That's Handy: Scientists ID Gender of Ancient Cave Painters

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December 18, 2016

Archaeologists can tell the gender of someone who placed their hands on a rock wall 40,000 years ago, according to a study recently published.

In the study, archaeologists from South Africa and the United Kingdom used cutting-edge technology to create an environment in which student volunteers created new hand stencils in the same way as did the Upper Paleolithic artists who placed their own hands on cave walls tens of thousands of years ago. The study included the recreation of a "portable cave" not unlike those found in Europe and Indonesia, dotted with paintings of animals and handprints.

The researchers used geometric morphometrics to find patterns common to male or female "artists." The idea was to find anatomical patterns in the hands and the fingers of the stencils. And the researchers found that comparing scans of newly created stencils, they could find patterns that they could use to predict whether a man or a woman was the creator of a hand stencil.

Using some scans as "control," the researchers found that they could predict the gender of the creator of a hand stencil with 90 percent accuracy. The main indicator turned out to be the shape of the palm, the researchers said. Previous research had focused on the size of the hand and the length of fingers, and scientists were unable reliably to predict the gender of the hands' "owners."

Universities represented were South Africa's University of the Witwatersrand and the U.K.'s University of Liverpool and University of Central Lancashire. The study appears in the Journal of Archaeological Science.

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