C:\NB4\WORK\ARCHAEOL\AR08                                                           6 December 2002




Kevin Sharpe and Mary Lacombe

The Union Institute College of Graduate Studies

Mailing Address: 65 Hoit Road, Concord, NH 03301-1810, USA


Copyright   6 December 2002 by Kevin Sharpe and Mary Lacombe




Scholars, mystics, and casual visitors have offered many interpretations of finger and other line markings—in particular those that are neither representational nor geometrical—found in caves and on rocks from Europe to Australia. Which of these ideas, if any, most accurately reflects the intentions of the line makers? Most prehistorians would rather avoid this question as it appears guesswork at this point. However, work proceeds on methods that do differentiate between and falsifies some of the interpretations. Francesco d’Errico has most notably pioneered techniques that require microscopic examination of the markings themselves. In this paper, we extend d’Errico’s techniques to the study of finger markings on cave walls. We describe the method we use and its results on artificially-produced lines, and questions it may help answer for the prehistoric lines.







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1st reference here.


Line Markings



Making the hypothesis that the prehistoric finger markings found in caves are a form of writing is one that has not had much support. Originally in making our hypothesis, part of our reasoning lay in the premise that the deliberate looking nature of some of these marks had a significance, some symbolic code perhaps. It is the highly marked caves of Snowflake and Koonalda in Australia in which the propensity of lines are overwhelming, surely going beyond any chance markings; these are layers upon layers of finger markings stretching into difficult to reach niches as well as on large moonmilch faces. The studies on these fingermarkings reveals they are made by human fingers and they are thousands of years old. The purposes remain unknown.

Starting with the premise that the purpose might have been a communication system of some sort provided the motivation to investigate what similarities these markings might share with later confirmed writing systems. The fact that the markings were found on moonmilch and made by fingers supports the historical claim that initially writing systems began with naturally found materials. Moonmilch was naturally found in Australia and provided a marking medium. Fingers, needless to say, were equally naturally available as a tool for making marks.

The next idea is that we considered was that initially writing systems were peculiar to a small geographical area. This meant that we would need to stick to markings within one cave or very close caves to look for patterns or similarities. Even finger marks that may have looked similar from other caves at distant geographical points in the world, could not be counted on to provide clues for our study. We would have to look at one small geographical area at a time.

Lastly there is the fine line between mnemonic markings and communication systems. The difference is in the individual nature of the mnemonic marking,  designed for remembering an event or story, but unconnected with any standarized symbol. The history of writing presumes that all writing starting as a  mnemonic form, that then may have been shared with a small group of people. It was extremely limited both in content and in users, and this limit differentiates it from a writing system. The line markings are so similar to each other, they are unlike the average writing systems whereby one can differentiate one symbol from another.

It is here that we begin our methodology, that of trying to duplicate these line markings to see if we can discover in the experience of making linemarkings an idea that has been considered in the previous research. 


Medium- Plaster of Paris

Finding a medium that would allow duplication of the line markings found in caves containing moonmilch was a first concern. Plaster of Paris was chosen due to its accessibility and its similarity in looks and makeup to moonmilch. The durability of plaster of paris, once it hardened, gave the opportunity to analyze the markings over a period of time. Using a combination of one part water and two parts plaster of Paris, the solution was poured into four 12 inch by 18" aluminum trays. This recipe resulted in the plaster being too wet to hold a marking, so a time lapse of 15 minutes was necessary before beginning our markings.


Position of marking person and medium

The trays was set down on a table and thus the markings were made with the marking person ( a male) standing up, and dragging his fingers over the plaster of paris. This position of the plaster of paris tray on a table is different from actual markings in caves. Normally the markings are on a vertical surface in relation to the marker, although the markings can be found  overhead as well.

One adult male made four sets of finger markings to set the stage for determining if markings made by one individual had a distinctive look. Our thought was that if the markings had a common visual thread, we could separate cave areas covered with many markings into clusters of markings made by different individuals.

