Children of Prehistory

Stone Age kids left their marks on cave art and stone tools

Walk about 300 meters into Rouffignac Cave in southern France, turn left into a dark chamber, raise a lantern, and gaze up at a prehistoric marvel. A welter of undulating, curving, crisscrossing lines blankets the ceiling in abstract abandon. Single, double, and triple sets of lines zigzag and run together in swirls. In other parts of the cave, similarly configured lines appear beside, inside, underneath, and on top of drawings of now-extinct mammoths. Archaeologists refer to such marks as finger flutings, the lines that human fingers leave when drawn over a soft surface. In Rouffignac Cave, finger flutings cut through pliable red clay to expose hard white limestone underneath.

Investigations indicate that children and teenagers created much Stone Age cave art, including these finger impressions made on a ceiling in France’s Rouffignac Cave. Researchers suspect that youngsters were also responsible for many ancient stone-tool remains. Van Gelder

LINE DESIGNS. Prehistoric people used their fingers to create patterns on the ceiling of a chamber in France’s Rouffignac Cave. A child made the three-fingered, horizontal units near the center of the image, a new study suggests. Van Gelder

IMPRESSIVE REACH. New evidence suggests that a prehistoric child, presumably held up by someone else, created patterns of lines by running his or her fingers across the soft coating on the ceiling of this chamber in France’s Rouffignac Cave. Van Gelder

ANCIENT HANDIWORK. Young boys used pigment to make hand prints and crude drawings of animals on a wall at France’s Chauvet Cave, a researcher argues. Dots arrayed near one animal’s mouth may represent blood coming out, a common occurrence in creatures speared through the chest. Guthrie

Soon after the discovery of Rouffignac’s finger flutings about 50 years ago, researchers started speculating about the mysterious marks. One influential account referred to the decorated ceiling as the “Serpents’ Dome.” Others interpreted the finger flutings as depictions of mythical creatures or streams of water, symbols from initiation rites into manhood, or shamans’ ritual signs.

New evidence, gathered by Kevin Sharpe of the University of Oxford in England and Leslie Van Gelder of Walden University in Minneapolis, challenges those assertions. They argue that 2-to-5-year-old kids generated the bulk of Rouffignac’s ancient ceiling designs. Teenagers or adults must have hoisted children so that the youngsters could reach the ceiling and run their fingers across its soft-clay coat.

Sharpe and Van Gelder’s study joins a growing number of efforts aimed at illuminating the activities of Stone Age children. Researchers who conduct such studies regard much, but certainly not all, of prehistoric cave art as the product of playful youngsters and graffiti-minded teenagers.

Stone Age adults undoubtedly drew the famous portrayals of bison, mammoths, and other creatures at sites such as France’s Lascaux Cave and Spain’s Altamira Cave. However, less attention has focused on numerous instances of finger fluting, pigment-stained handprints and hand outlines, and crude drawings of animals and people, all of which may have had youthful originators.

“Kids undoubtedly had access to the deep painted caves [during the Stone Age], and they participated in some of the activities there,” says Jean Clottes, a French archaeologist and the current president of the International Federation of Rock Art Organizations. “That’s a hard fact.”

Moreover, archaeologists suspect that many of the relics found at prehistoric stone-tool sites around the world are the largely unexamined handiwork of children and teenagers who were taking early cracks at learning to chisel rock.

“I suspect that children’s products dominate stone-tool remains at some of those sites,” remarks archaeologist John J. Shea of Stony Brook (N.Y.) University.

Cave tots

Sharpe and Van Gelder have long speculated that prehistoric kids created many of the patterned lines that adorn caves such as Rouffignac. Their suspicion was kindled in 1986, when Australian archaeologist Robert G. Bednarik published the first of several papers contending that the walls and ceilings of caves in western Europe and southern Australia contained numerous examples of child-produced grooves as well as some made by adults. He coined the term finger fluting for this practice.

Bednarik, who heads the Australian Rock Art Research Association in Caulfield South, noted that, because of the spacing and width of the marks, a large proportion of the grooves must have been the work of small fingers. “Approximately half the markings were clearly made by children, even infants,” he says.

To date, Bednarik has investigated finger fluting in about 70 Australian and European caves. Analyses of wall and ceiling sediment in a portion of these caves indicate that the line designs originated at least 13,000 years ago, and in some cases 30,000 years or more ago.

