AR77. 18 June 2004.
Copyright © 2003 by Kevin Sharpe and Leslie Van Gelder. All rights reserved.
International Newsletter on Rock Art 38 (2004), pp. 9-17.

 

Children and Paleolithic ‘Art’: Indications from Rouffignac Cave, France

 

by

Kevin Sharpe

Graduate College, Union Institute and University, Cincinnati, Ohio
Harris Manchester College, Oxford University, Oxford
10 Shirelake Close, Oxford OX1 1SN, United Kingdom
kevin.sharpe@tui.edu
www.ksharpe.com

 

and

Leslie Van Gelder

Walden University, Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA
10 Shirelake Close, Oxford OX1 1SN, United Kingdom
leslievg@OIScienceSpirit.com


ABSTRACT.

This paper develops and provisionally applies an empirical methodology to examine finger flutings in Chamber A1 of Rouffignac Cave, France, asking what can be known from the flutings about the people who made them. The results suggest that many of the flutings were made by children held aloft to touch the ceiling and draw their hands along it. Those holding the children were at times not only walking, but moving rotationally from their hips, perhaps in whole body movement such as dancing. This may be the first demonstrable case of Paleolithic cave ‘art’ made by children. Applying similar methodologies to the severines found elsewhere may also help elucidate the behaviors behind their manufacture.

KEY WORDS.

Finger flutings, Paleolithic children, prehistoric art, Rouffignac Cave, severines.

CONTENTS.

Chamber A1 of Rouffignac Cave. 3

Location. 3

Chamber A1. 3

The Flutings in Chamber A1. 3

General Methodology. 3

Finger Widths. 3

Method. 3

Assumptions. 3

Results. 3

Discussion. 3

Conclusions. 3

Ceiling Height 3

Conclusions and General Discussion. 3

Acknowledgements. 3

References. 3

 


The child’s or even baby’s hand held by that of an adult while color is blown or spat over it offers visitors to Gargas Cave, France, an icon to remember (Barrière 1984: 518). Perhaps as well they recall the footprints of youngsters immortalized into the floors and sand dunes of Pech Merle, Chauvet, and Niaux caves. Whatever minor impressions of Paleolithic children in caves are held, the image is soon expunged by the proverbial cave man, perhaps a shaman, painting and engraving beautiful images of animals, sometimes with women and children looking on. But did children actually produce some of what we call ‘prehistoric art’?

This paper shows that children probably did indeed create ‘prehistoric art,’ in particular in Rouffignac Cave. A methodology is developed whereby the possibility of children’s authorship can be reliably ascertained and the results of provisional studies using this are provided. This conclusion leads to further questions – particularly because of the height of the ceiling above the floor – and insight into the activities carried on in the chamber where children marked the ceiling.

This paper only concerns finger flutings (the lines that human fingers leave when drawn over a soft surface). Flutings occur in caves through southern Australia, New Guinea, and southwestern Europe, and were presumably made over a considerable time span including some or all of the Upper Paleolithic. Most are not obvious figures or symbols.

Plassard (1999: 62) mentions 500 square meters of severines (‘meanders’ as he calls them; they are also known as ‘macaroni’ and ‘serpentines’ (Marshack 1977: 286)) in Rouffignac Cave in the Dordogne, France, whereas he isolates 254 figures (animal, human, and other motifs) in the cave; these cover far less surface area.

The following terminology may help when discussing line markings:

·        fluting refers to a line drawn with a finger;

·        graphical unit (or, abbreviated, the word unit) refers to flutings drawn with one sweep of one hand or with one finger (Marshack 1977);

·        cluster labels an isolatable group of units that exhibit a unity, for instance because they overlay each other;

·        severine is suggested for line markings that do not participate in the figurative part of a definitive figure or demonstrable symbol or sign (thus, the category ‘line markings’ not only comprises flutings and engraved lines, but, coextensively, also severines, figures, and symbols).

