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Prehistoric kids left marks in caves

Cambridge University archaeologist Jessica Cooney discusses her study of prehistoric cave art.

Archaeologists say the shapes of finger marks suggest that children as young as 2 years old made drawings on the walls of a Paleolithic cave dwelling, with an occasional boost from the grown-ups.

The tale of the "prehistoric preschool" was laid out by Cambridge University archaeologist Jessica Cooney last weekend at a conference on the archaeology of childhood. Cooney has been studying hundreds of markings made on the walls of France's Rouffignac cave complex. Many of the markings are thought to date back 13,000 years, to a hunter-gatherer culture known as the Magdalenian. The same culture is thought to have created the better-known cave drawings at Lascaux.

Like Lascaux, the 5-mile (8-kilometer) Rouffignac cave network has plenty of drawings, depicting mammoths, rhinoceroses, horses and even a cave bear. But Cooney focuses on a different kind of art: impressions left behind in clay or "moonmilk" — a soft, white, crystalline precipitate that forms inside limestone caves. The ancient artists created the impressions by pressing or dragging their fingers through the soft material on the cave walls. Those markings are what Cooney and her research colleague, Walden University's Leslie Van Gelder, used to estimate how old the artists were. 

The analysis built upon years of research that Van Gelder conducted along with her late husband, archaeologist-theologian Kevin Sharpe. They measured the hands of thousands of modern-day people and came up with a correlation between the span of a person's three middle fingers and the person's age. For example, if the tips of the three fingers cover less than 1.3 inches (34 millimeters) in width, the fingers definitely belong to a child less than 7 years old, Cooney explained.

That modern-day analysis was then applied to the cave impressions, known as finger flutings.

"By 2006, Sharpe and Van Gelder had developed a way of determining the age and gender of children’s hand impressions, through the flutings," Cooney explained in Cambridge's news release. "As a methodology, it’s amazingly accurate.  By measuring the flutings at Rouffignac with callipers and matching them up against the modern data set, we can tell the age of the child who made them to up to 7 years old — and that is being conservative.  Similarly, if we have a clear finger profile, the shape of the top edges of the fingers, we can tell to 80 percent accuracy whether the individual was female or male. This works with both children and adults. Using methodology we can also identify marks made by the same child."

Cooney and Van Gelder spent a week making detailed measurements in the Rouffignac caves.

The researchers suspect that eight to 10 people, including four kids aged 7 or younger, were behind the ancient finger flutings. Children left marks in every chamber. One of them was apparently just 2 or 3 years old and may have been helped by a grown-up. "The most prolific of the children who made flutings was aged around 5 — and we are almost certain the child in question was a girl," Cooney said. 

Cooney said that child's markings appear on cave ceilings more than 6 feet (2 meters) high, which would suggest that she was held up or put on someone's shoulders to make the marks. One chamber was so marked up by children that it may have served as a "playpen of sorts," she said.

Finger flutings have been found not only in France and Spain, but in Australia and New Zealand as well. Were they mere doodles, or was there a deeper significance to the markings?

"We don’t know why people made them," Cooney said in the news release. "We can make guesses, like they were for initiation rituals, for training of some kind, or simply something to do on a rainy day.  In addition to the simple meandering lines, there are flutings of animals and shapes that appear to be very crude outlines of faces, almost cartoonlike in appearance. There are also hutlike shapes called tectiforms, markings thought to have a symbolic meaning which are only found in a very specific area of France. When in 2006 Sharpe and Van Gelder showed that that some of the tectiforms were the work of children, it was the first known instance of prehistoric children engaging in symbolic figure-making."

Personally, I lean toward the idea that the markings were the Paleolithic equivalent of kindergarten fingerpainting, but what do you think? Feel free to speculate in the comment section below.

More about prehistoric cave art:

For a guided tour of the Rouffignac cave complex's kiddie art, check out Rossella Lorenzi's report for Discovery News.

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