What Art by Neanderthals Teaches Us About Our Own Gender Bias

In 2019, in a cave in Germany, archaeologists discovered a bone carved with a distinct chevron pattern. This seemingly simple object made headlines several days ago, when scientists published a paper concluding that the 51,000-year-old deer hoof was made by a Neanderthal — one of only a handful of examples of art made by the humanoid species.

Though they lived in a time before the written word, early humans still captivate our imaginations. From Geico commercials to New Yorker cartoons, the caveman lives in our minds as a brute hauling a wooden club, clad in animal pelts. But despite his primitiveness, there was always one thing that elevated him above the wild boars and wooly mammoths — he pursued that uniquely human activity of representing the world he saw through art.

As a modern and contemporary art critic focusing on female artists, I don’t often find myself thinking of art made before 1900, so the bone’s discovery naturally brought to mind the few other prehistoric art works with which I am familiar, particularly the cave drawings which make up the introductory lecture of almost every Western art history class. As a feminist critic, however, I always know there is more to the story than what the textbooks have to say. Could the same be true for this older-than-ancient art?

When they were discovered in 1940, the cave paintings at Lascaux were assumed to have been made by the cavemen dwelling there, constituting visual accounts of the hunts in which they participated, though the paintings’ specific purpose remains largely unknown. But what if it wasn’t early man — but rather his female counterpart — who made these drawings? Would our ideas of art change?

With some investigation (and an interest in questioning assumptions, as well as laying aside gender bias) it turns out we have cavewomen to thank for our species’ earliest forays into visual representation. That’s right — a 2013 study which analyzed the size of handprints accompanying animal drawings found that women were more likely to have made the iconic cave drawings we have come to associate with a charcoal wielding (male) hunter, since three quarters of these handprints were found to have belonged to female homo sapiens.

Hands at the Cuevas de las Manos (Cave of Hands) upon Río Pinturas, near the town of Perito Moreno in Santa Cruz Province, Argentina (2005) (image by Mariano via Wikimedia Commons)

My interest in this discovery, however, is less in the specifics of events during that long ago period, but rather centers on what our initial patriarchal assumption might teach us in our present moment, particularly as this assumption relates to art and human creativity. Why, despite little evidence to suggest it, did we assume men (who spent their time mostly hunting far from the cave) made these drawings?

It is no secret that Western society’s default gender is male. It is apparent in gendered languages which favor the masculine and as well as in everyday conversation. (When was the last time you corrected someone on the gender of your doctor or professor?) When gender is ambiguous, or gender markers are absent, we assume that the active party — the maker or the doer — is male.

The same is true in the art world, which bestows the title of artist on men, whereas women are saddled with the gendered epithet of “female artist” (or, as Joan Mitchell sarcastically called herself: “lady painter”). Unless we are given overwhelming evidence to the contrary, women are almost always seen as the exception to the male norm.

But if the cave drawing study’s conclusions are true, they present a radically different reality to consider. Female artists have been making art for millennia, for as long as art has existed. They are entwined with the foundations of art, in the very soil from which art history sprang, making the phrase “female artist” a tautology of a prehistoric kind.

We might not know much about these early humans, nor about the recently discovered Neanderthal bone, but through the lens of time each can teach us plenty about our own contemporary biases. Instead of viewing female artists as existing in a bubble outside of our textbooks, it is time we acknowledge their contributions to the history of art as inseparable from it.

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