At Rouffignac, Sharpe and Van Gelder took Bednarik’s ideas an empirical step further. First, the researchers asked children and adults to run the fingers of one hand across soft clay. The scientists then measured the width of the impressions of each individual’s central three fingers. Participants included 124 pupils and 11 teachers from four schools—three in the United States and one in England. Their ages ranged from 2 to 55. The volunteers held their fingers close together during the exercise, mimicking the finger-fluting style at Rouffignac. Even with adult assistance, 2-to-3-year-olds usually just smacked the clay with an open hand.

Comparisons of modern finger widths with those arrayed on the French cave’s ceiling indicate that 2-to-5-year-olds made the vast majority of Rouffignac markings, Sharpe and Van Gelder reported in the December 2006 Antiquity. Either teenagers or adults crafted a few finger flutings at the site, since members of these age groups possess similar, larger finger widths than children do. In the modern sample, a 12-year-old girl and a 14-year-old boy displayed wider fingers than any adult did. Hand sizes of late Stone Age people are comparable to those of people today, Sharpe says.

A 5 foot, 10 inch–tall person standing on tiptoes could just reach the ceiling of the Rouffignac chamber, Sharpe notes. Adults must have hoisted children on their shoulders while weaving their way through the inner sanctum, so that their passengers could trace curved, elongated lines. This activity occurred sometime between 27,000 and 13,000 years ago, according to estimates of the extinction dates of animals depicted in drawings in the cave.

Perhaps finger fluting was simply a playful exercise, a form of ancient finger painting, Sharpe suggests.

While Bednarik welcomes the new evidence on youthful finger fluting, he suspects that such marks mimicked visual sensations produced by reactions of the brain in response to prolonged darkness and sensory deprivation deep inside caves. In such situations, people—and especially children, in Bednarik’s view—temporarily see wavy lines, points of light, and other geometric shapes.

Stone Age kids at Rouffignac may have translated these visions into finger fluting without adult assistance, Bednarik holds. Since soil movements can alter the height of cave floors, prehistoric children might once have been able to reach the chambers’ ceilings on their own, he suggests.

In contrast, Clottes accepts the notion that prehistoric adults lifted young finger fluters at Rouffignac. However, he hypothesizes that ancient people regarded caves as portals to spirit worlds and as places for important rituals. “Children were brought inside the caves to benefit from the supernatural power the caves held by touching the walls, putting or printing their hands on the walls, drawing lines, and perhaps occasionally sketching animals or geometric signs,” Clottes says.

Paul Bahn, an independent archaeologist in England, sees no way to confirm Clottes’ contention. “Finger fluting may have been deeply significant or may have been almost mindless doodling,” Bahn remarks. “The fact that some kids were lifted up by bigger people in no way helps us to decide.”

Handy boys

In September 1940, three teenage boys in rural France set out to find a rumored underground passage to an old manor. Their search led them to a small opening in the ground that had been blocked off to keep away livestock. After returning the next day with a lamp, the boys crawled into the hole and entered the Lascaux cave with its gallery of magnificent Stone Age drawings.

Caves exerted a hypnotic pull on boys long before Lascaux’s discovery, says zoologist R. Dale Guthrie of the University of Alaska in Fairbanks. In fact, he contends, teenage boys played a big part in producing the prehistoric cave art, not just in finding it thousands of years later.

Guthrie, who studies the remains of Stone Age animals and is himself an artist, made his case in a 2005 book titled The Nature of Paleolithic Art (University of Chicago Press).

Adolescent boys, at times joined by female peers and children, decorated cave walls and ceilings for fun, not to commune with spirits, Guthrie holds. Exploring caves and decorating underground chambers with personal marks provided an outlet for creative play that readied boys for the rigors and challenges of big-game hunting as adults, he suggests.

Youngsters made up a hefty proportion of ancient populations. In a Stone Age band of roughly 35 people, about two dozen individuals were in their twenties or younger, Guthrie estimates. Few elders lived past age 40.

Several European Stone Age caves contain sets of footprints of teens and children, suggesting that prehistoric kids of different ages went exploring together, Guthrie says.