 Four sets of finger markings were thus made. Two sets of vertical markings made with the right hand and two sets of horizontal markings, cutting across the vertical markings. These markings will be called A, B, C, D:

· A- representing the first marking on the left half of the pan

· B - representing the vertical marking on the right side,

· C - representing the top horizontal marking,

· D - representing the bottom horizontal marking.

The marking A was made with all five fingers. The thumb marking was particularly noticeable in that the fingernail made a distinctive sharp line in the plaster. This is due to the fact that the thumb is dragged sideways when all fingers were used in the position of a marker standing over a tray of plaster. The fingernail is pressed into the plaster resulting in a sharp line as part of the line made by the thumb. The thumb marks also starts lower than the middle three fingers. There has been some talk that markings may have been made by animals.  In markings by animals without a "thumb" the markings would all start at the same point, thus distinguishing them from human markings which would not.

Mark B was made by the same right hand of the same person without the thumb. The spacing between the fingers of both sets were not identical. We found no easily observable similarities between the sets of lines made by the same person. Our initial conclusion is that it is difficult to determine by the naked eye if line markings are made by the same person. Various pressures on the fingers caused the lines to be deeper in some spots than others. The little finger did not make as deep a finger marking into the plaster as did the first three fingers.

Dragging the fingers horizontally across the vertical lines in C and D places the fingers in a different position with different pressure. The thumb does not come into play with horizontal lines if moving from right to left witht he right hand. The twisting of the hand for dragging horizontally causes the thumb to be at too great a distance from the surface to cause a marking.

As the fingers dug into the plaster of Paris, extra plaster was carried along and built up on the edge of the finger markings in various spots. Moving horizontally over a vertical marking caused build up of plaster as well.

The most noticeable effect was that it was observable in most of the markings that the markings began in one place and ended in another, due to the buildup of plaster at the end of the marking where the fingers were then taken from the surface. The buildup of plaster was distinctive at the end point, whereas the starting point of the finger markings were smooth with no buildup.


Female Marker - B

Our next experiments was to have the same lines duplicated but made by a female. This may help to compare the two trays of finger markings to see if females have observable differences in their finger markings. Many of the same characteristics were noticeable as with the male. The thumbnail cut a line into the plaster. The sets of lines made my one person were not noticeable similar in that the the distance between fingers changed with each set of lines. However, the B set of lines made by a female were smaller and cut less deeply into the plaster than those made by the male in set A.


Use of Left Hand in Marking - Female Marker - C

The female then made markings with the left hand. Although differences could bee seen when looking at the thumbnail marking, otherwise there was no obvious physical differences than those lines made with the right hand. However, using the thumbnail marking and the lower starting point of the thumb in relation to the other fingers might help determine if lines were made by right handed or left handed markers in the caves.


Placement of pan in different position to imitate wall marking positions - D

The last experiment with this series of four worked off the idea that most cave walls were directly in front of the person making the marker, not sitting on a table. By propping the pan with the plaster of paris in an upright position and sitting on a chair so that the marker was chest high, these line markings were more consistent with the relationship of the marker to the marks in the cave. Initially no difference was seen between the same marks made in a pan laying on the table. However, the difficulty of getting the thumb to make a mark when pulling the right hand fromright to left, and the general uncomfortable feeling of moving the right hand in that direction, led us to speculate on the comfort or maneuverability of the body might impose constrictions on the size and type of line markings made.


The body in relationship to the cave wall and the limits this might impose on the markings.

In exploring the relationship of the body to the cave wall, we were not able to use plaster as the pans were not large enough to conduct experiments. We used a blank wall to determine possible lengths of line markings given certain conditions. A person standing could reach over his/her head to begin a marking and could pull down to short distance past the shoulder. Pulling further down while still standing, caused the line to be made with a fingernail rather than the soft flesh of the finger. Continuing to stand in one spot, the market if right handed could make downward marks about one foot at most beyond the left shoulder and two feet at most beyond the right shoulder. A left handed person would reverse these lengths. In general, the cluster of marks made by one individual standing still would encompass an area two to possibly three feet long and possibly three feet wide at the largest

If the person continued to squat as he or she made the marking, this would of course lengthen the mark, or if they moved sideways, widen the marks..

