Home » Academic life

Prehistoric Playschool - Jessica Cooney

Jessica Cooney, a PhD student here at St John’s, sheds light on ancient cave art discovered in the Dordogne:

 'My interest in prehistoric children was inspired by the general lack of information about them, even though they would have made up a large percentage of the population during the Palaeolithic. Like many others, I’m intrigued by the enigmatic cart art found in caves throughout the world, especially France and Spain.

However what fascinates me more than the beautiful art is a desire to discover the identities of the prehistoric artists. There have been tantalizing clues about who went into the caves: hundreds of negative handprints have been found throughout the world at caves, including those of children and possibly even infants. Footprints have also been found in many decorated prehistoric cave; again, many of the footprints are those of children. Yet with a few notable exceptions the presence of children has been glossed over, and in some cases even ignored.

With the encouragement of my Cambridge supervisor, Dr Liliana Janik of the Department of Archaeology and Anthropology, I was able to join the Finger Fluting project. Directed by Dr Leslie Van Gelder of Walden University (Minnesota, USA) and founded by Dr Van Gelder and her late partner Dr Kevin Sharpe ten years ago, the project studies the type of cave art known as ‘finger flutings’, marks made into soft walls and clay with fingers.

Dr Van Gelder and Dr Sharpe had spent years developing a methodology which allowed different individuals to be distinguished by the measurement of flutings made with the three middle fingers. This methodology also allowed children aged seven and under to be distinguished, and occasionally even the biological sex of the individuals can be determined. Drs Sharpe and Van Gelder first announced the child artists in 2006; these publications were a major inspiration and encouraged me to continue looking for children in the Upper Palaeolithic.

After joining the team, Dr Van Gelder and I returned to Rouffignac Cave, France, where we announced this year the presence of child artists throughout the cave. We found that children and adults made art everywhere, even in the farthest areas of the cave which are at least a 45 minute journey from the entrance. We were also able to determine that one chamber, where in fact child artists had first been discovered five years ago, was mostly filled with the artwork of children; adults had apparently played a reduced role in decorating this chamber.

Dr Van Gelder and I hope that children presence and active participation in the making of cave art will encourage others to reconsider the role that children played in the development of human culture. We are keen to expand our study to other caves in the near future and continue discovering the artists of the Upper Palaeolithic.'