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AMH Children's Art in the Upper Palaeolithic

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Authored by Izzy Arevalo
Published on 23rd November, 2023 14 min read

AMH Children's Art in the Upper Palaeolithic

The Upper Palaeolithic spanned c.50,000 to c.11,000 years ago. This time period saw Neanderthals and Anatomically Modern Humans (AMH) interacting and living together. Until recently, the way in which historians have studied societies during this period has been somewhat problematic. For one thing, the discipline of prehistoric studies has systematically ignored certain groups of people, not least women, children, and the disabled. Recently, historians have started to uncover hidden histories by reassessing discoveries with these groups in mind. This article aims to contribute to this process by considering children in the Upper Palaeolithic. The culture of AMH was shared and passed down for millennia and children were vital for the continuation of norms and practices throughout generations. It is essential, therefore, to understand the role of children in this period. Evidence of their presence in prehistory has always been present. Yet the question is: how involved were they in their communities? By analysing the artwork from AMH children in the Upper Palaeolithic we can gain insights into the roles they played within their communities.

The Upper Palaeolithic is known for its rich culture, as evidenced by the large variety of art forms discovered that date from this period. Arguably, the most famous discovery is the extensive cave art depicting animals. Throughout previous decades major assumptions were made when studying such artwork. Perhaps the biggest assumptions were that, firstly, the artists were white adult males working alone with little skill and, secondly, that they produced art as a meaningless exercise. This could not be further from the truth. To study this culture one must forget the preconceptions created by historians over the last century and instead evaluate the artwork objectively. This will provide us with a greater understanding of the lives of Upper Palaeolithic people.

Art is still such a prominent part of our society. Thus, there is no reason to assume that art did not hold the same or a similar meaning to people in the Upper Palaeolithic. Indeed, there is evidence to suggest that groups and families gathered together to create art pieces and to educate younger generations. Ignoring this evidence only hinders our quest to understand culture and society in the Upper Palaeolithic. There are countless beautiful examples of AMH art from this period. In fact, children's art has been discovered. This highlights the importance that was placed upon educating children.

 Fluting Cave Designs

There are numerous examples of fluting designs on cave walls across Europe. This technique was created by dragging fingers dipped in clay or some other form of paint across a cave wall to create different images. Rouffignac Cave in France is home to some of the first suggestions of AMH children’s art. The exact date of these pieces is disputed: some scholars say 13,000–14,000 BP, others suggest a much earlier date of 27,000 BP.[1] Within Chamber A1 there is evidence to suggest children as young as three were creating art. But how do we know these artworks were produced by children? Archaeologists have measured the width of the index, ring, and middle fingers in the fluting designs.[2] The smaller the size, the younger the person.

It is interesting to look at the positioning of the children's art. For one thing, it is often found on the ceiling of the cave, somewhere inaccessible for young children.[3] The only way that they would have reached the ceiling would have been with the assistance of an adult. Within Rouffignac Cave there are large zig-zag patterns formed by children on the ceilings. It is thought that the whole body of the adult and the child would be required to move to create this pattern as it could not have been produced by wrist movement alone.[4] Being lifted and moved like this required trust and direction. It is an activity that would have therefore improved teamwork skills that were vital for hunting. This suggests that artwork was not just created for pleasure but that it was also employed for learning and team bonding.  

Rouffignac Cave is not the only site where children created these patterns: Las Chimeneas in Spain contains depictions of prey with flutings drawn across them. El Catillo and Monte Castillo also bear evidence of children's fluting across their walls.[5] Following the discovery and inspection of these sites our ideas as to how social groups were formed or functioned in the Upper Palaeolithic changed dramatically. The evidence suggests that adults wanted to involve children: that they encouraged them to engage in their community and to contribute to the culture that they were building.[6]  

Exactly how these artworks were formed is not always considered. Yet thinking about the creative process can provide us with a greater appreciation of how these people interacted and collaborated. The labyrinth of Rouffignac Cave means little light reaches deep enough to where the art was created. Consequently, it would have been dark and lit by firelight. Groups ranging from two to eight people would have gathered here to decorate the walls.[7] Most likely these people would have been related, spending time together and escaping from the harsh conditions outside. As the firelight flickered, these images may have come alive and stories about hunting could have been shared. These experiences may have been valuable for the community in spiritual terms. This was not an isolated event but, rather, one that connected a group of people, regardless of their age or gender. 