Given these two constraints on size of sets of markings, it would be a beginning in determining the possibilities of clusters of line markings and then using these clusters to determine if there are any similarities or patters within or between them. One thought is to make a template of this dimension and take photographs of sets of lines that fall within this frame and examine them for similarities among all the frames.

Our second set of markings in plaster of Paris were made in larger pans of 24 by 24 and allowed more lines to be made that might reveal so interesting patters.

Our initial sets had resulted in a recognizable ending mark on each line marking. As the plaster was pulled along , it would build up on the finger tips and when the finger was picked up off the line, a noticeable  mark was left indictating that was where the line ended. On our second set of lines, we found that by pressing a line instead of dragging a line, little plaster was picked up and the beginning and end of each was undetectable. We also found we could control the amount of plaster that was dragged along by the way we lay our finger tips on the plaster as we moved them. Oneof the markers found the buildup of plaster at theend of the fingers uncomfortable and washed it off thinking it would interfere with the second set of lines to be made. In a pan made by no wipingof the fingers befroe a second set of lines were made, there is no discenrinible difference between the two pans.

One thought has been that the moonmilch was used for marking body parts for ceremonies and that the finger markings are only the remanats of this activity. After experiementing with the plaster of paris, very short marks could pick up a substanditial amount of plaster and led us to wonder why long marks were made which would be less efficient.

One experiemental pan was used to determine which fingers were the most comfortable and had the most control inmaking figner markings. the first two were definitelymost comfortable , thenthe third finger and then the thumb and little finger were equally uncomfortable, The little fingeris weaker than theother fingers and the thumb lays at the wrong angle. The first two and then the first three fingers continued to be a preference for both markers.

Also the use of three or more fingers made downward motions most comfortable. Horizontal motions straight across were not as comfortable as horizontal movements with a vertical inclination. When making horizontal marks, it felt more comfortable to move from left to right with right hand and right to left with left hand.  Using one or two fingers made moving in circles and curves easy. The form of the hand lended itself to more intricate curves or picutres when only one or two fingers were used


Making horizontal lines first and vertical lines second

Another experiment had the horizontal markings made first, and vertical markings made on top of them, Another tray was marked going from bottom to top and left to right. The idea on this is that writing tends to be standardized, often in terms of ease of bodily movement. Our inclination was to feel more comfortable to drag our fingers from top to bottom and making horizontal lines afterwards. Dragging our fingers upwards changed the lenght of the markings in terms of our relationship to the surface. Below the shoulder the fingertips were pressed into the surface, above the shoulder, the fingernails made the markings. 


Subjective Responses questioned by the Markers

Plaster clumped at the end of finger tips, making it uncomfortable to continue making lines at one point for one of the markers.Does the  composition of moonmilch cause this same condition or is it possible to control the amount that accumulates onthe fingertips by using a different fingerposition or pressure. Neither of the markers were naturally left handed so the left handed marks might be different from one who normally uses the left hand. Our intention was to make marks, not dig up the plaster so our  touch was conditioned for this purpose.


Field tests

Two field tests that might shed light on these markings is to study the line markings in various parts of a caves such as Snowflake. Snowflake is covered with line markings on moonmilch right down to the bottom edges where the moonmilch touches the dirt floor. By checking different parts of the cave, we could determine in which direction the finger markings were being started in the marking process. Were marks always made starting from the top and going down, or were marks made pulling upward in difficult to access parts of the cave.

Our premise that these line markings may have been a form of mnemonic writing may be strengthened if the marks are made from top to bottom, meaning a standardization of marking may have been required, despite the difficulty of doing so.

Another field test would require marking moonmilch to determine the pressure needed by the hands to make a mark, and the amount of moonmilch that was picked up by the fingers while marking.