When I first saw the images of handprints in caves that were sites of worship during the paleolithic era, I suggested that women might have blown red ocher around their hands to leave their marks in prehistoric caves. At the time I thought this was a rather bold suggestion.

Had I been asked why I thought the images were made by women, I might have said that people have understood caves to be the womb of the Great Mother, the Source of All Life, from time immemorial. I might have added that those who performed rituals in the caves cannot have been performing simple “hunting magic,” but must also have been thanking the Source of Life for making life possible for them and for the great beasts they hunted.  Still I am not certain that I imagined women as the artists in the paleolithic caves.

According to anthropological archaeologist Dean Snow, the paleolithic cave artists may indeed have been women.  Snow spent a decade gathering and analyzing photographs of the handprints left in caves. The scientific fact that women’s first and ring fingers are generally of the same length, while men’s ring fingers are generally longer their index fingers, led him to the conclusion that ¾ of the handprints in the caves were made by women! If women were painting their hands on the caves in larger numbers than men, then isn’t likely that they were also painting the images of the great beasts on the walls of the caves?

This is Snow’s conclusion. His findings contradict the widely held theory that male hunters were the sole creators of the cave paintings of the Paleolithic caves such as Lascaux and Chauvet. Feminist interpreters of the cave paintings have long noted that pregnant animals which no hunter would ever kill are also portrayed on the walls of the caves. This suggests a wider purpose for cave rituals than hunting magic.


Still, comfortable assumptions that support widely held gender stereotypes are not easily dislodged. “Man the hunter” remains the popular image of “cave man,” while the image of “cave woman” being pulled by her hair by “cave man” sticks in the mind.

fred flintstone

Despite decades of feminist theorizing about caves as the womb of the Great Mother, Snow refused to speculate about the meanings “cave women” might have given to the images within the caves. Could it be that he had never even encountered the idea that the cave symbolizes the womb of Mother Earth? Did this idea simply not “make sense” to him? Is the idea of expressing gratitude to the Source of Life alien to him?  Or did he have difficulty imagining that the Source of Life is located in the earth–not in heaven?

Marija Gimbutas has written that progress in archaeology has been hindered by the “indolent assumption” that the worldviews of ancient cultures must have been similar to our own. 

Indolent assumptions make it difficult:

  • to imagine women as the creators of great art;
  • to imagine women as the initiators of important religious ideas;
  • to imagine the Source of Life as a great womb;
  • to imagine women, men, and children gathering together to thank the Great Mother for the gift of life in the depths of caves.

Indolent assumptions are beginning to change.

skoteino cave

Carol P. Christ  is anticipating the spring Goddess Pilgrimage to Crete when she will again give thanks for the gift of life in the cave wombs of Mother Earth.  Space is available on the spring and fall pilgrimages for 2014.  Carol can be heard on a WATER Teleconference.  Carol’s books include She Who Changes and Rebirth of the Goddess and the widely-used anthologies Womanspirit Rising and Weaving the Visions.