There is much evidence of children's accidental footprints all over Europe. One instance is in La Garma Cave in Spain. Here, it is thought that a group were running and playing through the mud and leaving prints. These are thought to be 16,000 years old.[8] The presence of Upper Palaeolithic children is forever embedded in the cave floor and many others like it, reminding the world of the existence of our ancestors. Just as there is proof that children accidentally left their prints in caves, so there likewise exists evidence of children purposefully creating prints.

Artistic handprints are an example of this. By using the hand as a stencil individuals were able to spray pigment at various angles, leaving the outline of their hands when they were removed.[9] Hand collages are seen throughout the world: from the caves in Maros in Indonesia (as seen in the above photograph) to Gargas Cave in France. This art is valuable to archaeologists as it provides insights into the artists and thus into the social structure of Upper Palaeolithic groups. In several caves where the quality of handprints are impeccable the hands have been measured. The sex of the artist can be deciphered using the Manning Index to measure the ratio between the index and ring fingers.[10] To calculate the age of the individual modern and prehistoric data must be studied. Data from other sites containing handprints is compared with modern data.[11] These methods have helped historians to understand the structure of specific Upper Palaeolithic groups. Data from sites all over Europe can be used to estimate an overall population. 

By utilising these methods artists can be better understood. For instance, in Gargas Cave there is a handprint of a toddler or baby stencilled on to the rock.[12] This image, suggesting the involvement of even the youngest members of society, illustrates the love and care Upper Palaeolithic people had for one another. While the baby would not remember that moment, its involvement in the community is forever present in this cave art. 

The age and sex of some handprints are still highly contested by academics. Many smaller prints have been regarded as created by adolescent males. Indeed, there is debate as to whether these are women's hands. If this is true, then there is a staggering amount of women’s prints compared to any other member of these communities.[13] None the less, just because there is conflicting evidence with respect to AMH children’s handprints, this does not mean that children did not participate in this activity. There are many things that archaeology cannot show, only imply. These include the technique of spraying the pigment onto someone's hand, the forging of spiritual connections, and how people spent time socialising with the group. Much like the fluting designs, these stencils evidence group unity and a sense of community. 

Magdalenian Mobility Art

Magdalenian culture (middle Magdalenian: 17,550–16,250 BP [14]) contains a wide variety of artistic techniques. Carvings on bones or perforated batons are indicative of children's art. Such items are collectively referred to as “mobility art”, as they can be transported anywhere with a person, unlike cave art. The carving could have been created with a variety of tools, perhaps specially made for the piece, or with ones found within nature that could produce a similar result. 

Furthermore, when looking at these artifacts one finds tangible proof of teaching. Within the cave in Isturitz in France there are numerous Upper Palaeolithic artforms. Crucially, there is evidence of master/apprentice relationships.[15] It is easy to forget that to become an artist people would have had to learn techniques passed down for generations: a mode of teaching evident in every human civilisation.[16] Having a speciality skillset to share would have ensured the continuation of certain cultural elements. This could be thought of as a form of schooling, with the younger members coming together and learning from the elders of the group. Thus, it is no surprise that amongst the artwork at Isturitz archaeologists have been able to differentiate between artistic levels, such as beginner, intermediate, and advanced engravers. [17] This provides indisputable evidence that teaching played a huge role in childhood. Just as importantly, the majority of the images engraved are of animals — bison, horse, and ibex — all of which were prey hunted by AMH.[18] Of course, educating children on the wildlife surrounding them was crucial for their survival. The ability to memorise and then to depict these species indicates that children were learning what to hunt from what they had seen and combining this learning with artistic techniques that they were being taught.

Other smaller sites like Las Caldas contain a higher proportion of beginner and intermediate artwork. Yet there is much less art found here than at Isturitz. This makes analysing this site more challenging.[19] Cave art is not, however, the only medium where this master/apprentice relationship can be observed: there are multiple examples around Europe of beginner flint knappers learning from experts.[20] The discovery of immaculate arrow heads (and not so well executed ones) has provided even more evidence of the schooling of children in an artistic technique that was also crucial for their survival. 

