In telling the story of human prehistory in scientific reports and museum exhibits, archaeologists and paleo-anthropologists portray our Homo sapiens ancestors as hunters, gatherers, tool-makers, fire-tenders and cave-painters. Almost always, adults are the focus.
Children may be present in a shadowy way, sitting at their parents' feet around the campfire or trailing along as part of a group migrating to follow game. They are rendered as passive beings, excluded from active agency. It is just as it once was with our portrayal of ancient women.
Active women gradually shouldered their way into our view of the past, taking their place beside men. Good evolutionary reasoning, and observation of other apes, tells us that primate females are just as likely to be at the forefront of cultural change as are the males. Hard evidence supports that conclusion, too.
The anthropologist Olga Soffer, for example, analyzed fiber impressions in prehistoric clay fragments in Central Europe. She found that around 27,000 years ago, our ancestors — women, she concludes — introduced woven clothing and nets into Homo sapiens life.
I'm hoping that new research findings, announced last week, may similarly propel children into the main narrative of ancient human history.
Archaeologists Jessica Cooney, of Cambridge University in England, and Leslie Van Gelder, of Walden University in the United States, have revealed that children as young as three made "finger flutings" marks on the walls of Rouffignac Cave in the Dordogne region of France. The art is about 13,000 years old.
Finger flutings are simpler in form than the more famous, colorful and expertly rendered bison, horse and mammoth images in French caves like Lascaux and Chauvet (as well as Rouffignac, itself). Made by running the fingers through the soft, silt-like material of a cave wall, hundreds of finger flutings are found at Rouffignac, some even in hard-to-access regions.
In order to derive an age for the child artists, Cooney and Van Gelder first measured the width of the three middle fingers in thousands of modern people. Then they matched the dimensions of the Rouffignac finger flutings to the age distribution derived from the modern measurements. In this way, they determined that children from age 3 to 7 were creating the finger flutings.
That's pretty nifty detective work.
Cooney and Van Gelder even think they can determine the child artists' sex by analyzing the shape of the top edge of the finger. Using this method, they announced that the most prolific young artist at work in the cave was a 5-year-old girl.
This method of sexing the past, however, comes with a 20 percent error rate. I wonder whether the scientists might have been satisfied to assert only that child artists made the finger flutings, rather than straining to distinguish boys from girls.
Why does a person's sex matter in our studies of the past, as it does to Cooney and Van Gelder, and to Olga Soffer? In part, it's because scientists wish to correct a vision of our past that was for too long dominated by spear-carrying, mammoth-tracking adult males.
Perhaps our need goes deeper, and beyond a scientific framework. In wanting to bridge the millennia that separate us from our ancestors, we seek the familiar in our past. In an interview, archaeologist Cooney goes so far as to say that the 5-year-old girl, in her desire to make art, was "exactly the same as children of today."
Science cannot tell us if that little child clung to her parents as the two generations traversed the dark cave passages together, or if, outside the cave, she played with toys and fought with a sibling. We are left with a mere glimpse of a girl whose fingers left an enduring impression on her world — and now on ours.
In that glimpse, we want to see a creative spirit that helped give birth to our own.
Barbara J. King is a biological anthropologist at the College of William and Mary in Virginia, the writer of non-fiction science books, most recently Being With Animals, a guest contributor to 13.7 and a Twitter addict.