Chamber A1 of Rouffignac Cave

Location

Rouffignac Cave lies in the Dordogne, France, near the village of Les Eyzies de Tayac (see Figure 1).

Figure 1. Local geography of Rouffignac (after Barrière 1982: Fig. 1).

Despite previous controversy as to a Paleolithic date for the cave, its authenticity is now generally accepted and a date usually given for it is 13-14,000 years B.P., in Middle Magdalenian based on stylistic comparisons of the animal drawings in the cave (Plassard 1999: 41).

Chamber A1

The flutings that form the basis of this study are those in Chamber A1 of Rouffignac (see Figure 2).

 

 Figure 2. Plan of Rouffignac Cave showing the various chambers (developed from Barrière 1982: Fig. 2). This paper especially concerns Chamber A1.

Elsewhere, these flutings have been named of the ‘Mirian’ form, characterized by:

lower-body movement on the part of the fluters (as opposed to them only moving their upper bodies). ‘Lower-body movement’ means that the people who fluted the walls or ceilings in the Mirian Form not only sometimes walked or otherwise moved their legs while fluting (thus the lines may extend beyond the arm range of a stationary fluter), but almost always moved their bodies from their hips to create the flutings by, for instance, bending, twisting, or shifting their weight (Sharpe and Van Gelder Preprint).

Figure 3. Mirian Form flutings in Chamber A1.

The Flutings in Chamber A1

‘The meanders [in the cave of Rouffignac],’ writes Marshack (1977: 311), ‘are the most numerous and complex in any cave in Europe….One large chamber with a low ceiling has thousands of criss-crossing meanders marked by fingers in the soft red clay. It looks like “macaroni” in the truest sense, a random mélange of interlacing lines running in every direction. There is neither structure, pattern, image, nor composition in the accumulation.’

Barrière (1984: 205; KS translation) writes of the extraordinary nature of the ceiling, ‘unique in all of prehistoric art, offering 180 square meters of interlaced macaroni, serpentines, and easily distinguishable individual snakes.’ This paper does not concern itself with the potential meaning of the flutings. Marshack (1977: 311) continues: ‘On the walls as one descends from the incredible complexity of the ceiling, the markings tend to thin out and in these areas the meander tradition and system are clear….Different persons, with fingers and print spacing of different sizes, made meander “unit” marks using one, two, three, or four fingers.’

The primary question this paper addresses is this: Were children the authors of at least some of the flutings found in Chamber A1 of Rouffignac Cave?

If this can be answered in the positive with a high degree of probability based on the physical evidence the flutings provide, then further matters may present themselves for research and other things may be ascertained about the fluters and perhaps even what the flutings meant – or more likely, what they probably did not mean – to them.

General Methodology

This research is part of a general research program whose methodology is based on the severines themselves, without first bringing ideas as to meaning and significance and then looking to prove those ideas (Sharpe Preprint; Sharpe and Fawbert 1998; Sharpe and Lacombe 1999; Sharpe, Lacombe, and Fawbert 2002; Sharpe and Van Gelder Preprint). It seeks to establish an objective and experimental approach to the lines seeing what can be said about the marks themselves as they were made and, thereby, what they marks might say about their makers. Such investigations logically come before subjective-interpretative and meaning-seeking approaches to severines and may help sort out the various suggestions as to meaning or lay a solid foundation for seeking meaning.

Marshack, though he defers to his predecessors, pioneers strategies for this type of research. He writes:

I tried to develop techniques and a theoretical basis for the intensive internal analysis of the Upper Paleolithic symbolic materials….My effort was…directed toward…a study of the cognitive processes involved in the formation of an image, a study of the sequence of making an image or a composition or the sequence of accumulating images on a surface….This enquiry was…functional and psychological (Marshack 1977: 287).

