Children were prehistoric cave artists just like adults

The amazing inscriptions on ancient cave walls represent some of humanity's first known creative work, but it wasn't just master artists who were allowed to paint. Kids as young as two or three were cave-painting 13,000 years ago.

That's the finding of Cambridge archaeologist Jessica Cooney, who discovered some of the paintings in the French cave of Rouffignac were actually made by very young children. While these prehistoric tykes weren't responsible for the world-famous drawings of mammoths, woolly rhinoceroses, and other ancient beasts - the paintings we're most familiar with only represent a small fraction of all the examples of prehistoric painting that we've found - they still left some pretty amazing contributions, like what you can see in the image up top.

This particular art form is known as finger fluting. The young artists made them by running their fingers across the cave walls - it's basically the prehistoric equivalent of finger painting. Since the art was actually created by direct application of the kids' fingers, it's possible to use those markings to determine just how old and even what gender the creator was. Cooney explains the process of identification:

"By 2006 Sharpe and Van Gelder had developed a way of determining the age and gender of children's hand impressions, through the flutings. As a methodology it's amazingly accurate. By measuring the flutings at Rouffignac with callipers and matching them up against the modern data set we can tell the age of the child who made them to up to seven years old – and that is being conservative. Similarly, if we have a clear finger profile, the shape of the top edges of the fingers, we can tell to 80 percent accuracy whether the individual was female or male. This works with both children and adults. Using methodology we can also identify marks made by the same child.

"Flutings made by children appear in every chamber throughout the caves even those that are a good 45 minutes' walk from the entrance – so far, we haven't found anywhere that adults fluted without children. Some of the children's flutings are high up on the walls and on the ceilings, so they must have been held up to make them or have been sitting on someone's shoulders. We have found marks by children aged between three- and seven-years-old – and we have been able to identify four individual children by matching up their marks.

"The most prolific of the children who made flutings was aged around five – and we are almost certain the child in question was a girl. Interestingly of the four children we know at least two are girls. One cavern is so rich in flutings made by children that it suggests it was a special space for them, but whether for play or ritual is impossible to tell."

Finger fluting appears to be an incredibly popular art form among prehistoric civilizations. Examples of them are found not only in ancient France but also as far away as New Guinea and Australia. We don't know precisely what motivated ancient children to make these inscriptions, but, as Cooney explains, we have some ideas:

"We can make guesses like they were for initiation rituals, for training of some kind, or simply something to do on a rainy day. In addition to the simple meandering lines, there are flutings of animals and shapes that appear to be very crude outlines of faces, almost cartoon-like in appearance. There are also hut-like shapes called tectiforms, markings thought to have a symbolic meaning which are only found in a very specific area of France. When in 2006 Sharpe and Van Gelder showed that that some of the tectiforms were the work of children, it was the first known instance of prehistoric children engaging in symbolic figure-making."

One of the interesting things here is that there's no real clear separation between the art children make and art adults make. While we obviously can't say much of anything with certainty when we're peering back 13,000 years, Cooney speculates that finger fluting might suggest there was far less of a divide between adults and children back then than there is today. Prehistoric societies might have allowed children and adults to participate in activities side by side in a way that doesn't really directly translate to our experience today.

Yes, that's speculative, but it is a good reminder that people in the distant past were also once kids, and that kids can leave lasting impressions on the world even 13,000 years after they're dead and gone. Also, is it just me, or has cave art suddenly become completely adorable?

Via the University of Cambridge. Image by Jessica Cooney and Leslie Van Gelder.