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.
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.
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.