Evidence for Cave Marking by Palaeolithic Children

By Sharpe, Kevin; Van Gelder, Leslie | Antiquity, December 2006 | Go to article overview

Evidence for Cave Marking by Palaeolithic Children


Sharpe, Kevin, Van Gelder, Leslie, Antiquity


Introduction

A wall in Gargas Cave, France, shows a baby's hand held by that of an adult while colour is blown over them. Footprints of youngsters have been immortalised into the floors of Pech Merle, Chauvet, Tuc d'Audoubert and Niaux caves. All these sites also contain prehistoric art. Children were present in the caves, but did they actually produce art or at least deliberately create any of the markings? Whatever the minor impressions of Palaeolithic children in caves, this image is often forgotten in favour of the popular image from the Charles R. Knight type of picture that shows the proverbial cave-man painting beautiful images of animals--with women and children only looking on.

Some specialists of prehistoric parietal 'art' believe that children did participate in its creation. Bednarik argues that juveniles were responsible for some of the finger flutings (the lines that human fingers leave when drawn over a soft surface) made in caves in southern Australia at least 30 000 years ago (Bednarik 1986a; 1986b; 1987-88; 1990). Such Palaeolithic flutings occur in caves throughout southern Australia, New Guinea, and south-western Europe. As will be pointed out below, however, the case Bednarik makes is more suggestive than definitive, relying on a methodology that requires further refinement with forensics.

This report introduces a reliable methodology with which to ascertain children's authorship of flutings. Unlike Bednarik's, and Sharpe and Van Gelder's (2004), earlier publications on the subject, definitive evidence is presented that children did indeed create prehistoric 'art'. In particular we demonstrate that young children were responsible for flutings in Rouffignac Cave in the Dordogne, France. This conclusion leads to further questions and insight into the activities carried out in the fluted chamber.

Chamber A1 of Rouffignac Cave

Despite previous controversy as to the authenticity of the art in Rouffignac Cave, it is now generally accepted as Palaeolithic and the date usually given for it, based on stylistic comparisons of the animal drawings in the cave, is 13-14000 years BP, in the Middle Magdalenian. Some scholars, however, suggest a much older date of around 27 000 years BP and others a much younger date; but the stylistic means of dating is now questionable given the [sup.14]C dates from Chauvet Cave (Bahn 1994; Plassard 1999).

The flutings that form the basis of this study are those near the terminus of Chamber A1, about 300m from the cave entrance (see Figure 1). The fluted sub-chamber here can be divided into natural alcoves or side chambers, numbered consecutively Alcoves I-IV from the top to lower left (facing the cave entrance), then V-VII from the lower to top right. The flutings were made into a thin red clay coating the white limestone, cutting through the red to expose the white underneath. They cover much of the 150[m.sup.2] of the ceiling of this sub-chamber (Plassard 1999) (see Figure 2). The floor of the sub-chamber comprises red clay (smooth and compacted where frequented), which goes up the walls to varying heights. No long open wall-spaces exist in the sub-chamber, few flint nodules appear on the floor, and large ceiling spaces generally have few flints protruding. The ceiling averages 1.6m above the floor (Plassard 1999).

[FIGURE 1-2 OMITTED]

The flutings in Chamber A1

Five researchers have previously examined the flutings in Chamber A1 and published their conclusions. Nougier & Robert (1958) introduced the world to the prehistoric artefacts of Rouffignac Cave, including these particular flutings. They title flutings in photographs of the ceiling of Chamber A1 (what they call the 'Serpents Dome') with such words as 'serpent' and 'anthropomorph' (Nougier & Robert 1958: Figures 16-18). Barriere (1982: 205; KS transl.) writes similarly of the ceiling, 'unique in all of prehistoric art, offering . …

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