Sexual Dimorphism in Upper Palaeolithic Hand Stencils

Article excerpt


Human handprints and hand stencils appear in the archaeological record as pictographs in all inhabited continents. Typically they occur as either positive handprints or negative hand stencils. In the former case someone dipped a hand in pigment, then applied the print to a reasonably flat stone surface. In the latter case the hand was pressed against the surface and pigment was applied around it to create a stencil (negative pictograph). For reasons explained below, analysis of handprints and hand stencils must be carried out with reference to a related living population. Consequently this paper discusses hand stencils that occur amongst other images in the parietal art found in caves in south-western Europe.

Upper Palaeolithic art has been the subject of a vast literature. While this paper touches on the broader subject, the central topic here is limited to a specific analytical approach to hand stencils. I claim no competence in a wide variety of other possible technical approaches, little command of many descriptive treatments of the broad range of cave art, and no interest in non-scientific interpretive approaches. For a broader perspective I direct the reader to some recent general works and their extensive bibliographies (Bahn 1998; Bahn & Vertut 1988, 1997; Clottes 1996).

Many sources, particularly popular ones, implicitly assume that hand stencils were left in the caves of France and Spain by men and boys; small hand stencils and footprints found in the caves are typically attributed to the latter, particularly in the popular literature (Canby 1961: 30-38; Prideaux 1973: 115). However, John Manning has shown that hands are sexually dimorphic, and that one can usually determine sex by measuring ratios of digit lengths (Manning 2002). I use 'sex' here with the standard meaning of biologically male or female. 'Genders' are cultural categories that are sometimes equivalent to sex but at other times differ significantly. Gender is more rarely (if ever) discernible in the archaeological record. Manning uses the ratio of index and ring finger lengths (D2/D4) as a key measure. In a Liverpool sample the ratio was 1.00 for women (the fingers being of equal length on average), but 0.98 for men (whose ring fingers tend to be longer on average). Manning did not focus on the little finger (D5), but it is relatively short in females, even compared to the ring finger (D4), which is itself short in women relative to the index and middle fingers (D2 and D3).

In most if not all populations the hand stencils of adult males can usually be distinguished from those of adult females by overall size alone. However, adult female hand stencils cannot necessarily be distinguished from those of boys on the basis of size alone. Neither can the hand stencils of children be sorted by sex on the basis of size. However, various measures combined with indices derived from digit lengths provide a means for distinguishing between hand stencils left by females and those left by males regardless of their ages. Because there is significant overlap between males and females in these as in many other measures, the technique does not accurately predict sex in all individual cases. However, the success rate is high enough to be informative regarding trends in larger populations.

Population differences

While there are statistically significant differences between male and female digit ratios in Europe, one should not assume that this is necessarily true of all populations of Homo sapiens sapiens. Napier observes anecdotally that 'women's hands are notoriously slender' in Southeast Asia (Napier 1993: 25). There appears to be little or no sexual dimorphism in digit ratios in a population from the Nalgonda District of India (Ramesh & Murty 1977). A comparison of nine populations shows that while significant male-female differences can be detected in most or all of them, there are large differences between populations. …