Some of the hand stencils that make up a substantial percentage of paleolithic cave art are too tiny for adults to use. According to a recent article, a casual look underestimates the full magnitude of children’s participation to the most famous ancient artworks. If genuine, the discovery might alter our understanding of cave art’s cultural relevance to our forefathers. When we think of cave art, we might think of super-realistic animal paintings, but hand stencils were far more popular. These were created by blowing paint through a hollow tube like a reed, resulting in “negative pictures.”
This sort of hand was seen in 90 percent of the 769 hands examined in a study of the 56 European caves where human hand pictures have been discovered. Only 9% use the more evident method of dipping a hand in pigment and pressing it on the wall, while 1% use both methods. Verónica Fernández-Navarro, a PhD student at the Universidad de Cantabria, analyzed hand patterns from five Spanish caves chosen for their remarkable preservation of hand motifs in the Journal of Archaeological Science.
After excluding stencils that were too faint or fragmentary for credible judgments of the hand that produced them, Fernández-Navarro and co-authors were left with a sample of 155 hands. These were compared to 3D scans of 545 left hands from present Iberian Peninsula citizens. A tiny percentage of the hands appeared to belong to newborns, and up to a quarter of the stencils were of a size that suggested they belonged to kids.
Previous estimations, some going back to the nineteenth century, were erroneous, according to the scientists, since they were based on two-dimensional reconstructions of stencils formed on uneven surfaces. They also didn’t account for the fact that the hands appeared to be held a short distance from the wall, causing the outline to be bigger than the actual hand. Researchers determined 12 measures for each hand, including the breadth and length of each finger and the palm, by creating their own stencils on rocks and utilizing 3D reproductions of the original paintings.
The findings have two ramifications, according to the authors. To begin with, “Graphic activity appears to have been a field available to the entire group, with both youngsters and adults participating in the creation of motifs.” They add, “It would not have been an activity strongly related to males and subsistence, as has often been claimed, without recognizing the possibility of women and children being engaged.” It’s possible that cave painting was more about social togetherness than an elite religious rite, as is commonly supposed.
The authors also believe that children were more often than previously thought to be involved in other paleolithic artforms. The results are part of a field known as “archeology of childhood,” which analyzes children’s roles in historical cultures and their interactions with adults and each other. Although it may seem self-evident that children are a vital element of any community, historians and archaeologists have not always acted in this manner, necessitating the creation of a separate field. Despite the fact that, during the most of human history, life expectancies were so low that children made up a significantly higher part of the population than they do now.