Sunday, 2 October 2011

New Techniques Allow Archaeologists To Identify The Age And Gender Of Cave Artists

Finger flutings from the Cave of 100 Mammoths, Dordogne, France
that were potentially made by children between the ages of 3 and 7
Cave art is mysterious. While we have thousands of perfectly preserved galleries across the world, we still are unsure exactly what some paintings depict or why they were made in the first place. These questions have long baffled archaeologists. Yet by analysing the age and gender of the artists who made such images, it is possible to work out why they were made and for what purpose.

Yet how can the age and gender be extracted from a collection of ochre and charcoal markings that are tens, possibly hundreds of thousands of years old? Finger flutings are a type of marking made in soft surfaces on a cave wall, such as an outcrop of clay, in a style akin to finger painting. Archaeologists, led by Dr Leslie van Gelder of Walden University in the US, analysed 13,000 year old rock art from the Cave of 100 Mammoths in the Dordogne Region of France, which contained, amongst other things, numerous finger flutings.

These are often marshalled into forms of giant, Ice Age mammals, particularly mammoths. Every year, thousands of people flock to see the ancient art. 'Flutings made by children appear in every chamber throughout the caves,' said archaeologist Jess Cooney. Cooney believes that a particular section of the caves were reserved for children's artwork. All the flutings were relatively crude and lacked the colouration often seen in more accomplished artists.

Across the flutings, the team were able to identify four individual child artists with an age range of 3 to 7. The most prolific artist, according to Cooney, was a 5 year old girl. While we can never be certain whether the art was for ritualistic purposes or simply to pass the time, the age range offers an interesting perspective. The results from this study can be re-applied to prehistoric galleries across the world, giving archaeologists a way to make a rough differentiation between the artists' ages, and subsequently, their  purpose.