This work continues from Marshack and, following him, Bednarik, d’Errico, and Lorblanchet. Lorblanchet (for caves) and d’Errico (for mobiliary artifacts) have notably extended this approach through experimentation, a move potentially of great help to studies of the Rouffignac flutings. The methodology adopted therefore not only examines the markings themselves, but may involve experimentation to ascertain how the markings may have been made and limitations on them given their means of manufacture.

Finger Widths

A probable characteristic of the flutings that may relate to the age of the fluters is the flutings’ width. Perhaps, narrow flutings suggest children being their creators. This prompted the starting point for this research.

Method

The approach used involved measuring the finger widths of people of various ages, those of the flutings in Chamber A1, and then comparing the two sets of data. The following steps were followed:

1.      The flutings made by the three central fingers were studied. This is because if only one or two digit flutings were studied, it cannot be told what finger or pair of fingers were used to create the flutings. Further, the marks made by the thumb and smallest finger can be usually ignored because they are characteristic: the thumb tends to make a scratch mark because it is held at an angle to the plane of the other fingers, and the little finger tends to trail the others forming a less significant mark.

2.      Flutings of fingers held apart are wider than flutings of the same fingers held together. Therefore, measurements were restricted to the central three fingers of hands held together. Many such impressions are found in Chamber A1.

3.      For the drawing of subjects’ hands, the outlines of hands were traced on paper with fingers held together, drawing instrument held vertically, and wrist straight. Subjects added their gender and age to the page. Subjects included many school children and were of various races and demographic backgrounds.

4.      Measurements (rounded to the nearest millimeter) were made across the width of the three central fingers, taken below the top of the shortest of the three where it reaches its maximum width. 

5.      Measurements were made of the width of the impressions made by three fingers fluted in clay and a comparison made between them and the measurements of the same fingers outlined as in (3) above.

6.      In Chamber A1, measurements (rounded to the nearest millimeter) were made across three-fingered flutings where no gap existed between the fingers. The measurements were made on randomly selected units.

Assumptions

The study assumes that the people who made the flutings are anatomically much the same as modern people (justifiable, given anatomical studies of Cro Magnon), that left and right hands are symmetrical, that the rounding of measurements to the nearest millimeter does not distort the results, that the difference between the drawn outline of the central three fingers or a hand and the impression the fingers make in a clay medium is the result of (5) above, and that other sources of errors can be neglected.

Results

The difference between the drawn outline of the central three fingers or a hand and the impression the fingers make in a clay medium is seven millimeters. The other results can be summarized in the following two tables:

Table 1. For modern subjects, the widths (in millimeters) of three fingers together and then adjusted by seven millimeters, listed in ascending order, with the age and gender of the subject:

Width

Adjusted Width

Age

Gender

Width

Adjusted Width

Age

Gender

41

34

5

F

51

44

62

M

43

36

22

F

51

44

72

F

44

37

73

F

51

44

80

F

45

38

9

F

51

44

82

M

45

38

23

F

52

45

33

M

45

38

66

F

52

45

49

M

45

38

67

F

52

45

71

F

46

39

36

M

52

45

76

F

46

39

46

F

53

46

49

F

46

39

46

F

53

46

56

M

46

39

67

F

53

46

68

M

46

39

69

F

53

46

70

F

46

39

84

F

53

46

73

M

47

40

26

F

53

46

75

F

47

40

39

F

53

46

76

M

47

40

59

F

54

47

16

M

47

40

65

F

54

47

23

M

47

40

72

F

54

47

33

M

47

40

73

F

54

47

56

F

48

41

33

F

54

47

69

F

48

41

48

F

54

47

70

F

48

41

71

F

54

47

74

F

48

41

73

F

54

47

80

M

48

41

81

F

55

48

26

M

49

42

32

F

55

48

47

M

49

42

39

F

55

48

52

F

49

42

51

F

55

48

55

M

49

42

70

F

55

48

78

M

49

42

71

F

57

50

29

M

49

42

78

F

57

50

44

M

50

43

13

M

57

50

54

M

50

43

18

M

58

51

52

M

50

43

24

F

58

51

75

M

50

43

36

F

60

53

45

M

50

43

77

M

60

53

74

M

50

43

77

M

61

54

37

M

51

44

39

F

61

54

71

M

51

44

53

M

64

57

56

F

Table 2. For randomly selected flutings in Chamber A1, the widths (in millimeters) of three fingers together, listed in ascending order, with the number of flutings of such widths:

Width

Number

Width

Number

Width

Number

25 mm

6

32mm

10

39mm

0

26mm

1

33mm

3

40mm

0

27mm

5

34mm

1

41mm

2

28mm

3

35mm

1

42mm

1

29mm

0

36mm

1

43mm

2

30mm

5

37mm

0

 

 

31mm

4

38mm

0

 

 

Discussion

1.      For all intents and purposes, there is no difference between the fluting widths of females and males. Therefore, Table 1 above can be taken as irrespective of the gender of the subjects.

2.      Note also that there is no perceptible difference between the finger widths of teenagers and adults, but that there is a major difference in finger width between young children and older people.

As stated above, this paper reports an initial study of the flutings. A more detailed research program looking at the same question is currently underway, with a larger data pool and a more sophisticated way to remove errors or to take them into account.

Conclusions

The above analysis suggests that children fluted Chamber A1. Some flutings, however, were made by adults or teenagers.

Ceiling Height

Another aspect of Chamber A1 to notice is the height of the ceiling above the floor. It is reasonable to assume that the floor is much the same now as it has been for many millennia – though probably smoothed with human feet – in that there has been no recent earthwork here (as there has been in other sections of the cave) and in places besides the walls the floor of rough mounds of clay looks much as it originally was.

The ceiling flutings are, however, now in places just reachable by a man of 1.8 meters in height stretching on tip toes. It is unreasonable for children to have marked at such heights, yet the fluting size in such places sometimes indicates that they did flute here. It is reasonable, therefore, to conclude that the children were in places held aloft by others, perhaps adults, to touch the ceilings.

In what direction did the children face when held aloft? At the forward end of the fluted chamber, a small natural wall jutting out from both sides and about 60 centimeters high blocks direct access from floor to ceiling. On the right-hand side, the ceiling has been fluted by children, the flutings extending further into the chamber (as opposed to toward the cave entrance). A child held aloft facing into the chamber, arms outstretched behind the head, probably could not have fluted the length that exists over the floor rock and toward the entrance; probably the child would have had to have been facing the cave entrance with arms stretched out in front and finger pads upwards. In other words, the child would have been facing the opposite direction to the carrier (who would have faced into the cave so as to see to walk and not stumble on the uneven surface), stretching over the carrier’s shoulder to gain the maximum length of fluting.

Looking at other flutings on the ceiling also helps visualize the activities that took place there:

·        Several zigzags appear. To recreate these standing underneath them requires the movement of the hips as opposed to only the movement of the upper body (this is in accord with the naming of the form of these flutings, Mirian). Zigzag curves made by wrist movement differs from zigzag curves made by hip movement.

·        Circles also appear. These require the fluter to be underneath and to rotate the lower body and perhaps the feet.

·        Series of straight parallel units of flutings appear. Some of these are most easily created when standing underneath them on one spot and rocking forward and backwards.

Whole body movement, perhaps an activity like dancing thus is suggested by the flutings (where ‘dancing’ would include such relatively modern activities like t’ai chi and chi kung), some of which involves the holding up of children to mark the ceiling. In principle, some of the movements made during the dance can be reconstructed from the flutings left behind.

One question worth asking is why the adults present (and some were, given the width of some of the flutings) did not flute the ceilings without using the children. The youngsters could have fluted where they could reach and the older people could have marked, not only these sections, but sections where the youngsters could not reach. But here they sometimes they raised up the children to flute. Why? Further, the low sections of the walls that children could comfortably flute by themselves show no flutings. Why?

