Prehistoric Children Finger-Painted on Cave Walls

Prehistoric Children Finger-Painted on Cave Walls

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[slideshow exclude=”4153″]Located in the Dordogne region of France, the massive Rouffignac cave complex has captivated tourists and scholars with its vivid drawings of mammoths, rhinoceroses and horses for centuries. In 1956, a decade after its deep caverns harbored Resistance fighters during World War II, research confirmed that the images dated back to the Upper Paleolithic. In recent years, archaeologists have studied a second type of prehistoric art that covers Rouffignac’s walls and ceilings: markings known as finger flutings made by people running their fingers along soft clay surfaces. Most are meandering lines, but some depict rudimentary animals, shapes and hut-like figures called tectiforms, which are thought to have held symbolic meaning for the hunter-gather groups that inhabited the region some 13,000 years ago.

In 2006, Leslie Van Gelder of Walden University in the United States and her late husband, Kevin Sharpe, unveiled a new technique for identifying the flutings’ artists, developed after analyzing the hands of thousands of contemporary people. “They found that by measuring the width of the flutings made by the three middle fingers—index, middle and ring—it is possible to distinguish between individuals,” explained Jessica Cooney, a University of Cambridge archeologist who recently conducted fieldwork at Rouffignac. “Their research also proved that any flutings which have a width of 34 millimeters [1.3 inches] or under were children aged 7 or less. We are able to tell more specific ages of children as those relate closely to the widths of the flutings, but adults are too variable.”

Van Gelder and Sharpe also found that clear finger profiles—the shapes of the top edges of the fingers—allowed them to determine the gender of certain flutings’ creators. Based on this system, they concluded that women and children were responsible for many of the flutings at Rouffignac. They also attributed some of the tectiforms to fluters under 7, detecting “the first known instance of prehistoric children engaging in symbolic figure-making,” said Cooney.

Earlier this year, Cooney accompanied Van Gelder to the caves and took detailed measurements, hoping to deepen our understanding of the flutings and the prehistoric people who made them. She will present her findings on Sunday at the annual conference of the Society for the Study of Childhood in the Past, which began September 30 in Cambridge, England. More than anything else, Cooney, a doctoral candidate, hopes her research will shed light on perceptions of childhood in Paleolithic societies. “What I wanted to do with my Ph.D. was to allow prehistoric children to have a voice, since children are rarely talked about in academic discourse,” she said. “What I’ve found in Rouffignac is that they are screaming to be heard—the presence of children is everywhere in the cave, even in the passages furthest from the entrance.”

Indeed, Cooney and Van Gelder identified children’s flutings in nearly every chamber of the complex, including its most remote reaches, accessible after a 45-minute hike through cramped, rocky tunnels pitted with dens where long-extinct cave bears once hibernated. One cavern in particular featured so many children’s flutings that Cooney described it a “playpen,” suggesting that it was a special place reserved for young people’s recreation or rituals.

Out of the thousands of flutings on Rouffignac’s surfaces, most measurable examples were made by a small group of eight to 10 people, Cooney and Van Gelder determined. Four of these prolific individuals appear to have been children between the ages of 2 and 7, Cooney said. The most enthusiastic fluter was likely a girl around 5 years old, whose work covers more surface area than that of any other Rouffignac artist. The archaeologists also found evidence that the primitive art form was likely an intergenerational collaboration. “There are no areas in Rouffignac with flutings where we find adults without children, and vice versa,” Cooney explained. “We know that many of the children’s flutings would have required two people—probably an adult but not necessarily—to make the flutings. Many of the children’s flutings are about 2 meters [6.5 feet] high, so they would have had to be lifted.”

Cooney explained that identifying the flutings’ creators might bring us one step closer to understanding the art form’s purpose and significance, but various possibilities are still in the running. “We can only speculate at this point,” she said. “Many theories about cave art point to shamanism or ritual use. While I don’t rule that out, I don’t think that that’s necessarily the case for all caves. With children involved, it could have been one of those reasons but also very likely could have been play or a time for practicing art, or simply an exploration of the landscape.” Adults’ contributions to children’s artistic expression—as teachers, helpers or simply proud parents—could lend credence to this hypothesis.

