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Our ancestors were making cave art for tens of thousands of years. It was clearly an important part of their society. Yet this crucial pillar of prehistoric life is a complete mystery to us. Well, not a total mystery. We’re getting a good idea of the how and when. But the why is as enigmatic as ever. Might this be because we’re looking at cave art from an adults’ point of view. Perhaps children were the ones responsible?

Of course, this isn’t the first attempt to explain why our ancestors made cave art. Many have attempted to explain why we made cave art. One popular idea is that this artworks was the product of hallucinations induced by drugs taken during religious rituals. Others have argued that they help keep a “record” of local animal populations, allowing youngsters to be taught what a mammoth looks like and how to hunt it. I’ve discussed these popular ideas before, if you’re interested in reading more about them.

A horse from Lascaux with unnaturally rotated feet so you can see what kind of tracks it would leave behind

A horse from Lascaux with unnaturally rotated feet so you can see what kind of tracks it would leave behind

Yet few of these explanations consider the idea that non-adults – like children or teenagers – actually made the art. This is a major oversight. Since people died earlier during the stone age there would have been more children (relatively speaking). In fact, estimates suggest that the increased mortality rates of the past meant that most people (40 – 60%) in prehistoric societies would have been non-adults. Since they make up such a big part of these groups, isn’t there a big chance they were involved in the creation of cave art?

And there is evidence of the involvement of children and other young people at cave art sites. Footprints and handprints of children have been found at many sites in France and Spain. Some of these sites also contain “finger flutes”, where individuals have drawn in the soft clay with their fingers. These images include abstract patterns as well as some actual depictions of objects. Many of these appear to have been made by children. Some are even high up, suggesting adults may have helped children make them.

There’s even one rather touching case of an adult making some finger flutes, then apparently lifting up a child to the same height so they can make their own next to them.

Finger flute cave art

Finger flute cave art

However, simply identifying the fact that children made cave art doesn’t really help us figure out why they made cave art. We’re still stuck at square one (albeit, a slightly more refined square one). Fortunatley, some have noted the evidence for the involvement of non-adults at these cave art sites. As such, they’ve come up with a few explanations for why they may have made the art.

Some have argued that cave art might have been part of a “coming of age” ritual. When children reached maturity they were led into caves, where they had to draw something on the walls. This process formed the ritual by which they came adults. In addition to this, young children may have been encouraged to make art in an equivalant ceremony to a baptism. Others have suggested that cave art might have been a way to help children to develop imagination and learn to visualise these animals; perhaps helping them learn useful skills even without encountering them in the flesh. And yet others have simply argued that – at least the art produced by the youngest children – may simply have been them following adults into the caves and doodling along the way. The fact that many examples of child art are simple finger rubbings that would have required no extra materials makes this plausible in my book.

Yet these ideas – just like most other explanations for why our ancestors made cave art – are very hard to test. If it’s even possible to test them. So we’re still stuck at that fancy, painted square one. Just now we know we have to include children in the picture.

(pun very much intended)


Bahn, P. 1998. The Cambridge Illustrated History of Prehistoric Art. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Bednarik, R. 2008. Children as Pleistocene artists. Rock Art Research, 25(2):173-182

Lewis-Williams, J., Dowson, T., Bahn, P., Bandi, H., Bednarik, R., Clegg, J., Consens, M., Davis, W., Delluc, B., Delluc, G., Faulstich, P., Halverson, J., Layton, R., Martindale, C., Mirimanov, V., Turner II, C.,  Vastokas, J., Winkelman, M. and Wylie, A. 1988. The Signs of All Times: Entoptic Phenomena in Upper Palaeolithic Art [and Comments and Reply]. Current Anthropology, 29(2):201-245.

Mithen, S. 1988. Looking and learning: Upper Palaeolithic art and information gathering. World Archaeology, 19(3):297-327

Nowell, A. (2015). Learning to see and seeing to learn: children, communities of practice and Pleistocene visual cultures. Cambridge Archaeological Journal, 25(04), 889-899.

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Wyrd Smythe · 10th November 2015 at 5:23 pm

The connection between art and intelligence is really fascinating to me. Our evolved use of art seems without equal among animals, and it’s interesting to wonder how they affected each other.

    Adam Benton · 10th November 2015 at 6:04 pm

    Well, as far as we can tell art seems to have cropped up quite late in the scheme of things

      Wyrd Smythe · 10th November 2015 at 6:05 pm

      So it would seem to come from our intelligence then?

        Adam Benton · 10th November 2015 at 6:07 pm

        Indeed, although there may be art we just don’t have records of. Like engravings in wood for example.

        Wyrd Smythe · 10th November 2015 at 6:17 pm

        Elaborate Taj Mahal sand castles! 🙂

        Adam Benton · 10th November 2015 at 6:55 pm

        Clearly my mind was too constrained by precedent and reality 😉

zac in SF · 10th November 2015 at 11:12 pm

Isn’t this a good time to explain the function of the art by pulling out out the ever-important twin pillars of anthropological explanation, that the art was done for “ceremonial and ritual purposes?” (I think this is Latin for ‘we’re actually not sure…”

    Adam Benton · 11th November 2015 at 2:45 am

    There’s definitely a bias towards ritual explanations when we’re not sure. However, in this case I don’t think it’s completely unreasonable. Many ethnographic examples of cave art are ritualistic

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