C:\NB4\Work\Archaeol\AR10—Portugal IRAC 1998                       23 September 1999


Finger Markings in Caves: Further Research Results


Kevin Sharpe, Mary Lacombe, and Helen Fawbert



In this paper, we propose to extend the application of the results from previous experiments to define constraining and explanatory parameters for finger markings. Our methodology of replication and internal analysis of finger markings had restrictions imposed by our previous choice of medium - plaster of Paris. The weight of the plaster limited the surface area on which we were able to work. Our new method will further many of our original ideas, on a larger scale. This will enable us to replicate the markings on an area similar in size to those in caves. The flexibility of the new medium - finger paint - will allow us to not only expand upon our previous research results in plaster of Paris, but encourage experiments with new ideas that may arise from using a larger upright surface. We will videotape this activity and make notes on our reactions and findings. We will focus our experiments towards attempting to see direction of movement.

Our experiments on a smaller scale, using plaster of Paris, will further our previous work in an attempt to support conclusions reached during recent fieldwork in southern France. We will concentrate on the possibility of defining handedness and starting points of lines. We suggest that these observations will enable us to formulate further questions. The use of a specific hand to make a specific number of lines, for example, may have positive implications for our theory of a mnemonic notation system. Systematic consistencies indicate a defined activity, as opposed to random activity. We hope that this will further elucidate the meanings of the finger markings.



Finger markings (lines made with fingers drawn over the surface) occur in cave sites throughout southern Australia and Europe. The basis of our proposition for this paper is that the prehistoric finger markings found in caves throughout the two continents are intentional, as opposed to accidental. They often cover areas with difficult access, many hundreds of metres from the surface. For example, in Koonalda Cave, on the Nullarbor Plain, South Australia, the part of the Upper Chamber where the finger markings occur, lies nearly an hour away from the surface. It is accessible, for those without extensive climbing experience, by using steel ladders, cut paths, lights (the Upper Chamber is pitch black), and other modern paraphernalia. Once inside, access and manoeuvrability are difficult. We suggest that by the study and replication of techniques used for their production, the deliberate nature of the markings could become apparent. Similarities between markings, for example, might indicate that the markings were produced in a specific and prescribed manner. Random markings do not suggest a specific meaning or purpose. We have extended the application of the results from previous experiments, to define any constraints that might suggest a prescribed and thus deliberate form. We hope that from this, we will be able to establish an explanatory framework for these markings



The replication of finger markings, in different media - in order to define a certain technique of production, if any - is the basis for our experiments. We propose that a close examination of replicated marks, in conjunction with studying examples in situ, will enable us to make suggestions towards understanding why the lines were produced. We conducted our experiments over a wider spatial area than our previous ones, which used plaster of Paris as our medium. In our most recent experiments, we used finger paints to extend the application of previous research results. The conditions of the medium and the spatial area available will have constraining effects on the lines made. Paint is more flexible and easier to use over a wider area and on a vertical surface.

On wetter areas of the paper, it proved easier to make markings when there was some distance (>2cm) between the fingers. The thumb and little finger are used to anchor support when the medium is very wet, and the fingers are held at a steep angle of approximately 45º. The mark made by the little finger is not as strong and is indistinct when the medium is wet.

On dryer areas of the paper, it proved easier to make markings when there was a shorter distance (of <1.5cm) between the fingers. More pressure is required to make a mark, and so the lower parts of the fingers (the proximal phalanges) provide support. This might suggest that dryer areas were not suitable for finger markings. Indeed, the harder (and possibly dryer) areas in Koonalda Cave, South Australia are marked with tools.

Build-up of paint appears on both sides of the fingers, but only on the nail-side of the thumb. Does this suggest that handedness be seen? When the right hand is used, the lines sweep down to the left, until the hand passes the middle of the body. The opposite occurs with the left hand. With either hand, in front of the body the lines sweep either way, or vertical. With either hand, when the hand passes over the front of the body, the lines sweep towards the body. Therefore, handedness is visible and might have relevance. We will discuss this point further.

Our latest work suggests that the overlapping of the markings is more complex than previously thought. When markings made with the hand are positioned anywhere but directly in front of the body, that of the third finger obliterates the mark of the little finger. Overlapping is also produced when the marker continues to stand in the same place, but swaps from using the left to the right hand, or vice versa. The marks are produced at the same time – and significantly, do not reinforce any proposition of continued use or otherwise. The thumb mark appears at a greater distance from the marks made by the fingers, when the hand stretches out horizontally, to the side of the body. This might result in the thumb mark appearing to be unconnected to the other marks or even made at a different time. Additionally, the lower place of the little finger in this position results in overlapping or obliteration of its mark. The marks made by the other fingers also appear to overlap each other.

In both Rouffignac and Peche Merle in Southern France, the markings have a tight formation, but no overlapping - were these lines deliberately and carefully made not to overlap? We cannot define, therefore, whether overlapping is a deliberate feature of line marking. The finger markings in Grotte de Rouffignac were made with two to three fingers and appear, generally, to be deliberate as opposed to accidental, but this is speculation. Shapes were visible, such as a V-shape in Rouffignac and, in Peche Merle, the lines formed a square. These findings add further complications to our attempt to suggest a purpose for the markings.

We suggest that the position of the hand on the wall, with respect to the body, might be determined by comfort. Having the hand directly in front of the body causes discomfort, as does stretching. A distance of between 30 and 45 cm from the centre of the body appears to be the most comfortable and practical. However, are these findings relevant? The constraints imposed by the cave itself – height, width, and uneven floors – might be more pertinent. If markings had - for whatever reason – to be made, the restrictions imposed by the cave, personal discomfort, and other such factors, would be negligible.