Whatever fluting represented, children’s high level of participation in the activity suggests that boundaries between childhood and adulthood were more relaxed during the Stone Age than they are in the modern world, Cooney added. “While we can really only talk authoritatively about the children of Rouffignac based on this evidence, I would say that it indicates that children were involved in most, if not all, aspects of Paleolithic life,” she said. “It seems that there were limited age-based identities, and those who are considered children today may not have been considered children in the Paleolithic.”

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.

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 fingerfluting 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 tbund 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 BarYosef 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 pre-historic parent proud.

In Kakadu National Park in Australia, you can admire outstanding examples of Aboriginal rock art at Ubirr, Nourlangie and Nanguluwur. Kakadu’s rock art showcases one of the longest historical records of any group of people in the world, as aboriginal people have used the caves for shelters for over 20,000 years.

Matobo Hills National Park in Zimbabwe is a UNESCO site, notable for having one of the highest concentrations of early rock paintings in southern Africa. While the rock paintings date to 13,000 years, humans used the area as a shelter starting in the Stone Age, through early historical times.

In the Albarracín Cultural Park, in Teruel, Spain, visitors can see 26 early human rock-art sites. In this UNESCO World Heritage site, we find one of the greatest concentrations of post-Palaeolithic art in southwest Europe. Most scenes depict animals and people in the the hunter-gatherer lifestyle.

The silhouettes of hands in the Cueva de las Manos, in rural Patagonia, Argentina, date from 13,000 to 9,000 years ago. Aside from the handprints stenciled from bone-made pipes used for spraying the paint on the wall of the cave, visitors can see hunting scenes, animals, zigzags, and geometric shapes at this UNESCO Heritage site.

In the Hopi language Palatki means ‘red house’. The Palatki and Honanki Heritage Sites near Sedona, Arizona, US were the largest cliff dwellings the area between AD 1150 – 1350, built by the Sinagua people of the Ancient Pueblo Peoples. They also contain rock art (pictographs and petroglyphs) that predate the cliff dwellings! The more abstract pictograph symbols and drawings are 3,000 to 6,000 years old, and some of the petroglyphs, estimated to be 5,000 to 6,000 years old.

Two Weeks Underground

But many of the existing inventories lacked details von Petzinger needed to classify the symbols. So she journeyed to Europe with her photographer-husband Dillon von Petzinger to record signs in 52 rarely visited caves. “We spent the equivalent of two weeks underground,” she says. In the process the pair discovered several previously unnoticed signs.

The resulting study was an eye-opener: She found just 32 types of signs in use across the entire continent during the Upper Paleolithic period. “For there to be this much continuity between sites, I realized that our ancient ancestors had to have a system in place,” she writes. Moreover, the early diversity of geometric signs she had discovered in France was repeated across Europe. This suggested that modern humans had invented these signs long before they arrived in Europe—mostly likely in their African homeland.

But what exactly was the point of the markings? At a decorated cave known as La Pasiega in Spain, early cave-art researchers discovered a rare sequence of Ice Age signs painted about 12 feet (3.6 meters) above the floor. Arranged in three groups separated by spaces, the markings in La Pasiega resembled a short written message, prompting speculation that the signs formed an early writing system.

Von Petzinger, however, found little evidence to support that idea. By definition, a writing system, she notes, “is the systematic representation of spoken language.” Any idea or thought that a speaker can express verbally can be jotted down or inscribed. But Europe’s cave artists did not have a sufficient number of geometric signs, or did not combine them in the right way, to represent all the words that would have occurred in their language. “We don’t seem to have all the complexities to write a paragraph or a sonnet,” von Petzinger says.

Even so, the Ice Age signs were far from meaningless, she says. Some markings, such as the meandering lines that von Petzinger spotted at a site in Portugal’s Côa Valley region, may have been maplike representations of a river or other landscape features. Other signs, such as the lines inscribed on the deer-tooth necklace, could have served as memory aids for ceremonialists presiding over important rituals or recounting a tribe’s origin stories. Such markings, says von Petzinger, seem to be a way of storing information externally—a form of graphic communication that eventually led to writing.

Paleoanthropologist Ian Tattersall, a curator emeritus at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, finds much value in the new study. “It’s really nice to see the abstract symbolism brought to the fore,” he says. “We have these wonderful animal images in caves like Chauvet and so forth, but that is just the tip of it. The symbolic stuff clearly had meaning.”

