Kids leave their traces in caves with art

1 minute read

Several stories last week related the story (from a conference talk by Jessica Cooney) about evidence that very young children had left finger grooves in the Grotte de Rouffignac. Alan Boyle’s gives the most details: “Prehistoric kids left marks in caves”.

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.

Rouffignac is an immense cave network. The main tourist route into the cave involves riding on an electric train for nearly a kilometer into the hillside. One problem posed by the cave is that tourists have been coming into it for hundreds of years – there is graffiti dating to the 18th century on the ceiling near some of the most famous artwork. But it is an amazing place, in part for that long history of people interacting with the very ancient art.

Dale Guthrie’s wonderful book, The Nature of Paleolithic Art, discusses the idea that children and adolescents were involved in making much of the classic “cave art” in Europe. The famous paintings and engravings with high levels of technical execution are really exceptional, and are usually surrounded or accompanied by vastly more numerous, cruder, representations. Many of those can be analogized to art created by children today, some of them actually occur in areas where children are the most likely artists. And already we know about children’s footprints in some caves, and handprint-negatives sized for young people.