The pioneers of painting were probably women, a study by American archaeologists has found. At least three quarters of examples of one of the earliest forms of cave painting may have been made by women. Stencils created by blowing pigment over an outstretched hand are one of the earliest forms and most common forms of prehistoric art.
Hand pictures have been found all over the world but the best known examples are in caves in south-west France and northern Spain and date from 40,000 years ago. By comparing the relative length of the fingers professors have been able to determine which were made by men and which by women. The findings have overturned the traditional assumption that most, if not all, cave painting was the work of men.
Up till now most archaeologists believed the hand prints, which often share wall space with ochre and charcoal images of animals hunted by Stone Age man were part of a hunting ritual. However the fact that the majority of the hand print paintings were by women suggests that they may also be responsible for the other paintings.
In many hunter-gatherer societies it was the men that did the killing but often the women who hauled the meat back to camp. Many archaeologists believe the hand prints are the signature of an artist.