Other researchers think von Petzinger’s research will likely spur new interest in a neglected subject. “It will make people think about the signs all over again, and the extent of the record of signs will awaken people’s interest,” says Louise Leakey, a paleoanthropologist at the Turkana Basin Institute in Nairobi, Kenya.

Certainly von Petzinger would welcome more archaeologists in this field of research, as she’s convinced there is a lot to be learned.

“I personally believe that without those first tentative steps [our distant ancestors] took into the world of graphic communication, the cognitive building blocks would not have been there for their descendants to create the writing systems we take for granted today,” she concludes in The First Signs.

Beneath a Sacred Tree

The subterranean cavern is located below a large ceiba tree, which was sacred to the Maya, not far from Chichen Itza , an urban center famous for its magnificent monuments, including the pyramid El Castillo , the Great Ball Court, and the Temple of Warriors. The Maya city of Chichen Itza was founded around the sixth century AD and came to dominate the Yucatan Peninsula from about the 10 th to 13 th centuries AD.

One of the factors that led to the establishment of a settlement at Chichen Itza is the presence of several cenotes at the site. These are large, natural sinkholes that serve as a source of water. Considering that the northern Yucatan is arid, and that its interior has no above-ground rivers, cenotes would have played an important role in the survival of the people who lived there. They also had a ritualistic function. The Maya deposited luxury goods and made human sacrifices at cenotes as a means of worshipping Chaac, the Maya rain god.

The Sacred Cenote is considered one of the largest repositories of offerings in the Americas. ( Subbotina Anna/Adobe Stock)

Prehistoric cave art in France

The world’s oldest piece of figurative cave art was recently discovered in a limestone cave in Borneo. The scene, depicting what appears to be a type of ancient cattle could be more than 40,000 years old if scientific measurements are correct.

But you don’t have to travel as far as Borneo to see impressive prehistoric artworks, France has more than its fair share too. Let’s take a tour of the country’s underground treasures…..

It sounds like something straight from the pages of an adventure story: a group of inquisitive schoolboys and their dog stumble upon a mysterious hole in a forest in 1940 that leads to a discovery of international significance. Almost eighty years later, La Grotte de Lascaux in the Vézère Valley remains home to some of the world’s foremost examples of prehistoric paintings – and it’s just one of many caves in France that have been concealing artistic treasures for millennia.

Just last year, a team of American archaeologists made the breakthrough of their careers in a Dordogne cave called Abri Cellier, where they found 16 stone blocks featuring 38,000-year-old pointillist engravings. Crafted by the Aurignacian, the earliest modern human culture in Europe, the find was particularly astonishing because until then, the technique known as pointillism was only believed to have developed in the late 19th century.

Grotte du Pech Merle

It is not just Dordogne that is a treasure trove of cave art: deep in the Lot Valley hides the Grotte du Pech Merle, notable for being one of the few caves whose art remains on display to the public. Here, a menagerie of animals – mammoths, horses, bisons, stags – dance across the walls of a kilometre of galleries, some dating from the Gravettian period around 25,000BC.

Ariège, which has the largest number of prehistoric caverns of any département in France, also boasts authentic parietal (cave) art still on view in the Grotte de Niaux. In the haunting glow of torchlight, visitors can marvel at the stone canvas covered in vivid drawings including a rare charcoal sketch of a weasel, dating back to between 17,000 and 11,000 years ago during the Magdalenian period.

Why is France one of the world’s cave painting capitals? “Its creators were relatively numerous in southern France because the climate was not as severe and populations were able to stay put – probably in greater numbers than in the northern European plain,” said Professor Paul Pettitt, Professor of Archaeology and cave art specialist at Durham University. “Cave art was an integral part of the way Upper Palaeolithic hunter-gatherers survived in the wild environments of Pleistocene Europe. Creating it, celebrating the prey animals it depicts, and sharing themes and styles kept small groups together in a dangerous world.”

Grotte de Niaux pic Dominic Viet CRT Occitanie

But when nature is your art gallery, problems can arise when humans intrude. Sadly, the biggest threat to cave art appears to be tourism.