The most extensive evidence of a youth movement in ancient cave art comes from Guthrie’s comparison of the size of hand impressions at some sites with corresponding measurements of people’s hands today. In at least 30 European caves, ancient visitors rendered hand images by pressing a pigment-covered palm and fingers against a wall or by blowing pigment against an outspread hand held up to a wall to create a stenciled outline.

Guthrie assessed nine different dimensions characterizing each of 201 ancient hand impressions. He obtained the corresponding hand measurements for nearly 700 people, ages 5 to 19, in Fairbanks.

Teenagers ranging in age from 13 to 16 left most of the prehistoric handprints, Guthrie concludes. He classifies 162 prints as those of adult or teenage males, based on traits such as relatively wide palms and thick fingers. The remaining 39 prints belong either to females or to young boys.

Guthrie contends that much Stone Age cave art was concocted hastily, yielding simple, graffitilike images with no deep meaning. For instance, a few caves contain hand outlines with missing fingers or other deformities that teenage boys with normal hands made for fun, in Guthrie’s view. He has replicated the “maimed-hand look” by spattering paint around his own bent fingers onto flat surfaces.

Stone Age caves also contain many unfinished or corrected sketches of animals as well as drawings of male and especially female sexual parts. Small groups of boys, flush with puberty but not yet old enough for adult duties, probably invested considerable energy in exploring caves and expressing their hopes and fears on chamber walls, Guthrie proposes.

“Paleolithic art books are really biased in showing only beautiful, finished cave images,” he asserts. “The possibility that adolescent giggles and snickers may have echoed in dark cave passages as often as did the rhythm of a shaman’s chant demeans neither artists nor art.”

Sharpe, a supporter of Guthrie’s conclusions, notes that teenage boys apparently jumped up and slapped the walls of chambers in Rouffignac and in a nearby French cave, making hand marks about 2.5 m above the floor.

Clottes, however, doubts that youthful thrill seekers took the lead in generating prehistoric European cave art. “In most caves, images were made by adults,” he says. “A majority of those images display both artistic mastery and technical expertise.”

Knap time

Guthrie’s labeling of prehistoric teenagers as big-time cave artists stimulated a related insight by John Shea. The Stony Brook researcher realized, after reading Guthrie’s book, that nearly every set of stone tools and tool-making debris found at Stone Age sites includes the likely handiwork of children.

“Almost every stone-tool assemblage includes unusually small, simple artifacts, overproduced in an obsessive way, that children could have made,” Shea says.

These tiny, rudimentary implements—many dating to hundreds of thousands of years ago—were made from poor-quality rock, an additional sign that they were fashioned by kids taking early whacks at tool production, Shea asserts. Seasoned stone-tool makers used high-quality rock.

Shea teaches a college class in stone-tool making, also known as flint knapping. Observations of novice flint knappers, combined with the likelihood that prehistoric people learned to make stone tools at young ages, bolster his argument—published in the November-December 2006 Evolutionary Anthropology—that children produced many previously discovered small stone artifacts. Researchers have already established that modern children can learn to make basic stone tools starting at age 7.

Shea plans to develop criteria to distinguish beginners’ stone artifacts from those of experienced flint knappers. For instance, he has noted that beginners create lots of debris as they experiment with tool-making techniques. Also, the shape and quality of their finished products vary greatly from one piece to the next, unlike experts’ uniform implements.

As early as 1998, Harvard University archaeologist Ofer Bar-Yosef suggested that Stone Age kids may have watched adults making tools, picked up toolmakers’ discarded stones, and tried to imitate what their elders had done. At the time, his suggestion went largely unnoticed.

“Children’s activities have been ignored at [Stone Age] sites and at most later archaeological sites as well,” remarks archaeologist Steven L. Kuhn of the University of Arizona in Tucson.

Questions remain about whether children and other novices invariably generated smaller stone artifacts than experienced tool makers did, Kuhn says. Research into children’s activities in modern hunter-gatherer societies might offer clues to youngsters’ behavior long ago, in his view.

Stone Age kids may eventually rewrite what scientists know about ancient stone tools and cave art. It’s enough to make a prehistoric parent proud.

Bruce Bower has written about the behavioral sciences for Science News since 1984. He writes about psychology, anthropology, archaeology and mental health issues.

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