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Were most cave painters women? Their hand prints say yes.

Cave paintings around the world often include hand stencils, impressions left by blowing paint around a hand. A new study measured those hands and concludes that 75 percent of hand prints in Spain and France show women's hands, not the hands of men or boys as has long been assumed.

By Correspondent / October 16, 2013

Male and female hands are different both in size and in the ratio between the fingers. These differences enabled Dean Snow of Penn State to examine hand stencils in cave paintings (the outline impression of a hand left by blown paint) and determine that most of the measurable hand prints came from women, not men or boys.

Courtesy of Dean Snow/Pennsylvania State University

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Look at your hands. Is your ring finger longer than your index finger? And is your pinkie finger almost as long as your ring finger? If you answered yes to both questions, you're probably a man. (That or you're a woman with "man hands.")

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The role of finger ratios to sex has been known for years, but a new study has taken that conclusion and pushed it in an unexpected direction: underground. Specifically, into caves that were painted about 30,000 years ago.

Ancient humans made hand prints or hand stencils on every inhabited continent in the world, but these cave paintings have always been attributed to men, because they're often associated with paintings of the creatures that early humans hunted, and probably for other reasons related to latent sexism. Smaller hands were attributed to young men or boys.

"When I first became aware of the digit ratio measure, by reading John Manning's book," says Dean Snow, an emeritus anthropology professor at Pennsylvania State University, "I walked over to the shelf and pulled off a book that's been sitting there for 40 years. I opened the flyleaf and there was a hand stencil from the cave at Pech-Merle, which I ended up using in my work. If John were anywhere near right, that was a woman's hand. It was not masculine at all. And so I thought, 'Wow, there were women down there! At least one. I wonder how many more there were?'"

Because physical traits differ with geography, Dr. Snow limited his study to caves in northern Europe. He also gathered hand measurements from over a hundred students of northern-European ethnicity, to create a modern benchmark. He found that hands fall along a continuum, from very dainty, feminine hands to very masculine hands, with a big grey area in between. He eventually developed a two-step process to predict sex just based on hand prints.

First, measure the lengths of the fingers and palm, and put the numbers into a formula Snow developed. That sorted modern hands into male and female with about 80 percent accuracy. But adolescent males, whose hands haven't reached full size, too often got lumped in with women, so Snow added a second step: look at the ratios between the fingers.

For women, the index and ring finger are often the same length, though occasionally the pointer is longer. For men, the ring finger is often noticeably longer. Then compare the pinkie to the others. In most males, young or old, the pinkie is nearly as long as the ring finger, extending up past the ring finger's highest knuckle. In women, the pinkie can be a good inch or so shorter than the ring finger.

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