From 1948, Lascaux welcomed around 1,200 visitors a day who would come to admire the artistic endeavours of the Cro-Magnon man unfortunately, they left behind the harmful calling cards of humidity, moisture and carbon dioxide. Visible damage, such as lichens and crystals, could be seen as soon as 1955. The environment became so precarious that in 1963, France’s Minister of Culture, Andre Malraux, closed the cave to the public. The paintings were restored to their original state and careful daily monitoring was introduced. But the introduction of a new air conditioning system in 2001 led to white mould spreading across the cave ceiling and walls. The opening of two facsimiles, Lascaux II in 1983 and Lascaux IV in 2016, have seemed like the ideal solution all the tourism income with none of the environmental damage.

The Grotte Chauvet-Pont d’Arc in Ardèche, home to the oldest figurative cave art in Europe dating back an estimated 30,000 years, has been sealed off to the public since its discovery in 1994, only allowing entry by a small handful of people each year including experts and journalists. All must be kitted out in extreme protection gear. A copy, which opened in 2015, is the largest cave replica ever built. The art is reproduced to its actual size, but in a condensed area in a circular building above ground a few kilometres from the actual cave. It is ten times bigger than the Lascaux facsimile.

Rhinoceros at Grotte Chauvet pic Inocybe

These recreated caves and the pseudo-historic artwork inside have been a cause for consternation. “No art lover wants to see a replica Rembrandt, a fake Freud or a simulacra of Seurat,” said the Guardian’s art critic Jonathan Jones when Chauvet’s facsimile first opened. But it was surely better than the alternative: no art at all.

It is not just tourism that has had an impact even supposed caretakers have accidentally caused damage. In the Grottes d’Arcy-sur-Cure in Burgundy, some of the paintings lay undiscovered until the 1990s, hidden under a layer of smoke. When they were finally revealed, it became apparent that regular cleaning with high-pressure hoses over the decades had done untold damage. In another unfortunate incident, this time in the Magdalenian Grotte de Bédeilhac in Ariège, the cave’s gigantic entrance saw it used as a military base during the Second World War. First occupied by the French military and then by the Germans, the latter levelled the cave floor and laid a concrete base which harmed some of the paintings in the side galleries.

With lessons learned from the past, preserving these caves for future generations is high on the agenda. In 2009, an international symposium in Paris organised by the French Ministry of Culture called ‘Lascaux and Preservation Issues in Subterranean Environments’, saw 300 experts sharing scientific research gained from studies in Lascaux and beyond to encourage better cave art preservation.“The original Grotte de Lascaux will for certain never reopen,” was the gloomy prognosis from Denis Tauxe, Lascaux’s resident historian. But whether it be in the authentic cavern or an intricate replica, hopefully a new generation of history enthusiasts will be able to experience the art of their ancestors.


Grotte de Lascaux visitor centre pic Dan Courtice

The enchanting tale of Robot the dog leading his companions to ancient treasures lures hundreds of thousands of visitors to the Vézère Valley each year. While the original caves that 18-year-old Marcel Ravidat and his friends first glimpsed are closed, the impressive facsimile (Lascaux II) and new international centre for prehistoric art (Lascaux IV) are the next best way to experience the art. Admission €17

This €55 million recreation of the original Chauvet cave reproduces its twists and turns to give visitors an authentic sense of being deep underground, despite being located in a large shed near the picturesque Pont d’Arc. The hour-long tour along a raised walkway passes 27 panels featuring drawings or engravings of 15 different species of animal. Workshops and demonstrations for all ages bring to life the prehistoric world of the cave’s painters, giving visitors the chance to craft ancient jewellery and music instruments. Admission €15

Plateau du Razal, 07150 Vallon-Pont-d’Arc

Since 1926 visitors have flocked to see these dramatic murals secreted deep within the hillside at Cabrerets. Look out for the bears’ lairs dug into the clay, where animal bones were found. It’s worth checking out the accompanying prehistory museum too, where you can find more about other paintings in caverns that are closed to the public. Admission €13

Distribution of cave drawings

There are very different drawings in each cave, but were paintings the only things the people produced and were France and Spain the only places?

The distribution of cave art is worldwide but in Eurasia it is most abundant in areas that are also rich in decorated objects including:

  • the Périgord, the French Pyrenees, and Cantabrian Spain
  • Portugal, where there are Palaeolithic decorated caves
  • the very south of Spain to the north of France
  • southwest Germany, where traces have been found
  • Italy and Sicily, which have some concentrations
  • Slovenia, Romania, Bulgaria and Russia.

