ScienceShot: Finger Drawings From a Prehistoric Preschool

Most preschoolers get scolded for writing on walls, but kids living 13,000 years ago were encouraged to scribble, at least in caves. Among the prolific paintings and other art in the 8 kilometer-long Rouffignac cave system in southwestern France are a number of unusual markings known as finger flutings, which are made by people dragging their hands through the soft silt that lines the cave's walls. By analyzing the finger flutings of modern humans, researchers discovered that the ratio of the distance between the three middle fingers indicate that many of the cave artists were very young children, one as young as 2 or 3 years old. The researchers were also able to tell the children's genders from the shape of the fingers. Some of these flutings were too steady for a toddler, suggesting that an adult guided the child's hand while teaching him or her, the researchers will report this weekend at the archaeology of childhood conference in Cambridge, U.K. Since the children's drawings seemed to be concentrated in one chamber, the researchers believe that the alcove may have been a sort of art school. And some of the drawings were high on the walls and on the ceiling, suggesting that the children were lifted.

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