From the abundant hand stencils that make up a large proportion of paleolithic cave art, some are too small to belong to adults. However, a cursory view underestimates the true extent of children's contribution to the most famous prehistoric artworks, a new paper argues. If true, the finding would change perceptions of the cultural significance of cave art to our ancestors.
Extraordinarily realistic drawings of animals may be the first thing to come to mind when we think of cave art – however, hand stencils were actually much more common. These were made by blowing paint through a hollow tube-like a reed, forming what is known as “negative images".
In a study of the 56 European caves in which human hand images are known, 90 percent of the 769 hands observed are of this type. Just 9 percent follow the more obvious path of dipping a hand in pigment and pushing it against the wall, while 1 percent combine both approaches.
In the Journal of Archaeological Science Universidad de Cantabria PhD student Verónica Fernández-Navarro studied the hand motifs from five Spanish caves chosen for their excellent preservation of hand motifs.
Fernández-Navarro and co-authors excluded stencils too faint or incomplete for confident assessments of the hand that made them, leaving them with a sample of 155 hands. They compared these with 3D scans of 545 left hands from current residents of the Iberian peninsula.
A small proportion of the hands appear to have belonged to infants, and as many as a quarter of the stencils were of a size to likely belong to children.
Previous estimates, dating to at least the 19th century, have been inaccurate, the authors argue, because they were based on two-dimensional representations of stencils made on irregular surfaces. Moreover, they did not allow for the fact that the hands appear to have been held a small distance away from the wall, making the outline larger than the actual hand itself.
By producing their own stencils on rocks and using 3D representations of the original art, researchers estimated 12 measurements for each hand, including the width and length of each finger and the palm.
The authors draw two implications from their findings. Firstly; “Graphic activity appears to have been a field that was open to the whole group, in which both children and adults played a role in the production of motifs. It would not have been an activity closely linked to men and subsistence, as has traditionally been professed, without considering that women and children might have been involved,” they write.
Cave art may have been more about cohesion than an elite religious ritual, as is usually assumed.
The authors also consider it likely children were more involved in other paleolithic artforms than has previously been acknowledged.
The findings are part of what the paper calls “the archeology of childhood”, referring to studies of children's roles in past societies and relationships with adults and each other.
Although it seems obvious when children are an important part of any society historians and archaeologists have not always acted that way, creating the need for a specific subdiscipline. That's despite the fact that for most of human history, life expectancies were so short that children represented a much larger proportion of the population than they do today.