A prehistoric play school

At a recent talk at the University of Cambridge Jess Cooney gave a fascinating account of the research that she and Dr Leslie van Gelder have been doing on the marks, known as finger flutings, made 13,000 years ago in the Ruffignac caves in France.  Besides the drawing of mammoths, bears and other animals, our prehistoric ancestors made decorative marks by running their fingers through the soft material extruded from the limestone.  These were often made by running the index (second), middle and third (ring) finger together so that there are three grooves, sometimes straight, and sometimes curved. There are also sets of grooves crossing other grooves, interpreted as symbols.

Because children’s hands are smaller than adult hands, it’s possible to tell that some of these flutings were made by children, and Jess Cooney suggested that there were flutings made by a child as young as three. The relative length of the digits can be different in men and women (in women, the index finger (the second) is usually about the same length as the ring finger (the fourth), whereas in men, the ring finger is usually longer than the index finger. Also, because this relative length is fixed in the womb, it is likely that some of these children were girls (see here for information on finger length).

Anyone who has seen children making patterns in mud or sand on the sea-shore, or finger painting will recognise this activity, and it’s fascinating to imagine those small children, so much like our own, making their contributions to the artistic endeavour that has characterised our species.

You can listen to Jess Cooney’s talk, see film of the caves and the flutings and read about her research here  on the University Research  site.

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