Fingerprint Analysis Reveals New Insights on Prehistoric Rock Art’s Creators

Study suggests an adult man and a juvenile girl crafted the red ocher paintings seen at Spain’s Los Machos rock shelter

Los Machos rock shelter and schematic rock art panel
Los Machos rock shelter and schematic rock art panel Francisco Martínez Sevilla

Some 7,000 years ago, prehistoric humans added red ocher paintings to Los Machos, a natural rock shelter in southern Spain. The drawings appear to depict people, geometric motifs and scenes from daily life, reports Garry Shaw for the Art Newspaper. But the artists didn’t sign their work, so archaeologists have turned to fingerprint analysis to learn more about who they were.

A new study published in the journal Antiquity pinpoints two potential painters: a man who was at least 36 years old and a juvenile girl aged 10 to 16 years old.

To identify these ancient artists, the researchers compared fingerprints found at Los Machos to modern ones made by individuals of a known age and sex. Per the Art Newspaper, men’s fingerprints tend to have broader ridges than women’s, and as a person grows older, the distance between the ridges in their fingerprints increases.

“We looked at the number of fingerprint ridges and the distance between them and compared them with fingerprints from the present day,” lead author Francisco Martínez Sevilla, an archaeologist at the University of Granada, tells the Guardian’s Sam Jones. “Those ridges vary according to age and sex but settle by adulthood, and you can distinguish between those of men and women. You can also tell the age of the person from the ridges.”

The findings suggest that cave painting was a social activity, not an independent one as previously thought. They also support earlier research indicating that cave painting wasn’t a male-dominated practice. As the Art Newspaper notes, a recent analysis of hand stencils left behind by Paleolithic cave painters showed that women created around 75 percent of rock art in French and Spanish caves.

Described in a press release as the first application of fingerprint analysis in assessing rock art, the study nevertheless leaves some questions unanswered: for instance, the nature of the pair’s relationship, whether the two artists were from the same community and why they painted the red ocher shapes on the cave walls, as Martínez Sevilla tells the Guardian.

View of Cerro de Jabalcón (Zújar, Granada) where the Los Machos shelter is located Francisco Martínez-Sevilla
Photograph of the Los Machos schematic art panel (top) and photograph processing using ImageJ® software (bottom) Francisco Martínez-Sevilla
Digital tracing of the Los Machos rock art panel and detail of the identified fingerprints Francisco Martínez Sevilla

Margarita Díaz-Andreu, an archaeologist at the University of Barcelona who wasn’t involved in the study, deems it an “exciting proposal” but points out that the fingerprints analyzed may not have belonged to the cave painters themselves.

“We know that in several societies in the world, the people who were in charge of painting were often accompanied by other members of the community,” Díaz-Andreu tells the Art Newspaper.

Overall, says Leonardo García Sanjuán, a prehistory expert at the University of Seville who also wasn’t involved in the research, the researchers’ method of fingerprint analysis has great potential for the study of other rock art sites in Spain.

“The analysis of fingerprints in terms of sex and age is a great contribution towards understanding who was involved in the production of rock art,” García Sanjuán tells the Art Newspaper, adding that with a larger array of fingerprints and art sites, researchers may be able to form a clearer picture of which community members were most involved with rock art creation.

Artwork-adorned rock shelters are scattered across Spain. In 1998, Unesco collectively declared more than 700 such sites a World Heritage Site.

Of the Los Machos rock shelter, Martínez Sevilla says, “The area where they are, and the fact that they haven’t been changed or painted over, gives you the feeling that this was a very important place and must have had a really important symbolic value for this community.”

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