The invisibility of women throughout history has been evident in most periods. But perhaps where it becomes most evident is in the earliest periods: in Prehistoric times. In an androcentric interpretation of life in the past, our female ancestors played a secondary role, limiting themselves to harvesting and producing offspring. However, new studies give us a very different view of the role of women: were we the first artists?
Hongares Ravine, in the Caroche Massif, 1920. The correspondent for the Palaeontological and Prehistoric Research Commission, Jaime Poch y Garí, was out hiking when he discovered three open shelters. Well, perhaps ‘discover’ isn’t the right term, as the people who lived in Bicorp already knew this place existed and about the peculiar figures that decorated the caves. His report did, however, arouse the interest of Eduardo Hernández Pacheco, director of the first scientific expedition. In 1920 the study of the three shelters located 150 metres from the bottom of the ravine began, and from that moment the place became known as the Coves de l’Aranya (Spider Caves).
This set of painted shelters is part of what is known as Rock Art from the Mediterranean Basin, which, since 1998, has been recognised as a UNESCO World Heritage. It is estimated that these rock paintings date back 7,500 years, during the time known as the Epipalaeolithic period. At that time, human groups were nomadic hunter-gatherers.
Specifically, the best-known rock painting of these caves shows us a honey harvesting scene, the oldest documented painting from Prehistory. In other shelters we find hunting scenes with humans and animal figures such as a deer. The paint used is red, probably some type of crushed haematite, mixed with water and a binder such as fat.
Last century researchers identified these cave paintings as Levantine, characterised by the presence of not only figurative elements but also geometric and schematic features. Some of the figures seemed to be organised into scenes and others were difficult to interpret.
And precisely the best-known scene of these caves depicts the gathering of food, a job attributed to women since time immemorial. The scene unfolds at a great height, as the honey gatherer has to build herself a ladder with ropes and climb up to the hive. It’s not the only scene where we see honey being collected using a ladder. In July of this year (2021) in Castellote (Teruel), a rock painting was discovered with a human figure climbing a ladder to harvest honey.
The artist was very adept at using the shelter’s cavity to represent the hole of the hive.
Above the hole or the “hive”, there are two horizontal lines, with three ropes hanging from them. These lines would be the poles that would hold the ropes of the ladder or, according to some researchers, the lianas.
The female figure carries a basket in one hand, probably made of leather, while with the other she holds one of the three ropes that make up the ladder.
Around the figure above, and in order to make the scene more life-like, we find some small x-shaped spots. These are the schematic representation of bees, around which the honey is taken.
The way the woman’s legs are bent seems to indicate that she was holding on to the ladder with one of her arms and both legs, so as not to fall.
At quite a distance from the woman, at the bottom of the painting, we can see another figure. In this case it is more difficult to say for sure whether it’s a man or a woman. In any case, we can see that the person is carrying a bag or container on their back, while climbing the ladder.
Noteworthy is the fact that there seemed to be no dispute that the pictures had been painted by a male hand. The first reason was due to the theme that was depicted in general: hunting scenes, carried out by the men of the village and which appeared in some of the paintings of Levantine art. The function of these paintings is still debated; it could be a reminder of a hunt the group would have carried out or maybe it’s an example of what was known as a ‘sympathetic magic’, some extra help before they went out hunting. The second of the reasons was linked to the idea of the magical force of the images, the result of some sort of ritual performed by a shaman.
But what does science say about all this? Well, science reveals a major surprise: the hands that painted many of the cave paintings were in fact female hands. Recent studies analysing hundreds of cave paintings from Spain and France have shown that the hands that appear in Palaeolithic caves are women’s hands. This study is based on the different size of the fingers, specifically the index and ring finger. While in female hands these two fingers are the same length, in male hands the index finger is slightly shorter.
These hands do not appear in the Spider’s Cave and the scene depicted does not seem to portray anything magical. It’s simply a narrative of everyday life near the cave: the gathering of food by a woman. And who better than the woman herself to tell us about her daily life? In a Palaeolithic cave, where women helped to carry the items gathered from the hunt, the female artist reminds us of the moment at which the animal is slaughtered. In Bicorp, the intrepid female harvester shows us, in person, the sweet victory of harvesting the precious honey without the bees around her daring to sting her.