Children of Prehistory: Stone Age Kids Left Their Marks on Cave Art and Stone Tools

By Bower, Bruce | Science News, April 28, 2007 | Go to article overview
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Children of Prehistory: Stone Age Kids Left Their Marks on Cave Art and Stone Tools


Bower, Bruce, Science News


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.

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.

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