology - they existed, and understanding them helps us understand our own culture, how we got to where we are, and how to change things for the better moving forward.
posted by Slap*Happy at 5:32 AM on October 9, 2013 [1 favorite]


It's been a while since I saw it, but I seem to recall feeling irritated by "Cave of Forgotten Dreams" because of that assumption that all cave paintings were done by men and boys. Yeah, Slap*Happy, I know that just because it's unpalatable to my sensibilities doesn't mean that prehistoric societies weren't crazy-sexist. I'm glad that there is an effort to filter out cultural biases.

Also, surprised to notice that my index finger is much shorter than ring (I'm female).

Huh. Guess that explains something, though not sure what.
posted by whistle pig at 6:11 AM on October 9, 2013


Sometimes I just wish all those making assumptions about "male artists only" would come out and say "actually I just don't care about women, it's easier to assume men." Because the cognitive dissonance is astounding if you even spend one second considering the question "would women like this too?" They can't claim ignorance:

Modern gendered toy for girls: My Little Ponies!
Cave paintings: Ponies!
Modern-day conclusions before this study: Obviously only men are interested in horses.

Modern gendered interest for women: Shopping and cooking!
Cave paintings: Shopping and cooking!
Modern-day conclusions before this study: Obviously only men think about food.

Modern gendered interest for women: Relationships!
Cave paintings: Relationships!
Modern-day conclusions before this study: only men would paint people, and especially vulvas, because vulvas are only good for sexual interest, no one could see them symbolically. Totally different from the phallus, which has a long and rich history as a symbol of power and strength, whereas the vulva is like, dude, a vulva, sex. Also only men are interested in women's vulvas sexually, there are no women interested in them that way. Thus, men.
posted by fraula at 6:21 AM on October 9, 2013 [3 favorites]


Speaking of shaman/women people don't talk enough about how it's very likely beer was invented by women. Now they use women in bikinis to sell it.

Is there a link for that theory? I love reading about ancient beer history.


Well, there's Ninkasi, the Sumerian goddess of beer and brewing. And if you haven't read it, Uncorking the Past: the Quest for Wine, Beer, and other Alcoholic Beverages should be a treat. (I don't think all Sumerian brewers were women, though.)

When you pour out the filtered beer of the collector vat,
It is [like] the onrush of Tigris and Euphrates.
Ninkasi, you are the one who pours out the filtered beer of the collector vat,
It is [like] the onrush of Tigris and Euphrates.

posted by jetlagaddict at 7:20 AM on October 9, 2013 [1 favorite]


It seems much more likely that women would have been cave painters - childcare is one of the activities that is strongly gendered across all cultures, and childcare means you're less likely to be off hunting, so you have more time for painting (or spinning or weaving or farming or lots of traditionally female activities).

Is there a link for that theory? I love reading about ancient beer history.

I don't know about ancient beer history, but in medieval beer history, women were primarily responsible for home brewing, while industrial brewers tended to hire men, because the cauldrons for industrial brewing were that much bigger. But home-brewing and industrial brewing co-existed for some 500+ years and women had an important role in all food preparation and preservation, even as they were excluded from the professionalization of food prep (eg not allowed as chefs, though of course they did most of the cooking in homes).
posted by jb at 9:36 AM on October 9, 2013


Yeah. Having grown up reading (and having to listen to) all sorts of bumpf about how There Were No Great Women Artists and how Women Cannot Create Real Art (because Testicles, apparently) and bullshit psychoanalysis and all sorts of similar crap...

Somehow I forgot about this when I was mesmerized by the unicorn tapestries at the Musée de Cluny. I wonder if people who say these sorts of things know anything about the history of the decorative arts?

... it gives me a bit of a laugh to see women get credit for something in the same biased way that men got credit for it before. Sometimes a blunt corrective is a good thing.

But I also agree - swinging to the opposite gender essentialism (women are the only artistes!) is helpful to no one.
posted by jb at 9:43 AM on October 9, 2013 [1 favorite]


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