Prehistoric Child Art Found in Caves

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Oct. 5, 2011 -

The vivid rock art of the Rouffignac caves in the Dordogne region of France have captivated tourists for centuries. Although the caves have been known since the 16th century, it was not until 1956 that experts realized that some of the most striking art was prehistoric. And only recently have archaeologists realized that many of the prehistoric images were made by children. Sometimes the children were held up and even guided in their drawings by adults, according to new analysis.

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Dating to a hunter-gatherer culture that inhabited the region some 13,000 years ago, the drawings include striking depictions of mammoths, woolly rhinoceroses, goats, horses and bisons. But the majority of the drawings covering the caves consist of single, double and triple sets of lines running in undulating, crisscrossing and curving patterns. "We found these marks everywhere, even in the deepest places," Cambridge University archaeologist Jessica Cooney told Discovery News.

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Made by people running their hands down the soft surfaces of the walls and ceilings, the markings are known as "finger flutings." The term was coined in 1986 by Australian archaeologist Robert G. Bednarik, who published images of such drawings from caves in western Europe and southern Australia.

In Rouffignac, the finger flutings were mostly made by children. Cooney and colleagues established the age of the fluting artists using a methodology devised by Leslie van Gelder of Walden University's College of Education in Minneapolis, Minn. (the current director of the Rouffignac finger fluting project), and her late husband, archaeologist and theologian, Kevin Sharpe. Developed after analyzing the hands of thousands of contemporary people, the technique focuses on measuring the width of the flutings made by the three middle fingers -- the index, middle and ring fingers. Three-fingered measurements of 1.3 inches or less indicate a child of 7 years or younger, while 1.1 inch measurements are consistent with children about 3 to 5 years old.

A five-mile cavern network created by river systems, the Rouffignac caves feature three levels, but only the top level has art. "This top level alone has chambers with a combined area of about three square miles, with the farthest part of the cave about 45 minute walk from the entrance," Cooney said. Flutings made by children appear everywhere. "Even those that are a good 45 minutes' walk from the entrance feature children's flutings. So far, we haven't found anywhere that adults fluted without children," Cooney said.

In several cases, children's flutings are high up -- about 6.5 feet -- on the walls and on the ceilings. "They must have been held up to make them or have been sitting on someone's shoulders," Cooney said.

Cooney and colleagues found marks by children aged between two and seven-years-old. The most prolific artist was a five-year-old girl. "We found her everywhere. She is in the most chambers with the most locations," Cooney said. The researchers established that the copious artist was a girl based on the ratio of her fingers. "A male hand has a ring (fourth) finger which is longer than the index (second) finger. A female hand has an index finger that is the same length or longer than the ring finger. This difference apparently happens prior to birth, in utero, and so it is visible in children's hands," Cooney said. "We have many clear profiles of the 5 year old and her second finger is longer than her fourth finger, indicating to us that she was most likely a girl," Cooney said.

The youngest artist was a two-year-old child, who was probably guided by an adult. "The flutings occur in places around 6 feet high, which could not have been reached without help. Also, some flutings are very deliberate and controlled, so we think that someone might have guided the child's hand," Cooney said.

Adults mostly fluted on the ceilings. In some cases, rudimentary depictions of animals appear. In this picture, the mammoth is fluted with a single finger, making it impossible for the researchers to determine the age of the artist. "We do find children's flutings near some animals but I believe that the flutings made across that particular mammoth are an adult's," Cooney said.

The simple, meandering lines are often accompanied by fluted hut shapes called tectiforms, which are believed to have a symbolic meaning. "This study allows us to begin to question some of the cave art theories, like shamanism or hunting magic, and re-evaluate why this very human activity began. It also shows us the importance children had in prehistory. We can give individuals who didn't have a 'voice' before the chance to be heard," Cooney said.