In the examples above it is difficult to say for certain whether these artists were children or sometimes adults — there may have been less skilful adults taking part in the creative process. That said, it is highly likely that these pieces were created by children and adolescents. This type of schooling led to the Magdalenian culture bequeathing a rich variety of artistic creations. Future generations continued these crafts for millennia, generating different artistic cultures which eventually evolved into the art created today. 


There is still a huge selection of art that has not been mentioned in this essay, such as the use of pigments to paint the body. There has also been shell and mammoth ivory discovered with small holes bored into it to create jewellery.[21] The art of decorating the body gave someone individuality but likewise created a sense of community. Given the evidence of children’s involvement in art across the Upper Palaeolithic there is no reason to assume they did not decorate themselves too.

Art is a vital part of education today, not only as a visual method for teaching to develop cognitive abilities, but as also a means of developing cultural awareness. Much of the artistic education observed throughout this essay seems to have been underpinned by a desire to ensure the survival of children, thereby enabling the group to thrive. But artistic education was also about families enjoying their time together. While the sites surveyed in this essay are indicative of education and teambuilding, they also evidence children having fun and being creative. The meaning of childhood varies from civilisations across history, yet in the period considered in this article children seem to have engaged in fun, creative tasks just like adults. It would also appear that childhood in the Upper Palaeolithic was full of symbolism. While it is unlikely that children fully comprehended the spiritual meaning of the images they created, this did not render their art useless.[22] 

Just because life in the Upper Palaeolithic was rough, this did not mean that people had a meaningless existence that was all about survival and dominated by fear. Creating art is a form of escape from the real world and being able to create something with sentimental value is a defining feature of humanity. Children learned about and engaged in the production of cultural art. If this process had not occurred in the Upper Palaeolithic then contemporary art would be something very different indeed.   

[1] Kevin Sharpe and Leslie Van Gelder, “Evidence for Cave Marking by Palaeolithic Children”, Antiquity 80, no. 310 (2006): 937–47, 938. 

[2] Liliana Janik and Jessica Cooney Williams, “Community Art: Communities of Practice, Situated Learning, Adults and Children as Creators of Cave Art in Upper Palaeolithic France and Northern Spain”, Open Archaeology 4, no. 1 (2018): 217–38.

[3] Verónica Fernández-Navarro, Edgard Camarós, and Diego Garate, “Visualizing Childhood in Upper Palaeolithic Societies: Experimental and Archaeological Approach to Artists’ Age Estimation through Cave Art Hand Stencils”.

[4] Sharpe and Van Gelder, “Evidence for Cave Marking by Palaeolithic Children”, 940. 

[5] Fernández-Navarro, Camarós, and Garate, “Visualizing Childhood in Upper Palaeolithic Societies”, 233. 

[6] Ibid., 234.

[7] Ibid., 232.

[8] Ashley Cowie, “Paleolithic Age Footprints of Children Discovered in La Garma Cave,” Ancient Origins: Reconstructing the story of Humanity’s past, updated June 2 2021, available at

[9] Fernández-Navarro, Camarós, and Garate, “Visualizing Childhood in Upper Palaeolithic Societies”, 4.

[10] Ibid., 2. 

[11] Ibid., 1. 

[12] Sharpe and Van Gelder, “Evidence for Cave Marking by Palaeolithic Children”. 

[13] Carole Fritz, Gilles Tosello, and Margaret W. Conkey, “Reflections on the Identities and Roles of the Artists in European Paleolithic Societies”, Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory 23, no. 4 (2015): 1307–32.

[14] Olivia Rivero, “Master and Apprentice: Evidence for Learning in Palaeolithic Portable Art”, Journal of Archaeological Science 75 (2016): 89–100.

[15] Rivero, “Master and Apprentice”.

[16] Ibid., 96. 

[17] Ibid., 95.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Rivero , “Master and Apprentice”, 96. 

[21] Simona Petru, “Palaeolithic Art in Slovenia”, Documenta Praehistorica 36 (2009): 299–304.

[22] Fernández-Navarro, Camarós, and Garate, “Visualizing Childhood in Upper Palaeolithic Societies”, 234.  

Authored by Izzy Arevalo

Izzy Arevalo

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The British Online Archives blog is a platform for scholars to present their research to students and the general public. The posts cover a range of historical themes and debates from around the world. The opinions expressed represent those of the authors, not British Online Archives or Microform.

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