Movements made left of the centre of the body (if using the right hand) are difficult. However, returning to our previous point, is this fact admissible? Probably not. Marks made above the head to just below chest level are easy to produce. However, those below chest level are difficult. Nevertheless, markings do appear in some sites, right down to floor level, ceilings, and high up on walls - above that which is easily reached. In Cosquer, for example, the lines are visible up to four metres from the floor. It is possible to make marks below the waist height by squatting down, however, to move up from the floor with the hand inverted is easier. We propose that an obvious difficulty in producing markings does suggest a deliberate motivation. At Peche Merle, groups of markings are present high on the roof of the cave. Beneath them is a large boulder, possibly used in the way of a scaffold. However, there is only enough room on the boulder for one person. This would suggest, therefore, that one person used the area for marking; or many people used the same specific area many times.



It is possible that the lines represent some form of ownership marks. Looking at the work of Clottes and Lewis-Williams, we can suggest that the markings might be shamanistic. Clottes and Lewis-Williams have suggested that the hand stencils, which are present in many European caves, indicate an attempt to touch the ‘spirits’ within the rock. The finger markings might be the remains of such a belief system. Whitley (in Roach 1998) working on the Shoshone petroglyphs of the Coso Mountain range, California, has suggested that the petroglyphs were made for a very important reason. The Shoshones believed that if they forgot their visions, they would die  - a powerful incentive to put them down. It is unlikely that the full experience was expressible, but a brief notational form would be able to jog the memory.

The use of ‘doodles’ when thinking is commonplace. The lines could represent a form of doodling or even a mnemonic system to remember certain events. Lines as a mnemonic method might utilize the brain’s visual memory for shapes. Height/length is important in a written language – do the lines reflect this? The link between so-called ‘representational’ parietal art – such as that at Lascaux - and hunting is implied in much of the art. The visually less commanding lines may also be related to hunting, and might have been used to ‘note down’ certain hunts or tallies.

Cave walls are normally the surfaces on which the markings occur, but they are also present on a smaller scale between rocks and in crevices. We can propose that children participated in line marking – just as the evidence suggests that children had access to many of the European caves. Children use mnemonics and other non-representational ‘doodles’. Experiments by Thorndike asked small children who could not write to remember difficult things (Vygotsky 1978). The children created undifferentiated squiggles and lines, but would read them as though they were actual words. The children repeatedly indicated, without error, which marks denoted which phrase. The marks became mnemonic symbols. Possibly, the finger marks are small scale/shortened versions of the larger markings. Additionally, different parts of the cave might have been assigned different uses. The separation of caves, into living and working areas is present in the Middle Palaeolithic. It is conceivable that in the Upper Palaeolithic, caves also separated into distinct use-areas.

Mnemonic, representational or notational systems are common today. Music, for example is a notational system. Vaneechouette and Skoyles (1998) suggest that language evolved from the ability to sing, by memetic origin. Several examples do exist where song was selected with regard to its capacities for reinforcing social bonds – gibbons, whales, tropical songbirds, and wolves. An ability to sing would have provided the physical apparatus and neural respirational control, which is required by speech. Certain studies have suggested that children learn to speak through a melody-based recognition of intonation, pitch, and melody sequencing and phrasing. It is possible that the finger lines represented a form of notational sequence, related to melody – which later evolved in to writing, the physical expression of speech.

Ethnographic parallels are not unknown. Munn (1973: 58) suggests that the sand markings made by the Walbiri have to be examined in relation ‘to a wider graphic art of narration’. We can propose that the finger markings might have a connection, in evolutionary terms, with the later use of graphic forms, which have become the media of social interaction. The graphic forms used are simple in appearance, however, when verbal accompaniment is reduced, they can carry on the basic meaning of the story, combined with the gestural signs, quite comprehensively. Each graphic element covers a range of possible meaning (Munn 1973: 64, Layton 1991: 185). The specific items meant depend upon the narrative context or the associated motifs (Mithen 1996: 157). Among the Aranda of Central Australia, older men are fond of using sand drawings when instructing initiates in sacred myths (Layton 1992: 54).

Handedness may have a definite relevance in making finger markings. Field studies of markings in a number of caves in the Dordogne region, have suggested that in certain cases, handedness is visible – although this is only visible when more than one finger is used produce lines. Handedness is applicable in some sign languages – the similarities between gesture, the combination of gesture and markings in the Walbiri sand stories, and the Palaeolithic markings is a point to consider.


Future projects

We propose a closer study of lines in situ to observe their characteristics. A redrawn line might suggest a renewal of meaning. Marshack has famously described his theory of renewal of certain depictions. It is possible that redrawn lines reinforced meaning.

We will undertake a closer study of examples of line markings. From our previous experiments, we were able to show that despite the appearance of obvious differences between sets of lines, it was not possible to distinguish between individuals. The breadth of each line is changeable by pressure; the spaces between the fingers are variable; and the lengths or convergence of lines does not necessarily denote an individual, since these factors are variables. A closer study of lines in situ may help to identify other discerning features, which might define the work of an individual.

We propose further studies of lines in situ, in an attempt to define further details on the production of line markings. The speed of movement might have relevance for the intentional implications of the line production. Would a swift movement indicate an accidentally made line – or the need for rapid covering of the walls? Would slow movements indicate a deliberate and controlled drawing? We hope that by closely studying the lines, in conjunction with replicating them in plaster, we might be able to discern the technique of construction. Tear marks in the deposit might also suggest the relative rapidity of movement. However, it is possible that in the field, the tear marks will no longer be visible in the medium. 

The limitations and constraints on these proposed projects will only become apparent once we undertake studies within the field. However, as one of only a small number of attempts to look at finger markings, we hope that our project will contribute to the understanding of these forms.

Helen: this paper needs

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