A total of about 750 human handprints are known from the last Ice Age in Europe. They are between 40,000 and 12,000 years old, left behind on the walls of a total of some fifty caves, mainly in Spain and southern France. They are often hand stencils where dye, often red ocher, is blown around the hand, so that a negative print is made.
A large sample in which a total of more than 250 hands from five Spanish caves (with relatively many handprints) were carefully examined now shows that a surprisingly large number must come from children under twelve: varying between 10 and a maximum of 50 percent per cave. , a few percent were even younger than three years old. “These are clear indications of a diligent participation of children in the creation and development of prehistoric rock art,” conclude the researchers, led by Verónica Fernández-Navarro (University of Catabria) in the Journal of Archaeological Science†
The measurements were compared with measurements and control prints of a total of 545 hands of modern people of all ages. The research team believes they have developed a new standard for handprint analysis with these extensive measurements: “Most previous studies used two-dimensional photographs or measured them on the spot, leading to many errors.”
Their analysis is important for understanding the group dynamics of the Ice Age groups, the researchers write: “The participation of such young participants, even infants, suggests that this activity had part of the purpose of confirming and reinforcing group cohesion through the arts. .”
Not all 250 examined hands in the five investigated Spanish caves could be measured, 155 turned out to be complete enough to measure precisely: the thickness and length of all fingers and length and width of the hand, which in the electronic model also takes into account was kept with the three-dimensional background of the print. The hands are not always depicted on a flat background, which can significantly influence the precise measurement.
Other evidence of the presence of children in rock art caves has also been found. For example, through the famous Chauvet Cave, with many ancient drawings over 30,000 years old, there is a trail of about twenty footsteps of a young child, probably from the time the drawings were made. And in Fontanet’s cave, 13,000-year-old footprints of a child and a dog have been found, and even equally old traces of a game by older children who apparently threw clay at each other. Traces of children’s fingers have also been found on clay in caves with art.
In a book published last year by Canadian researcher April Nowell (University of Victoria), Growing Up in the Ice Age, she describes a major evolutionary role of children in the growth of symbolism in the culture of Homo sapiens. The way the Ice Age children experienced and learned the culture around them was crucial to its survival. Petroglyphs, including the many handprints, have always been seen as an important step in the growth of symbolic thinking, and children must have been closely involved in passing on those traditions.
In an email, Nowell is delighted with the new study, in which she was not involved. “It’s really great that these researchers took the three-dimensional shape of the rock face into account when taking measurements, it really sets a new scientific standard.”
What also pleases Nowell is that the researchers found that there is no difference between the hands of adolescents and those of adults. „There is still the old idea, of the biologist Dale Guthrie, that all those drawings and handprints were made by teenage boys. In itself a great idea, but it is also really important to establish that there is no evidence for this.”
Equally important is the conclusion that there were at least many smaller children running around and even participating in producing the rock art, according to Nowell. “Because that undermines many interpretations that all this art was created by grown men and was only intended for young adult initiation rites.”
A version of this article also appeared in NRC Handelsblad on 15 March 2022
A version of this article also appeared in NRC on the morning of March 15, 2022