Conclusions and General Discussion

This paper develops and provisionally applies an empirical methodology to examine finger flutings in Chamber A1 of Rouffignac Cave, France, asking what can be known from the flutings about the people who made them. The initial results suggest that many of the flutings were made by children held aloft to touch the ceiling and draw their hands along it. Those holding the children were at times not only walking, but moving rotationally from their hips, perhaps in whole body movement such as dancing. This may be the first demonstrable case of Paleolithic cave ‘art’ made by children.

This is a preliminary report and research continues to further refine the results, including allowance for errors.

What do the flutings mean? The import of the flutings as intended by their makers remains unknown; it will probably never be known and should probably not be expected to be known. However, that should not deter the archaeologist from examining severines such as those in Chamber A1 of Rouffignac Cave, because they can offer a rich source of information about the behaviors of people in the Upper Paleolithic. The examiner should look in depth at the markings as markings so that questions can be posed that the lines themselves can answer or that experimentation can elucidate. Flutings tell about the fingers and hands that made them and these tell about the people.

Whether this work in Chamber A1 can be applied to other severines, either in Rouffignac or elsewhere, remains to be seen. Related work so far suggests that at least two other forms of severines besides the Mirian Form (from Chamber A1) exist in Rouffignac (Sharpe and Van Gelder Preprint) and work continues on them and other severines in the cave.

Applying similar methodologies to the severines found elsewhere may also help elucidate the behaviors behind their manufacture.

Acknowledgements

We wish to thank the many people who have helped support this research:

·        Jean and Marie-Odile Plassard, for their support and for permission to work in Rouffignac Cave.

·        Our guides while in the cave: Sevérine Desbordes, Frédéric Goursolle, and Frédéric Plassard.

·        Union Institute and University, for financial support through its faculty research grants.

Robert Bednarik, Jean Clottes, Francesco d’Errico, Sandor Gallus (now deceased), Michel Lorblanchet, Alexander Marshack, and Hallam Movius Jr. (now deceased) for discussions and support over many years.

References

Barrière, Claude. 1982. L’Art Parietal de Rouffignac: La Grotte aux Cent Mammouths. Paris: Picard.

_________. 1984. Grotte de Gargas. In L’Art des Cavernes: Atlas des Grottes Ornées Paléolithiques Françaises, ed. André Leroi-Gourhan (Paris: Ministère de la Culture, Direction du Patrimoine, Sous-Direction de l’Archéologie), pp. 514-522.

Marshack, Alexander. 1977. The Meander as a System: The Analysis and Recognition of Iconographic Units in Upper Paleolithic Compositions. In Form in Indigenous Art: Schematization in the Art of Aboriginal Australia and Prehistoric Europe, Prehistory and Material Culture Series, no. 13, ed. Peter J. Ucko (Canberra: Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies), pp. 286-317.

Plassard, Jean. 1999. Rouffignac: Le Sanctuaire des Mammouths. Paris : Seuil.

Sharpe, Kevin. Preprint. Incised Linear Markings: Animal or Human Origin? www.ksharpe.com/word/AR09.htm.

_________, and Helen Fawbert. 1998. An Externalism in Order to Communicate. The Artefact 21: 95-104.

_________, and Mary Lacombe. 1999. Line Markings as Systems of Notation? In News 95: International Rock Art Congress Proceedings. Pinerolo, Italy: IFRAO – International Federation of Rock Art Federations, p. 46 and NEWS 95 - International Rock Art Congress Proceedings_files/sharp.htm.

_________, Mary Lacombe, and Helen Fawbert. 2002. Investigating Finger Flutings. Rock Art Research 19 (2): 109-116.

_________, and Leslie Van Gelder. Preprint. Three Forms of Finger Flutings (or Severines) in Rouffignac Cave, France. www.ksharpe.com/word/AR27.htm.