Oct 13 2011

Caveman Kindergarden

This is one of the coolest science news stories in the past few weeks – 13,000 year old cave paintings, likely by children. The discovery was made in the Rouffignac cave system, which contains more typical cave paintings as well. In one chamber, however, there is a concentration of finger fluting – drawing lines by dragging fingers through the soft silt of the cave walls. Researchers compared the lines to those made by modern subjects (they compared the distance between the fingers in order to make their assessment) and found that they were consistent with those made by young children, some 2-3 years old.

In addition some of the lines made by toddler-age children were too straight and steady to have been made by a young child, which suggests they were being helped – perhaps their hand was steadied by an adult who was showing them how to draw the lines.

Because of the heavy concentration of the child-created finger fluting in one chamber, the researchers speculate that this was a sort-of caveman kindergarden, or art class.

Of course, it is difficult to speculate about the true purpose and meaning of artifacts from other cultures and periods. There is a great deal of context that is always missing, and we tend to make unwarranted assumptions and project our current cultural beliefs onto the other time and place. Culture can be very quirky and different in ways that we cannot readily imagine. So any such inferences are likely to be naive.

For example, imagine what archaeologists from the distant future might make about some of the artifacts they might find from our time – a comic book, fake vomit, or Halloween decorations.

In any case – the inferences made by these researchers seem reasonable. If we assume they are true – these were the scribblings of children who were being tended by adults. Perhaps the purpose of this was specifically to teach them how to make cave drawings, or perhaps it was just caveman daycare. Maybe the children did this entirely on their own, with older children helping some of the younger ones.

In any case, to me is also serves as a reminder that these people were fully modern humans, biologically speaking. Sure, there have been some changes in gene frequencies over the last 13 thousand years, but essentially the people who occupied this cave were modern Homo sapiens. They had the same intellectual potential and love for their children that we do. I would love to know more about their life and their culture and beliefs. But at least they left behind traces of their existence that give us a glimpse into their world.

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