The current total for Eurasia is about 280 sites. Some like Creswell Crags, England, contain only one or a few figures on the walls, others like Lascaux or Les Trois Frères have hundreds.

The following map shows the limits of the Last Glacial Maximum. It also shows the main sites of cave art in Eurasia and though not fully inclusive of all cave art it is a good indicator of the spread.

Distribution of primary Palaeolithic cave-art locations in Eurasia. Peter Bull.

It’s interesting to note that so many cave art sites are found in groups while some are just single sites. However, it would be unfair to draw too many conclusions from this map since there are so many factors affecting the presence of cave paintings. The most important is the climate of the area. So, as only a few have been found in the temperate wet climate of Britain, so does that mean the people in the British Isles drew little cave art or has the majority been eroded away?

A striking feature of many of these cave paintings is the fact that they are often in large caverns with interesting sound qualities.

The evidence would be the existence of musical instruments, and flutes from 42 - 40,000 years ago made from bird bone have been found and reconstructed. They show the people had an understanding of how length, diameter and position of holes influenced the sound. v Did they play only one instrument at a time or did they play in groups? We can only wonder at the sound these people produced.


Cave Art History


[i] Bednarik, R. G. (1998). The australopithecine cobble from Makapansgat, South Africa. South African Archaeological Bulletin 53, 4-8.

[ii] Mithen, S.(1999) The Prehistory of the Mind: The Cognitive Origins of Art, Religion and Science. Thames & Hudson.

[iii] Lewis-Williams, D. (2002) (The Mind in the Cave: Consciousness and the Origins of Art Thames & Hudson

[v] Cook, J. (2013) Ice Age Art: Arrival of the Modern Mind British Museum Press

The Cave of Hands in Patagonia, Argentina

Prehistoric rock paintings, handprints and stencils span all continents, and began appearing on rock walls around the world at least 30,000 years ago. But Cueva de las Manos in Patagonia contains an exceptional assemblage of cave art.

“Cueva de las Manos”, literally “the Cave of Hands”, is located in Río Pinturas, in the province of Santa Cruz, Argentina, 163 km south of the town of Perito Moreno. The cave gets its name from the cluster of stenciled outlines of human hands that appear on the cave walls. These rock paintings were made by hunter-gatherer communities estimated to have lived between 13,000 and 9,500 years ago, as determined from the remains of bone-made pipes used for spraying the paint on the wall of the cave to create silhouettes of hands.

The entrance to the cave is screened by a rock wall covered by many hand stencils. Most of the hands are left hands, which suggests that painters held the spraying pipe with their right hand. Within the rock shelter itself there are five concentrations of rock art, later figures and motifs often superimposed upon those from earlier periods. The paintings were made with natural mineral pigments - iron oxides for red and purple, kaolin for white, natrojarosite for yellow, and manganese oxide for black - ground and mixed with a binder, the nature of which is unknown.

Besides hand prints, there are also depictions of human beings, and animals such as guanacos, rheas, and felines, as well as geometric shapes, zigzag patterns, representations of the sun, and several hunting scenes. The hunting scenes portray a variety of hunting strategies with animals being surrounded, trapped in ambushes, or attacked by hunters using their throwing weapons, round stones known as bolas. Some scenes show individual hunters and others groups of ten or more men.

The paintings belong to three distinct cultures. The first human group were long-distance hunters whose main prey was the guanaco. Around 7,000 BC a second cultural level can be identified, distinguished by hand stencils. Hunting scenes are no longer found during this age. There are also some examples of stencils of the feet of the American ostrich (ñandú). This culture lasted until circa 3300 BC, when the art became more schematic and included highly stylized zoomorphic and anthropomorphic figures.

The final cultural began around 1,300 BC. Its art executed in bright red pigments, concentrated on abstract geometric figures and highly schematic representations of animals and humans. It is believed to have been the work of the historic Tehuelche hunter-gatherers who were inhabiting the vast area of Patagonia when the first Spanish traders and settlers arrived. It was the creation of vast cattle ranches that brought their way of life to an end.

Watch the video: Cave Art 101. National Geographic (July 2022).


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