Cave Art Found: Was It A Prehistoric Preschool?

Oct 7, 2011 By Deepa Gopal
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Children love art. And it appears that prehistoric children who lived 13,000 years ago were no different! The caves of France and Spain are full of striking images of animals such as mammoths, bison, horses, rhinos, hyenas and more. In the famous 5-mile cave complex in Rouffignac, France known as the "Cave of a Hundred Mammoths", there are some interesting patterns mixed with the animal figures.

Archeologists Leslie Van Gilder and Kevin Sharpe found what looked like prehistoric finger painting -- someone had dragged their three middle fingers in a pattern on the wet clay walls. Known as finger fluting, the patterns consist of crisscrossing lines, zigzags and swirls. Some of these lines appeared to be the outlines of animals, and human faces that looked more comical than realistic.

As young as three!

Now, by measuring the space between the lines and matching them up against modern children, archeologists can tell the child's age. Similarly, by the shape of the top edges of the fingers, they can guess whether the individual was female or male, as well as identify marks made by the same child.

Using these techniques, Van Gilder and her team found that four children between the ages of three and seven had created the most works of art. The most prolific among them appears to have been a five-year-old girl whose doodles are everywhere in the huge cave complex! 

There is much more that archeologists have gleaned from this discovery. For one, art seems to have been a family affair! The patterns made by children are mixed in with the more complex animal patterns drawn by adults. Some fluting patterns are on cave ceilings, indicating that an adult might have carried the child on their shoulders. To her delight, Van Gilder found an area of the cave that was dedicated completely to finger art by children. Perhaps this was a preschool playroom where the walls were left for children to draw as they wished, or a corner where they were taught the art of cave painting! 

Who were these artists?

They were our ancestors -- stone-age hunter gatherers who roamed the plains of Europe in the late Paleolithic Age. The late Paleolithic Age which lasted between 40,000 and 9,000 years ago, was a period when glaciers were retreating from much of Europe and Asia after the Ice Age. As the land became ice-free, new cave complexes opened up, and early humans sought shelter in them from the weather and wild animals. 

Nearly 350 caves with elaborate works of art have been found in France and Spain alone, and many more in Australia, New Guinea, Africa, India, Argentina and other countries. The earliest cave art found in France's Chauvet Cave date back 33,000 years and were mostly black and white -- figures drawn from charcoal embers. However, with passing time, the paintings came to life with colors as the early artists mixed natural pigments from Earth such as iron, manganese and ochre, with animal fat to create their palette.

Spain's Altamira caves and France's Lascaux Caves are like an ancient Sistine Chapel! The ceilings and walls are covered with frescoes of animals, and scenes depicting man versus beast. What was the purpose of these paintings? Were they a way our ancestors spent their idle time, or an ancient ritual? We may never know.